By Phil Rogers
His story is like a movie script built around an unexpected turn, a chance that for him was easier to seize than to explain. Maybe that's because Ernie Banks had trouble believing it even as he lived it.
"My life is like a miracle," Banks said a few years ago.
A power-hitting shortstop ahead of his time, he won back-to-back MVP awards in 1958 and '59, staking a lasting claim as arguably the greatest player in Cubs history.
Banks died at age 83 on Friday, never having seen his franchise win a championship. But it's silly to spend any time worrying about something so superficial. His larger legacy is as one of the National League All-Stars who followed closely behind Jackie Robinson in integrating baseball, and he'll be remembered for how he always wore the mantle of Mr. Cub with pride, dignity and tireless enthusiasm.
Not that he sought out such acclaim.
Banks, who grew up in Dallas, once told me he was having so much fun riding buses with the Kansas City Monarchs that he wasn't happy when owner Tom Baird sold him and pitcher Bill Dickey to the Cubs for $20,000 in September, 1953.
Had Banks controlled his own future, he might have stayed with the Monarchs rather than break the color barrier for the Cubs. "I really didn't want to come,'' he said. "Do you believe that?''
Yet when Banks pulled on one of the Cubs' white flannel uniforms, he hit the first pitch he saw in batting practice over the ivy-covered wall. It was like he was hand-delivered to be, in the words of documentarian Ken Burns, "the sort of spice in this gumbo called the Chicago Cubs, beloved by everybody, embraced by everybody.''
It was never as easy as Banks made it look, right from that first swing. "I just stepped into the batting cage," Banks said. "They threw me the ball, boom, I hit it out of the park … Is that all there is?"
Banks remembered thinking about that Peggy Lee standard on his first day at Wrigley Field.
"Is that all there is my friend? Let's keep on dancing," he sang as we talked. "Looking at the bleachers, how close it was, no lights at Wrigley, we had not many people in the stands. It was just strange to be there to me. Manager Phil Cavarretta came up, said, 'Welcome to the team,' and all that. It was just a shock to me. I was totally lost. That's the way my life has been."
Banks and baseball's other pioneers paid heavily, in many ways, for the opportunities they were given.
"We have no idea how difficult it was,'' Commissioner Bud Selig said.
As well as anyone in baseball history, Banks rolled with the punches. He was 22 when he arrived at Wrigley Field and played 19 seasons there. He batted .274, hit 512 home runs and played in 14 All-Star games in his career, always while living far away from his white teammates because of Chicago's housing covenants.
Banks had picked cotton as a boy, helping to support his family by hiring himself out as a field hand for farmers east of Dallas. He believes that's where he developed the strong, quick hands he used to create his niche in baseball.
"My hitting was just the way I did it,'' Banks said. "I picked cotton. I don't know if you know anything about this. I picked cotton when I was quite young. My dad used to take me to the cotton fields, tell me to pick cotton. It taught me how to use my hands. I would grab. When I started to play baseball I just had the natural quick hands. That was my extra advantage, my slight edge over anybody else. I had quick hands. I could wait to the last minute and hit the ball. Nobody could understand it. But I had those quick hands, which I developed by picking cotton.''
When the Cubs grew competitive in the late 1960s under Leo Durocher, Banks and fellow Hall of Famer Billy Williams were living on the South Side. Chicago was the scene of race riots in 1966, '67 and '68, and organizers were always trying to pull Banks into one movement or another. He resisted direct involvement, instead showing up to the ballpark with a good attitude every day.
"Well, he told 'em, 'I don't have time to march but I contribute voluntarily,'" said fellow Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, who played alongside Banks on the 1956 Cubs. "'I try to play good baseball to make up for it that way. Give the kids somebody to look up to, so the fans come to the ballpark pleased.' That's what he thought. I think that's a pretty good attitude.''
Banks was a favorite of fans of all colors because of his personality as well as his skills.
"I tried to sign every kid's autograph," Banks said. "Because in my mind I thought that one day I might have to ask this kid for a job."
Banks refused to be baited into confrontations, even by Durocher, who was noted for his abrasive nature. There was no love lost between those two, largely because, when Durocher took over as Cubs manager in 1966, he felt like Banks was washed up.
Knee injuries had forced Banks to move from shortstop to first base in 1962, after an unsuccessful trial in left field. Durocher, who was jealous of Banks' popularity, looked to Lee Thomas, John Boccabella, John Herrnstein, Clarence Jones and others as possible replacements, but every year Banks would prove he belonged in the middle of the lineup. He hit 23 homers and drove in 106 runs at age 38 in 1969, when Gil Hodges' Mets ran down the Cubs, and in the process broke the hearts of millions in Chicago, including Banks'.
Whenever Durocher would take Banks out of the lineup, the franchise icon would make a point to sit next to his manager in the dugout.
"When somebody resented me, didn't like me -- and that was the case with Leo -- I kind of killed them with kindness," Banks said. "On the bench, I'd always sit beside him, on the plane sit beside him, in the dugout sit beside him. He's always looking around and seeing me … When you light a fire under my heels, it just made me better."
Banks, of course, was known for "Let's play two," and the other catch phrases that rolled off his tongue. He was a chatterbox throughout his life -- Irvin recalls Pee Wee Reese saying the Cubs never won because Banks "talked 'em to death" -- but rarely talked about the difficulties he faced in life.
Like Henry Aaron, like Willie Mays, like Robinson, he simply overcame them.
Phil Rogers is a contributor to Sports on Earth and a columnist for MLB.com. He previously wrote for the Chicago Tribune and the Dallas Morning News.