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Sometimes You Can Have it All: Ernie Banks, the Yankees, and the Cubs

Rich Cohen ended his beautiful tribute to Ernie Banks in last week’s Sports Illustrated by saying: “[f]or all the pain, for all the losing, I would take Ernie and the Cubs over the Yankees and their 27 championships any day.”

(AP Photo)

(AP Photo)

 

Rich Cohen ended his beautiful tribute to Ernie Banks in last week’s Sports Illustrated by saying: “[f]or all the pain, for all the losing, I would take Ernie and the Cubs over the Yankees and their 27 championships any day.”

But for me, I enjoyed them all. Let me explain.

It was the spring or summer of 1961. A tremendously exciting baseball season was unfolding. Playing in New York was one of the greatest Yankee teams of all time. Mickey and Roger were going after the Babe’s home run record. The M&M boys. (And to think that the Mars candy company waited so long – over 30 years later- to create characters out of m&m’s.) That’s when I learned about Ernie Banks.

It was natural to want to know who in the National League were the big home run hitters. I learned that Ernie Banks, the All-Star National League shortstop, was one of the leading home run hitters in the game. Banks led the majors in homers the year before in 1960 with 41, topping Mantle’s 40. In 1959, Banks’ 45 homers were second in the majors to the Braves’ Eddie Mathews’ 46. In 1958 Banks led the majors with 47 as Mantle led the American League with 42. Ernie Banks was the National League MVP in 1959 and 1958.

You appreciated and respected any great ballplayer. No need to be jealous of great players from other teams because the Yankees had some of the greatest players of the day and maybe the greatest of all time from their past and present. (Although back then I couldn’t admit that Mays was better than Mantle. Today, I concede.)

Not long afterwards, my father came home with Ernie Banks’ autograph. ERNIE BANKS, wow! Ernie and his wife had gone into the upscale ladies shoe store, I. Miller, where my dad worked on Fifth Avenue and 54th Street in Manhattan.

I still have the autograph. It’s written on my dad’s business card..

banks

It was the first autograph of a ballplayer I had ever gotten (or realized that I had gotten. My dad said he had gotten me Mickey’s autograph when I was really little and I had torn it up. I had no memory of that.) And Ernie Banks was a star.

Ernie Banks back then was a great ballplayer and the face of the Chicago Cubs. It was, and still is, the most precious autograph I have ever gotten. I have always cherished it.

A number of years later I learned about Ernie’s saying: “It’s a beautiful day. Let’s play two.” He said it during the 1969 season.

It’s an expression that I‘ve oft heard said before playing a softball game. I’ve also either said it or thought it many times. It always brought a smile to my face. Even as a younger adult, not knowing how long my playing days would last, that quote was so meaningful.

Now as a sexagenarian, that poetic expression sums up the pure joy of still being able to play softball.

Last week, saying, “ It’s a beautiful day. Let’s play two’ ”, made me want to cry. Ernie Banks had passed away.

I am not sure any writer, fan, or player has ever summed up the joy of playing the game any better.

There have been some great odes to the game, often mixed with sadness.

Lou Gehrig saying “[y]et today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth”. Ernest Thayer’s mighty Casey striking out in the bottom of the ninth for the Mudville nine. Franklin Adams’ “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon”, also known as Tinkers to Ever to Chance.

In New York we have a beloved person and star of the game, Yogi Berra. Our nation’s de facto poet laureate. Some of his many wise sayings apply beyond the baseball field.

It’s the winter of 1994, and my beloved Yankees have not made the playoffs since 1981. For Yankee fans, this was an eternity.

There were many disappointments. And Steinbrenner’s angry outbursts and antics had worn thin. There were four losing seasons leading up to 1993. In 1993, the Yankees finally had a winning record, winning 88 games, but they finished seven games out of first and did not make the playoffs.

My kids had seen a movie called ‘Rookie of the Year” and told me I should watch it, which I did that winter of 1994. It’s about the 12-year old kid, Henry Rowengartner, whose arm miraculously becomes powerful. He pitches for the Cubs and leads them to win the World Series. And of course it takes place at Wrigley Field.

I was 41. Watching that movie, I knew I had to go to Wrigley Field.

Wrigley Field. One of the most famous baseball parks.

