Billy Williams: This is a time not to mourn but celebrate Ernie Banks
On the other end of the line was the man with the sweet swing and the even sweeter disposition: Billy Williams.
"Oh, man," Williams said. "It was hard for me to digest."
Williams was talking about the death of his friend and teammate, Ernie Banks, who passed away Friday night, a few days short of his 84th birthday.
Banks and Williams were teammates with the Cubs from 1959-71. For much of that time, Williams batted third in a Hall of Fame middle of the order that featured Ron Santo fourth and Banks fifth.
If there's anything Billy wants people to know about Ernie it's that the eternal optimism and perpetual sunny disposition were real.
"It wasn't a put-on," Williams said Saturday. "I remember being on the baseball field, and a lot of the players would come up to me and say, 'Is he always like that?' I would say, 'From the moment he wakes up in the morning to when he goes to bed.'
"We were rooming together for 2½ weeks, and he was always like that -- energetic, that very strong personality. This is what he did. This is who he was. He continued that way. It allowed us to know what kind of individual he was and how he enjoyed life.
"So it's a time for us not to mourn, but to celebrate, the life of Ernie Banks."
Banks, known as Mr. Cub, was an annual participant in the Cubs convention, and he loved to bask in the warm and appreciative applause showered on him during the opening ceremonies every year.
But Ernie was not at the convention last week.
"That's what got my antenna up," Williams said, referring to the notion that something might not be quite right with Ernie. "I know he had been part of the convention for many years. When he didn't show up, I figured something might not be right. Matter of fact, I tried to call him from the convention to see if he needed anything. We couldn't get through to him.
"(Friday), I tried to give him a call because he was on my mind. I didn't get to talk to him. So I got the call (Friday) night, I guess about 8:45-9:00, saying that he had passed away."
Banks came to the Cubs in 1953 and broke the color line with the team, six years after Jackie Robinson became the first black major-leaguer in the modern era when he made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Both Banks and Williams, along with other black players in organized ball, endured lingering racism and discrimination for much of their careers.
Banks played for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues before joining the Cubs.
But Banks, Williams and Cubs coach Buck O'Neil (a huge figure in Negro Leagues history) never expressed bitterness over their treatment.
"Ernie never did talk about that," Williams said. "He never did talk in any terms of discrimination. He never did have any conversation when he played in the Negro Leagues. He never did have any conversations about the negativity and the discrimination that he went through at that time.
"He was always an upbeat guy. Even when he was traveling around with Buck O'Neil and the Kansas City Monarchs, he never did talk about the discrimination, the setbacks he had. He always talked about the great times."
At the end of our conversation, I asked Billy what he would remember most about Ernie.
"What I remember is the attitude he had, not only playing the game of baseball but in real life," Williams said. "There was positivity. There was no negativity in his vocabulary. He enjoyed people. He enjoyed the fans who came out to see him play. When he walked around the city, he enjoyed the people. It was great. There was nobody that he would have a bad word to say about. He enjoyed everybody."