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Jerry Costello

The Wisdom and Legacy of Ernie Banks
April 12, 2015

“His temperament included only two outlooks: sunny and sunnier.” 

Wow, what a way to be. What a way to live!

                The subject was Ernie Banks, and the words were used by Barry Bearak, in his appreciation of Banks for The New York Times—sunny and sunnier. They describe perfectly the way we recall Banks, a baseball star with the Chicago Cubs, remembered as much for his sparkling personality as for his home runs. Banks died earlier this year at the age of 83, his years as a Cub the happiest of memories.

                For most of his 19-year career the Cubs were a losing team, but you’d never know it from Banks’ performance. He gave his all, day after day, and became known for his mantra: “Let’s play two!” Darned if he didn’t mean it, too.

                Ernie Banks can give all of us a lesson in living. Raised in Dallas, he was one of 12 children whose father sometimes picked cotton for a living. The family was poor, but that mattered little to Banks. He took up baseball in high school, later starred with the Kansas City Monarchs of the old Negro leagues, and then joined the Cubs. That could have been another cause for concern; his arrival as the first black player with the Chicago team came a full six years after Jackie Robinson had broken baseball’s color line. Banks didn’t let it bother him. He was just happy to be playing ball, period.

                Banks had a chance to show his mean streak, if he had such a thing, late in his career, when Leo Durocher (“Nice guys finish last”) was the Cubs’ manager. Durocher didn’t think so much of his one-time star, his glory days long since past, and it got through to Banks. The man known as “Mr. Cub” simply passed right by a chance to zing Durocher, instead calling him the greatest manager of all time. Few agreed with that generous assessment, but few would criticize him for it either. 

                The numbers certainly speak for themselves. Banks popped 512 home runs, won the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award for two consecutive years, and showed up perennially on the National League’s All-Star team. But the numbers, compelling though they might be, tell only part of the story. In Bearak’s words, Ernie Banks was “a walking billboard for baseball,” and that comes closer to it.

                Maybe Banks’ lasting testimony will be his reaction to the role he played in the great civil rights years of the Sixties—which, in the eyes of his critics, was no role at all. He understood the criticism, but remained unapologetic. As he said at the time: “I care deeply about my people, but I’m not one to go about screaming over what I contribute. I’m not black or white. I’m just a human being trying to survive the only way I know how. I don’t make enemies. If I’m not crazy about somebody, he’ll never know it. I kill him with kindness.”

                Barry Bearak concluded his appreciation with these words: “And that’s how he lived his life, a genuinely humane man who thought every day was beautiful. He tried to make people happy and wore his kindness like an amulet.”

                As I said before, what a way to be. What a way to live. And, come to think of it, what a way to be remembered.

 

For a free copy of the Christopher News Note, STAYING POSITIVE AROUND NEGATIVE PEOPLE, write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004; or e-mail: mail@christophers.org