“Let’s Play Two”

The title of this piece is no less than a ringing church bell at Christmas, the explosiveness of a cannon firing on the 4th of July with the playing of the 1812 Overture, or the words of a “saint” scribed at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago—certainly to all to those in Chicago and its neighboring towns, cities and communities, but to all baseball fans nationwide. These three words epitomized the life and times of one Ernest Banks, “Mr. Cub ” after his playing days concluded. They are, as well, but in microcosm to not how a baseball hall-of-famer and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient played the American past time, but to showcase what is more important in life than mere statistics in a reporter’s notebook. Nothing that this writer can scribe here can duplicate what has already been written about the life and times of Ernie, or the words so eloquently said at his memorial service on the very day he would have turned 84 this past Saturday, except perhaps for one item.

Did you ever see how he gripped the piece of lumber that produced 512 home runs? You know, with his right elbow elevated, wrists gripping the bat so as to hold it all most vertically? Recall his right wrist above the left, each synchronized while rotating one over the other while his fingers squeezing but undulating in rhythmic fashion the handle before settling in to hit one over the fence. He was able to do this due to his amazing wrist strength and bat speed. It was such an amazing stance that as kids we tried to do the same thing but without success. No MLBer has ever replicated it either.

But what is equally true of baseball—for those of us who listened during the service to the likes of former Yankee manager, and Cardinal player, Joe Torre, Cubbies Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins, and Lou Brock (a Cubbie too but traded away to the Cardinals), and seeing other Cubs in attendance like Glenn Beckert and Randy Hundley, even the great Henry Aaron, other baseball notables and dignitaries were in attendance—is that it shakes free our memories from days long gone by when we tried to emulate with whatever skills we had those who toiled at the Friendly Confines or at other major league parks. Of course, we remember our ball heroes as trim, fit and ready to play, not as we see them today, with graying or little hair, walking with assistance and, well, a bit paunchier, and hunched over than we liked to recall. Then again, aren’t we all now of those eras? But they were still our heroes.

One of this writer’s dearest and longest friends, Mike Feinstein of Arlington Hts., Illinois (a suburb of Chicago), sent me some photos last week that he took of Wrigley Field, the statue of Ernie temporarily parked at Daley Plaza in downtown and the Presbyterian church on Michigan Av. where fans paid their last respects. Scores of others probably did the same thing, including traveling from afar to give Ernie a last good-bye. Among Mike’s photos was one with Ernie’s Wrigley Field, hall-of-fame flag hanging not on its usual flag-pole during the season, but above the scoreboard at half-mast; other of his photos were of Ernie joining former Cubs’ greats Hundley, Jenkins, and Williams at Wrigley in recent years. Somehow, seeing those photos triggered my memory of our little league days over 55 years ago, when I played as a youngster for a team called Gillette Music and Mike for Erickson’s. I think I caught one game (being a lefty, that was highly unusual but does anyone remember Dale Long doing the same thing, I think while with the Pirates, later traded to the Cubs)? Mike was on first, thought he could steal on me and by the time my throw arrived at second, he had scampered, maybe, half way to second. There remains within this writer a treasure trove of similar fond, humorous and delightful memories.

Then, after my playing days in high school, summer leagues, and in the Big Ten were long gone, my wife surprised me with a week’s worth of ball in one of Hundley’s original Cubs camps in the mid-1980s. Our son Jason, about 7 at the time, came with us for a week in the sun in Scottsdale, Arizona. Our “opponents” were members of the ’69 Cubs. What a thrill! And, yes, we have an Ernie story to tell, just like so many others who have told theirs in recent days. Jason, who later became a standout catcher for the Eagles of Emory University in Atlanta [daughter Lauren became a blue-ribbon Equestrian herself], asked Ernie to toss a couple and he obliged unhesitatingly. Imagine yourself that young tossing a baseball with one of the great human beings to ever have played the sport of baseball wanting to play catch with you?

Then there was the following summer when I played in Wrigley Field before about 20,000 fans before the start of a regular Cubs game against Atlanta. It was part of a shortened summer version of the Arizona experience where I pitched an inning but played my typical first base in two others. I think I batted twice, but one time up was agains St. Louis’ Bob Gibson, yes, the firebrand, hall-of-famer. He was coaching for the Braves at the time and Hundley got him to throw an inning, an inning when I came to bat. Even as a coach, Gibson still threw heat, at least most of the pitches he smoked past me. He did let up on one (my “mercy” pitch) and I drilled it to the ivy off the left field wall for a triple.

In more recent times, my wife and I travel to Florida to a lovely and active place called The Villages, about an hour’s drive north of Orlando. Among its many activities is 12 in. slow-pitch softball with about 3,000 men and women playing the game. I was fortunate to be “drafted” this year onto one of the top teams, called the Bruins, managed by player Terry Dolasinski. I am what is called a “newbie”. In the baseball world, it is being a “rookie” [go see Burt Lancaster’s role in the “The Natural” and you will understand the meaning of being a “rook”]. However, two items take me back to Banks.

One, Terry asked me what number I wanted, and I said, what else, 14. That was a number I used for many of my baseball years, and one even my son used to have. The other is Terry himself. He is one of the best hitters in 12 in. ball I have seen (and for anyone who hasn’t played 12 in. slow pitch at a competitive level, it isn’t easy to be consistently hitting with authority; take my word for it). I recently inquired that he must have come from many years of playing baseball given his strength and hand-eye coordination with the bat. He surprised me by saying that in growing up in the Gary and Hammond (Indiana) communities, circumstances prevented him from developing the requisite skills or the opportunity to play. Even starting his “career” in the Villages’ program, he had to work himself up to the top level. But it is his quiet but fair-minded sprit, competitiveness, and determination to do what he can to succeed and to support his teammates to do the same thing that reminded me of the qualities Ernie must have possessed with whom he interacted on and off the field.

Days fly by in our lives. But it is the memories such as were evoked in thousands like Mike and me upon the passing of Mr. Cub and those gathering to celebrate and honor him at the memorial service that are the salve making our later days even richer and more rewarding.

Rest in peace no. 14, and…Let’s Play Two.