Farewell to 'Mr. Cub' Ernie Banks, an Elegant Ambassador and All-Time Great

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistJanuary 24, 2015

AP Images

To spend time with Ernie Banks was to gain entrance into an endless summer.

He was employed by the Chicago Cubs, but he belonged to all of us. Nobody, anywhere, could possibly represent either his profession or his calling with any more joy and grace than Banks did during 83 marvelous Hall of Fame years on this baseball diamond of an earth.

The Cubs announced Banks died Friday night but didn't include a cause.

His smile was effervescent, his soul was the warmth of a June afternoon, and his cackle was the sound of the rare man who has life figured out and isn't quite sure why the rest of us could be troubled, even for a second.

And now on a sad day in January, it turns out that Wrigley Field isn't truly timeless. It only seems that way.

What a dirty trick.

Where does that time go? Where do the days disappear?

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One moment, a young Banks is smiling warmly from a black-and-white photo, in the prime of his career, wrapped inside a Cubs warmup jacket and standing in front of that oh-so-gorgeous Wrigley Field ivy.

Then there he is, in the familiar pinstriped No. 14 jersey, retired and now upstairs in the broadcast booth for a stretch, leading the Wrigley crowd in "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 20:  U.S. President Barack Obama awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Hall of Fame baseball player Ernie Banks in the East Room at the White House on November 20, 2013 in Washington, DC. The Presidential Medal of Freedom i
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Then there he is, an old man in a suit wearing a snazzy red-striped tie and wire glasses, looking frail as President Obama hangs the Presidential Medal of Freedom around his neck.

He was one of the greatest players ever, the first black Cub (1953), a shortstop with uncommon power, a two-time National League Most Valuable Player (1958-1959), a Hall of Famer (1977), a smasher of 512 career home runs and a provider of beautifully memorable Chicago afternoons at the ballpark for, conservatively, more than several million customers over the decades.

But numbers alone explained Ernie Banks about as fully as a seating chart gives life to his beloved Wrigley Field.

He was not about the numbers.

He was about the humanity, and the joy.

Banks in 1967.
Banks in 1967.Harold Filan/Associated Press/Associated Press

"Words cannot express how important Ernie Banks will always be to the Chicago Cubs, the city of Chicago. He was one of the greatest players of all time," Tom Ricketts, chairman of the Cubs, said in a statement Friday night. "He was a pioneer in the major leagues. And more importantly, he was the warmest and most sincere person I've ever known.

"Approachable, ever optimistic and kind-hearted, Ernie Banks is and always will be Mr. Cub."

Banks came from the black-and-white era of Ladies' Day, flannel uniforms and civility. But he was for every era, forever. Perhaps his greatest feat was his relentless optimism into the teeth of 2,528 career games without ever playing in the postseason, most of any major leaguer, ever.

Banks' famous and timeless response?

"Let's play two!"

Undoubtedly, wise guys throughout the land figured he only wanted to play two because the Cubs would lose the first one, and thus gain a second chance.

Undoubtedly, Banks would have a smile for those guys, too.

Each spring, he famously predicted a Cubs' pennant. Yet now, even after Banks' passing, wait til next year continues on the North Side of Chicago, where the Cubs haven't won a pennant since 1945, and where they haven't won a World Series since 1908.

With tremendous dignity and joy, Banks nonetheless soldiered on, as a player from 1953-1971, and as a goodwill ambassador in the years since.

Spend time with Banks, as several generations of Cubs and baseball fans were blessed to have done, and he wrapped you in his smile and, man, good luck finding something to complain about from there.

Even grumpy manager Leo Durocher, his skipper from 1966 until he retired in '71, couldn't cloud his relentless sunshine. In Sports Illustrated's "Where Are They Now?" issue last summer, Banks talked about Leo the Lip.

"I went to my mother with that one," Banks said. "She said, 'Ernie, kill 'em with kindness.' And that's what I did."

It's what he did with Durocher, and at all points beyond over many, many years.

Every now and again in life, you come across someone whom you know is special from the moment you shake his or her hand. Could be baseball. Could be politics. Could be insurance, in school or at church. Whatever, and wherever, you know. You want to spend time around that person. Your day is always brightened when you do.

Banks' 500th home run.
Banks' 500th home run.Jim Palmer/Associated Press/Associated Press

This was Ernie Banks, who came to Chicago by way of Dallas and rounded every single base, and more, in an incredibly rich life.

On that day Obama hung the Medal of Freedom around his neck in 2013, the president and fellow Chicagoan praised Banks' "cheer and his optimism and his eternal faith that someday the Cubs would go all the way."

"And that's serious belief," the president quipped, to a roomful of laughter. "That is something that even a White Sox fan like me can respect."

It is something every baseball fan of every color, logo and persuasion can respect, from here to eternity. Light a candle in Wrigley Field tonight. We'll play two tomorrow. Today, we're mourning a legend.

But please, smile when you think of him. Because you know Mr. Cub would not want it any other way.

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball @ScottMillerBbl.