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updated: 1/31/2011 8:46 PM

Even at 80, there's still nobody like Ernie Banks

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  • Mr. Cub Ernie Banks hams it up during his introduction on first day of a Cubs convention.

       Mr. Cub Ernie Banks hams it up during his introduction on first day of a Cubs convention.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • MVP Ernie Banks, 1958

      MVP Ernie Banks, 1958

  • Cubs legend Ernie Banks gestures after tossing the ceremonial first pitch before the Cubs' home opener in 2003.

       Cubs legend Ernie Banks gestures after tossing the ceremonial first pitch before the Cubs' home opener in 2003.
    Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

 
 

Ernie Banks, forever young in the hearts and minds of longtime Cubs fans, turned 80 years old Monday.

Normally this would be depressing. Like, when Wayne Gretzky, another Great One, turned 50 recently and mortality merged with reality.

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Instead, Banks' milestone is uplifting. Mr. Cub's positivity is as ageless as the statue of him outside Wrigley Field.

No, Ernie Banks' bat-snappy wrists aren't snappy anymore. Never sleek in the rump, a bit more padding resides back there now. Never much of a baserunner, he walks gingerly into another decade.

But Banks' electric smile, engaging personality and "Let's play two!" attitude still light up any room he enters.

The first time I encountered Ernie Banks in person was May 10, 1967, on the field near the Cubs' dugout in Wrigley Field.

I had just graduated from the University of Illinois, found work with the News-Gazette in Champaign and been assigned to a Cubs-Giants game.

It was a natural for the paper because Cubs pitcher Ken Holtzman and Giants catcher Tom Haller were former Illini baseball players.

This was all new to me. Then, sort of like now, I had no idea what I was doing.

Younger and bolder, though, I went up to Ernie Banks -- as huge a figure in Chicago as there was this side of the original Mayor Daley -- and asked him about Holtzman.

Banks' eyes widened distantly as he chirped, "Kenny Holtzman, Kenny Holtzman! Next Sandy Koufax, next Sandy Koufax! Kenny Holtzman! Next Sandy Koufax!"

Then he turned around and walked away.

I learned nothing, other than Kenny Holtzman was supposed to be the next Sandy Koufax. But you know what? I felt better after landing on Planet Ernie.

Today's players -- some or many or most or even all-- could learn a thing or two from Banks about benefiting from a sunny disposition.

Even if the current guys fill your ears or notepads, too often you walk away with an empty feeling.

I like Frank Thomas, but have you ever heard anyone refer to him as Mr. White Sox? Will they decades after he's inducted into the Hall of Fame? Will he be celebrated on his 80th birthday?

Maybe it's simply the camera-phone era compared to Banks' rotary-phone era. Maybe it's the modern media compared to the prior press.

Regardless, will Albert Pujols ever be Mr. Cardinal even after Stan Musial dies? Derek Jeter might take his place among Yankee greats, but will anyone ever will pen a lyric about him similar to, "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio … "?

Imagine if a player walked through a clubhouse today saying, "Let's play two!" Teammates would throw wet towels at him and the reporters would portray him as a quack.

Ernie Banks was the right man with the right mood at the right time in baseball history.

Listen, I don't know what Banks was like when nobody was looking. Nor do I know whether the public Ernie was an act.

All I know is that a couple of years ago I saw Banks play ambassador to a group of Cubs fans about 10 feet from where I approached him 44 years ago.

After Banks fulfilled his commitment to these people -- many who weren't alive when he played -- their smiles indicated that they felt better for the experience.

Just as I did on May 10, 1967.

Some things never change, thank goodness.

mimrem@dailyherald.com

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