Imrem: Now and forever, Mr. Cub

  • Ernie Banks acknowledges the crowd as he throws out the first pitch at Wrigley Field before a National League divisional playoff game in 2007.

      Ernie Banks acknowledges the crowd as he throws out the first pitch at Wrigley Field before a National League divisional playoff game in 2007. Daniel White File Photo | Staff Photographer

Updated 1/24/2015 8:49 PM

Like myriad Cubs fans, Ernie Banks never surrendered the dream despite decades of unfulfilled hopes and unanswered prayers.

All 19 years of Banks' major-league career were spent striving to reach the postseason with the Cubs.


Then Banks, a Hall of Famer who died Friday at 83, spent the final 43 years of his life as a Cubs ambassador.

Those add up to too many years of waiting for a Cubs World Series title that never arrived.

But Ernie Banks didn't give the impression he was long-suffering. Instead he smiled his infectious smile as if everything would turn out all right, that this year would be the "next year" Cubs fans waited for, that the destination would be worth the journey.

The Cubs haven't gotten there yet, but every season Banks still had encouraging words like, "The Cubs will reign supreme in 2015."

Banks, Mr. Cub for now and forever, became known more for his optimism than for his 512 home runs.

That's because more people alive today remember Banks as a Cubs cheerleader rather than a Cubs slugger.

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One of the few benefits for those of us of a certain age is that we were able to witness Ernie Banks' major-league career from start to finish.

We saw him arrive in Wrigley Field straight from the Negro Leagues in 1953, a mere six years after Jackie Robinson broke the major-league color line. We saw him play shortstop, move to first base and along the way win consecutive National League MVP awards while on losing Cubs teams.

As kids we imitated Banks' batting stance while playing fast pitch with the strike zone chalked on a back wall of Avondale grammar school.

Fingers twitched on the bat handle like it was a flute; the right elbow tilted toward the sky; the feet balanced apart but not too far apart.

Finally, the wrists unleash a powerful swing that pull line drives toward the left-field bleachers.

Well, that was the fantasy anyway for ourselves. In reality, many of us could impersonate Ernie Banks' swing but nobody none of could duplicate the results.

We could only daydream of belonging in a photograph with the greatest players of what still might be baseball's greatest generation of hitters.

Ted Williams and Stan Musial … Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle … Eddie Mathews and Frank Robinson … Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente, Al Kaline and …


Ernie Banks.

So imagine what it was like for me to grow up, become a sports writer and actually stand on Wrigley Field's grass in the company of Mr. Cub.

Don't stop me even if you heard this one before. Please don't. I told it to you before, but I enjoy telling it so much.

The date was May 10, 1967. The News-Gazette in Champaign assigned me to write features on two former Illinois players: Cubs pitcher Ken Holtzman and Giants catcher Tom Haller.

I couldn't find either, but there was Ernie Banks just outside the Cubs' dugout. I approached cautiously and asked whether he knew where I might find Holtzman.

Banks responded, "Kenny Holtzman! Kenny Holtzman! Next Sandy Koufax! Next Sandy Koufax! Kenny Holtzman! Kenny Holtzman!"

Banks strolled away without providing even a hint of where the next Sandy Koufax was.

Yet that first encounter with Ernie Banks made me smile, just as so many others smiled after being around him during the past six decades.

His childlike joy and 512 home runs explain why he's Mr. Cub to every fan who waited with him for the Cubs' next World Series title.

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