Ernie Banks' Spirit Welcomes World Series Visitors Just Blocks from Wrigley

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistOctober 25, 2016

Apr 5, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; A general shot of the uniform number of Chicago Cubs legend Ernie Banks on the field prior to a game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field. St. Louis won 3-0. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

CHICAGO — All around this city, there is noise. Beautiful and joyful, chaotic and urgent.

It is loud. It is majestic and inspiring; the din stretching all the way from Wrigleyville to Michigan Avenue and back, snaking through the neighborhoods, awakening babies, washing over grandmothers, rolling down the city streets and up the sidewalks, closing the bars and then opening them all over again. From the roar of the crowds to the last strains of "Go, Cubs, Go," silence is yesterday's companion and tomorrow's friend. Today, it is but a stranger.

But not here. From inside the brick walls surrounding these 119 acres that comprise this beautiful and historic cemetery, with a World Series on deck for the first time since 1945, this must be the most peaceful place in all of Chicago.

Founded in 1860, Graceland Cemetery is a mere Kris Bryant pop fly away from Wrigley Field. Half-a-mile, to be precise.

How appropriate that Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub, rests for all eternity so close to his beloved cathedral.

How touching that, because of this location, the Chicago Cubs, in all their 2016 splendor, roll on by each road trip—their bus rumbling up North Clark Street to West Irving Park Road, hugging a corner of this cemetery, where it turns and heads for the highway and another charter flight.

"There's no distinguishing between Ernie and the Cubs," Cubs owner Tom Ricketts says. "He was a special guy."

That pilgrims—festooned in Cubs gear from head to toe—persist in flocking here with reverence nearly two years after his death, continues to reaffirm the bond.

"We were planning to go for a walk, and I brought it up last week that I wanted to come here and give Ernie a hello," says Nick Boyd, 33, who, with his wife Katie, lives just on the other side of one of the cemetery walls. "If they win tonight, I may have to come back tomorrow, too."

It is the Saturday afternoon before Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. The Cubs will face the Los Angeles Dodgers and, as usual, all is peaceful on these cemetery grounds. Katie, 34, is pregnant and due within the week. The Boyds were at Wrigley Field for Game 2 of the division series against the San Francisco Giants, which was their baby's first Cubs game—a celebration that just happened to occur on the date of their five-year anniversary.

"I'm a little slower this summer," says Katie, whose pregnancy limited her to five games (Nick made it to 18). "But I pay more attention and I drink less beer this way."

Nick and Katie Boyd visited Ernie Banks' gravesite hours before the Cubs' Game 1 win in the NLCS and five days before their daughter was born.
Nick and Katie Boyd visited Ernie Banks' gravesite hours before the Cubs' Game 1 win in the NLCS and five days before their daughter was born.Photo by Scott Miller

The Boyds didn't know what to anticipate when they visited Ernie, but they've felt his call for much of the summer. With the calendar reading October and the stakes increasing in importance, they figured they'd better scoot on over.

"I was expecting to see a hat or a ball at the grave," Nick says. "I thought there might be something that stood out a little more. But it's very simple."

Indeed, the headstone is modest, and the surroundings are bare. It is by design, says Jensen Allen, a Graceland Cemetery administrator. Visitors have left Cubs caps at the grave in the past. And baseballs. And a mitt. And once, a toy bat.

"But our groundskeeper had to clean it off because we have to keep it maintained," Allen says. "Something could get caught in a mower."

It is standard operating procedure at cemeteries throughout the land, Allen says. People leave pennies and rocks and balloons and stuffed animals, but they don't last long because they can cause damage or, perhaps, look junky. So here, the groundskeeper scoops them up and respectfully stores items in the garage in case a person who left something phones to ask for it back.

The headstone is temporary for reasons that are entirely disconcerting. When Banks died at 83 in January 2015, his estate had little money. According to one estimate, per the Daily Mail's Mia De Graaf, it was only $16,000 in assets. And it turned messy. Per his will, Banks left his entire estate to his caretaker, Regina Rice.

His estranged fourth wife, Elizabeth Banks, sued, alleging that he had been diagnosed with moderate to severe dementia just days before Rice arranged for him to sign his last will, which is why his family, including his three children, was cut out of the estate (per Jason Meisner of the Chicago Tribune).

