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Let’s Play Two: Rest in Peace Ernie Banks

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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You Win a Few, You Lose a Few. Some Get Rained Out. But You Got to Dress for All of Them

“Ain’t no man can avoid being born average, but there ain’t no man got to be common.” Satchel Paige

Paige_Satchel1942Satchel Paige on the Kansas City Monarchs

Negro League and Cleveland Indian’s Hall of Fame legend Satchel Paige was one of the most remarkable men who ever played the game of baseball.  He came along after Jackie Robinson and others had broken the color barrier having played 22 years in the Negro Leagues as well as in Mexico, the Dominican Republic and the Puerto Rican League, where in the winter of 1939 he went 19-3 with a 1.93 ERA. While with the Kansas City Monarchs Paige helped lead the team to four consecutive Negro League World Series titles from 1939-1942 and again in 1946.  During his time in the Negro Leagues played in numerous exhibition games against major league stars and future stars including Bob Feller and Joe DiMaggio who went 1-4 against Paige. During this time he would pitch in the summer with the Negro League team and winters in the various Winter Leagues.  It could be said that Satchel Paige not only played baseball but lived it.  In the Negro Leagues Paige often pitched twice a day, sometimes in two different cities.  Record keeping in these leagues was almost universally lax so the feats of men like Paige, Jackie Robinson, Cool Papa Bell and Buck O’Neil will never be fully appreciated by modern statistically absorbed fans.

When he was signed by Bill Veeck, the owner of the Cleveland Indians he was either 42 or 44 years old depending on what documents you use…talk about a birth certificate controversy.  Paige pitched 5 seasons in the Majors with Cleveland and the St. Louis Browns mainly in a relief role and pitched in the 1948 World Series and the 1953 All-Star Game after having been chosen for the 1952 game but not getting the chance play.  He was signed by the Kansas City Athletics for a one game contract in 1965.  He pitched his last game at the age of 59 or 61 on August 25th 1965 throwing three shutout innings against the Boston Red Sox, the only hit coming from Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski who doubled.  Paige set the next 7 batters down in order.  In between his years in the majors Paige continued to pitch in the minors.  He played his last game of organized baseball in 1966 for the Peninsula Pilots of the Carolina League in Hampton Virginia. The Pilots, now of the Independent Coastal Plain League, still play in Hampton’s War Memorial Stadium in which the legendary great pitched his last game.

Paige was recognized by many as perhaps the best pitcher to ever play the game.  Bob Feller called him “the best pitcher I ever saw.”  Ted Williams said “Satch (Paige) was the greatest pitcher in baseball.” Joe DiMaggio called him “The best and fastest pitcher I’ve ever faced” while Bill Veeck who brought Paige to the majors said he was “The best right hander baseball has ever known.”

The biggest thing in my mind about Paige was his love for the game and his determination to play as long as he could.  In the Negro Leagues he pretty much played year round for 22 years.  After his major league career was over he continued to play the game that he loved.  He did all of this in a segregated and “Jim Crow” America.  It was due primarily to Paige and others like him that black players got the chance to come to the Major Leagues.  Most expected that Paige would be the first black player called up but this honor went to Jackie Robinson.  In 1971 in his Hall of Fame acceptance speech he said “The only change is that baseball has turned Paige from a second class citizen to a second class immortal.”

I like Paige a lot.  I remember reading Bob Feller’s book in grade school and his comments about Paige, especially the time he switched a bar of soap for the ice cream in a an ice cream sandwich.  When Paige took a bit his false teeth came out with the sandwich.  Now that I am 49 years old I like him even more.  He took 22 years to get in the big leagues and didn’t quit and even after his major league career continued to play.  He endured Spartan living conditions on low pay in a segregated and often hostile America did not deter him.  Neither did his age, many men in their 40s would have quit before realizing their dream.  That is the lesson of Satchel Paige for me.  He was the oldest “rookie” ever to play Major League ball.  I kind of understand what Paige went through.  I started my Navy career after nearly a full Army career.  In fact I was within 2 ½ years of Reserve retirement when I got the chance to serve in the Navy in February 1989.

Satchel Paige was an example to me that if you have the heart and talent you can achieve your dream even if it takes a long time. My advice for people who still dream dreams is to be persistent and don’t give up.  Sometimes, not always, but sometimes by hanging in there, making the sacrifices to achieve the dream it comes true.  After a very difficult 5 years following leaving the Army to go to seminary which included long term sickness to Judy, losing almost everything that we owned, and having to work menial jobs for unappreciative people to get through seminary, Additionally there were times when I was sure that it was over, that my best efforts had failed, something would break my way and I would be able to continue.  It was remarkable.  While I give appropriate credit to God I do not fail to give credit to all the people that believed in me and wouldn’t let me fail.  The way that I figure is if you don’t try or you quit too soon you will always wonder if you could have made it.  There will always be doubt and often regret.  My Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor, Dr. Steve Ivy at Parkland Memorial Hospital told me once, “Steve, you make your own future, stop living in the pain of the past.”  That was an “Wow I could have had a V-8 moment” for me.  It hasn’t always been easy, but it has been great.  His advice was on target.

Satchel once said: “Work like you don’t need the money. Love like you’ve never been hurt. Dance like nobody’s watching.”  The comment is way too true, but for me even more important is this: “You win a few, you lose a few. Some get rained out. But you got to dress for all of them.”

I think the Deity Herself would agree with both statements and I’m sure that Satchel is still pitching for the New Jerusalem Saints of the Pearly Gates League.

Peace, Steve+

satchel paige

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