Perusing this site today, I happened upon a recent interview with Ernie Banks. I conducted an interview with him at Wrigley Field back in 2004. I thought fans of the team along with "Mr. Cub" might enjoy it.
Before there was Sammy and Ryno, there was Ernie Banks, who will always be remembered as “Mr. Cub.” He brought a joy to the game unlike anyone I have ever witnessed. I had a chance to catch up with him recently at Wrigley when he was the guest singer for the seventh inning stretch.
The Heckler: What did it mean to you having a chance to play for the Cubs and in beautiful Wrigley Field?
Ernie Banks: It just meant so much… it’s a part of me, like my family. People who come out here are like my friends; people that play here are like my brothers. It’s just a total picture of my whole life, being at Wrigley Field, and being around the players and the fans.
TH: You played on some great Cub’s teams during your career, especially in the late sixties and early seventies. What do you think kept the team from ever winning the World Series?
EB: Mr. Wrigley told me many years ago that the World Series is really not the World Series because you’re not playing everybody in the world. So he believed in truth in advertising. He said when we start playing everybody in the world, then we’ll get a World Series. It’s just wonderful now to see this team, the way they have come together and the leadership here with the Cubs. It’s just all there. Through the years, and not making excuses for anyone, we just didn’t have that nucleus, and we didn’t have the chemistry it takes to stay in contention and to win a championship.
TH: When Leo Durocher came here to manage the team, there was talk that Leo didn’t really like you and respect your accomplishments as a ballplayer. What was your relationship with him like?
EB: It was fine as far as my side of it. He was the manager and I respect that. I was 35, 36 years old, and I don’t blame him for looking at my career as being at the end when he came on. I can understand his side, and I went along with it and enjoyed it. I kind of perked up and got a new life when he came because he inspired me a lot. After we both retired, they had an old-timers game in Denver and I called him up to manage the team and he said, “Oh, I don’t want to come back.” But I told him we needed him to come and manage, and he came and managed and had a wonderful time. Through the years after we retired, I really enjoyed being around him. I missed him a lot. Randy Hundley had his fantasy camp. Leo came, and he made a nice speech about me saying that he had been a little bit tough on me during my playing career and that he apologized. In my life playing here, I just learned to forgive and forget and go on and enjoy each day and each person that I’m with.
TH: While playing in the fifties, you were one of baseball’s most prodigious home run hitters, and actually ahead of Hank Aaron at that time in your career. You suffered an eye injury in the early sixties and you’re power numbers were never the same after that. Do you think that affected your home run production?
EB: Somewhat. They made a big issue out of it. It was a depth perception problem I had and some players do have depth perception problems. I couldn’t pick the ball up as well. I didn’t know that, but it could have been true that my career began to slip after I had that problem.
TH: What was your biggest thrill in your career as a Cub?
EB: A game July 2nd, 1967 and the Cubs were playing the Cincinnati Reds here. We won the game 4-2. Fergie Jenkins pitched against Sammy Ellis. I was up in the booth with Jack Brickhouse and we went into a tie for first place. It was the first time that late in the season that the Cubs were in a tie for first place and everybody at the park was so excited that they didn’t want to leave. I was up there watching all of this and it was just a marvelous memory in my life to see the joy of the people because the Cubs were in a tie for first place that late in the season. They were cheering and shouting, and the fans and the players were really, really happy.
TH: How would you compare the players in today’s game to the players in your era?
EB: They are better conditioned and better trained and have a lot more talent. There’s a lot more depth with all of the teams in the major leagues and there are a lot of great young players. I figure in another ten years, you’ll have thirty players that hit over 500 home runs or more.
TH: When you played, there were fewer teams. Do you think the quality of pitching was better in your day?
EB: No, I think the pitching today has more depth. During my time, there might have been one pitcher or two that were top pitchers on a team. Teams that won maybe had three, but today they have a lot of depth. They have a lot of long relievers, short relievers, and the strategy is different. Managers are using all of their players at the right time, bringing in this guy to face this person or that person. There’s a lot of stats and a lot of scouting that is involved in baseball. It’s really refined now.
TH: You mentioned there might be thirty players with over 500 homers in ten years. There’s a lot of talk that this has been accomplished in an era with smaller ballparks, juiced balls and bats, and maybe even juiced players. Do you think in any way this diminished your accomplishments and those of your peers when you played?
EB: I don’t know about all that. They’re just better players, they’re better trained and have better fundamentals and they know how to play the game. They’re doing it on the field and I enjoy watching them play. They are just tremendous players.
TH: How do you think you would have fared in today’s game?
EB: I think about that. It would be a lot different for me because there is a lot of information that you need to know about as a player. How pitchers are pitching you, how defenses are playing, certain situations about certain pitchers. There’s so much information that it would have been very difficult for me to keep up with that, and many of the players do. They go in and watch film of their hitting and pitching and fielding, the defense and all of that. It’s like going to school. My generation would just go out and play.
TH: Who was the toughest pitcher you ever faced?
EB: Sandy Koufax, without a doubt. He pitched a perfect game against us in 1965.
TH: Do you have any regrets about anything during your career in baseball?
EB: No, not at all. Everything’s just been right on schedule for me. Playing and enjoying it, and each day is a different day. I enjoyed each day and night.
TH: You never had the opportunity as a player to play in the World Series with the Cubs. What would it mean to you now if this current team could get to the World Series and win it?
EB: It would mean an awful lot for this team to get to the World Series and win it. It would really be a powerful thing. I know we are all keeping are fingers crossed, and we are pulling for Dusty and Jim Hendry and all of the people making decisions for this team to see them in the World Series.
TH: Do you think this Cub’s team has what it takes right now once they get all of their players back from injuries to get to the World Series?
EB: Yes sir. They have leadership and good players and it’s there. They’re really focused, and Dusty’s got everybody playing. They have good pitching and they really have a good chance.
TH: When you played for the Cubs, you always had a slogan each year. Do you have one for the current team?
EB: The Cubs will soar in 2004.