Ernie Banks, a Hall of Famer and two-time National League MVP known as "Mr. Cub", died at 83 last week from a heart attack. Banks hit 512 home runs in 19 MLB seasons, all with Chicago. Known for his enthusiasm, Banks was famous for the quote, "It's a great day for baseball. Let's play two." President Obama said, "As a Hall-of-Famer, Ernie was an incredible ambassador for baseball, and for the city of Chicago. He was beloved by baseball fans everywhere, including Michelle, who, when she was a girl, used to sit with her dad and watch him play on TV. And in 2013, it was my honor to present Ernie with the Presidential Medal of Freedom." Here is an excerpt from Ernie Banks: Mr. Cub and the Summer of '69, written in 2011 by Phil Rogers.
Ernie Banks never seemed visibly angry. He played in 2,528 games with the Cubs, and never once was he ejected. He maintained excellent relationships with his teammates and every manager he ever played for, including Leo Durocher, who resented Banks' popularity and constantly worked to replace him in the lineup, deeming him over the hill when he was still among baseball’s most reliable run producers.
The Banks-Durocher relationship demonstrated how far Banks was willing to go to get along with someone. His response to Durocher was both calculated and true to his essence.
"When somebody resented me, didn't like me -- and that was the case with Leo -- I kind of killed them with kindness," Banks said. "On the bench, I’d always sit beside him, on the plane sit beside him, in the dugout sit beside him. He’s always looking around and seeing me. ... When you light a fire under my heels, it just made me better. I focused more, concentrated more, reached inside of me and got more out of myself. ... Overall, he made me a better player toward the end of my career."
Banks took a similar attitude toward any teammates or rivals who treated him badly. He would earn respect with his performance on the field -- every day, all season, every season.
"What we tried to do was take it out on the ball, go out and play good baseball and change their minds," said Monte Irvin, a fellow Hall of Famer who began his career in the Negro Leagues. "Win 'em over. Most of your teammates were for you. There were very few guys you didn't get along with."
Banks didn’t challenge authority while drawing a high salary in a white-run enterprise, so many African Americans considered Banks a sellout. That hurt him. But like the other disappointments he experienced, he rarely if ever gave voice to his side of the story, at least not in any depth.
"He told 'em, ‘I don’t have time to march but I contribute,'" Irvin said. "'I try to play good baseball to make up for it that way. Give the kids somebody to look up to, so the fans come to the ballpark pleased.' That’s what he thought. I think that’s a pretty good attitude."
In his later years, the Rev. Jesse Jackson would work to have a statue of Banks built outside Wrigley Field. But when he was working alongside Martin Luther King Jr. for better schools and housing in segregated Chicago in the 1960s, Jackson was frustrated by Banks' silence.
While Banks was truly a bridge guy, making white Chicago feel comfortable when placed shoulder to shoulder with black Chicago, it was difficult for those facing daily hardships without his advantages to see him as part of the struggle.
Imagine the toll that must have taken on Banks, who would think about it a lot more than he shared when he was in public.
Where was Banks in the civil rights struggle?
"You know who I’d ask [about that]?" director Ken Burns said. "Michael Jordan. Where’s his activism? Where's his sense of being a spokesman or a role model for African Americans? Where's his outspokenness about hip-hop culture and the negative influences of that gangster stuff? Where is he when the questions of the day are happening? He's on the golf course because somewhere he understood where his meal came from. It was not in any way [from] rocking the boat.
"It's so interesting that you make your bargain with the man, somehow -- which makes Jackie (Robinson) all the more remarkable. He made his bargain, and then he lived his life. He was arguing just days before he died, getting honored at the 25-year mark, saying, 'I'm very honored, but I’ll be even more honored when I look over and see a third-base coach who is black.'"
The first hotel Banks stayed in as a professional baseball player was so shabby it literally had holes in the roof, allowing moonlight and rain to enter his room.10 Not so many years later he’d be staying in some of America’s finest hotels, but he would never feel as comfortable as he did in the hotels he shared with his teammates from the Negro League’s Kansas City Monarchs. It would be enlightening to hear him accurately detail the human side of his life’s journey, but this is a story he's never really chosen to tell.
"Some things happen to my life I just want to keep to myself, enjoy," Banks said. "My grandkids don’t even know I played baseball. [I hold onto the memories] just to share with them some of the experiences I had."
Burns believes there are two reasons why Banks was never open about all aspects of his life, including matters of race. The first is a question of whether he was truly capable of verbalizing all he endured in his journey, especially the feeling of being treated like a second-class citizen while knowing he had been blessed with gifts. The second is a question of knowing how his bread is buttered.
"Ernie has a different kind of thing. He's going to come up in a world that’s been segregated for his whole life. He knows. He gets it. Right?” Burns said. "All of a sudden he's now in this world that’s delivering him fame and immortality and let's just say a living, right? It's hard to question that. It's like the soldiers in our World War II films. If you’ve seen your best friend get his head shot off, it's not like it looks like in the movies, even the most realistic movies. It’s worse. You don't come home and talk about that. You lock that away. I think there's a disconnect.
"Somewhere along the line, whatever introspection we want -- even Buck didn't do it; he just carried on in that utterly Christian way -- what is there to do? [From Banks' perspective], how is it possible I've spent 19 years of my life without any interaction with white people because even in the north they have segregated you into the neighborhoods that you, quote, belong and then you're the sort of spice in this gumbo called the Chicago Cubs, beloved by everybody, embraced by everybody. What do you do with that? I don’t know. In some ways you could just short circuit.
"Maybe that's where there’s no place to actually talk about it. I'm sure he does think about it. I also know he has to be so careful. He doesn't want to not be Mr. Cub, right? This was Jackie Robinson's thing. As soon as he didn't have to turn the other cheek, after three years he was described as uppity by the very same sportswriters who treated him like he was this magnificent new thing. The backlash is really intense. Look at Barry Bonds. He was the repository of all our negative feelings because he was such an SOB. Yeah, but so was Joe DiMaggio. Ted Williams was difficult. But it all comes with that subtle thing of race. Nobody says there’s an angry white guy."
-- Excerpted by permission from Ernie Banks: Mr. Cub and the Summer of '69 by Phil Rogers. Copyright (c) 2011. Published by Triumph Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Available for purchase from the publisher, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and iTunes. Follow Phil Rogers on Twitter @philgrogers.