Timing is everything. So it is with a lot of regret that I never saw Ernie Banks play.
His final year as a player was in 1971. The first time I watched a major league game was in 1972.
Officially, 491 players appeared in at least one game for the Cubs during my full-time employment with the Cubs. Hundreds more played for the club during my youth and my formative years.
Heck, the first baseball game I ever attended – Cubs vs. Mets, September 16, 1972 – included four future Hall of Famers in Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Willie Mays and Tom Seaver.
I got to watch and be around Ryne Sandberg, Greg Maddux and Andre Dawson as a front office staffer. I got to watch Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron and Mike Schmidt beat up the Cubs as a kid in the Wrigley Field stands.
But I was one year too late in seeing Ernie Banks on the playing field.
Thankfully, I have seen Mr. Cub on tape many times. If you’re reading this far, you certainly can hear Jack Brickhouse’s voice as he made the call of Ernie’s 500th home run (exclamation points included for emphasis):
“That’s a fly ball deep to left! Back, back! That’s it, that’s it! Hey Hey! He did it! Ernie Banks got No. 500! A line drive shot into the seats in left! The ball tossed to the bullpen! Everybody on your feet! This is it! WHEEEEEE! Ernie Banks off Pat Jarvis. May 12, 1970. Second inning against the Atlanta Braves.”
I laugh every time I hear Mr. Brickhouse’s call.
The cool thing is, I got to see Ernie in person on so many occasions. He took the word “upbeat” to a new level. It wasn’t just the smile on his face. It was the personality that shined through every time you saw him.
He would pop his head into the Media Relations department whenever he was at the ballpark.
For many years …
Ernie: “Hey, how you doing? How’s the wife?”
Me: “I’m great. Still not married.”
Ernie: “Why not? You gotta get a wife.”
Followed in later years, of course, by …
Ernie: “Hey, how you doing? How are the kids?”
Me: “I’m great. Still don’t have children.”
Ernie: “Why not? You gotta get yourself some kids.”
I must have taken that advice to heart. How else would you explain the twins? “Let’s play two!”
One of my fondest memories of Ernie was talking to him around the time of the 2003 Cubs Convention. After he asked about my kids (I still didn’t have them, yet, but we were getting close), I told him about this neat Cubs Information Guide cover that was in the process of being designed. It was a black-and-white Photoshop combination of Ernie and Sammy Sosa – with both leaning on their bats and the Wrigley Field bleachers in the background. The original photos, of course, were taken over 30 years apart.
“Just make sure I have a bigger smile than Sammy,” Ernie said.
As much as Sammy might have tried, he could never top Ernie’s smile.
Ernie Banks was born on January 31, 1931. Even though it seems he’s still with us, he passed away a little over two years ago.
Today would have been his 86th birthday. Happy Birthday, Mr. Cub!