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Thursday, March 28, 2019 12:09 am

The legend of Mr. Cub

A new biography of Ernie Banks is a great way to start the season

“They’re all beautiful days Buck. It’s just that some are more beautiful than others.” –Ernie Banks

The true harbinger of spring is not crocuses or swallows returning to Capistrano. It is the sound of the bat on the ball, the green of the grass and the chatter on the field. It is baseball, and another season is upon us. It rings of optimism and eternal belief that this will be the year for our team. Central Illinoisans and Illinois Times readers, regardless of team allegiance, always look forward to the arrival of baseball season. During the year, they travel around the Midwest to support their teams. Whether in Florida or Arizona, it is not unusual to see a familiar Springfield friend at a spring training game.

“They’re all beautiful days Buck. It’s just that some are more beautiful than others.” –Ernie Banks

Baseball is a far different game than during my youth when admission to Wrigley Field was 50 cents, hot dogs were 25 cents, and the greatest days for baseball were weekday doubleheaders that began at noon because two games needed to be played before darkness enveloped the home field of the Cubs that lacked sufficient lights for a night game. Now most games are played at night, including the World Series, occurring in weather more appropriate for football than baseball. Modern-day baseball is driven by statistics encompassing far more than home runs, runs batted in and batting average. Now weighted-on-base average, wins above replacement and defense independent pitching statistics dominate the discussion. The leisurely pace of the game has drawn concern from television networks and team ownership. Mound visits, pitch clocks and reduced time between innings are all under review.

Let’s Play Two: The Legend of Mr. Cub, The Life of Ernie Banks, by Ron Rapoport, harkens back to a different era of baseball when the game was undergoing substantial changes, both on the field and in front offices. Ernie Banks came to baseball in 1953, the first African-American player for the Cubs. Rapoport has written a contemporary biography of a sports legend. This is not a sentimental homage, it is a study of a man who played an important role in breaking the color line in professional baseball and became one of Chicago’s legendary figures. Rapoport’s biography captures in words and reminiscences how different the real Ernie Banks was from the caricature he created for public consumption.

In segregated Dallas, Texas, Ernie Banks attended a high school that white society deemed unworthy of even a name. It was known as Colored School Number 2. Years later it would become an arts magnet high school but even today Banks is considered its most famous graduate. In high school Banks was a wide receiver with enough talent to draw attention from black college coaches. But after he broke his collarbone his mother put an end to football. He began playing softball and his ability brought him to the attention of scouts from Negro League teams. In 1948, Ernie Banks joined the Detroit Colts, a semipro team based in Amarillo, Texas. Soon Banks was off to the Kansas City Monarchs, a stint in the Army and in September 1953, he was signed by the Chicago Cubs.

Let’s Play Two is far more than a regurgitation of statistics and box scores. The numbers are certainly there for Ernie Banks. He was a first-ballot Hall of Famer, a Golden Glove winner, and twice led the major leagues in home runs and runs batted in. His infectious optimism endeared him to Chicago and to baseball fans everywhere. But his personal achievements never transferred to his team. Banks is perhaps the greatest player in the history of baseball to never appear in the World Series.

Interestingly Rapoport devotes part of his biography to efforts from other teams to acquire Banks from the Cubs. The St. Louis Cardinals offered $500,000 for Banks and were rejected. Multiple player deals with Milwaukee and Detroit were discussed. But Ernie stayed in Chicago, in part because the city loved him and Cubs owner Phil Wrigley loved him even more. Wrigley was a benevolent owner. He took Banks under his wing and during his playing career steered a large portion of Banks’ salary into successful investments. Banks retired a wealthy man, but his generous nature led to much of his wealth disappearing during his retirement years.

Outstanding biographies capture more than a portrait of one subject. They capture a wide expanse of both the individual and the times in which he lived. Ron Rapoport's biography of Ernie Banks recounts how Banks was required to stay in a separate hotel from his teammates on road trips to St. Louis and during spring training in Mesa, Arizona. Why did the Cubs organization struggle so much during Banks career? Rapoport attributes the problem to numerous occasions of terrible judgment as well as rotten luck.

Let’s Play Two is a great baseball book, ranking with other outstanding contemporary baseball biographies. It is a great way to start the 2019 baseball season.

Stuart Shiffman saw his first baseball game in 1955 in the right field bleachers of Wrigley Field as the Cubs battled the Brooklyn Dodgers. He is a frequent contributor to Illinois Times.


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