The third oldest ballpark at the time, next to Fenway and Briggs Stadium. Old in the best possible sense – old like the game of baseball. Small and homey. Close to the field and not many tiers up. The ivy on the walls in the outfield. The outfield bleachers looking upon the field. The scoreboard numbers changed by hand.

The last field to put in lights. Until the middle of the 1988 season, all games were day games. Baseball is supposed to be played during the day.

As a Yankees fan – and maybe because of their success – you love the game and appreciate its characters and stages. Success does not come in a vacuum. And maybe in 1994, having been going through a long drought, I was thirsting for old-time baseball. And if you love the game, you have to appreciate and love Wrigley Field. Wrigley Field is Baseball.

I arranged a business trip to Chicago in May. It did not take much convincing for my good friend Mike, a fellow die-hard Yankees fan, but also a fan of the game, to come with me. We took a day off and we came out to Chicago a day before my business meeting. I had gotten two tickets in the bleachers to see the Cubs play the Cincinnati Reds.

One of the best days of our lives. May 4, 1994.

And I can still say that, after later watching with my dad, many rows back in the lower level of Yankee Stadium parallel to the visiting dugout, David Cone pitch a perfect game on Yogi Berra Day in July 1999. After later seeing Scott Brosius’ home run sail over my the head and that of my oldest daughter in Yankee Stadium in the bottom of the ninth of Game 5 of the Yankee-Diamondback World Series in 2001. And after later seeing, with my older daughter (I have made it up to my youngest daughter in other ways) from the right field Yankee Stadium bleachers, the Yanks come from behind to beat the Red Sox in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS on Aaron Boone’s homer in the bottom of the 11th.

Mike and I got to Wrigley Field when it opened, around 11 a.m., about two hours before the game. We did not want to miss batting practice. We both bought Cubs hats right outside the field. Only thing we did not have with us were our baseball gloves.

We sat in the left-center field bleachers on a beautiful sunny spring day surrounded by students from Northwestern who also wanted to enjoy the afternoon.

During batting practice, the balls were coming into the bleachers left and right. I had never gotten a ball at a game. And I literally still had dreams while sleeping at night about getting a ball at a game. I always wanted one and had not given up on that dream. This was more than a check-the-box bucket list item. (And bucket list was not in the vernacular at the time.). I really wanted one. Before I got to Chicago, I knew it was a possibility.

So many balls were going into the bleachers, and maybe I got close to one ball, but nothing doing. I said to myself, I can’t believe I haven’t gotten one. And then finally, a line shot that looked like it was coming right to me. In my head I started saying and repeating to myself, this is it, I am going to get this one. I put my hands in a ready position, chest high. This was going to be the one. At some point I rose from my seat next to the aisle.

Sure enough, the ball hits the concrete step less than two feet to my right and a foot past me. The ball bounced in the air about a foot higher than my head, back in the direction of the field. My body had turned, angled towards the aisle and to the back. With my left arm outstretched up. I caught the ball with my left hand as it came back high off the bounce. When I caught it, my body fell downward, down the steps, but somehow I cushioned the fall, probably with my left shoulder. At the end of the fall, my body and left arm laid outstretched down the steps, as someone tried to make a quick pick of the ball, but I held on.

Dreams can come true.

The picture Mike took of me a few minutes later, looking as relaxed and blissful as could be, still sits on a living room bookshelf. The ball still sits atop a tiny trophy cup on the top of a bookshelf in the den.

A little while later Ernie Banks was on the field. Ernie Banks? This was 1994.

Before the game started, there were a few people walking in the outfield parading a goat around. One of the men walking the goat was Ernie Banks someone told us. But we had no clue as to what was going on.

But we got to see Ernie Banks.

So what was going on with the goat? We learned the answer the next day from the Chicago Tribune.

Going into the game the Cubs had lost 12 games in a row. They were trying to break the skid.

“[Manager Tom] Trebelhorn, actually had suggested bringing in a goat to break the fabled jinx that … the owner of the Billy Goat Tavern, [Billy Sianis] put on the Cubs in 1945. [Billy] Sianis … the tavern’s first owner, bought a ticket for the goat to attend a World Series game between the Cubs and the Detroit Tigers that year. When the Cubs refused to let the goat into Wrigley, Sianis swore the Cubs never would get back to the Series again until the goat was allowed back in to Wrigley.” “Banks, the eternal font of optimism, didn’t see any harm … and personally led the goat around the outfield grass and past both dugouts before the first pitch.” Joseph A. Reaves, Chicago Tribune, May 5, 1994, section 4, p. 6.

