In both movie versions of "Angels in the Outfield," a baseball-loving angel tells a manager who is in the process of deciding which of two pitchers should start a pennant-deciding game that one of the options will be "called up" by heaven's team come Spring. Well, Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, one of the franchise's best prospects, has been "called up," reporting to the Parent Club on Friday, after suffering a heart attack.
"They called him 'Mr. Cub'," said White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf. "But he was really 'Mr. Baseball.'"
I can't possibly find the words to explain what this man meant to me. He was a man of incredible courage and grace. One of the pioneer African-American players in Major League Baseball, he was universally beloved by white and black fans alike. A genuinely good-hearted man who never had a mean word to say about anybody, he let his baseball skills do his talking. A perennial All-Star and a flawless defender at shortstop, he combined these skills with another seldom seen by players at his position: devastating power. He revolutionized the concept of the power hitter by substituting a light bat and powerful wrists for the heavy bat, muscular arms and powerful physique of the sterotype. I remember an ad Cubs announcer Jack Brickhouse once did (I forget the sponsor) in which he used Ernie's unique skill-set as an analogy, pointing out that to double the weight of a bat was to double the power with which the ball was hit- but that to double the speed at which the bat was swung was to quadruple the power.
When I was growing up as a Cubs fan on the South Side, Ernie was all that kept me sane during the summer months. The Cubs were terrible, and I lived in the middle of a nest of (shudder) Sox fans. 1959- the year the Pale Hose won the pennant and the Cubs finished fifth out of eight teams- was especially rough. But Ernie Banks won his second consecutive National League Most Valuable Player award that year anyway, and it always helped to be able to see their Minnie Minoso or "Jungle Jim" Rivera and raise them an Ernie Banks. The Cubs seldom were as good a team as the Sox were, but our star was always better than theirs- and I never let my playmates forget it.
When his aging body was no longer able to play shortstop with the skill he'd previously brought to the position, the Cubs switched him to first base- where he continued to be selected as an All-Star. He played that position for the 1969 Cubs, "the best team that never won a pennant," which seemed destined to make the team's first World Series appearance since 1945 but fell apart late in the season, just as the New York Mets were making their phenomenal run. The team included four future Hall-of Famers: Ernie, outfielder Billy Williams, staff ace Ferguson Jenkins, and third baseman Ron Santo.
Ernie may or may not have been the best player ever to play for the Cubs; I personally am prejudiced in favor of a distant cousin of mine by marriage, Hall of Fame catcher Gabby Hartnett. In my teens, another future Hall of Famer-Ron Santo- displaced Ernie as my favorite player, largely because somebody as slow and clumsy as I was could more easily identify with a third baseman than with a shortstop. But when you list the greatest Cubs, Ernie's is the first name that comes to mind- and the one name which nobody would omit, or even consider ranking lower than second at worst. The Cubs have had other great players, even in my lifetime. But Ernie Banks was my first hero, and as such will always shine in my personal firmament with a luster none of the others could ever equal.
Rest in peace, Mr. Cub. And welcome to even friendlier confines than Wrigley Field.