Having awakened this morning to news of the death of baseball great Ernie Banks at the age of 83, I’m trying to sort through a flood of memories that suddenly — and even surprisingly, in some respects — come to mind.


Banks was one of my great boyhood heroes, to be sure, but only now do I begin to grasp just how important he was to me in my formative years. My obsession with him was such that my nickname among my male friends in the mid- and late 1950s was “Ernie.”


The Chicago Cubs were terrible in those years, but Banks was great. I didn’t mind the futility of my favorite team so long as Ernie did well. In truth, I was a Banks fan first, and then a Cub fan. Don’t ask me why. I’ll probably never be able to explain it.


As I look back on those years, I get a sense that Ernie Banks had as much to do with my emerging favor for the nascent civil rights movement of the ’50s as any other influence. No, he wasn’t a political activist himself, but he was black. And he was my hero. In my mind, the movement was about him and all other black people. Ernie never complained about racism in those days, as far as I knew. I guess I felt it was up to me and others to complain on his behalf.


The first Cub game I ever attended was on Sunday, Sept. 13, 1953. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the end of the Cubs as an all-white team. A few days later, their first two black players,  Banks and Gene Baker, came aboard. That season was the seventh since Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, and the other Major League teams gradually were integrating — not so much out of a sense of justice as a means of tapping a great pool of black talent. Still, it would take another six years before the Boston Red Sox became the last team to integrate, when Pumpsie Green signed on in 1959.


Ernie Banks hit 19 home runs in his first full season with the Cubs in 1954. That was less than half as many long ones as Cub slugger Hank Sauer hit that year, but Banks was now my favorite player. The next year he hit 44 homers, a record five of them with the bases loaded. Ernie had become a full-fledged fledged star on his way to Hall of Fame status.


I don’t know exactly what endeared Banks to me right away. Even before he had proved himself on the field, he was my main man.  Perhaps it was the race thing, but I’m not sure. I’ll probably never know.


And now, a week short of his 84th birthday, Ernie Banks is gone. And memories of a vitally important part of my life have returned.

Having awakened this morning to news of the death of baseball great Ernie Banks at the age of 83, I’m trying to sort through a flood of memories that suddenly — and even surprisingly, in some respects — come to mind.

Banks was one of my great boyhood heroes, to be sure, but only now do I begin to grasp just how important he was to me in my formative years. My obsession with him was such that my nickname among my male friends in the mid- and late 1950s was “Ernie.”

The Chicago Cubs were terrible in those years, but Banks was great. I didn’t mind the futility of my favorite team so long as Ernie did well. In truth, I was a Banks fan first, and then a Cub fan. Don’t ask me why. I’ll probably never be able to explain it.

As I look back on those years, I get a sense that Ernie Banks had as much to do with my emerging favor for the nascent civil rights movement of the ’50s as any other influence. No, he wasn’t a political activist himself, but he was black. And he was my hero. In my mind, the movement was about him and all other black people. Ernie never complained about racism in those days, as far as I knew. I guess I felt it was up to me and others to complain on his behalf.

The first Cub game I ever attended was on Sunday, Sept. 13, 1953. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the end of the Cubs as an all-white team. A few days later, their first two black players,  Banks and Gene Baker, came aboard. That season was the seventh since Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, and the other Major League teams gradually were integrating — not so much out of a sense of justice as a means of tapping a great pool of black talent. Still, it would take another six years before the Boston Red Sox became the last team to integrate, when Pumpsie Green signed on in 1959.

Ernie Banks hit 19 home runs in his first full season with the Cubs in 1954. That was less than half as many long ones as Cub slugger Hank Sauer hit that year, but Banks was now my favorite player. The next year he hit 44 homers, a record five of them with the bases loaded. Ernie had become a full-fledged fledged star on his way to Hall of Fame status.

I don’t know exactly what endeared Banks to me right away. Even before he had proved himself on the field, he was my main man.  Perhaps it was the race thing, but I’m not sure. I’ll probably never know.

And now, a week short of his 84th birthday, Ernie Banks is gone. And memories of a vitally important part of my life have returned.