The Cubs never got near a World Series with Ernie Banks. But he helped them build a brand like no other.

November 1, 2016

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“Let’s play two.” -Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks

I grew up in the shadow of Wrigley Field, which, though now hard to believe, was a sketchy neighborhood at the time. It was really only safe during Cub’s games. But on those days it seemed the sun always shone. If you weren’t at the game you could hear it blaring on “Chicago’s own” WGN, from literally every open window and door. Back then kids like us would catch the players after a game walking to their cars. Ron Santo. Don Kessinger. And of course, Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks. Even after losing, which was often, he’d smile and sign an autograph. Wish I still had mine.

Ernie Banks died last year. in honor of his team’s first World Series birth since 1945 (an event he sadly cannot see and one in which he never participated) here is a reprisal of some words I put together after his passing. Among other things, it perhaps sheds light on how a team so mediocre for so long retains its loveable mystique.

During his Hall-Of-Fame career in baseball (if not his lifetime) one likes to think Ernie Banks was without sin. He was not only a superior ball player but by all accounts was a superior man as well. Always happy. Always grateful. Always willing to sign an autograph, even after losing, which the Chicago Cubs did often. Granted he played before the prying eyes of social media but Chicago’s sportswriters were not known for their subtlety. If he’d been a cheater or a bad dude chances are we would have heard about it.

Contrast him with what we now have going on in the NFL and professional sports in general. Like night and day, right? Unlike Ray Rice, Barry Bonds or Tom Brady, Ernie Banks played for a perennially losing team. Yet, it seemed, he was always smiling. “Mr. Cub” also was a black man playing in a sport that, when he started, still had a “Negro League.” That could not have been easy. Yet, where was the defiance and even the attitude? Can you imagine Ernie Banks yelling into the cameras like Richard Sherman –a multi-millionaire who had just won the biggest game in sports? No, we cannot.

Before one states that Ernie Banks played in an era when things were proper and pleasant think again. His peak years were during the 60’s. The Viet Nam War could not be more damning and contentious, rivaling and surpassing much of what we’re now experiencing in the Middle East. At home, Civil Rights were being fought over in cruel and bloody fashion. Stuff like Fergeson, Missouri was happening on a daily basis. Ernie played during an equally tumultuous time. Yet, as far as we know, he was a peaceful man who kept his dignity. Like no other man, he truly made Wrigley the “Friendly Confines.”

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