Though Jackie Robinson deservedly gets all of the credit for breaking baseball's insidious color barrier, Ernie Banks did the same thing for his fans and the city of Chicago.
Baseball and Chicago lost one of its greatest ambassadors recently when Hall of Famer Ernie Banks died at the age of 83.
I lost my first sports hero as a child growing up 90 minutes from Chicago and someone who first shaped how I looked at race relations. Even though he retired from baseball in 1971, I wasn't surprised with the outpouring of kind words about Banks on top of the praise for his career accomplishments -- he hit more than 500 home runs and redefined how a shortstop could be a power hitter.
Ernie was the first black man to play for my Chicago Cubs in 1953 after they signed him out of the Negro Leagues. That's six years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, but Banks also had a profound affect in Chicago.
Before there was Walter Payton and Michael Jordan in Chicago as icons, there was Ernie Banks, and you couldn't get enough of him. His smile and enthusiasm and love of life and of people was something I had never experienced. Period.
Home baseball games at Wrigley Field had been televised in Chicago, a race occurrence when owners didn't want to hurt the gate. The Cubs used TV to market Wrigley Field and the team and when Banks came to the Cubs, a legion of fans got to watch him on a regular basis and see his skill that led him to win National League MVP awards and All-Star berths.
I didn't get a chance to watch Ernie play until late in his career because I was born in 1962 and didn't start watching baseball on a regular basis until 1969.
I was at my aunt's in 1970 watching the Cubs game with my family when Ernie hit his 500th home run and WGN announcer Jack Brickhouse gave his patented "Hey! Hey!" to celebrate the feat.
As a kid, like many of my friends, I'd go in the backyard and emulate the way Ernie held his bat back and up high. Ernie could do no wrong with me.
As a young boy growing up in a small Midwestern manufacturing community with about 20,000 people, I didn't think much about race relations. There were very few black people in town. My only experience was when my dad, who owned a plumbing company, would be called to go fix a leaky pipe or some other problem on a weekend and I'd tag along.
When I was growing up, I never heard my dad say a critical word about blacks. He even told me when he was growing up in the 1940s, a black kid played his traveling softball team and talked how teams in other towns didn't appreciate it when he came to play.
My first experience in meeting another black child was when I went to Chicago in 1967 when I was 5 years old and I had to get my tonsils removed. The other kid was a patient in my room, and I just thought of it as a neat experience to meet someone different from me.
I've always been fascinated by people of different races, cultures and religions. Before I could read, I'd flip through The World Book Encyclopedias in my room just to look at the pictures of all those countries and fascinating people.
A globe to me was a sense of wonder. I feel that I have an inkling what Marco Polo must have felt like.
It was in 1971 (I was 9) when my life was shaped for what I wanted to do when I grew up. I was fascinated by politics from my dad when he ran for county office and lost by three votes in 1970, only to run again in 1972 and get elected to the La Salle County Board. I got to meet governor and other elected officials you saw on TV.
In 1971, I was moved by my fourth grade class on geography that had the authors take you on a tour of people of the world and how they lived. It made me excited to see the differences in people and yet how similar we are with the same hopes and dreams and sense of family.
I'd sit in my room and shut my eyes and spin the globe and touch it to see what country my finger landed on. I'd then go to my encyclopedia, which I could now read, and absorb all I could about the people who lived there.
It was at that age I ventured out of my immediate neighborhood and got to know other kids my age and play baseball with them in their back yards. For a boy that age and that era, there was nothing like spending your summers playing baseball six hours a day.
My traveling to other neighborhoods brought me in contact with not only the boys my age, but also their fathers. One experience came as a shock to my system when the dad of one my friends for some reason -- I can't recall why today -- started criticizing blacks in language I had never heard before.
I thought he must have been joking, but I quickly learned he wasn't. How could this man hate a whole group of people and those he hasn't even met? It wasn't a pleasant experience, but it was eye-opening.
It wasn't my last interaction with him, because I would sometimes go to my buddy's house to watch the Cubs play and he would be there. He was an intimidating man and you never felt comfortable striking up a conversation with him.
I thought I'd just need to stick to talking about baseball to stay on safe ground. There's nothing safer than the Cubs, since he was a big fan. I was shocked when he said Ernie Banks was his favorite Cub and how he talked about him in such glowing terms, like he was a member of the family.
He wasn't a person who had anything nice to say about anybody, especially minorities. But how could he be so critical of a group, yet adore Ernie Banks?
It's an experience that has always stuck with me -- how people who expressed racist thoughts could act toward an individual, especially in person.
I grew up in the Midwest and not the Deep South,in the 1960s. But my experiences in the Midwest always gave me hope that people could summon their better angels when it mattered most -- when they came in contact with people and got to know them.
There's plenty of members of my generation who became more tolerant as they aged, but my hope is that their sons aren't always like their fathers. That was the case with my buddy, despite the racist rants of his dad.
We still have problems with race relations today, as evidenced by what's happened in Missouri and New York City and how people have reacted to it. But I still hold out hope in the younger generation when I go on a college campus or go to friend's homes and see how young people of different races are the closest of friends. You didn't see that when I was in college in the early 1980s.
A friend kidded me when I brought up how I believe in the Star Trek vision of people of different races and cultures coming together. It very well could take another 100 years, but we've come so far over the last 50 years, when there was segregation and lack of voting rights, that I have hope.
May Ernie "Mr. Cub" Banks have a most restful sleep. This fan will surely miss him.
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