Growing up in the Chicago area in the 1960s (yes, I’m that old) I was a rabid Cubs fan. I had posters from the newspaper on my walls, pennants from games I’d attended, and other various and sundry pieces of Cubs kitsch around the room. (I also begged my parents for a Cubs satin jacket that never came; I guess they figured I would need something to tell my psychiatrist someday.)
If you had asked me back then who my favorite player was I would probably have told you Billy Williams, mostly because he hit left-handed and threw right-handed as I did, which made him easy to identify with. But like all of us back then, there was one Cubs player who stood above them all: Hall of Famer Ernie Banks.
We all loved his sunny, “let’s play two” attitude, his fan-friendliness (more on that in a minute) and of course his powerful swing. By the time I became aware of the Cubs in the early 1960s Ernie had already made the switch to first base. I was surprised to discover later that he not only used to play shortstop but was the National League MVP two years in a row at that position on teams that lost more games than they won. Yes, he was that good.
So I was thrilled to get the opportunity to read a new book on his life, “Let’s Play Two: The Legend of Mr. Cub, the Life of Ernie Banks” by venerable Chicago sportswriter Ron Rapoport. Written in an easy, breezy style that makes it tough to put down, the book provides incredible insights into Ernie’s life, from his time growing up as one of 12 children in a poor section of Dallas to his career in the old Negro Leagues to his move to Major League Baseball as the first black player on the Cubs, on through his playing career, and then his post-career life.
This is an amazing accomplishment, because unlike many of today’s athletes, Ernie was not the type to talk about himself or share his innermost thoughts, even with family and close friends. The book describes how he created this happy, upbeat persona and then did all he could to maintain it throughout his life.
It was his armor in a way, but it was also his way of connecting with people. Rapoport says he was genuinely interested in others – perhaps more interested in them than in himself – so any conversation about Ernie and his accomplishments quickly became a discussion about the life of whoever he was speaking with. It’s doubtful he would have had much interest in the narcissistic social media culture had it existed when he was younger.
The basic story
Rapoport paints a vivid picture of Ernie’s life growing up, pieced together from interviews of family and people who knew him then, and a little bit from Ernie himself during one long car ride after 9/11 when he finally shared some details about his life. An older sister in particular fills in a lot of the gaps about what life was like for the family then.
Ernie’s athletic abilities showed up early. He was recruited to play high school football, and despite his slight frame was quite successful – until his mother shut it down when she found out. Eventually he found baseball – his father’s favorite sport – and was brought into the Negro Leagues, playing shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs, who were pretty much the New York Yankees of that league.
While Rapoport doesn’t get too far into the weeds on the social issues at any point in the book, the discussion of Ernie’s experiences with the Monarchs does provide some insight into what life was like for black players back then.
When Jackie Robinson broke the Major League color barrier in 1947 it was viewed as a huge, positive event. But Rapoport also takes the time to describe its ripple effect on the Negro League teams, which had been thriving businesses mostly owned by African-Americans. We rarely think about those consequences, so it’s an interesting perspective to gain.
For the players, of course, it was tremendous. Even though they weren’t paid like today’s players (most regardless of race had to have jobs in the off-season to pay the bills), for the African-American ballplayers it was a definite step up in pay, and of course it was a huge contributor to the social changes still to come.
The book lays out the tribulations and triumph’s of Ernie’s early career with the Cubs, being an All-Star caliber player on a team that typically lost as many as 2/3 of its games. It also describes his close relationship with Cubs owner Phillip K. Wrigley, who gave Ernie business advice throughout his career, and who was an early innovator in baseball (for better or worse).
Ever the optimist, Ernie continued to believe the Cubs would get better each year despite all evidence to the contrary.
Until the mid-to-late 60s, that is. Suddenly the Cubs had accumulated a wealth of talent, including the pitching the ballclub never seemed to have, and suddenly they were contenders. By this point Ernie was heading toward the end of his career, but still contributing.
One thing I hadn’t been aware of was manager Leo Durocher’s animosity toward Ernie. According to the book, it was because Durocher craved the spotlight and felt Ernie stood in his way toward claiming it in Chicago. Durocher tried to retire or push him out several times, but Ernie persevered and kept winning the job back. The psychological damage was done, however.
One thing that kept Ernie hanging on was the possibility of playing in the World Series, the one accomplishment that had eluded him in his career. It looked like he would finally achieve that goal in 1969 until the Great Collapse, when the New York Mets overcame a huge deficit and won the pennant.
That’s an area where Rapoport kind of veers off the main path of telling the life story of Ernie Banks. He spends several chapters on that fateful season of 1969, discussing what happened with all the players.
At one point as I was reading I reminded myself it was supposed to be about Ernie, because he had all but disappeared from the book at that point. Eventually, it does come back to him and the effect it had on him.
The book then describes Ernie’s post-baseball life, including some rather sad details, his death in 2015, and the subsequent battles over his estate. By the end, while I can’t say I felt like I knew him well, I did feel like I knew him as well as anyone could given Ernie’s reluctance to talk about himself. For that I thank Rapoport immensely.
As someone who lived through much of the era being discussed, I was also able to match what was being described to my own experiences. Perhaps one of the most interesting pieces was the race issue.
In my neighborhood, we based our sports idols on team and performance, not race. We didn’t care if a Cubs player was white, black, Latino, Asian, Christian, Jewish, or any of the other ways we all tend to divide ourselves.
We would have been thrilled if any Cubs player had moved in next door. I honestly don’t remember thinking Ernie or any of the other African-American players were different – other than they were famous ballplayers and we were not.
My own personal contact with Ernie was limited but memorable. My mom heard one day that he would be at the local Kmart in Wheeling signing autographs, so she had my brother Rich and me grab a couple of the cleanest baseballs we owned and she took us there.
As I recall, Ernie was as nice and accommodating as any human being could be. He smiled, he spoke with us a little, and he signed the dirty old balls we’d brought with us with a ballpoint pen.
One of my few regrets in life is that a couple of years later, in a scene right out of The Sandlot, we needed a ball to play with so I grabbed the one Ernie had signed. I was aware of what I was doing, it wasn’t an accident; having a signed baseball just didn’t mean that much to me then. Wish I had it now.
I also remember going to Wrigley Field to see Ernie play in-person, and watching him on TV. Every time he stepped to the plate you had the feeling something monumental would happen. It did 512 times.
Reading this book brought back all those memories. It really was a different era, when baseball (and professional sports generally) was a business, but not the Big Business it is today. I still remember hot dogs for 35 cents and buying the mandatory program and Cubs pencil (15 cents for the program, the pencil might have been free) so I could keep the book during the game.
More importantly, Ernie Banks was a one-of-a-kind player. He had prodigious talent, yet he seemed so approachable. This book brings out all of it.
If you were a Cubs fan back then like me, you’ll definitely want to read this book. If you are a latter-day Cubs fan, you really should read this book to understand the history of the club and why there is a statue to this man outside the Friendly Confines.
But even if you’re not particularly a Cubs fan, if you enjoy baseball I think you’ll enjoy reading it. The book will transport you to another time and place, and will likely bring a smile to your face as you read it. You might even find yourself saying “Let’s play two” the next time you’re at the ballpark.