Ernie Banks memorial: ‘Ernie Banks is Mr. Cub because he loved us back’
Guests attend the funeral service for Cubs legend Ernie Banks at Fourth Presbyterian Church in downtown Chicago on Jan. 31, 2015. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune)
Political leaders, Hall of Fame ballplayers and dozens of ordinary Chicagoans bade a poignant but uplifting farewell Saturday to Ernie Banks, the Chicago Cubs shortstop whose otherworldly athleticism, unflagging optimism and inexhaustible goodwill made him an ambassador for his team and his city.
Banks, who was 83 but would have turned 84 Saturday, died of a heart attack Jan. 23. His death has inspired a flood of reminiscence from those who watched him patrol the Wrigley Field diamond in the 1950s and ‘60s or simply knew him for his signature kindness.
“It’s amazing how someone can leave a legacy where everyone has nothing to say but the fact that he brought sunshine wherever he went,” Kristine Kuznicki said as she left Banks’ packed memorial service at Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church. “It makes you think about how you live your own life and how you want to be remembered.”
Banks grew up in segregated Dallas and told a biographer that his exquisite coordination came from days of picking cotton. Though he played baseball sparingly in his youth — his high school didn’t have a team — he made the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues as a teenager.
After being drafted and serving two years in the Army, he became the Cubs’ first black player in 1953. In his 19 seasons with the team, he hit 512 home runs and had 1,636 RBIs, was an All-Star 14 times and won back-to-back National League MVP awards. He was voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977, the first year he was eligible.
But as many speakers at Banks’ service noted, the breathtaking statistics don’t begin to tell the story of Banks’ life and influence.
“We’d like to believe we can teach this lesson to our children: You don’t have to wear a championship ring on your finger to be ... a champion in life,” said Joe Torre, a former major league player and manager who competed against Banks in the ’60s.
It was that graciousness that brought Gary Shepherdson to the service from Calgary, Alberta. He never met Banks or watched him play but recalled his father telling him in 1973 about Banks’ great games and ability to overcome adversity. At the time, it had been 65 years since the Cubs won the World Series.
“I thought right then as a kid that this team needed fans, and I was going to be one,” he said. “That’s why I’m here. After all those personal and professional stories my dad told me, I needed to come say goodbye.”
Cubs fan Maria Stamas described meeting Banks by chance in the lobby of a suburban hotel. He immediately showed a deep interest in her, asking about her goals and dreams and helping her draft a plan to achieve them.
“We talked for about an hour and a half,” Stamas said. “It was as if we were long-lost friends.”
During the service, some of Banks’ teammates reminisced about his chatty ways, animating car rides from the South Side to Wrigley Field and keeping his spring training roommates up deep into the night.
Cubs outfielder Billy Williams told a story about Banks playfully needling fearsome St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson before a game.
“Ernie was standing around the batting cage and said (to Gibson), ‘Billy’s going to hit a home run off you today,’” Williams said. “I said, ‘Don’t say that!’”
Pitcher Ferguson Jenkins joined the Cubs in 1966, when Banks was already an established superstar. But Banks, Ferguson said, never held himself above his fellow players.
“He didn’t want the title of being a star,” Jenkins said. “He wanted to be a teammate.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke at the service, which was attended by such notables as Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich, baseball luminaries Reggie Jackson and Kerry Wood and superfan Ronnie “Woo Woo” Wickers, who wore a full Cubs uniform.
As the sun poured through the church’s stained glass and a choir dressed in robes of Cubbie Blue sang “O Happy Day,” pallbearers including home run king Hank Aaron, former Cubs Glenn Beckert and Randy Hundley and Banks’ twin sons Jerry and Joey escorted the casket, draped with a pinstriped banner that bore Banks’ retired No. 14, out of the church. A hearse awaited to take the casket on a procession past Banks’ statue, temporarily relocated to Daley Plaza, and to Wrigley Field.
“I don’t know how anyone could have attended this and listened to this and not apply that to their own life,” Scott Sanderson, who pitched for the Cubs from 1984-89, said after the service. “So I think Ernie’s impact on people … it even goes beyond his years here on earth. He improved people’s lives. What a great statement for any of us to make.”
Deborah Delashment, first cousin of Banks’ widow, Liz, remembered him as a family man.
“They always had parties or events where we were all invited,” she said. “And we all enjoyed just good family time. You could see the love, the sharing, the caring. It has always been there for all the years they have been married.”
But the most succinct summation of Banks’ legacy might have come from Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts.
“Ernie Banks is not Mr. Cub because we loved him,” he said. “Ernie Banks is Mr. Cub because he loved us back.”
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