Unlike termites, immortals have seldom been in residence at Wrigley Field. The last colossus was one Hack Wilson, an endomorphic (5'6", 190 pounds) outfielder who finished each game looking like a chimney sweep. He played hard at night, too. He was religious in his rounds, preferring Al Capone's clubs, where he looked like some stumpy Italian cardinal dispensing to the poor. By morning he could be found slumbering in a tub full of ice in the clubhouse. His most famous words were: "Have another beer." He died in a gutter and is buried in Martinsburg, W. Va. beneath a simple inscription: ONE OF BASEBALL'S IMMORTALS, LOUIS R. (HACK) WILSON, RESTS HERE.
More than two decades melted in Wrigley's afternoon sun before the stockbrokers from LaSalle Street, all the saloon caretakers of the North Side and all the kids who were just starting their exodus from city blocks to suburbia could embrace another player of Wilson's stature. His name was Ernie Banks. The only thing he and Wilson had in common was the fact that neither ever refused to sign an autograph. Other than that, Banks was built like a letter opener, comported himself in the manner of a man applying for a loan and relished his work; the only thing he disliked about playing two games was that he could not play three. His most famous words were, and still are, even in these dour last weeks that have not always treated the Cubs kindly: "Welcome to the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. Oh, oh, it's great to be alive and a Cub on this beautiful sun-kissed afternoon."
That was the way he was when he came up in 1953, and he has never changed. After 16 distinguished years baseball's Edgar Guest is a certainty to be marbleized one day at Cooperstown, the place that has tenaciously ignored Hack Wilson. Hack still holds the NL record for home runs, with 56, and the major league RBI record, with 190, but what are you going to do with a guy who, after being admonished for visiting Capone's box at Wrigley, says: "Well, he comes to our place, why shouldn't I go to his?" Clearly, Hack had an image problem, something Ernie Banks will never have—unless Eldridge Cleaver becomes Commissioner of Baseball. Ernie, you see, is baseball, meaning he is what The Game thinks people should think baseball is.
Conjure up all the sonnets, all the treacle that propagandists and the sentimental have contributed to the glorification of The Grand Old Game, and that is Ernie. He is—well, mustard on a kid's face, Babe Ruth promising a home run to a boy in the hospital, the smell of spring and an old, cracking boyhood glove, and all those memories and moments and everything that is a symbol of America. Never mind the Hack Wilsons, just give them Kate Smith—or, better yet, Ernie Banks. But unlike many players before him, those with their institutional patter and cellophane politics, Ernie Banks is an original. By just being, he is the greatest promoter baseball has ever had. "He's a hundred billboards on a hundred highways," says Frank Lane. "He's priceless as advertising."
It does not matter to Banks that the game he is pushing is hardly the tranquil, sacred chunk of Americana it once was, a game of joy and grateful, uncomplaining serfs, a game of few issues and even fewer answers. The euphoria, of course, is long gone, but one would never know it around Banks. His spirit is indestructible, and you always know baseball is near when Banks, like the geese honking north, almost every year predicts unflinchingly that the Cubs will win the pennant; not even the old 10-team races envisioned by Joe Cronin and Warren Giles in their annual newspaper columns achieved more fame. No wonder, then, that Banks moonlights doing commercials for a cookie called Sunshine. For there are truly no clouds in Ernie's life. When gloom pervades the Cub clubhouse, as it has so often of late, Ernie flashes a sign that reads: "Want to wake up each morning with a smile? Sleep with a hanger in your mouth."
Banks is particularly animated during batting practice, that soft time in baseball when players, like washwomen hanging over a fence, exchange gossip, reveal small injustices to confidants and bolster their egos with prodigious drives into the stands. The area around the cage is Banks' stage, where he performs like some aging vaudevillian. He sings, jabs at some down-home philosophy and jabbers in a weird patois that dwarfs those ordinary apostles of boosterism. If he is in St. Louis he will say: " St. Louis! Home of the mighty Cardinals and the great Stan. St. Louis! Great city. Meet me in St. Looie, Looie...." If he is in New York he will say: " New York, the Big Apple, the Melting Pot of the World. Home of Oh! Calcutta! and those pesky Mets! East Side, West Side, all around the town...." In Chicago he overflows.
" Henry Aaron," he says, dramatically, looking over at Aaron. " Henry Aaron! The most dangerous hitter who ever lived. Hall of Fame, here he comes. Henry, let's play two today." Aaron, shaking his head, looks at him curiously.
"Oh," continues Banks, "it's great to be alive in beautiful Wrigley Field." Stepping off the paces, he then acts out a gun duel while humming The Streets of Laredo
. After spinning around and firing, he stops and says, "If everybody loved baseball, if all the kids played it, there would be no shooting in the world."
"Hey, what about Mayor Daley?" he is asked.
"Mayor Daley!" he says. "Mayor Daley! Chicago! My kind of town! Chicago, that toddlin' town...."