Over the weekend another part of my youth died. Baseball legend Ernie Banks died one week shy of his 84th birthday.
While I was alive for about half of his career with the Chicago Cubs, I never got to see him play – in person or TV. In fact, he had already retired by the time I fully recognized his name.
I was born in an era that did not have the convenience of cable TV or the internet. Baseball and most of other professional and college sports were relegated to being aired one day out of the week. It wasn’t until 1970 that Monday Night Football – a true novelty at the time that we had a “bonus” game. Baseball, by contrast was in the “olden days” a hometown, localized sport. Before you could watch any team on any day or time you cheered for the team closest to where you lived.
My knowledge of Banks came the old fashioned way – reading. As a sports kid I grew up reading every book and magazine pertaining to the sports that I liked best – football, baseball and basketball. My knowledge was limited until I got older and as players like Banks, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays became a part of not only history but pop culture as well. And from everything I read I really loved all three as well.
Kids of my generation were more unique than any other generation to date. Sure we lived through the civil rights movement, women’s rights and probably the most philosophical change at any time in history. Our favorite baseball players were the ones mentioned as well as Roberto Clemente, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and more. You notice something about the list? They are all black. As kids we didn’t care about the color of skin the way we do now and how aware I am personally aware of it now. Without sounding preachy we judge these guys on how they played the game. We proudly wore their jerseys, collected their trading cards and got mom and dad to buy us the bat model bearing their name. Not because of what they were but who they were. Granted, we lived in an era before social media and mega press coverage so we knew little about their private lives, but even in today’s revisionist history era not much has tainted our opinion of our childhood heroes. And back then we didn’t think about the color of their skin.
When I was a kid engaged in sports we were segmented primarily by where we lived and not any other reason. Where I grew up it was predominantly white and when we did interact with another race we didn’t make a big deal of it. Usually we were brought together by a common interest like sports. Sure, we were curious about each other, but we didn’t feel any prejudice or animosity. We actually thought it was cool to have a black friend – or any other nationality. It wasn’t a big deal like it seems to be now. We learned from each other, even enlightened each other about who we were – and we didn’t care about the color of our skin. Now it seems to be an issue everywhere.
That’s one of the things I liked about Banks. He seemed happy-go lucky, happy to be able to play baseball as a professional and be a role model/hero to all not just others of his race. To my knowledge he never addressed the situation like Hank Aaron has the past couple of years. To be honest Aaron kind of tarnished his star to be as he what he said came across as sour grapes. I have no knowledge what it was like to be a minority in the ‘50s ad ‘60s as all I am concerned about is today. We can’t rewrite history and despite idiots that judged him by the color of his skin others like me celebrated who he was and wanted to be like him and for all intents and purposes still cheer for him and our memories of him playing for the Braves. Granted, I didn’t go through what he did, but why are you holding it against me?
Banks was a silent, gentle baseball giant. He was a rarity, especially in today’s sports. He played his entire career in one city – in fact the name Ernie Banks is synonymous with the city of Chicago. Plus he seemed to be a good sport. I really began to dig him even more almost 20 years after he retired when he appeared in an episode of “Married with Children” along with Johnny Bench and Joe Namath when Al and Jefferson sneak out to attend the opening of a new sports bar where the three sports legends are there for the opening ceremonies. It was actually cool to see such an icon take a role in the silly but beloved edgy sit-com. I respected the fact he had such a sense of humor in partaking. It was far more entertaining than the time Hammering Hank appeared on “Happy Days”.
Banks seemed to take in stride who he was, didn’t show regret for playing on a team that hasn’t been to the World Series now in over a century. He was happy being himself and everyone that got the pleasure of meeting him all gush about how nice and one of the guys he was. I wish more athletes would take a page out of Ernie Banks’ book. The world not only needs more sports icons, but good sports.
– Dave Weinthal
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