The first time I ever saw Ernie Banks play, it was a doubleheader. He homered in the second game as the Cubs swept the Cardinals on Billy Williams Day in 1969. A few years later, I was back in Wrigley for another game.
Ernie had moved to a front office gig and was the “ambassador” for the Cubs. That day I got to meet the Hall of Fame first baseman and one of my idols. He signed three baseballs for me that day and gave me a lifetime memory.
As part of the “experience” the group got to take their picture with Ernie in the stands behind the third base dugout. The only problem was, there was no photographer to be found. Instead of demanding an underling find the said photog, Ernie recruited a couple of kids, including me, to go find him.
First off, let’s just say walking around Wrigley Field with Ernie Banks as your guide as a teenager is pretty damn cool. I was on top of the world. Everyone greeted Ernie, he waved, smiled, and stopped to sign a few autographs.
The “tour” stopped outside the WGN truck and Ernie swung open the door like he owned the place. He invited us inside and introduce us to everyone. “The guy in the Expos hat, that’s Arne Harris.”
Out of the WGN truck we went and our quest to find the photographer continued. Next thing I knew, I was in some dungy tunnel and following willingly. Ernie stopped, opened up a door and told me to walk in. I took a few steps and realized I was in the Cubs dugout. Like any teenager, I advanced forward and was making my way up the dugout steps and onto the green grass when a large arm stopped me. “You can’t go on the field, I’ll get in trouble.” I’ve never stopped so fast. The dugout was empty, no photographer, and the search continued.
We never found the photographer and made our way back into the grandstands. I rushed to my dad and told him I had been in the Cubs dugout. When I looked back at Ernie, he had been watching, he waved to my dad, and kept smiling.
Mysteriously, the photographer had shown up and been waiting for us to return. Looking back on it, I’m pretty sure Ernie didn’t have any intention of finding the guy, but he did make a lifetime memory for a couple of kids.
During his life and since his death, I’ve read and heard a lot of stories about Ernie. He was the greatest Cub to ever put on a uniform. He was a better man.
The following is the Cubs official press release.
The Chicago Cubs tonight are saddened to announce that Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, the greatest Cub in franchise history, has passed away at the age of 83.
"Words cannot express how important Ernie Banks will always be to the Chicago Cubs, the city of Chicago and Major League Baseball. He was one of the greatest players of all time," said Tom Ricketts, Chairman of the Cubs. "He was a pioneer in the major leagues. And more importantly, he was the warmest and most sincere person I've ever known.
"Approachable, ever optimistic and kind hearted, Ernie Banks is and always will be Mr. Cub. My family and I grieve the loss of such a great and good-hearted man, but we look forward to celebrating Ernie's life in the days ahead."
Inducted into Baseball's Hall of Fame in 1977, Ernie played the game he loved as a lifelong Cub for 19 seasons from when he made his debut with the club in 1953 until his retirement in 1971. He was a 14-time All-Star and back-to-back National League Most Valuable Player in 1958 and 1959, when he hit 47 home runs with 129 RBI in 1958 and followed up with 45 home runs and 143 RBI in 1959.
Banks hit 512 home runs in his career, surpassing the 40-home run mark five times in his career, and his 277 home runs as a shortstop remain a National League record to this day.
Banks ranks first in games played (2,528), at-bats (9,421), extra-base hits (1,009) and total bases (4,706); second in home runs (512), RBI (1,636) and hits (2,583); third in doubles (407); fifth in runs scored (1,305); seventh in triples (90); and eighth in walks (763).
Starting while still as a player in 1967, Ernie turned his eye to coaching and served in that role through 1973, becoming the first African American to manage a major league team on May 8, 1973 when he took over for the ejected Whitey Lockman.
Banks became the first player in franchise history to have his number retired in 1982, as his flag flies from the left-field foul pole to this day. He was also voted to Major League Baseball's All-Century Team and honored on the field at the All-Star Game in Fenway Park in 1999.
Beyond his statistics on the field, Banks was famous for his endearing charm and his remarkable wit. He became the first player in franchise history to be honored with a statue at Wrigley Field when he helped with the unveiling at Clark and Addison on March 31, 2008. His statue is adorned with his famous line, "Let's Play Two".
In 2013, Banks was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an award given to those who have made an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.