Unmasking Ernie Banks | WBEZ
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Unmasking Ernie Banks

For baseball fans, the sound of Jack Brickhouse calling Ernie Banks’ 498th, 499th and most especially, the Chicago Cub’s 500th home run is, euphoria. The week after Banks died at the age of 83, fans, fellow ballplayers and the media talked endlessly about his talent—and charisma.

“He liked being out in the public, it was important to him, people would recognize him. And if they didn’t recognize him right away they might because of the Cub jacket and Cub hat he always wore,” sports writer Ron Rapoport said.

Rapoport first got to know Banks when he was a sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. But says he didn’t get to know the man until later in life, when both men were living in California.

“He was wearing a mask. It was a good mask and he liked wearing it...but the mask wasn’t the man,” Rapoport said. 

Rapoport said the man was thoughtful, reflective and complicated...and almost eloquent.

He used to clock how long it took Banks to remove the mask when they were out in public; said he averaged about 20 minutes.

Banks’ swing was natural, fluid, zen-like. But his public persona required coaching from the start.

“Ernie’s first important baseball job was with  the Kansas City Monarchs of the old Negro Leagues where Buck O’Neil was the manager. And O'Neill used to tell him which restaurants to go to...not to be caught “reckless eyeballing white women,” Rapoport explained.

Banks eventually found his way with the Monarchs—then, Jackie Robinson happened. A few years later, when the Chicago Cubs chose to integrate, they went for Banks; but Banks didn’t want to go.

“I just felt comfortable playing in the Negro Leagues. I didn't know what to do or what to say; it was a learning process in learning how to get along...with white players,” Banks told WBEZ in 2010.

Banks learned to say little to his teammates in the big leagues and, instead, made friends in the little leagues. During the offseason, teams would invite him to throw out the first pitch and meet the kids, but when he got there….

“They would look at me, they would start talking ...’Oh, I thought he was white, he’s black.’ Because of my name, they...they didn’t know,” Banks laughed.

Banks won back-to-back MVP titles and hit 512 home runs, but there were those who wished he’d done more for race relations.

Former longtime WBEZ host Richard Steele shared that the subject frequently comes up at the Coleman Brothers Barber Shop on 62nd and Stony Island, a neighborhood gathering place. One of the brothers, James, is actually an old Army buddy of Banks--and as you might imagine, he’s a fierce defender of his old friend.

“There’s a senior barber in there, Tommy, who’s my barber, who knows how to get a rise out of Mr. Coleman. All you had to do is say something about Ernie Banks and Tommy would say, “I hate to say it, he’s kind of an Uncle Tom.’” Coleman would be furious and (14) he would say, ‘Stop saying that! The man is a great baseball player, a great wonderful human being...I knew him in the Army...’” Steele recalled.

Banks became a household name around the same time as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But many said Banks didn’t fight to get the salary the best player on the team deserved. His max salary was $65,000, while some of the white players he took on in home run derbies were making $100,000.

Lots of people thought Ernie’s silence kept other black players from earning a fair wage. But he wasn’t comfortable fighting for it--it wasn’t his nature.

Nowadays, athletes’ paychecks are bigger--but so is the pressure to do and say more. Longtime WBEZ sports contributor Cheryl Raye Stout says that’s unfair.

“To say because you dribble a ball or you hit a ball or you dunk a ball that you’re supposed to be a spokesperson is difficult. You can only do that if you feel comfortable in doing it,” said Raye-Stout.

Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose has never been much of a public speaker. But when a kid from Englewood becomes the star of his hometown team--he’s expected to put an end to the violence he’s witnessed.

Last December, Rose made his biggest social statement yet--without speaking. He wore a t-shirt bearing the phrase, “I Can’t Breath” during a pre-game warmup. The phrase refers to Eric Garner’s last words. The New York man died after a police officer placed him in a chokehold while arresting him for selling loose cigarettes. The demonstration drew mixed reactions--but Rose was glad people paid attention.

“My biggest concern is the kids, I know what they’re thinking right now, I was one of them kids. When you live in an area like that and you don’t got any hope and police are treating you any way---I’m not saying all our police (officers) are treating kids bad but, when you live in an area like that it gives you another reason to be bad,” Rose said.

There will never be a shortage of people telling professional athletes what to do. And that’s the real reason, Banks said, “let’s play two…” He didn’t want to leave the field.

“When you’re playing baseball, on that field, it’s like your whole life, it’s your world and you don’t want to leave it. It was such a joy to be there, to be able to make decisions on your own: when to swing, when not to swing; when to run, when not to run. I felt this is the only place in the world where I could make my own decisions,” Banks said.

I asked Rapoport if Banks didn’t like what was under the mask--he said that wasn’t the case at all.

“He’d want people to remember the mask, that’s what he would want people to remember about him. And that’s fair; he’s earned the right to be remembered the way he wants to be, I think,” Rapoport explained.

When WBEZ spoke with Banks back in 2010, Landmarks Illinois had just named the Hall of Famer a Legendary Landmark. Asked if he had any regrets, Banks explained he often searched his footsteps for them--but delighted in life’s ups and downs. And then, ever the entertainer, he broke out into his friend Frank Sinatra’s classic, “My Way.”

Katie O’Brien is a WBEZ reporter and producer. Follow her @katieobez.

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