Running up the box seat steps behind the Brewers dugout at old County Stadium between innings to make a food run was always an adventure. Everyone seems to have the same idea at the same time so it takes a bit of bobbing and weaving. Up to the Grandstand level, to the right, then a quick left, down the ramp, a snap hook right and you are in front of the most wonderful aroma one can imagine…that sweet smell of fried onions and Secret Stadium Sauce mixing with the finished bratwurst in a tray on the grill more than ready for the hoards gathering behind me. Like in golf, that was the vision in my head as the top of the third was about to conclude.
It is always good to visualize what you want to do. Then you are sure to get there without too much disappointment.
Making the move as the pitcher was about to throw on a 3-2 pitch, it was clear to make the mad dash. But as I was about to hit the top step leading to my right turn on the grandstand level, appearing on the left, as some of the crowd was standing up to stretch their legs, was a man, much bigger than I had thought he would be. He was smiling and waving back to the crowd, as he was also probably heading in the same direction I was about to continue. But he was instantly identifiable with that same 1954 Topps picture now facing me in real-time. He hadn’t aged from when that card photo was taken. Without hesitation, I reached out to shake his hand and Ernie smiled and said, looking directly into my eyes, “Great day to play two, isn’t it.”
Ernie Banks was in the enemy’s camp and nearly everyone was giving him a wave, applauding, running up to get his autograph, all smiling and some of us lucky enough to just shake his hand. It was just a natural thing to do.
So much has been written and said about what he did on the playing field or in the City of Chicago. I had known about Ernie, since childhood when my next door neighbor, Snooky, a diehard Cubs fan, opened that pack of Topps on his front steps. All of us gathered around to see what he had gotten out of that fresh wrap of glory. Then, out popped the coveted Banks rookie card. On the back of card #94, this baseball Wikipedia of its day told us all we wanted to know. Obviously a rookie. Earnest Banks. Born in Dallas, TX, January 31, 1931. 6’1”, 180 lbs. “After gaining recognition as the top ranking player in the Negro National League, Ernie came to the Cubs from the Kansas City Monarchs in September 1953. Seeing only limited service with Chicago last year, the former Army Artillery man hit for 22 total bases and looks like a real hot prospect for a regular Bruin infield berth this season.” 10 games, 35 At Bats. 3 Runs. 11 Hits. 1 Double. 1 Triple. 2 H.R. 6 RBIs. .314 Batting Ave. 19 Put Outs. 33 Assists. 1 Error. .991 Fielding Percentage. And as the Inside Baseball cartoon at the bottom of the back of the card said, ‘Ernie was an all around athlete as a student at Booker T. Washington High in Dallas. He starred in track, basketball, football and of course baseball.”
We devoured every word as gospel on the back of those cards and in moments, Ernie’s stats were burned into our heads.
Now he was smiling at me and shaking my hand. Sputtering something like, ‘Great to see you, Ernie.’ in return and attempting to pull out of his two-handed immense grasp of my right hand, his magic words came out.
I now made the visioned journey with a quicker lift than previous, anxious to get back to the seats to tell the family who I had just met. Amongst the ‘Oh. Wow’s’ and a quick look over their shoulders to see the man I was talking about, he was no long there. But if you looked down just a couple of sections, there he was, still shaking hands…still smiling…and still looking every bit of the legendary hero of so many, including my friends, Snooky and Lenny.
It is a memory that will always be with me even as he has now passed to play two with the Big Guy.
You can imagine the conversation. ‘Not a bad start, Earnest. Now enjoy the rest of time.’