The enduring greatness of Ernie Banks
Byline: Paul White, @PBJWhite, USA TODAY Sports
When Ernie Banks played baseball, the Chicago Cubs hadn't yet installed lights at Wrigley Field, so it was part of the daily ritual to walk through the dank tunnel from the clubhouse to the dugout, then up the steps to the dewy field in an empty ballpark.
As an infrequent visitor, I couldn't help but pause and gasp every time at that scene. I still do.
They're remodeling the ancient stadium this year, but there's no replacing that surreal sense of solitude in the midst of a bustling city -- until an elevated train squeals to a halt at the station a block away.
Banks made that walk thousands of times -- he was paid to do it for 19 seasons by the Cubs -- and, until his death at age 83 last week, you got the feeling he was as genuinely thrilled as I am every time, as any fan would be just to have that chance once.
That was the persona that made Banks, whose funeral will be held Saturday, Mr. Cub, not just for that one-team Hall of Fame career, but for another 40-plus years as the dominant personality for the team's cult-like die-hard supporters.
Hundreds of players have come and gone since Banks' career ended in 1971, and a few reached hero status. And you couldn't help but notice larger-than-life Harry Caray, who could dominate the scene from his broadcast booth, for much of that time.
But being in Wrigley meant you looked for Ernie, as much a constant as the ivy on the outfield wall.
Maybe it was his background in the Negro leagues before breaking the Cubs' color barrier in 1953, playing for the Kansas City Monarchs and being exposed to Buck O'Neil, a man of similar effervescence and appreciation just for being in a big-league ballpark.
Somewhere along the way Banks must have vowed to never, ever forget getting here from growing up one of 12 children in Dallas and playing on a church softball team.
It's not just his "let's play two" that became synonymous with Banks. As the years went on, he said it because everyone expected him to, demanded he did. But you were certain he meant it every time you heard it. Such was the sincerity that always emanated from him.
Like when he'd clasp your hands and ask how you were doing -- and you knew deep down he couldn't possibly remember who you were from a similar meeting months, maybe years earlier. But he sure made you feel like he remembered.
The Cubs and their fans never forgot.
His retired No. 14 billows on a flag attached to a Wrigley Field foul pole. He was the National League Most Valuable Player twice despite spending 13 of his first 14 seasons on teams with losing records. He hit 512 home runs. His 2,528 games are a team record -- and the most by any major league player who never got into a playoff game.
How Cubbie of him.
And somehow he smiled through it all.
His presence reminded you to appreciate the good fortune of having a job that allowed you to be around a ballpark, to interact with people like Ernie Banks.
The next time I walk onto the Wrigley Field grass, I'll survey the scene and soak it in like always. And I'm sure I'll simply expect to see Mr. Cub.
White has covered baseball for USA TODAY since 1988
photo Jacquelyn Martin, AP