Monday, January 31, 2011

Happy Birthday, Mr. Cub

      Only one man has ever played more than 2,500 games in a Cub uniform, and only one man has been granted the title "Mr. Cub." The man who fits both descriptions is the one and only Ernie Banks, who turns 80 years old today.
     Banks arrived in Chicago as a lean, wiry, and bashful 22-year-old shortstop from the Negro Leagues. On September 17, 1953, he became the first African American to appear in a game for the Cubs. Infielder Eddie Miksis obligingly lent Banks his glove (Ernie having misplaced his own), and one of the coaches well-meaningly handed Banks a book called How to Play Baseball, which was intended for Little Leaguers. "You’ll never believe this," teammate Ralph Kiner said, "but at the time Ernie never said one thing. When he joined the Cubs, he was a really quiet guy and obviously he had a lot of talent but was very raw."
     Banks was polite and deferential to a fault, and he would not speak unless spoken to. "After he hits a homer," manager Stan Hack said, "he comes back to the dugout as if he has done something wrong."
     Second baseman Gene Baker, also an African-American, joined the Cubs at the same time as Banks (the theory in those days was that if a team had one black player, it would need another to be his roommate on the road), and played alongside him for several years.
     Banks finished second in Rookie of the Year voting in 1954 and was third in Most Valuable Player voting in 1955, when both he and Baker were All-Stars. In 1958 and 1959, Banks became the first National Leaguer ever to win back-to-back MVP awards, despite the Cubs' also-ran status. Former White Sox skipper Jimmie Dykes quipped, "Without Ernie Banks, the Cubs would finish in Albuquerque."

     Thanks to the march of time, fans who actually saw Banks play (especially in his prime), are now in the minority--but his place in Cubs history is obvious enough for anyone to grasp. In addition to the two MVPs, Banks won a Gold Glove and was an 11-time All-Star. He was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He ranks first in Cubs annals in games played, at-bats, and total bases; second in hits, home runs, and runs batted in; third in doubles, and fifth in runs scored.
     As indelibly as Banks looms in the Cubs record books, what has made him more memorable--even beloved--is his almost mystical role as the perpetually sunny optimist who genuinely enjoyed coming to work each day, no matter how dismal the team was or how empty the ballpark was.
     Ernie's glass was always half full. Once he'd overcome his previous shyness, he produced a steady stream of upbeat quotes and slogans. "It's a beautiful day for baseball," he often said, regardless of the weather. "Let's play two." He made a sort of forecast, in rhyme, before each season. "The Cubs will be great in '68." "The Cubs will shine in '69." "The Cubs will be heavenly in 1970."
     He also insisted that he was both lucky and grateful to play for the Cubs, who (of course) never won anything during his long career. "How the players on those other clubs envy us!" he declared.
     Teammates and opponents couldn't help but admire Banks's constant cheerfulness even while wondering whether he was putting them on. "We'd think, what's wrong with this nut?" pitcher Moe Drabowsky said. "Let's see, Ernie Banks might have been making $80,000 a year [in the late 1950s]. I was making $6,000 a year, so if the situation were reversed, I might think the same."
     Will Rogers said he never met a man he didn't like. Banks admitted that he didn't like everyone, but he also said that anyone he disliked would never know it. "I'll kill him with kindness," he said.
     Banks was true to his word. After Leo Durocher took over as manager of the Cubs in the late 1960s, he tried every year at spring training to give away Banks's job but failed to find a suitable taker. He also rarely missed a chance to disparage Mr. Cub both privately and to reporters. Ernie went right on being Ernie. "Leo Durocher," he announced, "is the greatest manager I've ever seen."

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