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:
Much 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.
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.
Still, 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.