I never got to see Ernie Banks play. Less than three weeks before I was born, Banks became the ninth Major League Baseball player and first who logged significant time at shortstop to hit his five-hundredth career home run. He retired as a player after the following season, announcing it in December, 1971. There was no march of adulation through the league, no expectation that other teams would pay their respects in pre-game ceremonies or groove him easy pitches in the All-Star Game. At the age of forty, he simply decided he’d spent enough time with a mitt on his hand. A career-long Cub, he stayed with the team as a coach for a couple more seasons (he’d been a player-coach since the late-sixties) before working for a time in the minor leagues and front office. He was voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, on his first ballot.
I was probably watching, or at least listening, when the Chicago Cub retired Banks’s number during the 1982 season. By then, I was a devoted Cubs fan, catching every game, even sometimes as one of those people “scoring along at home” that announcers like to refer to when detailing the intricacies of a defensive play. Banks was the first and for several years only Cub to have his number retired, a remarkable feat for a franchise that had been in operation for over a century at that point. While I never saw Banks take his position, his spirit was a constant presence on that team, tying the players to the storied, tragicomic past. His number, 14, flapped on a flag on one of the foul poles, and everything about the ball club that held fast to an idyllic history — the ancient ballpark, the classic uniforms, the necessity to play all of their home games under the light of the summer sun — felt like a lingering echo of Bank’s exuberant suggestion “Let’s play two!” The impetus was to make the thrill of the sport last as long as possible.
Playing baseball for a living was a privilege, and Banks embraced the joy. When the Cubs made the post-season for the first time in nearly forty years, in the 1984 season, they invited Banks to suit up and sit in the dugout for the opening game at Wrigley Field. The entirety of his playing career resided in the span when the hapless Cubs couldn’t find their way to the top of the standings, including the 1969 season when the team collapsed to allow the surging New York Mets to pass them on their miraculous run to the World Series. When the camera caught him, sitting amidst Ryne Sandberg, Rick Sutcliffe, and other stars of that 1984 squad, Banks was imbued with a childlike happiness, a sense of intense but relaxed pleasure in the moment. Why wouldn’t he feel comfortable? It was the same uniform he’d worn in his playing days, the same dugout, the same massive, manual scoreboard tallying up the runs, and the same ivy on the outfield walls. Surely it was as if he’d never left. That’s absolutely how it felt to me as I watched him there.
They don’t really put double headers on the schedule intentionally any more, leaving that for those instances when it’s necessary to squeeze in a make-up game. But let’s hope sometime, somehow this coming summer, they play two in Wrigley Field. They owe that to Mr. Cub.