Some memories remain crystal clear even decades later.
That’s how it is for me and the time I met Ernie Banks.
I was a young boy with my dad at Wrigley Field. We were walking along the concourse on the third base side of the ballpark when my dad spotted him -- Mr. Cub.
“There’s Ernie Banks,” my father said.
That’s all he needed to say. Perhaps the greatest Cub ever was in our midst. I took off to see him for myself.
I never saw Ernie play. I was 6 years old when he retired in 1971. But I knew who he was, what he had accomplished. He was the face of the organization even in retirement when he served as a team ambassador.
Excited fans gathered around him seeking autographs and photos. Others just wanted to get a glance of Mr. Cub or shake his hand. He was happy to accommodate everyone with a cheerful greeting and a smile on his face.
“Don’t forget me, Ernie,” I said, worried that he would wrap up the meet-and-greet before I got to shake his hand and get an autograph. He assured me he wasn’t going anywhere.
I met Banks in the early 1970s, not long after he retired. He was wearing a burnt orange, fitted shirt, and I distinctly remember how muscular his arms appeared. He was not an especially big man, but he was strong and had a beautiful swing. The result was 512 home runs over 18 seasons long before steroids tainted the game.
Years later, my dad would recall the time we saw Ernie Banks at Wrigley Field. My father, after all, did see Ernie play and provide many of the highlights during some awful Cub seasons.
My wife met Ernie and got an autograph when she worked at Carson’s downtown store. My son met Ernie when he showed for a round of golf at Beverly Country Club. My son, a caddy, brought home an autographed Cubs cap. What a wonderful keepsake.
It seems like everyone met Ernie or has an Ernie story. That’s because he was always out and about, happy to greet fans and admirers. He was well aware of what he meant to Cubs fans. His optimism is a big part of why we keep the faith, hopeful that one day the Cubs can win the ultimate prize.
My wife woke me up Friday night to tell me Banks had died. I was shocked and saddened. It’s almost as though we don’t expect iconic figures like Banks to ever pass away. Banks is woven into the fabric of the Cubs, connecting one generation of fans to the next.
But rest assured, his memory will live on. When young fans ask their fathers about the foul pole banner that bears Banks’ name, they’ll be told about a Hall of Famer, a great Cub and, most importantly, a man who was ever-optimistic despite the racial injustices he faced during the early part of the his career.
My son wears an Anthony Rizzo jersey. Rizzo is the Cubs power hitting first baseman, who stands in the very spot on the field where Banks once stood.
The youngest player to win the Branch Rickey Award “as a strong role model for young people” Rizzo is the face of today’s Cubs. He is the leader of a team that hopes to accomplish what Banks’ teams could not. Who knows how we will recall his career.
It is unfair to compare Rizzo or any modern-day player to Banks. But Rizzo made some rather confident statements recently, saying the Cubs would win the division in 2015.
Banks would convey his optimism with pithy little phrases like “The Cubs will shine in ’69.” But I’m sure he loved Rizzo’s bold remarks.
Rizzo sounded more like Chicago architect Daniel Burnham. “Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.”
But the next time Rizzo hits a home run at Wrigley Field, he should point at Banks’ retired number as he rounds the bases to honor a man who played for the love of the game, the fans and Wrigley Field.
The night Banks died, Rizzo tweeted: “Mr. Cub. What you have done for the game of baseball, the city of Chicago and everyone you have ever touched will never be forgotten. RIP.”
Above the tweet is sketch of Harry Caray opening the gates of heaven and Ron Santo placing his arm around Banks shoulder. Touching stuff.
RIP Mr. Banks. You will be missed.