Whenever some sports superstar gets caught doing something untoward, the media wrings its hands and repeatedly shouts “What type of role model is this? Think of the children! Think of the children!” Invariably, the sports superstar in question points out he’s not a role model, he’s a ball player, or whatever. Usually he’s not very far north of childhood himself.
Yet, almost by definition sports superstars are super-heroes. They are imbued “with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.” Michael Jordan, Bobby Hull, Muhammad Ali, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Willie Shoemaker, Chris Evert… these folks aren’t simply super-heroes, they’re magicians.
When I was at the optimum time to adopt a personal hero, I chose Ernie Banks. Shortstop and later first-baseman for my Chicago Cubs, he joined the team after a stint in the armed forces and the Negro Leagues. He spent 19 seasons with the Cubs, which constituted his entire professional baseball career.
When the Cubs were at the bottom of the standings, which also was just about his entire career, Ernie not only stood out as among the very best, he virtually gleamed. Nobody seemed to enjoy playing baseball more than Ernie Banks. His trademark saying, “Let’s play two,” combined with his beatific look made you want to play as well.
Of course, had you been given the opportunity you would have been outclassed. Banks played in 14 All-Star Games. He was the National League most valuable player – twice. His lifetime stats: batting average .274, hits – 2,583, home runs – 512, runs batted in – 1,636. He made it into the Baseball Hall of Fame on his very first year of eligibility, with 84% of the vote. In 1999, Ernie Banks was named to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.
Compared with the Cubs’ efficacy at the time, Ernie Banks was beyond belief. There wasn’t much of a team to help him.
When he hung up his mitt in 1971, Ernie started up a charity, became America’s first black Ford dealer, and worked at Chicago’s Bank of Ravenswood in public relations and new business development. It was in that capacity that I met my hero.
I was a co-founder of a youth social service program called The National Runaway Switchboard, and like all non-profits we applied for grants wherever we could. The Bank of Ravenswood was one of our many donors, and it was Ernie who handed us one of those huge photo-op checks. For all I cared, he could have handed me a bag of stale donuts. Meeting Ernie Banks was one of those genuine “hamina-hamina-hamina” moments.
Ernie was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, and, yes, that’s President Obama putting the medal around his neck in the picture at the top of this column.
Sometimes, nice guys finish first.
Ernie Banks died last Friday, at the age of 83. Thank you, Mr. Banks. Thank you for teaching this comic book editor what true heroes are all about.