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Remembering Ernie Banks, A Fan Favorite Whose Favorite Was The Fans


And time now for sports.


SIMON: And one of the great figures in sports, and in American life, has died. Ernie Banks of the Chicago Cubs was 83. He was a great player who appeared in 14 All-Star Games, who played for - and, look, I can say this; I'm a Cub fan - a team that was usually comically bad. But Ernie Banks was epically gracious on the field and to fans. That motto let's play two reminded us all how to value what, after all, is the real game of life. NPR's Tom Goldman joins us. Thanks for being with us, Tom.


SIMON: And Ernie Banks is being celebrated, as much as anything today, for his largeness of spirit.

GOLDMAN: Billy Williams was a Hall of Fame outfielder and teammate of Ernie Banks for many years. And he's quoted in an article by baseball writer Tim Kurkjian as saying, people always asked him - Williams - if Ernie was really happy all the time, which is how he always was in public. Williams said it was legit. He called Banks the most positive guy I ever met. He loved playing the game. And Williams speculated maybe it came from playing in the Negro Leagues, where he said players had so much fun with the game. Banks, of course, played for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues before he went to the Cubs. And when Banks was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977, he said this about his rosy attitude - I guess my critics say he must be crazy. Nothing can be that beautiful. But when you think that there are so many people around the world who have nothing, you realize how lucky you are to be making a living in the big leagues. There's an unbelievable, indescribable love for baseball in Wrigley Field.

SIMON: And let's not forget, he was one sweet ballplayer, wasn't he?

GOLDMAN: Oh, yeah. You know, as you mentioned, an All-Star many times. He hit 512 career home runs, 500 being a magic mark in baseball. His career spanned 19 seasons, from 1953 to 1971. Only six of those were winning seasons. But he won the NL - National League - Most Valuable Player Award in 1958 and '59 - first National League player to win in consecutive years. And in '58, he was the first National League player to win the MVP on a team with a losing record. And, you know, just, Scott, he was known as a power hitter as a shortstop. And that really wasn't something that was expected of a shortstop in those days. He was tall and thin, very strong wrists. And from 1955 to 1960, he hit 40 or more home runs in five of those six seasons, so quite great at the plate and in the field. But back to Ernie Banks as the person. Scott, you knew him. You interviewed him. What was that like?

SIMON: You know, he could be almost maddeningly sincere, you know, and reporter - what's your angle? But he cherished the grass, the ivy, the sunlight. He never complained about the kind of rag-bin of a club that he was on for most of his life. We talked to him last year at Wrigley Field.


ERNIE BANKS: I mean, winning is a lot of fun. But the main thing in my life is making friends. After the game was over, I'd walk out of this ballpark and see kids waiting for autographs. And I would look in their faces. And I had met a lot of kids. They were 10 years old. Now they're in their 60s. And they still talk about things that I did, things that I signed. And I loved the winning part of it, but I really like the fact that I met some nice people in this ballpark.

SIMON: And I want to tell a purely personal story. The day of my mother's memorial service last year, Tom, I got a haircut. Ernie turned out to be right across from me, getting his head shaved - gracious man, big tipper. Tom, he stayed in that barbershop for 40 minutes when he was done just to talk to people about baseball, about his young child, about their children. He never earned a lot of money by the terms we understand it now. He was comfortable, didn't charge for autographs the way some even great retired stars now do. In some ways, he was a bigger symbol after he left the game. And I remember thinking in that barbershop, you know that phrase great athlete? I think that should be not just someone who excels on the field but who brings honor to the game, you know, enriches life. And I'm sorry if this sounds sloppy or sentimental. In the end, we follow sports because at its best, it elevates us, right? It makes us feel the joy in life. And that's what made Ernie Banks a Hall of Famer beyond baseball.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, and he chose his own way to touch and inspire people. That's for sure.

SIMON: NPR's Tom Goldman with our memories of Ernie Banks. Thanks so much for being with us, my friend.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.