Lindholm: Beautiful day — Let’s play two!

When Ernie Banks was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977, he began his acceptance speech with his customary invocation: “We’ve got the setting. Sunshine. Fresh air. We’ve got the team behind us. So let’s play two!”
Ernie Banks died on Jan. 23, and the flag of every Cubs fan flew at half-mast on that day. He was officially “Mr. Cub,” having played only for the Cubs for all his 19 years in the majors. It is safe to say there has not been a more beloved athlete by fans in any sport than Ernie Banks was to Chicagoans.
Despite years of disappointment by the Cubs, Ernie Banks exuded a joy in stark contrast to the often cynical pragmatism that so dominates sports today. He was known for his love of the game and his eternally sunny disposition.
His career gives lie to the contemporary estimate of greatness in athletics which is measured in championships won: Ernie Banks played over 2,500 games in the big leagues, not a single one in the post-season.
At 6 feet-1 inch, 180 pounds, he was a lithe and graceful infielder. With an apparently effortless swing, he could hit the ball a mile, finishing with 512 homers, none of which was steroid-aided.
As a player, he was magnificent. He hit over 40 homers five times, had five grand slam home runs in one season (1958), was an All-Star 11 times, won the National League’s Most Valuable Player in back-to-back seasons in 1958 (47 home runs, 129 RBI) and ’59 (45 homers, 143 RBI), and in 1960, was awarded a Gold Glove for excellence defensively at shortstop.
Banks was born and raised in Dallas, Texas, the second oldest of 12 children, the son of a janitor. He attended Booker T. Washington High School, which didn’t have a baseball team, so he starred in football, basketball, and track, and played baseball in the summer.
He was playing for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League, when his contract was purchased by the Cubs in September 1953. In his Hall of Fame speech, he cited Negro leaguers Monte Irvin and Cool Papa Bell, who “taught me the game” and served as mentors.
Ernie early became known for his cheerful and decorous nature, but life was not easy for the Cubs’ first black player. He lived in a real world, not in some bubble of innocent and exuberant play.
After integration, the walls did not by any means come tumblin’ down in organized baseball. The Cubs, like other teams, had an unstated quota system, and Banks rarely had more than one or two black teammates. Very few black fans attended Cubs’ games.
The Cubs were the glory of the tony North Side communities of Chicago, enclaves of white affluence. The majority of black people in Chicago lived on the South Side and were Chicago White Sox fans, with their own favorites, such as their first black player, Orestes “Minnie” Minoso, “the Cuban Comet,” signed two years before Ernie.
Ernie himself lived on the South Side while playing for the Cubs: trying to find a house to buy or apartment to rent near Wrigley Field was unthinkable.
Ernie’s career coincided with the Civil Rights Movement of Martin Luther King Jr. There were those who felt that Ernie’s enormous popularity, especially among white fans, was at least in part the result of the fact that he didn’t engage the turbulent events of the day or speak out on the issues of racial equality.
He felt the need to address this perception in his memoir, “Mr. Cub”: “Some people feel that because you are black you will never be treated fairly, and that you should voice your opinions, be militant about them. I don’t feel this way. You can’t convince a fool against his will.
“I don’t think it’s up to black athletes to get involved in political or racial issues.”
African-American writer Earl Ofari Hutchinson described his attitude about Ernie growing up on Chicago’s South Side: “I was not a fan of the Cubs. I was a fan of Banks. I cherished him for his phenomenal baseball skills, grace, warmth and dignity. He was a sports role model for me and other young blacks in Chicago at a time when we desperately needed them in the Big Leagues.”
When we celebrate Ernie Banks’s declaration, “It’s a beautiful day, let’s play two,” or Buck O’Neil’s assertion, “Waste no tears for me, I was born right on time,” or Satchel Paige’s pronouncement, “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you,” I do worry . . .
I worry that it all somehow serves to diminish for us the insult of segregation, slavery’s substitute, and the painfully slow and uneven progress of integration, and reduces these men whose lives were complicated and whose greatness was hard-won, to clichés, racial stereotypes — the durable innocent, the unlettered sage.
There is no question that Ernie’s love and appreciation for the game was deep and abiding. His teammate, Billy Williams, said Ernie was “a joy to be around.”
“Let’s play two!” encapsulates that joy, but is not the total measure of the man.
Karl Lindholm is an Assistant Professor of American Studies at Middlebury College. He is teaching a course this spring called “Segregation in America: Baseball’s Negro Leagues.”

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