His passing Friday brought to me a particular sadness, of memories of good days in baseball, our one meeting and his words on loving the game and optimism. He was Mr. Cub…Ernie Banks!
Ed. Note: The month of June marks the anniversary of my indoctrination into professional baseball 32 years ago, my first season as a minor league umpire. I met many interesting and famous people in my 7-plus years, but none nicer, and more encouraging for his attitude on life and playing a boys game…than Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks. On the occasion of his passing 18 months ago, I wrote this memory of our meeting. As a Press Pros encore, I’ll share it again today…as much for my benefit, as yours.
News of hall of famer Ernie Banks’ passing on Friday stopped me dead in my tracks. Didn’t really know the man. Only met him once. Talked with him for less than ten minutes…40 years ago.
So why did the word of his death have such an impact on my day? Well, it was the content of our conversation on that one day, that one occasion. You might say he made a powerful first impression. I’m happy to share why if you choose to read on.
It was in the summer of 1975. It was my first season working as a rookie umpire in minor league baseball in the Gulf Coast League, headquartered in Bradenton, Florida. The GCL was a short rookie league for teams that wanted to evaluate their top draft picks from the June draft…75 games from mid-June to the end of August.
There were six organizations with teams in the league, all of which played at Pirate City, the spring training home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The teams: Cleveland, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, the Chicago Cubs, the White Sox, and the Royals. The facilities were nice, of course. But the weather was miserable…Bradenton in August. You do the math.
They played the games at 10 in the morning and 5 in the afternoon, as a concession to the mid-day heat and humidity. It didn’t seem to make any difference. Morning was preferable because the mosquitoes didn’t come out until late in the day, after six.
Following afternoon games someone would walk from the dressing room to an old biker’s bar across route 19 and buy beers with which to cool off and rehydrate. It was nothing to lose 10 pounds working the plate in that heat. Coldest Beer On The Road, read the sheet metal sign on the side of the bar. On particularly hot days it usually took more than one trip to get the job done. Pabst Blue Ribbon, if I remember correctly!
For some of the six umpires working the GCL it became more than they had bargained for as enthusiastic graduates from Harry Wendelstedt’s umpire school six months earlier. After a couple of weeks the reality of expectation set in. After the obligatory days of players, managers, and umpires getting acquainted, it became contentious. There were arguments, of course. There were ejections. And for some, there were doubts…as to whether they had the stomach for being yelled at daily, questioned, belittled, and disrespected – for $500 a month!
After one particularly rough day working a Cub-Pirates game I was sitting in the non-air-conditioned umpires rooming, leaning back on my chair, stripped to the waist to cool off, struggling to breath in that suffocating late afternoon heat. There was knock on the door, and at quiet, respective voice asked, “Mind if I come in?”
I opened my eyes and looked Ernie Banks squarely in the face. He was standing there in uniform, wearing a Cubs pullover jacket (why, I don’t know…he couldn’t have been chilled), and stuck out his hand as he introduced himself. “I’m Ernie Banks,” he said, smiling. “And you are….?”
Well, I was dumbstruck. Understand now that as a baseball fan growing up I did not need an introduction to Mr. Banks. I knew him immediately, him, his 512 home runs and back-to-back MVPs in the late 50s. My partner, Ted Barron (a former pro wrestler), had no idea who he was. Nor did he care. “I’m going to get beers,” he said. “Can I get you one?” he asked Banks.
Banks shook his head, thanking Barron for his politeness. And with that, Banks sat down and began asking me about my background, my goals, and what I thought of baseball as a job.
“I’m working for the Cubs as a director of minor league player personnel,” he offered. “But the work you umpires do is just as important to the game as the players. We couldn’t play if we didn’t have you, could we?”
I had worked the plate that day for the debut of one of the Cubs’ top draft choices, a huge, hard-throwing righthanded pitcher named Lee Smith. I don’t remember much about him, except to say he was wild and he left several welts and bruises on the unprotected parts of my body during the three innings that he pitched. Banks had plenty of questions…about close pitches being called balls, movement on Smith’s fastball, and its explosiveness in the strike zone. Lee Smith was the first pitcher I ever saw who could throw a hundred miles per hour, and he went on to save 478 big league games as a reliever.
“No one sees the pitches better than you guys,” Banks chuckled.
We chatted for a couple of minutes about the game, and as Banks got up to leave he wished me well. “If you love this game it will love you back, whether you make it to the big leagues or not,” he said. “I hope you do. Baseball is a beautiful game.”
And then with a laugh, he added. “Why would be sitting here in all this heat and sweat if you didn’t love it? Let me know if I can help you.”
I countered. “Would you still want to play two on a day like this?”
“Always,” said Banks, smiling broadly. “Always!”
As he turned to leave I offered him a baseball out of the box of balls left over from the game, and respectfully asked if he’d sign one for me.
“With pleasure,” he said, and penned the words, Peace…Ernie Banks, Chi Cubs, 1975.
In later years I thought of what he told me that day. Decidedly, for the way I left the game of baseball, and umpiring, it did not love me in the fashion I had envisioned, or hoped. And yet, to this day the experiences gained from seven years of heat, humidity, of respect, disrespect, contention, arguments and learning how to handle myself and other people surely paid its dividends.
I still have the ball he signed, his name and words becoming faded now after forty years. It’s in my sock drawer, out of harm’s way. I always think of our conversation when I see it.
Ernie Banks, like baseball, was a beautiful man.