Wisdom wherever you find it
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It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame. Let’s play two. Ernest Banks
Ernie Banks was a pioneer and maybe the best ballplayer the Chicago Cubs ever had on their roster. He was the whole package for the team – he could hit, field, play different positions (but none better than shortstop), teach and motivate, and, in the end, sum up in a few words a love of the game and the team known ruefully as the doormat of the National League. There are different versions of his most famous motto, but this one seems most attested. Ernie claims he said it off the cuff on a day that Wrigley Field was 105 degrees at game time, and a sportswriter who overheard him immortalized it.
This isn’t going to be another one of those baseball-as-metaphor-for-life columns. Nor will it be a defense of baseball as a better sport than any other. Both of those things did not make it into the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence only because baseball was not invented at the time.
No, this is about loving who you are and what you do. Read up on Ernie a little bit and you will discover many surprising things about him. His Texas childhood was hardscrabble, and his athletic ability developed in spite of the fact that he was a second-class citizen of society. He was a lifelong Republican. He declined to be associated publicly with civil rights causes, despite the modest urgings of people like Jackie Robinson. He was married many times and did not treat his ex-wives particularly generously until he was forced to do so by the courts. His popularity was such in Chicago that he almost never picked up a check for a meal – and I know that close to firsthand because my father used to play handball with him at the YMCA and told me.
Ernie was a creature of the baseball park. In early February, when pitchers and catchers reported for spring training, Ernie Banks would come alive as the source of optimism and promise that preceded even the crocus blossoms that peek through the snow. He became known as “Mr. Sunshine” at a time when White people could call Black people that without acknowledging how patronizing it was. But he was also known (and still is) as “Mr. Cub,” a title that even some White Sox fans consider a very high compliment.
Ernie claimed he never had a job; he spent his life doing what he loved to do. Some people – including us North Side Liberals – might have wished for him to use his fame to rock the boat a little, but he loved baseball more than the fame it brought him. He may have been one of the few people to have had a celebratory attitude toward Phil Wrigley, then owner of the Cubs, because he disliked change as much as Ernie did. Ernie Banks found the sweet spot in his life and never let you forget that you could, too.
Please don’t conclude from his approach to life that he was uninterested in improving it when he could. He was a generous mentor to others, someone who understood that a team could only succeed if every member of the team could succeed. He was not apolitical (he even ran for office once, but he was a Black Republican in Mayor Daley’s Chicago; Daley was a White Sox fan). Ernie simply believed the world could be made better when a person put his talents to joyful service of a sacred cause. In his case, it was baseball.
I met Ernie Banks late in his career with the Cubs – he was an “ambassador” by then, representing the team at events like the annual Emil Verban Memorial Society lunch for expatriate Cub fans in Washington, DC. I had been invited to deliver the benediction, and in it, I advocated for Ron Santo, my childhood favorite, to be admitted to the Hall of Fame. “Though I am a nice Jewish boy and a rabbi to boot,” I said, “I do believe in the Santo Cause.” Ernie fell off his chair, then leapt up and grabbed my hand with both of his. (First Lady Hilary Clinton just smiled politely.)
It wasn’t unusual to find Ernie standing outside of Wrigley Field on game day signing autographs for fans and greeting them with “Welcome to the friendly confines of Wrigley Field.” It was the happy place for him, and he wanted you to benefit as well. That’s a great way to live life, even if life doesn’t always go the way you want it to. Love isn’t easy. Families dissolve. Haters gonna hate. The Cubs will break your heart.
Let’s play two.
Rabbi Jack Moline spent 40 years in the pulpit, another 7 at an interfaith non-profit, and all of them gleaning wisdom where he found it.