Saturday, January 24, 2015

Good Bye, Ernie

Ernie Banks 1931-2015

Ernie Banks, star player for the Chicago Cubs professional baseball team while I was growing up across the lake in New Buffalo, Michigan, where our TV was Chicago TV, our radio was Chicago radio and Josenhans drug store sold the Sun Times and the Tribune, has died at 83.

Ernie hit more than 500 home runs, was MVP twice, was a perpetual All Star, and was voted Mr Cub by the fans. He's in the Hall of Fame. He was loved by generations of Cubs fans, including by me. I stood at the plate like Ernie did, held the bat like Ernie did.

Ernie and another player, as a duo, were the first African Americans to play for the Cubs, breaking the color barrier in 1953, six years after Jackie Robinson had done it for the Dodgers and the national pastime. Ernie seemed eternally grateful just to be in the big leagues. He played while Phil Wrigley, of Wrigley's chewing gum, owned the Cubs and ran them like a dictator. Ernie pretty much kept quiet during the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. Another great Cubs player of that era, Ron Santo, said he only ever heard Ernie swear once, after an opposing pitcher knocked him down multiple times. He said Ernie came back to the dugout and said he'd give $100 to whoever knocked that so and so down.

Ernie was known to us for always having a smile on his face. He used expressions like "Let's play three today." Each year he made a prediction about the upcoming season in the form of a rhyme. The Cubs will shine in 69. The Cubs will be heavenly in 1970. Ernie made us feel good about ourselves. He made us forget -- forget that he was Black, what we as a nation had done to Blacks, were still doing. He calmed that little wave of fear than ran up and down the stairway to our soul when we saw a Black person. His kind were thought of as Uncle Toms by some young Blacks, and by young radicals like me, but I always excused Ernie. Ernie grew up in Dallas, Texas, a pretty mean town, and as had all African Americans of his and earlier generation come by his adaptive skills when there were still regular lynchings across the United States.

For me, he's a reminder of my youth, of limitless possibilities, of my favorite bat. I don't miss those times. There were plenty of problems, uncertainty about what I'd do in life. I don't want to relive those days. I don't yearn for them. I don't feel melancholy about lost innocence, my country's, or mine. Only when Ernie dies.

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