Lake Willowmere, which is just beyond Banks' grave at Graceland Cemetery.
Lake Willowmere, which is just beyond Banks' grave at Graceland Cemetery.Photo by Scott Miller

To stand here quietly at Banks' grave, with Lake Willowmere serenely glistening just beyond in the afternoon sun, is to be a million miles removed from the ugliness. Here, those who visit are either unaware or simply do not care. They have come to see the Ernie who continues to live in their hearts: the warm man with the perpetual smile and the boyish enthusiasm who made the phrase "Let's play two!" his signature line.

"I watched this guy play when my grandfather took me to my first Cubs game in the 1960s," says Lori Loquercio, 50, of Chicago, who estimates she's attended more than 100 games at Wrigley Field. "Seriously, [my grandfather] knew everybody in the bleachers. He bought me whatever I wanted while he drank beer with all of his friends.

"He took me out of school that day. I was in kindergarten. We walked down Clark Street after the game and stopped in all the bars."

It was a different time. Loquercio's family became close in the 1980s with Manny Trillo, a Cubs infielder from 1975-78, and again from 1986-88, and four-time All-Star. She was in attendance at what was to be the first night game in the history of Wrigley Field ("8-8-88," she says, proudly ticking off the numbers as if the owner of a winning lottery ticket). Then the rain came in the fourth inning and washed it out until the next night.

"Mr. Cub," Loquercio says emphatically. "Besides being one of the best African-American players of his time, it was going to watch him go for his 500th home run. Glenn Beckert, Don Kessinger...the games were at 3:30, and I'd run home from school every day to watch the Cubs game."

She reaches over and gives the headstone a good rub. She will be bowling in her league when tonight's game begins in another six hours or so ("We'll be hooting and hollering at the TVs!"), but her heart will be at Wrigley Field.

"Bring 'em luck tonight, Ernie," Loquercio says reverently as she runs her fingers across the words "Ernie Banks" and the years "1931-2015" and the number "14."

Lori Loquercio rubs Banks' headstone before Game 1 of the NLCS.
Lori Loquercio rubs Banks' headstone before Game 1 of the NLCS.Photo by Scott Miller

A permanent monument is on order to replace the temporary headstone and, according to Allen, the cemetery administrator, it is expected to be installed sometime within the next year. Because of the family squabble, she and the Cubs will offer very little information for public consumption. Both the burial here and exact location of the grave, in fact, were kept secret until earlier this year.

The Cubs quietly paid not only for the entire funeral, but also for the burial plot, the temporary headstone and the permanent monument, according to B/R sources. Officially, the donor of the monument is listed as "Anonymous."

Creators of all the noise just a few blocks away, the Cubs themselves have been so focused and so consumed with their responsibilities that none have had the chance to stop by for a visit. At least not yet. Not as far as anybody around the team or the cemetery knows.

Anthony Rizzo is one of the few current Cubs who spent time with Banks.
Anthony Rizzo is one of the few current Cubs who spent time with Banks.Peter Barreras/Associated Press

In fact, even though Banks spent so much of his life with and around the club until his health began to fail, most of these Cubs never got much of a chance to spend significant time with him. Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who attended Banks' funeral, is one of the few who did. Addison Russell, Banks' direct spiritual heir as the shortstop, didn't even debut with the Cubs until after Banks had died.

"I heard he was a great, great fans' person," Russell says. "The fans, they loved him. The organization loved him. Just looking at him, he seemed like a very happy guy. Always smiling, always wanting to have a good time."

Russell, just 22, already has played 293 regular-season games over two summers, smashing 34 homers and collecting 149 RBI.

At the same age, Banks had played only 10 major league games.

"Obviously, 'Let's play two' is something that he stood by, something that he liked," Russell says.

Oh, how Banks would have savored these October days. For all his accomplishments—Hall of Famer (inducted in 1977), 512 career home runs, Presidential Medal of Freedom (awarded in 2013), iconic hero to so many over the generations in Chicago—Banks also holds a spot of ignominy in the game: He played in more regular-season games, 2,528, than anybody in baseball history without ever setting foot in the postseason.

In 19 seasons with the Cubs, Banks hit 512 homers with 1,636 RBI.
In 19 seasons with the Cubs, Banks hit 512 homers with 1,636 RBI.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

His Cubs came close a couple of times, in 1969 and again in 1970, but Banks never made it to the postseason. He was still active with the club on a few other near-miss World Series occasions in 1984, 1989, 2003 and 2008. Disappointment...all of it.

"He lived and breathed Cubbie blue," says former Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster, now a special assistant to club president Theo Epstein, of Banks' permanent residence just a few blocks from Wrigley. "I think it's great."

