Cubs legend Ernie Banks remembered as a man who loved life, people
Wrigley Field fixture and fan Ronnie Woo-Woo Wickers finds a quiet area in the church Friday during the visitation for Chicago Cubs legend “Mr. Cub” Ernie Banks at Fourth Presbyterian Church on North Michigan Avenue.(Phil Velasquez, Chicago Tribune)
Of all the talents Ernie Banks exhibited over his Hall of Fame career, perhaps the most impressive skill was his ability to relate to everyday people from all walks of life.
“He could make you feel like you were the most important person in the universe,” longtime friend John Rogers said during Saturday’s memorial service at Fourth Presbyterian Church.
That was the thematic motif on Saturday as family, friends and fans congregated to celebrate the life of the legendary ballplayer, who died last week at 83.
Almost every speaker drove the point home that Banks was not just a great athlete who was good with the media and loved the game. He was simply a man who enjoyed meeting and talking to people, leaving a little piece of himself with hundreds and hundreds of those fortunate enough to run into him, whether it was at the ballpark, walking down the street or in the aisle of a grocery store.
“Ernie walked up to you as if he had known you for years,” Billy Williams said.
“He branded goodwill,” added Rev. Jesse Jackson.
It’s a lesson that should be taught to every athlete, especially the ones who feel “smothered” by the fame that comes with the territory. How many times have I seen ballplayers whip out their cellphones and pretend to make a call as they leave a ballpark, giving them cover from fans who may want an autograph or just a chance to say hello? Or put on their headphones to drown out the noise of someone shouting out their name to try and get their attention?
Perhaps there are some fans whom Banks ignored. He was human, after all. But judging from the emails and conversations I’ve had with those who randomly bumped into him over the years, those stories are few and far between. He genuinely liked people.
“Ernie Banks is not Mr. Cub because we loved him,” Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts said. “Ernie Banks is Mr. Cub because he loved us back. As it turned out, Ernie became Mr. Cub through no more magic than just being himself.”
Banks’ memorial was as comforting as a soft, summer breeze, with former teammate Williams stealing the show with stories of their conversations about life as roommates, or sharing rides to work.
“I never did see him read a book,” Williams said. “But he knew about everything.”
Banks once told notorious knockdown pitcher Bob Gibson that Williams was going to hit a home run off him that day, prompting Williams to plead with his friend: “Ernie, don’t make him meaner, man.”
Banks’ son, Joey, thanked his father for “showing us how to be winners without winning all the time,” while Joey’s twin brother Jerry revealed one of Ernie’s favorite sayings was: “I feel like I could fly.”
After the service, Cubs broadcaster Pat Hughes told a story on the church steps of how Banks was at a big party and told all the kids, “The best thing you can do when you get back to the hotel, rub your daddy’s feet.”
“My daughters come back giggling to me, ‘Daddy, Ernie Banks said we should rub your feet,’” Hughes said. “Everyone in the whole room is laughing about Ernie. He brought everyone together. It was a funny, off the wall, quirky thing to do, but it spread joy and that’s what Ernie loved to do.”
That’s why Banks had such an impact on the city, and why his death was felt by so many who didn’t even know him. Cubs fan Tom Moroz, of Uptown, was one of a crowd of several hundred people waiting near Wrigley Field to get a glimpse of the funeral procession as it drove past.
“I was watching on TV and shedding tears when they were wheeling his casket out of the church,” Moroz said. “I thought I have to come down to the ballpark. (The procession) passed quickly. I thought they may stop, but that didn’t happen. But you could clearly see the No. 14 (flag) draped over the casket in the back.”
The ballpark construction continued after the procession disappeared up Clark Street, and fans went back into the nearby bars and restaurants, or just went home.
Before you know it, opening day will arrive and the Cubs’ attempt to end the seemingly endless title drought will begin anew.
It won’t be the same, of course, but rest assured the spirit of Ernie Banks will always remain a part of Wrigley Field, come rain or shine.
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