By John Russell Ghrist
What’s left that can be said about “Mr. Cub,” Ernie Banks, who unexpectedly passed away Jan. 23 at age 83, a week before his next birthday? The big stations, networks and news services have gleaned their files and have interviewed just about everyone connected with the sport that has a Banks story to tell. But there is much more to say about the Chicago Cubs’ most well-known and liked ballplayer. Ernie was the epitome of the sport to the young average fan, and he made quite an impression on us sandlot players.
I grew up in Hammond, Indiana, where we had our own Sheffield Avenue on the north side of the city. Balls hit out of Wrigley Field or our vacant-lot park both landed on the street with the same name for home runs. The kids marveled at the way Banks constantly twisted his wrists to belt those long drives. We would stand in the sun and watch our shadows while imitating the same motions. If someone was lucky enough to attend a Cubs game, they became the envy of the neighborhood. One year, the patrol boys at our school attended a Cubs double-header. By the third inning in the second game, Banks had already hit three home runs. We wanted to see another one, but the bus was leaving and took us back home much too early for us real baseball fans.
As a youngster, my grandfather, Russell White, introduced me to our national pastime by taking me to one Cubs and one White Sox game each year. He was mostly a Sox fan, but often watched Jack Brickhouse on TV doing the Cubs’ games, while having a radio nearby where he could also hear Bob Elson announcing the Sox contests. The constant loud noise of two ball games in the room greatly annoyed his wife, Ruby, but that’s how much Russell liked baseball. I was named after him. He was really only a friend of our family, and we kids just called him “grandpa,” but he more than adequately filled the role, and bought me my first bat, ball and glove.
The first time I met Ernie Banks was at a Cubs game. Mr. Cub routinely signed autographs, and Russell and I were fortunate enough to get close enough to the field. I stuck out my scorecard when he went by to snag Ernie’s signature. Years later, it was much easier to meet Ernie. As a member of the news media, we were often huddled into a backstage area prior to a Cubs Caravan to get interviews before the players met the public. Banks was always eager to talk with the press. One day, he was seated by himself at an event in Gary, Indiana, munching on a salad. It is one thing talking to a dull politician, but something else to actually go face-to-face with someone who one really admires. “Mr. Banks, I do a local radio show … can I talk with you for a moment?” “Sure, sonny,” the bigger-than-life Banks replied. “Have a seat, turn on your tape recorder, and let’s chat. What’s your name?”
For about 10 minutes, I had Ernie all to myself. Ryne Sandberg talked little to the press back then, and pitcher Lee Smith joked around by playfully trying to wrap my mike cord around my neck. Ernie actually wanted to talk baseball with me, and we had a great conversation. I asked him about the day they hoisted his jersey up on the left-field foul pole. Banks unselfishly replied that he “hoped that every major league player could get that opportunity someday.” I got nosy and asked him if he could have played a few more years if there was a designated hitter rule in the National League. He plainly stated that he couldn’t. We already knew that it’s the knees that usually go first, which ends a player’s career. The hall of famer’s time was extended in the show when he moved from shortstop to first base and continued to play equally well, setting even more records. Our paths crossed at similar events years later.
I should add that meeting sweet-swinging Billy Williams, Banks’ one-time roommate, at a Little League banquet one year was also a thrill. That year, the South Holland Little League gave out transistor radios to us three public address announcers and Larry Kelderhouse, Mike Gorniak and I all got one. Williams autographed the boxes they came in. Years later, I would see Billy again at a WDCB Gala Dance and recalled his friendliness. The media interviewed Williams about Banks’ untimely passing. Everyone is sad about it.
There was a renewed interest in the Chicago Cubs in the city when the team’s Class A farm club became the Rockford Cubbies. Somehow, I won a contest to have my photo taken with Mr. Cub on the field. Prior to the day, I had put all of my previous interviews with Ernie on a cassette to give to him at Marinelli Field. The announcer summoned us to stand along the third baseline. Banks briefly shook my hand.
The picture was taken, and Ernie quickly disappeared into the dugout to meet with his friends. I did not expect Banks to remember me, but was disappointed that I did not get a chance to speak with him a little more. I then boldly followed him into the dugout and tapped him on the shoulder, and quickly mumbled something about the tape. “I’ll have that,” Banks announced as his big hand took it while he continued his conversation with the players. I stood on the field for a few more moments, just saying to myself “Ernie?” and was then ushered off to the stands by the PA announcer, who was eager to get the game started. A few days later, the 4-inch-by-6-inch snapshot arrived in the mail. It was not a great picture, but increasing the size to 8 inches by 10 inches has added more clarity and meaning to the day. Years later, I had again met my boyhood hero. The photo is in my bookcase, and I walk by it every day and am thankful for it.
Over time, the many accomplishments of Ernie Banks have been written about and well-documented. Former Chicago WGN-TV news anchor Jack Taylor, who does a “2-minute” commentary on my Midwest Ballroom radio show (which airs both on WDCB and WTPB LP in Rockford), recently did a piece on the time that Banks and his wife came to Jack’s house for dinner.
After a few drinks, Banks’ then wife was complaining about having to deal with the constant popularity of Mr. Cub. When I aired that program, I thought to myself: “Well, what did she expect? For better or for worse, she was married to the greatest Cub of all, and that was not going to change.” Taylor also had the privilege of being a part of WGN’s nightly 10 p.m. TV news team, where Banks often did the sports report on a rotating basis.
We have always heard that there are times when professional athletes or celeb types do not want to give out autographs, and we have to respect their privacy. It comes with being famous that signature hounds never seem to go away. But at the same time, if they were not famous, no one would want their attention.
To us real baseball fans, Ernie Banks represented a time when players did play for the love of the game and not the money. He was the best ambassador for baseball, and we will all certainly miss him.
John Russell Ghrist is a Rockford resident.
Posted Jan. 29, 2015