Rozner: There was more to Mr. Cub than meets the eye
In the spring of 2008, I received among the most surprising phone calls of my life.
"Barry Rozner!" yelled the voice on the other end. "This is Ernie Banks! It's a wonderful day, isn't it?"
If I hadn't known it was him, I would have guessed I was getting punked, but there was no mistaking the enthusiasm, the joy and that sweet voice, one we will never get to hear again.
Mr. Cub died Friday evening at the age of 83. He was perhaps the happiest person you could ever hope to meet, and there is no doubting he was the most sincere ambassador the game has ever known and the greatest player in the history of a storied franchise.
I didn't really know Banks all that well, only to see him around the park occasionally, and the conversations were generally brief and sometimes too comical to take seriously.
Harry Caray's restaurant boss Grant DePorter had given Banks my number because Ernie was getting a statue at Wrigley Field on Opening Day, an honor three decades overdue.
He was supposed to give a speech and didn't know how to proceed, so he was looking for some help with finding the right words.
Of course I was happy to do it, but skeptical. The truth is I only knew the happy-go-lucky, sometimes quite goofy Ernie, the guy who could never take anything too seriously, the one who believed every season that the Cubs would win the World Series.
I knew the Ernie that proclaimed every day was a day the Cubs would win at least one, but was always hoping they would play two.
And when we sat down to talk about his speech, it was difficult to find an Ernie that would tell me something about his life that would make people think of him as more than the persona that was so well known.
He kept talking about his incredible career and all of his great teammates that he loved so much, like Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins and Ron Santo.
Sure, I saw his 500th home run on TV and I once got his autograph at Wrigley Field as a child. But the Ernie I had known as an adult was not the one I got to know that day at breakfast.
When I finally broke through and began to learn about his life, beyond what you could find on Google, I was amazed that there was so much depth, so much pain and so much love.
Ernie told me about what mattered most to him in life and how he managed against astronomical odds to reach the big leagues, surviving poverty, racism and the Negro Leagues.
So I went home and wrote a few hundred words. I read it to him on the phone and he told me through tears that he loved what we had discovered together.
This is the speech he gave on Opening Day 2008, at Clark and Addison:
"This is a miracle, my friends. That's what this is. Seeing that statue makes me think of my dad, who only made it through the third grade, and my mom, who made it through the seventh.
"They may not have been educated, but they were wise. They taught me the greatest lesson of all, to be satisfied with what you have in life, and if you do that, you'll always be a happy person.
"They suffered a lot, my parents did, raising a family on $10 a week, but they were satisfied with what life gave them. They didn't search for more, and they taught me the same.
"Whenever players came through Chicago and talked to me about playing somewhere else so I could win a World Series, I always thought to myself that I'm here at Wrigley Field, playing day games, in front of the best fans in the world, and I was satisfied.
"I am the only pro athlete who ever played with one team, in one park, in one city, for one mayor, for one owner, for one entire career, under only one light ... God's light.
"And I was satisfied.
"Winning to me was helping someone forget their troubles for even a few minutes, even if there were only 2,000 people in the park. If I could do that, if they had some magic to remember from Wrigley Field, I was satisfied.
"I think today of P.K. Wrigley, who brought me to Chicago, and taught me so much about life.
"And Jackie Robinson, who taught me to listen and learn.
"I also think this statue shines a spotlight on me, when I always preferred shining it on someone else who had done something special.
"So today I think of moms raising five kids on their own. To me, those people are my idols. I don't know how they do it, just like I can't imagine how my mom raised a family on $10 a week.
"It's a miracle that I made it from there ... to here.
"When I had my number retired by the Cubs, it struck me as the greatest honor, because it was the first number ever retired in 100 years by this franchise, and I knew it would still be there, flying on that flagpole, 100 years later.
"That's how I feel about this statue. To know it will be here 100 years from now, it's a miracle to me. But it is proof that if you find satisfaction, contentment with your life, miracles can happen.
"It's been some journey. I thank you, the great Cubs fans, for taking this journey with me. And I thank you for this very satisfying moment here today.
"Thank you all so much."
No, Ernie, thank you. Thank you for all that you gave us, the great performance, the boundless smile, the endless humility and the stunning humanity.
There never was before, and there will never be again, a Mr. Cub. For eternity, that is you, and that is more than we ever had a right to ask.
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