Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Ernie Banks, RIP: Always a Beautiful Day

By Jeff Kallman

There is no joy in Wrigleyville. Mighty Ernie has checked out. At 83. Cub fans aren't the only ones in baseball's world who think that, for Ernie Banks, it's still too young to go.

Winning with class is easy compared to losing with grace, good humor, and the inner peace of knowing you did the best you could with what you had. But then there was Banks. The prototype of the power-hitting shortstop whose knees turned him into a first baseman who could still hit but had to prove himself every spring, anyway, his sunny nature couldn't be killed by the most calamitous of Cub collapses.

Sometimes you could be overwhelmed enough by Banks's personality that you could forget he was a genuinely great player. The first shortstop to hit 250+ home runs while playing that position is also the only man who ever had multiple-homer games against Warren Spahn and Sandy Koufax.

The first black player to start for the Cubs is also the first man in National League history to win back to back Most Valuable Player awards (1958, 1959). And he did it playing for teams that finished a combined 64 games out of first place over the two seasons. Not to mention that Banks is the first man to hit five grand slams in a single season.

The man who figured out almost by accident that a whip-handled, light bat was no detriment to hitting the long ball had four consecutive seasons hitting 40 or more home runs in each. Neither fellow wrists-first hitter Hank Aaron nor Willie Mays ever did that in three consecutive seasons. You might care to note as well that Banks is only one of three shortstops to cross the 40-bomb seasonal plateau even once. One was the seemingly tainted Alex Rodriguez, then a Texas Ranger. The other was Rico Petrocelli with the 1969 Red Sox.

Lest you think Banks was just another swatter aided and abetted by the park he first dubbed the Friendly Confines, be advised that he hit a mere 68 more home runs at home than on the road during his major league career. He also defied the traditional platoon splits: he retired with 2,584 hits, and two thirds of those came at the expense of right-handed pitchers, including about two thirds of his home runs.

Very impressive for a native Texan who didn't look terribly athletic or play baseball at all until he was a teenager and then in church leagues — because his high school didn't have a baseball team. He was tall for a shortstop, slender, almost delicately handsome, and his uniform looked about three sizes beyond him in the beginning.

Banks got his first taste of major league level baseball playing for the Kansas City Monarchs, the Negro Leagues team that also yielded forth Jackie Robinson a few years earlier. He was so happy just to play the game that it took his teammates' prodding to convince him to leave for the Cubs in 1953. It took an unexpected injury to the Cubs' other black player at the time, Gene Baker, to make Banks the first black man to wear a Cub uniform in a starting lineup.

Banks' talent was obvious enough to move Baker to second base, and the slightly older player simply accepted it and taught the eager kid everything he knew about playing shortstop. Their execution of double plays in hand with first baseman Steve Bilko impressed broadcaster Bert Wilson enough to dub the trio as Bingo to Bango to Bilko, which beats the living hell out of Tinker to Evers to Chance. Lyrical alliteration.

"Banks could have been a Cardinal," wrote lifelong Cub afflicted George F. Will in A Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at One Hundred last year.

"In the spring of 1953, one of that team's scouts saw him playing shortstop for the ... Monarchs ... and sent a favourable report to St. Louis. The Cardinals sent out another scout for a second opinion, which was: "I don't think he is a major league prospect. He can't hit, he can't run, he has a pretty good arm but it's a scatter arm. I don't like him." In the annals of misjudgments, that ranks with the report on the screen test of a young Fred Astaire: "Can't act. Slightly bald. Can dance a little."

Banks' only known actual problem, other than having been a so-so baserunner, was a knee injury incurred during his early 1950s military service that finally flared up in earnest in 1961. It compelled his move to first base, where he played the rest of his career. It didn't do a thing to kill his genuine love for the game.

Teammates who loved Banks otherwise sometimes didn't know what to make of him. The late Jim Brosnan, whose pitching career began with the 1950s Cubs, thought it was "almost impossible" to get to know Banks. All Cub fans and anyone else knew was that, whatever else was going on in Banks's off-field life, in the clubhouse and on the field was where he felt most at home.

"Some people," he would say in his memoir Mr. Cub, "feel that because you are black you will never be treated fairly, and that you should voice your opinions, be militant about them. I don't feel this way. You can't convince a fool against his will."

