Tribute to Ernie Banks, 1931-2015

January 23, 2015, marked the passing of Ernie Banks, a man whose contributions to the sport, the city of Chicago, and baseball fans everywhere were truly priceless. When I learned of the sad news, my Banks collection consisted only of three cards:

M20150128_131006uch like contemporaries Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, Ernie Banks began his career in the Negro Leagues shortly after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Montreal Royals and Brooklyn Dodgers. In the early 1950s, Major League teams either chose not to integrate or looked to the Negro Leagues as their farm system for black talent. In the case of the Chicago Cubs, it was Ernie Banks himself who broke the color barrier, having been recommended to the Cubs by Kansas City Monarchs manager Buck O’Neil. On that recommendation, Banks jumped straight to the Cubs without playing a single game in the minors. His Chicago Cubs career would include back-to-back MVP awards (1958, 1959), 14 All-Star games, two home run crowns, and famously zero trips to the Fall Classic. He was only the seventh member of baseball’s then elite 500 home run club, and he still holds the National League record for most home runs in a season by a shortstop (47 HR in 1958).

All this week, the statue of Ernie Banks that normally lives at Wrigley Field (and had been in Wisconsin for repairs) is instead on display at Daley Plaza. I am fortunate to work only a block away, which has given me numerous opportunities to visit and witness firsthand just how beloved and admired this man was. During one of my quick trips there, a man left a Kansas City Monarchs ballcap, and this got me thinking about whether there might be something I could offer. In an odd coincidence, a package came in the mail for me that afternoon that included a rare 1956 Jet magazine with Ernie and his first wife on the cover.

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Banks statue with my collage at base

Several hours and a trip to the craft store later, I spread a ton of stuff out on my small dining room table: my Ernie Banks baseball cards, a watercolor of Banks taken from the book “Heroes of the Negro Leagues,” my Jet magazine, and various decorative items. Shortly after midnight, I finished my collage, and once the snow let up this morning, I was able to add it to the shrine.

While I will miss my 1969 Banks and may never be able to replace the Jet magazine, it was gratifying to see a number of Banks fans enjoying the piece and even taking a few pictures. Ernie Banks once said that the riches of the game are in the thrills, not the money. And in the same way, I saw today for myself that the richness of collecting is in the reliving and sharing of memories, not in the having.

Banks_1964Still, as luck would have it, another package arrived in the mail for me today. It was the 1964 Topps card I purchased online the night Ernie Banks passed away. I’m back up to three Ernie Banks cards again, and I hope someday to add a few more. While Banks clearly had a hundred times the talent I did on the diamond, I think we both shared the same transcendent love of the game. In the person of Ernie Banks, I see a true American hero, and I know his memory will always be a blessing to all he touched through his joyous approach to baseball and to life.

The Last Cardboard Hurrah

FALL CLASSIC FAILINGS

1991 Sporting News Conlon Collection
1991 Sporting News Conlon Collection

Entering the 1955 season, the Dodgers had been to seven World Series and lost all seven, including four between 1947-1953 when their famously integrated roster lost all four times to their all-white crosstown rivals, the New York Yankees. While there were no rings to be had for Brooklyn, many of these World Series were notable and historic.

  • 1916 – Boston Red Sox 4, Brooklyn Dodgers/Robins 1 – Not a lot of big bats in this series, even for the deadball era. Brooklyn battted only .200 as a team while the Red Sox fared only slightly better at .238. Game 2 of the series is by far the most historic in that the American League’s top pitcher that year won the game 2-1 giving up only 6 hits over 14 innings, the first of many, many World Series heroics for Babe Ruth.
  • 1920 – Cleveland Indians 5, Brooklyn Dodgers/Robins 2 – Game 5 of this series featured three famous firsts: the unassisted triple play turned by Cleveland’s Bill Wambsganss, the grand slam hit by Elmer Smith, and the home run by pitcher Jim Bagby, Sr.
  • 1941 – New York Yankees 4, Brooklyn Dodgers 1 – The Dodgers only managed to bat .182 off Yankee pitching in this first subway series, though it was futility with the glove rather than the bat that would stand out as most memorable. On the verge of tying the series at two games apiece, catcher Mickey Owen dropped a ninth inning third strike, fueling a Yankee four-run rally and come-from-behind win.
  • 1947 – New York Yankees 4, Brooklyn Dodgers 3 – Game 4 of Major League Baseball’s first (barely) integrated World Series was known as the “Cookie Game.” Yankees pitcher Bill Bevens had a no-hitter with two outs in the ninth inning, only to see pinch-hitter Cookie Lavagetto break up the no-hitter and win the game on a two-run double.
  • 1949 – New York Yankees 4, Brooklyn Dodgers 1 – The first of a record five consecutive world championships for the Yankees.
  • 1952 – New York Yankees 4, Brooklyn Dodgers 3 – Game 6 featured the first of Mickey Mantle’s record 18 World Series home runs as the Commerce Comet batted .345 for the series and led the Bombers with 10 hits
  • 1953 – New York Yankees 4, Brooklyn Dodgers 2 – Infielder Billy Martin banged out a (then) record 12 hits, and the Series also marked the first of many World Series broadcasts for Hall of Fame announcer Vin Scully.

