Constable: Could anything dim Banks' bright smile?

  • Always happy to be at Wrigley Field, Mr. Cub Ernie Banks smiles after an interview outside the Friendly Confines in 2014.

    Always happy to be at Wrigley Field, Mr. Cub Ernie Banks smiles after an interview outside the Friendly Confines in 2014. Associated Press

  • Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Ernie Banks' wife, Liz, right, lay a wreath and hold hands at the statue of Mr. Cub in Daley Plaza Wednesday.

      Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Ernie Banks' wife, Liz, right, lay a wreath and hold hands at the statue of Mr. Cub in Daley Plaza Wednesday. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Among all the great records he set as a player, the always-smiling Ernie Banks never let it get him down that he holds one dubious mark that might never be broken. Banks holds the record for playing in the most baseball games without ever getting a chance to shine in a postseason game.

    Among all the great records he set as a player, the always-smiling Ernie Banks never let it get him down that he holds one dubious mark that might never be broken. Banks holds the record for playing in the most baseball games without ever getting a chance to shine in a postseason game. Courtesy of the Chicago Cubs

  • Appearing with Mr. Cub at many charity events and beating the legend in racquetball, former Cubs Public Relations Director Bob Ibach of Arlington Heights says he never saw Ernie Banks in a bad mood. Even at a celebrity bartender event, Banks worked alongside a waiter as if he were just another employee.

      Appearing with Mr. Cub at many charity events and beating the legend in racquetball, former Cubs Public Relations Director Bob Ibach of Arlington Heights says he never saw Ernie Banks in a bad mood. Even at a celebrity bartender event, Banks worked alongside a waiter as if he were just another employee. Burt Constable | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 1/29/2015 5:26 AM

That fantastic smile is so much a part of Ernie Banks' legacy that it sometimes overshadows the reality that Mr. Cub was a record-breaking, barrier-busting ballplayer among the greatest in the game. That smile was a part of Banks' persona whether he was a young stud slugging homers, a veteran predicting "the Cubs will shine in '69," a nattily dressed old man receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom or a statue drawing crowds to Chicago's Daley Plaza.

In the week since Banks died of a heart attack at age 83, the positive spirit behind that smile has been documented in the Daily Herald by Bruce Miles, Barry Rozner, Mike Imrem, Scot Gregor and other sports writers who knew the man. A symbol for injustice and heartache, Banks holds the record for playing in the most baseball games (2,528) without getting into the playoffs. During his playing career, his 1962 "Put a slugger into City Hall" election campaign for alderman in Chicago struck out, as the Republican Banks was trounced by the incumbent Democrat. Banks had four wives. He knew disappointment and defeat. But you don't see stories about Banks being bitter, mean or angry.

 

I thought that might change in late September of 1989, when the National League East Champion Cubs were preparing to open the postseason at Wrigley Field. I was among the multitudes in line on the phone for a chance to buy a couple of the few tickets available, when a sports reporter told me that Banks didn't have any tickets either, and hadn't heard a peep from Cubs General Manager Jim Frey.

I phoned Banks at his home that Friday morning, expressed my outrage at the slight and sat back to write a column in which I envisioned Mr. Cub ripping into the team that had done him wrong.

"I'm in line to get tickets, too," Banks said gently. "There's no special preferences. I like that. I understand requests are limited."

I compared his situation to making Michelangelo wait in line to get into the Sistine Chapel, but Banks politely explained that he understood the demand for tickets.

by signing up you agree to our terms of service
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Talking to you has given me an idea," Banks said with a chuckle. "I'm going to ask Jim Frey. I would like to be bat boy for the first game of the World Series."

He thanked me for thinking about him and said it was "a great honor" knowing that my childhood bedroom boasted his likeness on a Cub Power pennant. Then the legend politely explained that he had to get off the phone because he didn't want to be late for a golf date with comedian Tom Dreesen. I typed up my notes and then called Jim Frey's secretary, who put me on hold because she had Dreesen on the other line. By the time she talked to me, Banks had been granted six tickets to every postseason game.

Banks couldn't have been nicer or more positive about that situation, but he always was that way talking in public. What about in private?

Arlington Heights resident Bob Ibach, who was the public relations director for the Cubs from 1981 through 1989, remembers a couple of times when Banks had every reason to be less than jolly.

In the winter of 1982, Cubs General Manager Dallas Green called Ibach into his office with the ominous admission that, "We have a problem with Ernie," Ibach remembers. Banks, hired by the team as an ambassador, hadn't been showing up at venues where he was booked. Green thought the team might have to fire Mr. Cub.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The problem was that Banks, who had trouble saying no to fans, let himself be booked for an appearance at 1 p.m. in Skokie and a 1:15 appearance in Naperville, Ibach says.

"You can't be at two places at the same time. That's not how 'Let's Play Two' works," Green told Banks, who agreed to let someone else handle his schedule, and that problem vanished.

During the first Cubs Caravan in 1982, Mr. Cub traveled with a few of the players and management types around the state promoting the upcoming season. All that riding from town to town and eating a steady diet of chicken luncheons and roast beef for dinner left everyone feeling a bit sluggish. So they organized a racquetball tournament in the mornings "just to get a workout," Ibach remembers. Banks set up his game for 5 a.m.

"Ernie challenged me the first day, and I beat him pretty good," says Ibach, who played basketball in college and was almost two decades younger than the 51-year-old Banks. Always the gentleman, Ernie was gracious in defeat, congratulated Ibach on the victory and smiled. But Banks also was an athlete with a strong desire to win.

"After the game, Ernie said, 'O.K. Tomorrow we'll meet at 4:30,'" remembers Ibach, who dragged himself out of bed after a few hours of sleep that next day.

"I schooled him pretty good," remembers Ibach. A smiling Banks congratulated Ibach, and quickly said, "4:15."

On the third day, Ibach beat Banks again. "You want to go for 4, 3:45?" Ibach teased. The tournament continued and Ibach also beat a young promising Cub named Ryne Sandberg. Billy Connors, the Cubs' rather portly pitching coach, was a veteran racquetball player and won the tournament.

A lot of athletes might have bristled at being beaten by a P.R. guy, but Banks was gracious.

"I never heard him swear," says Ibach. "I never saw him get down."

That bright smile immortalized on his statue is the same bright smile Banks carried with him every day.

"He was always like that. He would light up the room. He was genuine," Ibach says. "With Ernie, the light was always on."

0 Comments
 
Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.