Here, in repose, Banks is surrounded by a dizzying cast of Chicago immortals. Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion of the world, is buried at Graceland. George Pullman, renowned for luxury sleeping train cars. William Kimball, the piano and pipe organ manufacturer. Marshall Field, the retail store maven. William Hulbert, co-founder—along with Albert Spalding—of the National League and, in 1870, one of the early partners in the Chicago White Stockings, who later became, yes, the Chicago Cubs. Philip Armour, whose enormous meatpacking company in the 1800s led to Chicago being dubbed "Hog Butcher for the World."

Across the acres at Graceland, squirrels frolic in the lush grass. Willow trees weep over the deceased's remains.

Twice a day, tours led by the Chicago Architecture Foundation wind their way through the grounds. Notably, these tours do not formally stop at the gravesite of perhaps the most well-known resident.

"Because it's so new," Allen says. "We don't order 10 or 20 maps at a time. We order thousands. Ernie will be on our next edition. We may wait to put the picture in until he gets an official stone."

While it isn't as if the grounds are overrun by Cubs fans, Allen says "a pretty steady" flow of them come through. Banks' grave is nearly all the way in the back, in the northeast quadrant, by the cemetery's West Montrose Avenue border. It's a pretty good hike from the entrance, so that discourages a few visitors—at least some who arrive on foot and not by vehicle.

A statue of Banks stands just outside the gates at Wrigley Field.
A statue of Banks stands just outside the gates at Wrigley Field.Brad Mangin/Getty Images

The cemetery is so close to Wrigley Field that it has hosted its share of Cubs fans over the years, even before Ernie, and sometimes unwillingly. Tour buses line up on West Irving Park Road, depositing fans for an afternoon at the ballpark or pub-crawling in Wrigleyville.

"They can get a little rowdy," Allen says. "Even before Ernie was here, they'd line up for the tour buses, and some Cubs fans would come past them and try to scale the [cemetery] fence."

Most Cubs fans, though, are perfectly well-behaved. And on this Saturday afternoon, those with whom I visit are passing through simply to pay their respects and honor a piece of their family's heritage and their city's history.

"He epitomizes the history of the Cubs," Nick Boyd says. "He was a fantastic player for 18, 19 years. Never quit. Always positive and hopeful. The guy never gave up that spirit of There's always next year, right?"

Right. Except this year, a riotous journey has carried the Cubs and their fans to a storied destination that they have not visited since one month after the end of World War II. The World Series opens in Cleveland on Tuesday and arrives here in Chicago on Friday for Game 3, and if there were any doubt that spirits will be stirring, well, look at Loquercio rubbing that headstone or stop for a chat with Nick and Katie Boyd.

Forget next year. For the first time since 1908, next year might really be this year. And so the cacophony of sound thunders through this city, louder than all the L trains and O'Hare Airport jets combined.

Banks' headstone is simple, though a grander monument is in the works.
Banks' headstone is simple, though a grander monument is in the works.Photo by Scott Miller

David Phelps, 24, guides his girlfriend Emily along a cemetery sidewalk. They're in from Brooklyn for the weekend. Emily is interviewing for medical school.

"I've been getting a Chicago history lesson these last couple of days," Emily says of her Kentucky-born boyfriend, who fell for the Cubs in the 1998 days of Sammy Sosa, as they walk toward the back of the cemetery and Ernie.

It is living history, breathing history, history that is being re-written by a new band of Cubs who every home game walk right past the very old words—"Let's Play Two"—that are painted on the wall in the tunnel leading from their clubhouse to the field.

Included in that history is Billy Williams, Hall of Famer, teammate and friend of Banks', who emotionally invoked his name while standing on the Wrigley Field grass on Saturday night as the celebration roared on around him. And so many others.

"Maybe in the offseason I'll get a chance to go there," Dempster says.

Lyla Boyd, the newest Cubs fan in the Boyd family.
Lyla Boyd, the newest Cubs fan in the Boyd family.Photo courtesy Nick and Katie Boyd

No doubt, Ernie would cherish the company. He may be departed, but to those who make the sacred journey here, he remains a source of inspiration and comfort, his spirit alive and well.

Meanwhile, Nick and Katie Boyd now are the proud parents of a healthy baby girl, Lyla Belle, born Thursday morning. On Sunday afternoon, they took Lyla for her first walk, right through Graceland Cemetery, with a stop to say another hello to Ernie.

Says Nick enthusiastically: "She's 2-0 as a Cubs fan."

    

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball

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