Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Ernie Banks

I’m traveling en route to a facilitation training in Atlanta, and was in Chicago Sunday changing trains. (Maybe that’s why it’s called a “training.”) It was my first time in a major city since my laptop keyboard froze up Sept 3, and I had lined up a date at the downtown Apple Store to get the repair done the same day and under warranty. That meant a hike from Union Station to the Magnificent Mile—the moniker Chicago has modestly bestowed on the glittery ghetto of high-end retailers aggregated along Michigan Ave just north of the Chicago River.

It was about a two-mile schlep, made more challenging by a steady rain, the tail end of the Hurricane Ike. Nonetheless, Chicago is my home town—I grew up the western suburb of La Grange—and it was pleasure to walk along familiar streets. I got to the Apple Store at my appointed time, they swapped out the keyboard without a blink, and I was good to go within an hour. Retracing my steps to Union Station at a more leisurely pace, I wandered through the Theater District (which features noticeably different visuals than the ripening corn and beans amidst the bucolic rolling hills of northeast Missouri). By chance, I happened upon the Richard J Daley Center just south of the Theater District, on Dearborn.

Chicago has a lot interesting public art and one of its more striking pieces is showcased in the east-side plaza of the Civic Center: a two-story tall orange metal abstract sculpture by Pablo Picasso. It’s hard to miss.

Every time I see it, I smile… and think of Ernie Banks—the All Star shortstop of the Chicago Cubs in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Twice he was the National League Most Valuable Player, the one constant bright spot on a team that was perennially mired in the bottom of the standings. For a generation of sports fans (including me) he was the symbol of optimism in the face of adversity.

Although the current edition of the Cubs have the best record in the National League with only 16 games left to go (and are a near-certainty to make the playoffs), the Cubs possess the unenviable record of having gone 100 consecutive years without reaching the World Series, and counting. It is a record of futility that is unmatched in professional sports. Although the ’69 Cubs had a great team in the twilight of Banks’ career (Don Kessinger was the regular shortstop by then, and Banks mostly played left field and pinch hit) and seemed destined to finally get off their World Series schneid (then a mere 61 years old), they stumbled badly in September and were overtaken by the Tom Seaver-led Miracle Mets, who not only got to the World Series, but had the temerity to win the thing in five games over a stunned and demonstrably more talented Baltimore Oriole squad (Jim Palmer, Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, et al).

Ernie was famous for his infectious joy of the game. He’d look at a leaden sky that threatened to rain out the day’s proceedings and say to anyone within earshot, “Let’s play two!” He never seemed to get enough. As I look back on it, Ernie’s philosophy generalizes pretty well as an approach to life. Each day, I try to remind myself (usually after my first cup of coffee), “It’s another day in paradise,” and everything seems to go a little better from there.

But wait a minute, you say. How did the Picasso statue remind me of Ernie Banks? Well, the Daley Center was built in the early ‘60s and there was a competition to determine what the plaza art would be. In the end, it boiled down to two choices, both of which had considerable support: the Picasso, or a bronze statue of Ernie Banks. In a close decision, the Spaniard prevailed (some say he had a better career, but then Pablo never had to hit major league fastballs). Of course, by then, Ernie was used to not winning and he accepted the loss with grace, as he did everything else.

The sculpture was installed in 1967, the same year I was installed in college. A good friend and classmate of mine, Kip Lilly, never quite forgave Chicago for selecting international erudition over the hometown hero. In protest, Kip started referring to the Picasso sculpture as “Ernie Banks,” which I found amusing.

While the sculpture competition didn’t matter any more to me than it did to Ernie, I nonetheless held Ernie the Ballplayer and Ernie the Person in high esteem. I grew up with him as a role model of the hardworking yet good-natured athlete (unlike Barry Bonds, say, or Kobe Bryant), who cared about his community and gave back to his city. However, that was 50 years ago, and time passes.

Ironically, as a sports fan, I still track the fortunes of the Cubs, yet can go months without my giving a thought to Ernie, even though he was the Chicago Cubs for me as a child. However, I cannot go by the Daley Center plaza, as I did Sunday, and not immediately think of Ernie Banks. And it always brings a smile and puts a little extra sunshine in my day.

1 comment:

equa yona(Big Bear) said...

Hey Laird,
I grew up in the Back a da Yards in 'inner city' Chicago. Ernie was one of my big heros, even though i grew up on the "Sout' Side" and all my little pals rooted for the Sox. It is odd to think that you probably spent more time on Michigan Avenue than I did, even though I was a short bus ride away. We spent a lot of time at the (then) free museums than the posh shops. but my Pop was a factory worker and we didn't belong on the "Magnificent Mile".
Thanks for the reminiscence.