CHICAGO -- It was never going to be a somber occasion. How could it be? The baseball world gathered to remember one of the most positive, happy and kind-hearted players ever to don a Chicago Cubs uniform. The memorial for Ernie Banks on Saturday morning in Chicago was most definitely a celebration of his life and friendly attitude.
“Ernie has been the cornerstone not only of the Chicago Cubs, but the city of Chicago,” former teammate Billy Williams said. “And those that have met Ernie still remember the joyous smile he had.”
Speaker after speaker reminded the crowd of baseball and political dignitaries, along with hundreds of fans in attendance and many more watching on television, that Banks was always what he appeared to be: happy-go-lucky with an ever positive attitude about life and the Cubs.
Almost every remembrance came with one of his famous sayings, most notably, "Let's play two."
When Williams spoke, he immediately lightened the mood with personal memories of Banks as a roommate for two-and-a-half months -- "I had to get out of there" -- to the final words of his speech, which he knew Ernie would appreciate.
“The Cubs will win as a team ... in 2015,” Williams said in a Banks-esque tone.
That drew loud applause in the previously quiet church. By the time Reverend Jesse Jackson asked the audience to rise and clap for Banks, on what would have been his 84th birthday, any semblance of a somber tone was dismissed.
“Ernie walked up to you as if he knew you for years,” Williams said.
Cubs owner Tom Ricketts added: “Never in time have numbers fallen so short in describing the true greatness of a baseball player. Ernie Banks was known as much for his off-the-field demeanor as his on-the-field performance.”
Listening and watching from the front of Fourth Presbyterian Church were many baseball greats, including Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Reggie Jackson and Lou Brock. Other current and former Cubs and team employees attending included Kerry Wood, Jim Hendry, Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, John McDonough, Glenn Beckert and Randy Hundley. All got an opportunity to remember Mr. Cub for the player and person he was.
“Ernie Banks was living proof that you don’t have to wear a championship ring on your finger in order to be a pillar of baseball and a champion in life,” Joe Torre said in representing Major League Baseball at the ceremony. “He made the confines of Wrigley Field friendly, he made the Cubs lovable, and he was one of the pivotal people during a vital time in our history who made a great game worthy of being our national pastime.”
Banks still holds the major league record for the most regular-season games played (2,528) without a postseason appearance. That says much more about the Cubs than it does about Banks. Despite the team's futility, he became known as Mr. Cub.
In 1969, the Cubs had a very good team but famously faded down the stretch. Even then, Banks kept his positive attitude.
“He would say, ‘It’s a good day for two,’” Williams recalled with a smile. “We could hardly get through one, we were so tired.”
The stories continued, alternating between Banks' abilities on the field and his friendly demeanor off it.
“In 1957, there were four pitchers that had the courage to knock him down,” Torre recalled. “Each and every one of those times, he got up and the next pitch, hit a home run.”
“When we played the Cardinals, Bob Gibson was pitching that day," Williams said. “And Bob came out of the clubhouse -- he’s mean already. And Ernie would be around the batting cage and say, ‘Billy is going to hit a home run off of you today.’ I would say, ‘Ernie, don’t make him meaner.’”
His proudest moment mIGHT have come in 2013, when President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In return, Banks gave Obama a very symbolic gift.
“Standing there in the White House, he held a bat that belonged to Jackie Robinson,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel recalled. “And he handed it to America’s first black president. It was a passing of the torch, across generations, and Ernie Banks was the bridge.”
Time and again, his selfless attitude came up. Banks was the ultimate teammate, as both friend and foe recognized.
“He didn’t want to be a star,” former pitcher Ferguson Jenkins said. “He wanted to be a teammate. You play for the name on the front, not the name on the back,” Banks would say.
Torre added: “For 12 years, I had the good fortune of managing a young man named Derek Jeter. What I learned was that when your best player is willing to dive into the stands to get an out, he sets the tone for everyone else. That was Ernie Banks.”
After retirement, Banks was a fixture at Wrigley Field but rarely wanted to talk about himself, according to many who met and got to know him. He liked to have fun with people and was always trying to play matchmaker.
“Heaven forbid there were two single people in the room ... ‘Why don’t you two get married?’” Ricketts recalled Banks saying often.
A Hall of Fame player, a positive spirit and a friendly demeanor can only begin to summarize what people thought of Banks. On Saturday, the stories told and the memories recalled reminded baseball fans everywhere why he was known as Mr. Cub. It was for more than just hitting home runs.
“Ernie Banks is not Mr. Cub because we loved him,” Ricketts said. “Ernie Banks is Mr. Cub because he loved us back.”
The memorial ended with his twin sons, Jerry and Joey, asking everyone in the church to chant one last time. Joey counted down from 3-2-1.
“Let’s play two.”