Magazine | June 03, 2019, Issue

Ernie Banks’s Life of Sunshine and Shadows

The Ernie Banks statue outside Wrigley Field ( Jerry Lai USA Today Sports via Reuters)
Let’s Play Two: The Legend of Mr. Cub, the Life of Ernie Banks, by Ron Rapoport (Hachette Books, 464 pp., $14.99) and Let’s Play Two: The Life and Times of Ernie Banks, by Doug Wilson (Rowman & Littlefield, 272 pp., $24.95)

Ernie Banks was weird. Mister Cub was beloved for his perpetual “Let’s play two!” cheerfulness and his easygoing acceptance of whatever storms life and baseball offered. He also was married four times, adopted a child when he was in his late seventies, made it a goal to attend more weddings each year than in the year previous, often broke into song during press conferences, conducted faux interviews with himself for the entertainment of no one in particular, and once thought seriously about attending clown school. In his later years he greeted every man he met, whether he knew him or not, with the question “How’s your wife?” He also developed a troubling case of kleptomania.

Banks was weird, too, in being the first baseball player to combine two abilities previously thought to be antithetical: the ability to play shortstop at an elite level, and the ability to knock the tar out of a baseball.

As Banks’s most recent biographers, Doug Wilson and Ron Rapoport, both make clear, that Banks ever played baseball at all was a miracle. Although Ernie’s father, Eddie, had been a fine player in his day, Ernie so hated playing catch as a youth that Eddie had to bribe him to don a mitt. Ernie preferred football and basketball. Only as an afterthought did he join the softball team fielded by his segregated Dallas high school, Booker T. Washington. The school had no baseball team.

Ah, but you never know who’s watching. In Ernie’s case, the bird-dog scout lurking in the bleachers was a former Negro Leagues player and future civil-rights activist named Bill Blair. Noting Banks’s quick bat, strong wrists, and fluid movements in the field, Blair recommended him to the attention of the Amarillo-based Detroit Colts in 1948. Suddenly, in the summer between his sophomore and junior years, Banks found himself transitioning from high-school softball to semi-pro hardball. He performed so well in making this leap that before he had finished school, Negro Leagues legend Cool Papa Bell was touting him to Buck O’Neil, the manager of the Negro American League’s celebrated Kansas City Monarchs. Banks joined the Monarchs in 1950, and after he returned from a two-year Army stint the Chicago Cubs offered him a contract. On September 17, 1953, Banks made his Major League debut, becoming the Cubs’ first black player.

Banks never came close to failing in making any of these jumps in competition. Baseball, unlike the rest of life, came easy to him. Alas, it didn’t come easy to his Cubs teammates. For the North Siders under the charmingly humane if perplexingly eccentric leadership of Philip K. Wrigley, son of the chewing-gum empire’s founder, the advent of April along the western shores of Lake Michigan meant only that they had another date with futility. For 15 years, Banks’s splendid performances served merely to make each losing season somewhat more enjoyable. From 1953 through 1966, despite his two Most Valuable Player awards and nine All-Star seasons, the Cubs went 941–1,254. There were games when fewer than 1,000 fans showed up at Wrigley Field, including one day in September 1959 when the Cubs drew 598 fans while the crosstown White Sox were being cheered by more than 37,000.

With the addition of future Hall of Famers Ferguson Jenkins, Ron Santo, and Billy Williams in the late 1960s, the Cubs finally began to win. In 1969, the team was poised to make the postseason when, under pressure from the surging Miracle Mets, they suffered one of the game’s most painful collapses, losing 17 of their last 25 games. (Ron Rapoport tells this story exceptionally well; his digressive account of the merry-prankster Bleacher Bums’ antics makes one sigh for the long-gone, liberty-drenched days when ballpark rules were few and security mostly a rumor.) Three years later, Banks retired, forever doomed to symbolize the tragic fate suffered even by the consistently excellent when they have the bad luck to toil for bumbling fools.

In retirement, it was Banks’s turn to bumble. Effort after effort to make his way in some other line of business came to naught. He ultimately settled into a role as the public face of the team — a living mascot and popular PR representative who did as much as anyone, Harry Caray not excluded, to build the worldwide Cubs brand, today valued at more than $3 billion by Forbes.

Despite appearances, it was not a very happy life. For as the years passed Banks wondered: Did it all add up to anything?

As these biographies show, it did. He was a deeply flawed husband and father, but Ernie Banks’s virtues were such that for two decades he was precisely the man both black and white Chicago needed. Unfortunately, Banks could never convince himself that was true.

Ernest Banks was born to parents Eddie and Essie in Dallas on January 31, 1931. Like all their neighbors in segregated north Dallas, the Banks family was poor. Eddie worked hard as a grocery-store laborer, but only when Essie took a janitorial job could the family afford to install electricity. She put food on the table in part by separating the still-edible from the rotten fruit and vegetables in crates thrown out by the grocer and by arranging to receive the offal from the butcher on chicken-delivery day. About the only time Ernie ever left the neighborhood was to pick cotton with his father — a job that, unlike everyone else, he actually liked.   

