Monday, January 26, 2015

R.I.P. Mr. Cub

The line wound down and around the aisles of the Kmart on Addison Street just off the Kennedy Expressway and about three miles west of Wrigley Field, where the Cubs did (and do) play a sport that, on occasion, resembles baseball.

The man seated at a table at the end of the long and winding line--a tall, thin African-American with a receding hairline and a sharp blue suit jacket--spent 19 years--his entire career, as it turned out--playing baseball in that stadium. A few years later, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first eligible year, a relative rarity then. (By comparison, this year's Hall of Fame class of inductees will include four first-time nominees.)

Not long after his induction into the Hall of Fame, here he sat at the grand opening of a Kmart, signing whatever was put in front of him and smiling the whole time.

Ernie Banks. Mr. Cub.

Mom came along with me, and, at the time, this annoyed me. I'd gone all over the city on my own and certainly didn't need to be escorted anywhere, much less to a Kmart. It didn't occur to me until years later that Mom, a lifelong Cubs fan, was likely just as jazzed as I was to see Ernie Banks up close and personal.

She also had the advantage--and pleasure--of seeing him play all those 19 years. Two MVP awards. 14 All-Star Games. 512 career home runs--at the time, good enough to get him in the top 10 of all time. Unfortunately, despite all of that, he never played in the post-season. No Playoffs. No World Series.

I don't believe I ever saw Ernie Banks play. He retired in 1971, when I was just seven years old and hadn't been paying attention to baseball for too long. But on this day six years later, he signed two autographs for me: One on a special photo commemorating his induction into the Hall of Fame, the other on a cheap photocopy that was being given to everyone in line.

The commemorative photo crumbled to confetti long ago, though I did manage to save the part with Ernie's signature. (Where that signature now resides, I haven't the foggiest notion.)

That cheap photocopy, though...I had preserved it in the most crude but, ultimately, secure manner: I put it between pages of one of my high school yearbooks, where I found it last year, put it in a frame and placed it on the wall in the hallway of La Casa del Terror.

Ernie Banks, who spent many years after his playing days were over as an outgoing, warmhearted ambassador for the game he loved so, suffered a heart attack and died Friday night, just over a week shy of what would have been his 84th birthday.

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