Banks being welcomed into Heaven by Harry Carey and Ron Santo
“It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame… Let’s play two!” Ernie Banks
We lost yet another pioneer of baseball and civil rights, Ernie Banks, the first African American to play for the Chicago Cubs passed away at the age of 83.
Banks was the quintessential “Happy Warrior.” His positive and upbeat view of life and baseball made him the most popular player in Cubs history and earned him the nicknames “Mr. Cub” and “Mr. Sunshine.” His happiness was legendary. His team mate and fellow Cubs’ great, Billy Williams was asked if Banks was really as happy as he appeared and Williams said:
“I always say, ‘That was Ernie. He was that way every day.’ He’s the most positive guy I ever met. He loved playing the game. Maybe it came from playing in the Negro Leagues, where they had so much fun with the game. I just know that Ernie loved being at the ballpark. He was as genuine as they get.”
He began playing ball in high school in Dallas, Texas, but it was softball as his school did not have a baseball team. He ended up being signed by Cool Papa Bell and played for the legendary Negro League Kansas City Monarchs, a time that was interrupted by two years of service in the Army. He returned to Kansas City and was scouted by the Cubs who brought him to the team in September 1953. I knew one of his teammates from the Monarchs, Carl Long who passed away just a week and a half ago. Like Banks, Long was an amazingly upbeat and positive man, beloved by his adopted one town of Kinston North Carolina.
Banks with Kansas City
When he came into professional baseball prejudice was still a big factor, even unconscious racism can be seen in the scouting report in the line of “nationality.” It lists Banks, not as simply “American,” but “Negro American.” The fact is that the Cubs were not the last to sign an African American, that dubious distinction went to the Boston Red Sox, who owner Tom Yawkey who refused to integrate the team until 1959, twelve years after Brooklyn brought up Jackie Robinson and six years after Banks reported to the Cubs.
Ernie Banks’ Scouting Report
Race mattered. Banks grew up in Dallas Texas, then a hotbed of racial hatred, segregation and discrimination. He played in the Negro Leagues, and he served his country in an era when though Truman had desegregated the military, prejudice was still rife. But he overcame by his joy, between his attitude, the love that he spread to people, many little white boys, steeped in the prejudice of their parents, society and upbringing wanted to be Ernie Banks. He helped show white America that we could be one.
Yes, there is still far too much racism and prejudice in this country, but men like Ernie Bank, Willie Mays, Satchel Paige, Carl Long and so many others helped a lot of young boys learn just how wrong the racial attitudes and prejudice they had been taught was wrong, and should not be part of America.
Banks hit 512 home runs in a Major League Baseball career that lasted from 1953 until his retirement in 1971. The fourteen time All-Star was the first National League player to win the Most Valuable Player award consecutively when he did it in 1958 and 1959. He played 717 consecutive games at shortstop before a knee injury forced him to move to first base. He held the record for most home runs in a season as a short stop for decades, hitting 30 or more in six seasons at the position. His 277 home runs as a shortstop were the most for any player at the position until Cal Ripken passed him. Ripken retired with 345 playing at the position.
Despite his accomplishments he is one of the greats who never played in the post-season, or the World Series, which was his dream. But despite that he never lost his enthusiasm for the game. The story of how he got his legendary tag line “Let’s play two” is fascinating. He told the Houston Chronicle’s Richard Dean:
“It was about 105 degrees in Chicago, and that’s a time when everybody gets tired. I came into the clubhouse and everybody was sitting around and I said, ‘Beautiful day. Let’s play two!’ And everybody looked at me like I was crazy. There were a couple of writers around and they wrote that and it stayed with me.”
Banks was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama, a fellow Chicagoan, in 2013.
But he was a man of wisdom as well. He once said something that probably all of us, including me at times, can learn from: “You must try to generate happiness within yourself. If you aren’t happy in one place, chances are you won’t be happy anyplace.”
With that I wish you a wonderful Sunday.