That was Ernie. From an early age, he internalized contentment as a fundamental imperative. The annals of history provide few examples of successful men who were as conflict-avoidant. (One of Ernie’s sons called his father the “least confrontational individual I’ve ever met.”) To remain silent, to be affable and self-deprecating, to seek to please others, and to drift away at the first sign of trouble were the essential tools in Banks’s survival-strategy kit. In stark contrast to a few of his brothers (there were twelve siblings in all) and a second cousin named O. J. Simpson, these tools helped Ernie stay out of trouble. They worked. Until they didn’t.

Wives, for instance, have the irksome quality of tending to prefer a certain amount of communication and openness in their husbands. Ernie couldn’t give that to them. What he could do, as he discovered as a young ballplayer, was to act like an extrovert. This ingenious solution to the problem of avoiding personal closeness fooled all except those who knew him best. By mid career, Banks had become a cheerful chatterbox, using a constant stream of superficial verbiage and inquiries as a way of keeping everyone at a distance. Wife after wife tried, and failed, to crack his shell. By the end of his life, Ernie could not even crack it himself. It was as if he had erected a barrier within his own soul. Rapoport saw this dynamic up close. His book originated as an “as told to” autobiography, but since the last thing Banks wanted to do, the last thing he could do, was to plumb his own depths, the project languished until his death in 2015. Given the freedom to tell Banks’s story with candor, Rapoport has written one of the better sports biographies of the century.

Doug Wilson’s biography has its own strengths. He is particularly good at telling the tale of Banks’s foray into politics. In 1962, Everett Dirksen, the powerful Republican senator from Illinois, urged Ernie to run for the Chicago city council. (Rapoport reports that Banks sometimes claimed it was his idea to run and that his friend S. B. Fuller, head of the Chicago NAACP and a convinced free-market Republican, encouraged him to do so.) Of course, under Mayor Richard Daley, the chances that an upstart Republican could unseat an incumbent Democrat were nil. Still, fired by Mr. Smith Goes to Washington idealism, Banks threw his hat into the ring. Whereupon the city’s Republican establishment, acting with the party’s characteristic astuteness, threw its support instead behind a nonentity who was just as sure to lose. Banks ending up running as an independent and still managed to snare about 12 percent of the vote.

Racial politics became more radicalized as the decade went on. Banks, much to the chagrin of black activists, remained the same moderate he had always been. Wilson points out, correctly, that Ernie embraced Booker T. Washington’s outlook on race relations, one that prioritized patience and incremental change over militance. That approach irritated Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, and others inclined to stronger measures. One player told Sports Illustrated in 1969 that Banks couldn’t be an Uncle Tom because he had “never been a Negro” in the first place. Others thought Banks was a coward who simply didn’t want to bite the white hand that fed him. None of these charges was fair. “They think their way is the only way,” lamented Ernie. “They don’t understand my way. I believe in getting along with people, in setting a good example.”

There was merit in Banks’s approach. From an ecosystem point of view, he occupied an important place in African Americans’ fight for racial equality: After all, to effect social rather than merely political transformation, the old guard has to be won over, and the adoption of a winsome manner is one way to do that. Despite columnist Mike Royko’s claim that white Chicagoans incorrigibly hated blacks, Cubs fans came to admire Banks not just for his excellence as a player but also for his endurance, his work ethic, his friendliness, his persistent hope, his apparent moral rectitude, and most especially his ability to put up with manager Leo Durocher, one of the biggest jackasses ever to serve as a Major League skipper (and that’s saying something). Those virtues are what won whites over — and were arguably more effective in changing racial attitudes than anything the militants did.

Banks thought, wisely enough, that simply telling people they were prejudiced or racist only raised their defenses. Revolutionary violence was even more counterproductive. “There are certain things that you have to fight for, but not by looting and burning, but by letting society know that you will demand your rights and use every legal means to get them,” he counseled. “I don’t agree with the guys that say in order to find your pride in your blackness you have to hate everything that is white. That’s just plain wrong. We shouldn’t hate anybody.”

Late in life, Banks came to regret that he hadn’t joined more fervently in the civil-rights protests of his time. Perhaps this regret was not misplaced; perhaps, when he had become one of the National League’s stars, he should have pushed harder against racist indignities such as being forced to lodge at a separate hotel in St. Louis, or being denied entry to the Mesa Country Club, or being barred from making his residence in the white neighborhoods near Wrigley Field. But then, also late in life, he became obsessed with the pathetically quixotic notion of winning a Nobel Peace Prize. The lesson he had learned from his erstwhile critics such as Jesse Jackson was that only action on a grand political scale was worth anything. All the free speeches he had given to mixed-race audiences; all the service on nonprofit boards, including that of the Chicago NAACP; all the examples of grace and sportsmanship he had provided to the youth of Chicago — it had all meant very little, Banks concluded. He hadn’t thought big enough.

That was a tragically mistaken conclusion. It was thinking big, allowing his field of vision to become too encompassing, that led Banks to ignore those to whom he owed the most, including his wives and sons. By contrast, the humble Ernie Banks gospel of charity, gratitude, patriotism, and the necessity of finding joy in everyday life was a valuable contribution to his community and country. In leaving such a legacy Ernie Banks accomplished plenty.

This article appears as “Mr. Sunshine’s Shadows” in the June 3, 2019, print edition of National Review.

Jeremy Beer — Mr. Beer is a founding partner of American Philanthropic, a consultancy, and the author of the forthcoming book Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player

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