Did we really know 'Mr. Cub'? New book on Banks reveals his pleasures, pains
Ernie Banks was perhaps the most popular professional athlete in the history of Chicago sports.
But did we really "know" Mr. Cub?
As it turns out, no, we did not.
Thanks to author Ron Rapoport, we have new insight into a man who radiated sunshine on the outside but who battled private darkness and on the inside.
In his lovingly crafted Banks biography, "Let's Play Two," Rapoport gets as close to revealing the real Mr. Cub as anyone to date. Over 400-plus pages, Rapoport chronicles Banks' life from his upbringing in segregated Dallas through the Negro Leagues, his Chicago Cubs career and life after baseball.
Although Banks' demeanor was always upbeat, he endured poverty as a child and racism throughout his baseball career. He also suffered at the hands of Cubs manager Leo Durocher, whose intense jealousy of Banks fueled mistreatment that was cruel.
I caught up with Rapoport last week in Texas, where the Cubs opened their season. The former Chicago Sun-Times columnist was in town to visit Banks' hometown.
What prompted him to write a book about Banks?
"I spent enough time with Ernie at Cubs conventions where he would sit upstairs in a room with the media, the players, and he'd sit at the same table every year," Rapoport said. "He'd sign autographs and he'd be smiling and laughing. He was Ernie being Ernie.
"But after I had done it for a couple of years, I could set my watch, and after 20 minutes, the smile would fade, the voice would get lower and he'd starting talking about real things. And I realized that here's this guy that all we know is the smile. All we know is the sunshine. All we know is, 'Let's play two.' This is a real guy living a real life.
"Finally after the fourth or fifth year, I would catch him looking at me, like he's kind of sly. I think at one point he even said, 'You don't know me.' And I took it as a challenge."
After trying unsuccessfully to collaborate with Banks on an autobiography, Rapoport set out to discover the real Mr. Cub after Banks' death in January 2015.
"When he died, I looked at the transcripts of what I had, and I almost cried because we were so far along," Rapoport said. "We had dug so deep. So I decided to do a biography. I came to Dallas. I found his older sister, Edna, who turned 90 last week. I found five of his high school classmates. They really gave me a feel for what it was like in the segregated, poverty-stricken neighborhood of Dallas.
"I found his sons, who were very willing to talk to me -- twin sons, Joey and Jerry -- about the pleasures and the problems of being Ernie Banks. I found one of his (four) ex-wives, who told me about how she couldn't get him out of his shell. By this point Jerry told me he'd become a prisoner of his caricature he created for himself."
By no means is this book a maudlin portrait of Banks, who truly loved baseball, people and the Cubs. It's a balanced portrait that covers all the triumph and tragedy, joy and sorrow, of Banks' life and playing career.
"Growing up in a segregated neighborhood in Dallas, second in a family of 12, missing school to go pick cotton with his dad, going to the Negro Leagues," Rapoport said. "Coming to Chicago and getting used to it. Ernie probably never had a conversation with a white person, a real conversation, until he was 19 years old in the army. Now he's in Chicago, and it's just him and Gene Baker who come up together, two black Cubs who integrated the Cubs."
Banks was pained by Durocher's cruelty and by the Cubs failing to make the postseason during his playing career, especially as they blew a large lead in 1969.
During spring training of 1971, when Durocher ordered the 40-year old Banks go to shortstop one morning and tried to get 10 groundballs past Banks, who had moved from shortstop to first base years earlier. Ernie gobbled up all the grounders, earning grudging respect from his tormentor.
On the subject of Durocher and all others, Banks voiced no bitterness.
"It hurt him terribly," Rapoport said. "Here was the key moment. (Durocher) hit him groundballs at shortstop just to show him up. Ernie, in the hot sun in spring training, fielded every ball and he went into the locker room and collapsed.
"Ernie told me this story. They lost and Leo really went after him this time: 'My grandmother could have caught that ball. You're too old.' Ernie looks around and sees that his teammates were looking at him with pity. They adored him. They loved him. They looked up to him. And here (Durocher) was, ripping him down to build up his own ego. This is what Ernie told me, that Leo thought he should be Mr. Cub.
"For the rest of his life, he never said anything bad about Leo. It was, 'Oh, I was getting older. I needed a kick in the pants."
Asked if anything about Banks or his life surprised him, Rapoport said: "Here's what you have to understand about Ernie: His whole life, starting in Dallas, was avoiding conflict, avoiding drama.
"I didn't know how tough life after baseball was. He was really scrambling. Remember, they didn't make a lot of money. Players worked in the off-season. They had to have jobs once they retired. They had to get going and make something of themselves. They didn't make millions of dollars.
"One place he could go toward the end and be happy, that was Wrigley Field. The Cubs would pay him to sit in boxes with fans. And he'd sit there and he'd talk about the old times and he'd watch the games. That's the way I'd like to remember Ernie."
• Ron Rapoport discusses "Let's Play Two" and sign copies of his book at 7 p.m. Thursday at Barnes and Noble, Old Orchard, 55 Old Orchard Center, Skokie.