THE CHAMPAGNE WAS SHORT-LIVED

When the Dodgers again faced the Yankees in the 1955 Fall Classic, the team featured six future Hall of Famers (Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, and manager Walt Alston) in addition to eight-time all-star Gil Hodges and stars such as Don Newcombe, Carl Furillo, and Carl Erskine. However, it was unlikely heroics from young Johnny Podres that delivered the Bums their first ever World Series title as Podres pitched two complete game victories including the decisive 2-0 game 7 shutout at Yankee Stadium.

1958 Topps
1958 Topps

Following the 1955 championship, fortunes headed south (or maybe west!) quickly. The Brooklyn Dodgers lost again to the Yankees in 1956 (famous for Don Larsen’s perfect game), failed to make the postseason in 1957, and all of a sudden were done. And while the backs of bubble gum cards necessarily lagged a year behind in their chronicling of the game, the front of the 1958 Topps issue was as current as could be, featuring brand new L.A. hats on all the players and noting their team as “L.A. DODGERS.”

All of this adds a special significance to my 1957 Topps Dodgers team set. In addition to many of the players being part of the 1955 championship team, it was also the last cardboard hurrah of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

FROM HODGES TO ELSTON

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1957 Topps Gil Hodges

I began collecting this set some 25 years ago while in college. My first card from the set was Gil Hodges, a player I came to admire greatly after reading The Quiet Man. His 1957 Topps card was a great looking card from a great looking set, also the first Topps set to use photography exclusively and establish the modern 2.5″ x 3.5″ card size.

From there, I thumbed through commons at card shows and placed orders from the Kit Young catalog, slowly adding more and more players over time. I recall finding pretty good deals on Snider and Campy, but I don’t remember for the life of me where I came up with the cash to buy the Koufax card, well centered, crease-free, and relatively sharp. The Drysdale card was his rookie, so I setlled for one a little beat up but good looking from a distance.

Ultimately, when my collecting hit a long hiatus, I suspected I was awfully close to the set. This was pre-Internet, so really I had no idea if my 23 player cards, team card, and Dodgers Sluggers card were all there were. Sure enough, when I picked up collecting again this year, I found I was only $2 away, which is what I paid for pitcher Don Elston, the final piece in the puzzle. The day the card arrived in the mail, I stayed up late and made this card display.

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1957 Topps Brooklyn Dodgers (alphabetical) – Amoros, Bessent, Campanella, Cimoli, Craig, Drysdale, Elston, Erskine, Furillo, Gilliam, Hodges, Jackson, Koufax, Labine, Lehman, Maglie, Neal, Newcombe, Podres, Reese, Snider, Valdes, Walker, Zimmer, Dodgers Sluggers, team card

AN ALMOST PERFECT SET

While this team set featured all the key players from the team’s final year in Brooklyn, I always lamented that this Dodgers set–the only one I had pre-1978–didn’t include my favorite Brooklyn Dodger of all, Jackie Robinson. While he chose to retire following the 1956 season rather than accept a trade to the rival Giants, Robinson nonetheless played the full season with the Dodgers including all seven games of the World Series. However, it was largely the tradition at Topps back then that the set attempt to reflect the current year’s players rather than memorialize the prior year.

The first card is one I made myself but ultimately omitted from my framed display. Meanwhile, the other two, created by Bob Lemke and  Dick Allen Hall of Fame, are ones I am eternally thankful to Topps for never issuing!

jackie robinson jackie_giants2  Jackie_Giants