Banks eventually had to work to convince Leo Durocher, just about every spring the Lip managed the Cubs, that he still had what it took despite assorted Durocher assertions otherwise. Until his knees, long since gone arthritic, finally told him to call it a career after 1971.

Entire books have been written about why the 1969 Cubs blew a National League East they once looked to run away with, including the theory (not implausible) that Durocher mishandled his bullpens, rode his regulars too hard leaving them exhausted by the depth of the stretch, and even fostered a culture of greed on a team so unaccustomed to winning they could barely come to terms with their unexpected celebrity.

Banks didn't need an entire book to know why. According to sports psychologist David Claerbaut, whose Durocher's Cubs: The Greatest Team That Didn't Win should be considered the definitive book about the 1969 Cubs, Banks saw the team's collapse coming long before anyone else did.

Claerbaut cited a conversation between Banks and pitcher Ken Holtzman over drinks in Pittsburgh. "Kenny," the veteran told the younger man, "we have a nine game lead and we're not going to win it because we have a manager and three or four players who are out there waiting to get beat."

He would also admit, decades later, that the incident in which Ron Santo tore apart rookie outfielder Don Young in the press over a pair of fielding miscues probably did as much as Durocher's capriciousness and strategic inability to manage his pitching staff to deflate the '69 Cubs.

Banks' criticisms came dressed in a marshmallow overcoat. He could never bear to rip a teammate or manager, preferring to criticize kindly. He couldn't even bear to confess his disappointment at never getting to play in a postseason in abrasive or even overtly painful words. He once told Tim Kurkjian, the ESPN writer, that it "has always left me with an empty feeling inside. I loved the game so much. To not ever play in the World Series, let alone win it, still hurts. It's the ultimate achievement for a player. I really thought we were going to get there in 1969."

"When the Cubs crashed in September, losing 11 of 12 to go from five games ahead to four-and-a-half behind, it all happened so fast that it seemed more grotesque than dramatic and, by the end, darkly comic. Banks slumped, too. But after seven straight loses, he made a personal stand. Against the Phils he drove in a run in the first inning, then homered in the eighth to give the Cubs a 2-1 lead; they blew it, of course. The next day, in the only Cub win of the whole smashup, Banks drove in four of their five runs. That was the old man's statement; not nearly enough, but something.

"On the final day of the season, when ... Durocher, the grouch who said, "Nice guys finish last," was disengaged from his team and stuck with the disgrace of his defeat, Banks was still showing up — just to play baseball. On the season's last day, Banks, the oldest man in the lineup, played his 155th game of the year and had a triple, homer and drove in three runs to finish the season with 106 RBI, a total he hadn't topped since his 20s."

— Thomas Boswell, while introducing Phil Rogers's Ernie Banks: Mr. Cub and the Summer of '69

He was perhaps the least pretentious baseball superstar. Sometimes he couldn't seem to find a set place in the Cubs' organizational culture after his playing and subsequent coaching days ended. (The organization sometimes seemed to treat him like as one writer described, the crazy uncle with whom nobody in the family knows quite what to do.) Banks made his post baseball way in and out of a few businesses (smart investing made him wealthy during a playing career in a time when ballplayers were chattel) and never out of Cub Country's embrace.

"Banks is one nice guy who finished first," Durocher eventually said, setting aside his former testiness that he couldn't rid himself of the aging Banks because it would have meant his hanging in Chicago, "but he had the talent to go with it." Except, alas, in marriage, where it took him three tries before his fourth marriage, apparently, proved that practice makes perfect.

"We got the setting. We got the sunshine. We got the team behind us," Banks said to begin his induction speech at the Hall of Fame, where he was 1977′s only inductee voted in by the Baseball Writers Association of America, and where a small coterie of Hall of Famers sat on the same stage. "So let's play two."

Banks always wanted to play two. He also always believed the Cubs would snap out of it and get to the Promised Land in his two lifetimes, one on the field, and the second as the Cubs' unquestioned spirit.

"Without Banks," said Jimmy Dykes, then manager of the crosstown White Sox, in 1958, "the Cubs would finish in Albuquerque." With Banks now in direct position to urge the God of his fathers, this year's Cubs might finish some place other than Albuquerque. The Promised Land is not an indistinct possibility. Yet.

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