I can picture the man upstairs whispering to Ernie Banks in the night.
“Your work is done, Ernie,” He says. “Time to come home.”
“What? Now? But the Cubs haven’t won the World Series,” Ernie says. “I’ve lived for the Cubbies almost my whole life. How can my work be done?”
“The World Series wasn’t your job, Ernie,” He says. “Your job was giving everyone hope, carrying the flame in the dark times, smiling in the face of hopelessness. The Cubs will be OK now. I promise.”
“I am tired,” Ernie says. “But I don’t want to miss the good times.”
“Ha,” God chortles. “You won’t miss anything. There’s PLENTY of Cubs fan up here remember. I’ve heard about 1969 more times than I can count. We’ve reserved the Heavendome to watch the World Series when the Cubs make it — seats a couple million — and we’ve got a front row seat reserved for you. Right next to a guy you might know, Ron Santo.”
Ernie smiles as only Ernie could smile, even in the face of death. “That does sound very nice,” he says.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that there might not be a Chicago Cubs these days without Ernie Banks. They easily could be in Fort Lauderdale, or at least Schaumburg. The sports world is littered with teams whose fan bases’ lost interest during prolonged losing, stopped buying tickets, refused to upgrade facilities and eventually let their teams float out of town on a sea of apathy.
Not the Cubs. They not only survived through last place finish after last place finish, they flourished, becoming more entrenched at Clark and Addison even as Wrigley Field started to crumble around them. Why? Because like every good fairy tale, they had a hero. They had someone who charged forward in the face of overwhelming adversity, who smiled in the face of doom, who offered the rarest of gifts to the downtrodden: hope. That someone was Ernie Banks.
The Cubs were one of the last teams to employ an African American player. Banks didn’t just break the color barrier in Chicago, he obliterated it. When he arrived from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues in 1953, he appeared to be really glad to be in Chicago, and he never lost that wide-eyed joy of being paid to play baseball. Fans got that on a basic level that ran deeper than skin color, and they embraced Banks for it.
Nobody likes the person who makes it big and suddenly thinks he’s much better than the people he left behind. Even after the MVPs, Banks played with the enthusiasm of a rookie and spoke to fans like they were his next door neighbor.
Some have argued that Banks’ “Let’s play two” or “The Cubs will heavenly in sixty-seven-ly” phrases, the ever-present smile, the unwillingness to express frustration — even with civil rights issues — was a well-calculated act, even to the point of being Uncle Tom-ish.
Ernie Banks was a Cubs pioneer. Banks made his debut in 1953 and was the team's first African-American player. pic.twitter.com/67v2GfqQeh
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 24, 2015
I like to think that Banks looked around at the suffering in the world, acknowledged that the Cubs’ plight was a metaphor for people’s everyday frustration and DECIDED to be a beacon of hope. Like any good beacon he knew that there are no days off. The one day that the beacon goes dark is the one day that the ship crashes on the rocks.
So he didn’t use his platform to debate social injustice. So what? Do you really want to fault a man for showing us how to smile in the face of life’s challenges EVERY DAY, for DECADES. Try being Ernie Banks at your job this week. Stay upbeat, look for the good in things, keep smiling even when life is getting you down. I bet you — I bet I — can’t make it until lunch.
Banks kept it up every day in the face of repeated seventh-place finishes. Even 1969’s debacle didn’t wipe the smile from his face. Or retiring after 19 years in the big leagues and NEVER making the playoffs. And it rubbed off.
Fans stayed interested in the team. Cubs fans developed a stubborn resilience, a reputation for having a good time even when the ship was sinking … again. “Wait till next year” was said with real belief that things will get better.
We didn’t become apathetic, didn’t tune out. We did the opposite. We became more committed to seeing this thing through, 1969 or 2003 be damned. In large part we have Ernie Banks to thank for that hope. He kept the fire burning through the darkest time and shared that spark with all of us.
“Now’s the time Ernie,” God says.
“Let’s do it,” Ernie says. “If this is the way, I’m on board.”
“Just one more thing, Ernie,” God says. “I’ve been working on something. How about this? ‘In 1-5 the Cubs are alive, thanks to Banks.'”
“Hey that’s great,” Ernie beams. “That’s great.”
You can reach me at Patrick@CubsFanTherapy.com.