One of the other people parading the goat was Sam Sianis, the nephew of the then late Billy Sianis, and the then and current owner of the Billy Goat Tavern.

And there was more.

Batting practice home runs going over the fence of the back of Wrigley Field onto the street below with a few people standing in or running down the street, some with baseball gloves, chasing or catching those balls.

The many fans watching the game while sitting in bleachers built on the roofs of apartment houses in back of Wrigley Field.

My friend Mike talking to the cameraman in the centerfield bleachers.

Kevin Mitchell playing leftfield for the Reds that day. The leftfield bleacher fans talking to him and Mitchell talking to them during the game. Someone threw a package of Twinkies at him (and got ejected) making fun of his added weight. Mitchell hitting a homer in the 4th inning. When he came back out to left in the bottom of the inning, the fans in left bowed their heads and arms in tribute to him.

A young Sammy Sosa playing centerfield and leading off for the Cubs.

Mark Grace at first. The year before he hit .325. He ended his 16 year career with a .303 batting average.

One of the best ballplayers in his day, Ryne Sandberg, at second. Now a Hall of Famer.

Shawon Dunston at short. I knew he had grown up in Brooklyn and had attended the same high school as my dad, Thomas Jefferson High.

Rookie pitcher Steve Trachsel started the game for the Cubs

The Reds had the best record in the National League at the time.

The seventh inning stretch, with the one and only Harry Caray, holding his mic and seemingly hanging it out of his broadcast booth, leading the fans in “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”, another iconic ode to the game.

And the Cubbies won, 5-2. Trachsel went seven and got the win. Randy Myers came in in relief in the ninth, and struck out the side. The losing streak was over.

I remember many good Cubs’ players from the 1960s. Billy Williams – who seemed to be underrated, but not by people in the know, as he is in the Hall of Fame. Ron Santo. Don Kessinger. Glenn Beckert (who was also at Wrigley that May 4, along with then broadcaster Santo and then Coach Billy Williams, to help provide inspiration to break the losing skid). Fergie Jenkins. Kenny Holtzman. Manager Leo Durocher.

Once in a while, I would check to see how my Yankees’ Joe Pepitone and Bobby Murcer were doing when they played for the Cubs. Pepi had his best season with the Cubs. He hit .307 in 1971.

After the game, to Mike’s and my surprise and joy, we found out the White Sox were playing that evening at home.

Chicago is my kind of town. (If Sinatra can sing about Chicago as well as New York, so can I.)

Although we hadn’t planned it, after getting some food, we took the train to what was then the new Comiskey Park and saw the White Sox game. We also walked around the stadium.

Two Yankees fans, but we continued to wear our Cubs hats at Comiskey.

There was some nice modern amenities there – by 1994 Yankee and Shea Stadium standards. The ability to go to the concession stands on the first level and still see the field, and not be blocked by walls. There were stores in the back of the outfield stands and you could still see the game from there.

And a shout out to the organist at Comiskey that day, Nancy Faust, who retired in 2010. She was the organist for the White Sox since 1970.

As Mike and I walked around the first level at Comiskey we passed her booth. As I looked in, she turned around and spoke with me. Couldn’t believe that during a game the organist would do that and be so nice. We had no idea who she was or of any of her accomplishments. This past Sunday before the Super Bowl, I was singling “ Na na na na, na na na na , hey hey …” to my year and a half old grandson. (He got the na na part down.)

The joy of the game of baseball. Playing, rooting, or coaching.

When I joined my younger daughter’s (about time I mentioned her) twenty-something year old friend’s softball team two years ago, he was looking for a name for the team. I recommended we name the team after Ernie Banks. Trying to be contemporary, I suggested a hip hop moniker. We could call the team Erney Bancs. The team went with another name. But for me, Ernie Banks was the best representation of the game of baseball.

Last week was a sad one. Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, was also Mr. Baseball. He was beloved. He mattered to so many. No ring was necessary to know that in life and in baseball, Erie Banks was one of our greatest champions.

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