Saturday, January 24, 2015

My Boyhood Hero

In 1959, I was a third grader at Saints Cyril and Methodius Catholic School. Some of the boys in my class were trading baseball cards at recess. I didn’t have any, but I talked my mother into buying me a pack at the local grocery. The Chicago Cubs were the favorite team of my closest friends and Cub cards were the most cherished. In addition to the bubble gum packs, one could also purchase cards in a cellophane wrap that displayed the top card in clear view.

I found a pack with a Cub on top, Bobby Adams, third baseman. I didn’t know Adams from Adam, but he was a Cub and that’s all that mattered to me. The next day, I proudly took my Cub card to the playground, only to be told that Adams was no longer a Cub. In ’59, he played only three games and his career was over. Undeterred, I decided I needed to learn more about the Cubs.

Most of my friends had a favorite player, so I needed one too. That weekend my dad was watching a ballgame on our old black and white Philco. Passing through the living room I noticed the game and decided to take the opportunity to choose my favorite player. I was in a hurry to go back outside, so the first Cub I could identify was going to be it. So happened that number 14, Ernie Banks was coming up to bat. I quickly memorized the name and went about my way.
When playground conversation eventually turned to favorite players, I interjected that mine was Ernie Banks. Turns out, he was the favorite of most of my more knowledgeable friends too. Fortunately for me, I picked someone whose ’59 season faired far better than that of Mr. Adams. According to, Ernie played in 155 games in 1959 (not bad for a 154 game schedule), hit over .300, 45 home runs, and 143 runs batted in. And, he was named Most Valuable Player in the National League for the second year in a row, unusual for a team with losing records.

As my interest in baseball grew, Ernie Banks became my boyhood hero, even to the point of dressing up as him for Halloween. My mother found an old maroon softball uniform that she tried to dye white with Rit. It came out a rather dark gray, but close enough. She sewed a Cub insignia on front and a blue number fourteen on the back. Of course, a boy can’t be recognized on Halloween, so I wore a mask like the Lone Ranger. I wish I had kept a picture!

Playing summer baseball in our town league, I tried to imitate Ernie’s batting stance. He appeared to hold the bat vertically to my nine year-old eyes, so I stood at the plate holding my bat much like Mary Poppins held her umbrella. Suffice to say it didn’t work too well for me.

I grew up following Ernie’s career. He played until 1971, the year I turned twenty-one. He was always my favorite, not just for his talent, but mostly because of his always positive attitude which continued to be displayed in his many subsequent public appearances.

Last night, we all learned of Ernie’s death, just eight days short of his eighty-fourth birthday. Today, the tributes, stories and photos abound in all forms of media. Typically, Ernie displays that big smile on nearly every picture. Coming up through the Negro leagues in the early 1950’s, I am sure he faced many difficulties. Just watch the movie 42 on Jackie Robinson’s life if you do not know what it was like. Yet, Ernie was always upbeat, always optimistic, always friendly, and always a gentleman. What a better world this would be if we all had his demeanor.

Imitating Ernie’s batting stance didn’t make me a better ball player, but imitating his outlook on life has made me a better person. He will continue to inspire all the lives he touched. May his soul rest in peace.