Banks was first among Chicago idols

It was a fascinating time to be a sports-obsessed kid in Chicago, the 1960s and early '70s. It wasn't the winning that hooked us; with all due respect to the 1961 Blackhawks and the 1963 Bears, there wasn't that much of it. It was the stars, the incredible roster of iconic players we got to follow and fall in love with. Sayers and Butkus and Ditka; Hull and Mikita; Aparicio, Sloan and Van Lier; Love and Walker; Santo and Jenkins; Williams and, of course, Ernie Banks. Even in that group of athletic gods, Banks would have sat at the head of the table.

By the time I was 12 or 13, I'd accepted that there were better baseball players, Aaron and Mays and Mantle and F. Robby among them. But none of them were the ambassadors for baseball Banks was, none represented his team or his city more admirably or more joyously.

I was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, which means by birthright I was supposed to hate the Cubs. But there was nobody in the world who could talk me into rooting against Ernie Banks. One of the four teams in my little league in West Chatham Park had "Ernie Banks Ford" on the jerseys, because Banks and his car dealership were a co-sponsor of my little league. Maybe we don't have a little league in my park without Ernie Banks.

He lived in the right place and at the right time, when even icons said good morning when they walked into an elevator, or kissed a lady's hand upon introduction. His manner was straight Middle America. If you had something bad to say about Ernie Banks, they were fighting words, because he was a prince among men and a damn good ballplayer to boot. By the time my little buddies and I were 6, 7 years old, we could hold the bat high like Banks, wiggle our fingers pinkie to index, just like Banks, run to first base with that lanky gait, just like Banks. He was probably the greatest hitting shortstop ever, until Cal Ripken came along. He won the MVP twice, led the National League in home runs and RBIs twice each, which was unheard of in those days for a shortstop. He was the Cubs' first black player, which brought with it more stress than we ever knew, because all Banks did publicly -- no matter what he faced privately in the nation's most segregated city -- was smile and shake hands and kiss cheeks and say, "Let's play two!" and hit home runs and make people happy.

Yes, they were simpler times athletically, the 1960s. You didn't necessarily get crucified if your team didn't win, not if you brought the franchise and the city honor as Banks did every single day for 19 years as the Cubs' shortstop, then first baseman. Surely he wanted to at least play in the World Series, but his life surely wasn't defined by his failure to do so. And how thrilled my parents must have been that their sons' first athletic idol, Mr. Banks, was a man who embodied all the values they held dear: that he was decent and clean-cut back when that mattered, that he was approachable, downright sunny, a gentleman.

They say you should never meet your idols -- it's too risky. He could be having a bad day and not feel like talking or signing an autograph or interacting in any way. You don't want to be disappointed, folks used to say. Just keep your distance. I'm a lucky kid. I met all my sporting idols, every one of them, including someone who came a little later, the late Walter Payton. Strangely enough, the last one I got to meet was Ernie Banks.

I'd been a sportswriter for probably 15 years but never crossed paths with Mr. Cub. I was covering a golf event in Chicago and Banks walked into the room. I was trying to get up the nerve to introduce myself to him, explain how he affected my childhood going back to little league. As I fidgeted, Banks shimmied between the bodies, put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Michael, how are you? Don't you forget about the kids where you grew up, because they need to see you." I don't know that I've ever been more surprised in my life, or more gratified that another man knew my name.

I'm sure everybody who spent any real time in Chicago over the past 60 years has an Ernie Banks story. A talented, young, violinist friend who plays for the Chicago Lyric Opera called me a year ago, when Banks was 82, and said that Ernie was welcomed onstage during a concert one night, grabbed her violin and told her he wanted to take lessons. He remembered everybody's name and memorized crazy things about their lives so that when he met them, the conversation wouldn't be entirely tilted toward him -- there was something about a memory class he took decades earlier.

I bought two Ernie Banks throwback jerseys 10 or so years ago, the heavy wool ones they wore in the early 1960s. I've never asked for an autograph otherwise, never ever, but I told Ernie I had the jerseys and I'd like him to sign them so I could frame and hang them. He said, "I want you to do me a favor. Wear 'em to a game or something. Don't frame 'em. They were made to be worn." And so I will. This week. To honor a man who used his athletic gifts and his magnanimous personality to bring generations of people joy in a way few athletes ever have.

I guess childhood officially is over now that Ernie Banks has left us. There's been talk all winter about the Cubs building toward something special. Ernie always said when the Cubs finally won a World Series -- it's 106 years and counting -- he wanted to go to Wrigley Field one night and just stand there alone, in the dark, and soak it all in. So you know what we're thinking, all the little kids who are beyond 50 now and who watched Banks play all those years ago. Maybe this will be the Cubs' time. They'll wear his No. 14 on their jerseys this season and feel about the Cubbies the way he did, which is to say inspired and joyous and ready every single day to play two.