Today is January 31. The day, 88 years ago, that Mr. Cub entered God’s green Earth. As such, it’s a cause to celebrate and reverence the Franchise’s greatest icon.
But as the proportion of Cubs fans who actually saw Ernie play on the North Side shrinks, how will Ernie Banks be remembered? In other words, how will those who can’t remember Ernie Banks remember him? And why will they remember him?
I, for one, certainly never saw Ernie Banks trot onto the infield at Clark and Addison. I was not even a glimmer in my parent’s eye when he was stealing the hearts of the North Side. I never saw him “play two”, turn two, or hit a goddamn double.
And yet, to me, Ernie Banks is the Cubs. He was when I fell in love with them in the early 2000s. And he still is today. The iconic smile. The grainy replays of a beautiful swing at a simpler Wrigley. “Let’s Play Two.” Electrifying Wrigley with his rendition of the 7th inning stretch. Ernie Banks was everything you wanted baseball to be. Loving, gracious, supremely talented, and perhaps most significantly, happy to be there.
I never saw him play, but his was the first jersey that hung from my bedroom as a kid. It’s the jersey my mom prayed to (successfully!) in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. When my Grandpa died a few years ago, the greatest treasure I found in his apartment was a hand-written thank you note from Ernie Banks. A thank you note for sending him fan mail! Who does that?! Ernie was simply a different breed. The epitome of class. And everything you want to represent a franchise that you (probably irrationally) allow to hijack so much of your time, energy, and emotional capital. If Cubs baseball was worth Ernie Banks’ attention, why not mine?
Now I know Ernie Banks was just a man. I know he had struggles. I’m sure he had days he didn’t have the passion for the game that shone on his signature smile. But I never saw that Ernie Banks. I never saw his slumps. Or his personal struggles. That is for an earlier generation to remember. I will remember Ernie Banks as Mr. Cub. A lion of the game. On the North Side: baseball incarnate. And the best man you could hope to be. Happy Birthday, 14.