I first met Ernie Banks in the summer of 1958. I was in the 10th grade. John Ogden (the scout that would sign me with the Phillies) took a group of us to Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field to see a ballgame between the Cubs and the Pirates. Although I considered myself a basketball player first and foremost, like every other black kid in America at the time… I adored Jackie Robinson and hoped be a major leaguer. Ballplayers like Ernie Banks were continuing on what Jackie had started for us.
Before the game, I remember getting to meet both Ernie and Tony Taylor. Tony was a rookie with the Cubs (and Ernie’s double play partner at second base). Looking back now… that day was ironic because Tony would later become my roommate and closest friend. I learned that day his nickname was “Bingo”, something I called from that that day forward. Ernie was extremely nice and welcoming to the group of us and he allowed me to hold his bat. I remember he used a 30-ounce Louisville Slugger S2 model, which even to me as a 10th grader seemed very light. But he could do some damage with that toothpick.
After the game I learned what separated Ernie Banks from everyone else. There is no doubt while in uniform he was a great player. He could do it all. But, believe it or not… he was even better out of that uniform. I know this because that day, for no reason other than it was how he was, he took the time to thank each of us kids for coming to see him play and he remembered each and every one of our names. It was amazing and genuine, especially for a big league ballplayer. Over the years I learned over and over: what the rest of the world saw on the outside with Ernie Banks was how he really was. The smile. The laughter. The joy. It was all real.
His death is a devastating loss for the City of Chicago and the game of baseball. Yesterday someone asked me how I felt when I read about his passing and the only word that I could come up with is “empty”.
I am blessed to have known him and I feel lucky to be able to call him my friend. Knowing him the way that I do, I won’t at all be surprised if the Cubs finally make it to the World Series this year and win it. Between Bingo & Jack Brickhouse… there will be some serious Chicago Cubs support up in heaven.