“Known to many as “Mr. Cub,” Ernie Banks is one of the greatest baseball players of all time. During his 19 seasons with the Chicago Cubs, he played in 11 All-Star Games, hit over 500 home runs, and became the first National League player to win Most Valuable Player honors in back-to-back years. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977, his first year of eligibility.”
Those are the words of the official White House press release announcing this tremendous honor.
As a Cub fan, I am overjoyed. As a citizen of the United States, I am proud that this honor is being bestowed on such a worthy recipient.
Baseball has had a rough and tumble past, and in recent years, the scandals surrounding players who have “juiced up” because they felt such pressure to perform, have only served to remind us that the game isn’t exactly populated by geniuses. To be sure, I did a little looking up and I found eleven players with Ivy League educations, among them Lou Gehrig (Columbia) and Moe Berg (Princeton). In more recent history, the Cubs employed a catcher with a degree in industrial engineering from Northwestern, Joe Girardi. But for the most part, players are drafted straight out of high school – or the rough neighborhoods of places like the Dominican Republic – and then they are trained through the farm system. Nowhere along the way are they taught how to behave or carry themselves.
Nevertheless, the game has enjoyed many, many players who were men of distinction and dignity. They were honorable people on and off the baseball diamond. They played alongside the party boys like Babe Ruth, the stinkers like Ty Cobb (hey, the Peach filed his spikes to a point and slid into basemen) and big egos like Johnny Bench (yes, I do have a story about him…). They played alongside those who gave their teams bad reputations, but they still showed up and did it the right way.
I became a Cubs fan after Ernie had retired, but he was always around and part of whatever the Cubs were up to. The excitement of Jack Brickhouse was part of being a Cub fan – even when it was the bottom of the ninth, two outs and two runs down, he was still pulling for his team, the quintessential Cub fan who taught us how to persevere.
You never would have heard men like Don Kessinger or Ryne Sandberg whining like the current crop. Never would they have been so dreadfully stupid as to use a corked bat for ANY reason, never mind to pop big ones for the fans to catch before the game, as Sammy Sosa alleged. Heck, we were there one day when Dave Kingman hit a batting practice ball into the left field bleachers, pasting a little girl with braces right in the kisser! Obnoxious as he could be, Kingman was honestly distraught.
Ernie Banks did hit over 500 homers, and he didn’t need to be juiced to do it. One might argue that today’s pitchers are a different breed from those Ernie faced, but for his day, he did what he did against the best of what baseball had to offer. So, no excuses. In the off season, he worked a second job in order to provide for his growing family.
Can you see A-Rod going to work as a car salesman in the off season?
No one got paid supersized salaries in Ernie’s day, and yet the man showed up and played his heart out with a positive attitude no one could touch! He mentored the younger players and he was good to the fans. He gave back to the community and he was never too busy to lend a hand to a good cause.
We still have some players with Ernie’s integrity and sterling character, but we don’t hear about them as much as we do the bad actors. And, that’s precisely why a guy like Ernie Banks needs to be honored.
The President is sending a subtle but stern message to the rest of the cry babies who make more money than they deserve. Nice guys finish with Presidential Medals of Freedom.
I want to close this with something Ernie once said he listened to when he felt a little down. It’s The Voice of the Chicago Cubs, the incomparable Jack Brickhouse, calling the game when Ernie hit his 500th:
"Jarvis fires away ... That's a fly ball, deep to left, back, back ... HEY-HEY! He did it!! Ernie Banks got number 500!!! The ball tossed to the bullpen ... everybody on your feet ... this ... is IT!!!! WHEEEEEEE!!!!!"
I used to think it didn’t get any better than that, but today, in the words of Jack, Hey! Hey! President Obama hit one out of the park!
Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient. Hey! Hey! indeed.