On balance, I like Pres. Obama. But he has one glaring flaw: He’s a White Sox fan. Nevertheless, in the spirit of bipartisanship, today Pres. Obama reached across the aisle – by which, of course, I mean Madison Street, which splits Chicago between north and south – and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Mr. Cub himself, 82-year-old Hall of Famer Ernest “Ernie” Banks. MLB Blogger Carrie Muskat has the details:
Obama relayed the story of Banks’ enthusiastic pep talk to his Cubs teammates: “Let’s play two.”
“That’s Mr. Cub — the man who came up through the Negro Leagues, making $7 a day, and became the first black player to suit up for the Cubs and one of the greatest hitters of all time,” Obama said. “In the process, Ernie became known as much for his 512 home runs as for his cheer and his optimism, and his eternal faith that someday the Cubs would go all the way.”
“And that’s serious belief,” Obama said. “That is something that even a White Sox fan like me can respect. He is just a wonderful man and a great icon of my hometown.”
Allow me to elaborate. Banks, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977, was a right-handed hitter who played shortstop and first base for the Cubs from 1953 to 1971, the entirety of his Major League career. Over that 19-year span, the Cubs never made the playoffs, but Ernie was one of the greatest players of his era:
Banks was chosen to play in the All-Star Game during 11 seasons, was twice voted the National League Most Valuable Player and knocked 512 home runs during his 19-year career with the Cubs. He twice led the National League in home runs and RBIs and picked up a Gold Glove Award in 1960.
With 2,583 career hits, he’s second on the list of Cubs all-time hit leaders, ahead of Billie Williams, Ryne Sandberg, Mark Grace and Ron Santo. In 1982, his No. 14 became the first number retired by the Cubs organization, one of only six retired numbers (including Jackie Robinson’s No. 42, retired by all Major League clubs) in the team’s 143 year history.
But, as impressive as his number were, Ernie Banks was and always will be so much more than statistics. I’m not sure there’s any figure in Chicago sports who came to embody a team as much as Ernie Banks, with the possible exception of The Coach, Mike Ditka. But Ernie’s significance as the living, breathing embodiment of the Cubs eclipses Mike Ditka’s status as the Bears incarnate in one important aspect. Banks was the guy whom Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley turned to when Wrigley begrudgingly agreed to integrate the team seven years after Jackie Robinson first broke Major League Baseball’s color line.
In his induction speech at Cooperstown in 1977, Banks heaped praise on Wrigley, calling him “one of the finest gentlemen I ever met in my life.” Yet, Banks knew all too well the segregated world that rich, white men like P.K. Wrigley had built on the backs of men and women of color. Which is why the Presidential Medal of Freedom is particularly meaningful to him, as he recently explained to Chicago’s ABC7 News:
“I cherish the honor that Barack is bestowing in me. I am so excited, I am thinking about my mom and dad and I wish they could be here with me,” said Banks.
“It’s an award that talks about Jackie Robinson’s life, that if you haven’t done anything with your life unless you have given to others,” said Banks.
Banks says will be passing the symbolic torch when he gifts the president with an official Jackie Robinson bat.
Mr. Sunshine, as he is affectionately called, said his journey leading up to this prestigious ceremony hasn’t been all bright in the outfield, and he didn’t always receive praise at home plate.
“I came through segregation. . . . Being in the Negro Leagues, small buses, small towns when they couldn’t get gas at the pumps or service at restaurants,” said Banks.
So Tuesday night, on the eve of the ceremony, this 83-year-old reflects on the significance of a Chicagoan and the first African-American president honoring him with this prestigious award.
“It’s happening to me, and it’s really powerful,’ said Banks.
Ernie Banks is more than the symbol of a professional sports organization. He’s a living piece of American history. If there is a god, he/she/it should see fit to make one more of Ernie’s dreams come true: A World Series Title for the Chicago National League Ball Club. That might not exercise all of our demons, but it would be a fitting end to a great American life.
[Photo Credit: Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat)]