“My whole life, I’ve just wanted to make people better.” – Ernie Banks, 2013, after being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom
Yesterday, back in Chicago, they paid tribute to the life of Mr. Ernie Banks. Since he died of a heart attack on Friday January 23rd, I’ve struggled to explain to myself and to others why his passing has saddened me in the way that it has. It’s true, I’ve been a fan of the Chicago Cubs since my first memories, but I was born the year before Mr. Banks retired, which is to say that I have no memory of watching him play.
His nickname was “Mr. Cub.” He was the first African-American to play for the Cubs when his major league career began in 1953. He was the first National League player to win back-to-back Most Valuable Player awards, which he earned in 1958 and 1959. He was the first shortstop to hit 40 home runs in a season (1955) and then he repeated the feat four years in a row from 1957-1960. He won a gold glove as a shortstop, and later in his career he moved to first base where he continued to play well and where he finished hitting his grand total 512 home runs. He was inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame in 1977, the first year he was eligible. All that is to say, Mr. Banks was a fantastic ball player, one of the best of his time.
Over the past week I followed the hashtags on twitter and read the comments on the Cubs blogs I read, like Brett’s and Al’s. I read tributes from people who knew him or who were at least in a circle closer to him. Doug Glanville, a former Cubs outfielder, writes about what Banks taught him. Michael Wilbon writes about growing up on the South Side of Chicago and respecting Mr. Banks. Geoff Lotus, a writer at Forbes, writes about painting the Banks home and having Mr. Banks make him some tea and talk for hours about baseball. “For two days some 25 years ago,” Lotus writes, “this man made feel I was the most special person he ever met.”
In reading others’ tributes, I sought to better understand, or at least name, the lessons that Mr. Banks taught me. Mr. Banks was a Hall of Fame player who played on many teams who were not good. He never played in the playoffs. He never even saw his team even participate in the World Series. Yet, he was known as an optimist. As Joe Posnanski writes:
It’s a beautiful day
Let’s play two
There’s Ernie Banks [sic] perfect little poem, baseball’s perfect little poem, with all the hope and joy and optimism that the game provide when it’s just right
It’s true, Mr. Banks taught me hope and joy and optimism. They say that’s how he played – with joy, and from what I can tell, that’s also how he lived. And this is the thing that I haven’t been able to name: he helped people find their own joy. As I looked at the photos friends and others shared online or in articles, you can see his gentle and generous smile; however, if you look at the other people in those photos, you’ll see joy in their faces too.
My link to baseball is wrapped up in memories of Opening Day with my dad. It’s linked to afternoons sitting on a couch while my grandma sat next to me in her chair as we ate sandwiches, drank pops, and watched the day game on WGN. It’s connected to the sound of my grandfather working in the garage while a baseball game played on his transistor radio. It’s a part of my life-long friendships with the guys closest to me. For as long as I can remember, I can hear the voice of Jack Brickhouse announcing the 500th home run Mr. Banks hit in the big leagues. Seeing that replay brings me back to the people I love and to the moments we shared, because it was played over and over again as I grew up watching the Cubs play.
I met Mr. Banks one time in my life. I was a young boy, and my mom took her three children to a car dealership to meet him. He was meeting fans and taking pictures with them. I wish I could remember what he said or how his hand felt when he shook mine and when he put his arm around me. Though I don’t remember the specifics, I do remember what I felt inside – noticed, appreciated, connected, loved.
Of course, every day my parents, friends, family, and wife are the ones who teach me love and compassion and loyalty and kindness and much more. Yet, Mr. Banks was an example too. He showed that it was possible to be successful and kind, talented and gentle, focused and joyful.
He seemed to live the way that the best teachers do: he was comfortable with who he was as a person, which, in turn, helped others feel safe so that they could go about doing the work of trying to be their best selves too. He was a public reminder of the best people I know – those who care enough to create space for others to be who they are and, importantly, who they aspire to be.
He reminds me of who I want to be for the people who enter my slice of the world. He showed me that it’s possible.