Saturday, January 31, 2015

Going Home: Chicago Bids Fitting Goodbye To Mr. Cub

Hall of Famers Lou Brock, Billy Williams, Henry Aaron and Frank Robinson filled the middle of an All-Star roster of mourners Saturday, as baseball royalty joined Chicago and national dignitaries in saying goodbye to Ernie Banks.

Hall of Famers Ferguson Jenkins and Joe Torre, were also in attendance at the services in the vast Fourth Presbyterian Church. They were and joined by sprinklings of Cubs players and personnel from several generations, as the one and only "Mr. Cub" was remembered by friends and family. For a second day, baseball fans also were drawn to Mr. Banks’ closed casket adorned with a flag bearing his No. 14, needing, wanting one more chance to say thank-you and farewell to their hero, who would have turned 84 today.

"His durability and consistently made him a constant the hey days of guys like Henry Aaron, Willie Mays and Frank Robinson," said Torre. But the Hall of Fame manager, like other speakers, spoke of the man, allowing his numbers to speak for themselves. "His story doesn't revolve around baseball," Torre said, adding later, "Ernie Banks is living proof that you don't have to wear a championship ring on your finger to be a pillar baseball and of life."

Torre, as he often does, summed up perfectly how wonderfully intertwined are Mr. Banks and the concept that is The Cubs: He made the confines of Wrigley friendly," said Torre.

The services Saturday featured many other speakers, of course, befitting Mr. Banks’ place in Chicago and baseball lore. Politicians did their due diligence. So, too, did The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who grew up in a city where Mr. Banks’ smile helped smooth baseball’s often rough passages to a more equitable America in the mid-20th Century.

Mr. Banks was the first African American to play for the Cubs, arriving in 1953 after the Cubs purchased his contract from the Negro Leagues powerhouse Kansas City Monarchs for $10,000. He broke the barriers that remained within the confines of the North Side team’s locker room six years after Jackie Robinson’s advancement to the Dodgers broke the major-league color barrier.

The efforts of all such pioneers, including Mr. Robinson, who shares a birthday with Mr. Banks, could not be overlooked. Chicago, The Second City, embraced Mr. Banks. And he embraced Chicago, making it is own. His arrival signaled a celebration of change, thankfully. But we should not forget: This was no small fete. As Jackson reminded the attendees. :Smiling faces can sometimes conceal what’s deep within,” he said, describing Mr. Banks’ demeanor as a thermostat that “helped control the temperature” of his times.

Mr. Banks transcended more than just a racial divide. He exuded an ability to love unconditionally, something generation after generation of Cubs fans, and players, needed to learn merely for purposes of survival.  Mr. Banks made the losing hurt less. He made the dream of winning shine through forever. He made being a Cub, and a Cub fan, reason enough to smile.

"People not only here in Chicago but people around the world recognize the type of individual he was,” longtime teammate Billy Williams said. "It's beginning to sink in now -- I've lost a great friend, you've lost a great friend."

Thus, the emotions that spilled over, as expected, along the route traveled by the funeral procession that carried Mr. Banks on his final journey to Wrigley Field. The procession, which  passed Daley, passed fans decked in Cubs hats, coats, blankets and tears,  ended at the iconic North Chicago ballpark on the corner of Clark and Addison.

So, so, so fitting, that last trip to Wrigleyville: for Mr. Banks graced that hallowed ground for two decades and made it clear with every declaration, right to his dying day: there was no place else he would rather be.

But now he graces a higher league, where games will never have clocks, where the sun shines for all eternity. As Joey Banks, one of Mr. Banks' twin sons, said, "move over, Honus Wagner, there's a new shortstop in Heaven."