Ernie Banks has died and I’m feeling strangely out of sorts.
At one level, I am — of course — sad to hear the news of Mr. Cub’s death at age 83. He might have been Major League Baseball’s premier ambassador, although St. Louis Cardinals fans have made the case for their icon, the late Stan “The Man” Musial.
But at another level, I am somewhat chastened by the notion that I never really took the opportunity to cheer for Mr. Cub. I grew up in the 1950s and ’60s and much of my baseball attention was gobbled up by some other pretty good athletes. Guys like Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Stan the Man and Roberto Clemente all commanded much of my attention. You had the occasional flash in the pan, such as Roger Maris, also getting attention.
Ernie Banks? All he did was belt 512 home runs in his 19-year career with the Chicago Cubs while playing shortstop and then first base.
Mr. Cub had the misfortune of never playing in the postseason. No World Series. No playoffs to get to the Big Show. Nothing. Most of his teams finished with losing records. Maybe that’s why I didn’t care. Hey, I was a kid who was interested in winners, right?
None of that mattered to the Hall of Fame voters who inducted Banks into the Cooperstown, N.Y., shrine in 1977, his first year of eligibility. They knew baseball greatness when they saw it.
Little did I understand until much later that you didn’t need to play on teams that routinely scored more runs than the other team to be a winner.
Mr. Cub’s enthusiasm for the game he loved was infectious. “Let’s play two,” he said famously — and that quote will be repeated endlessly over the next few days.
Pro sports has suffered a bit of an image problem of late. Baseball’s been tainted by steroid and other “performance enhancing drug” use. Pro football has been shamed by the off-the-field savagery of some of its stars against women.
Against that backdrop, now we say “goodbye” to a seriously good and decent man who, by the way, could play a pretty good game of baseball himself.