Baseball Great Ernie Banks Still Swinging For 'Something Worthwhile' Hall of Fame baseball legend Ernie Banks talks with Steve Inskeep about his life in the sport. Banks says he remembers nearly every moment of his great career — the sights, the sounds, the feelings — but adds that he's still looking to do "something worthwhile" with his life.

Ernie Banks Still Swinging For 'Worthwhile' Life

Ernie Banks Still Swinging For 'Worthwhile' Life

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Hall of Fame baseball legend Ernie Banks talks with Steve Inskeep about his life in the sport. Banks says he remembers nearly every moment of his great career — the sights, the sounds, the feelings — but adds that he's still looking to do "something worthwhile" with his life.


Just before President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize, we met a man who has yet to receive that honor. Ernie Banks says he always wanted the prize. He wants it even now, as we're about to hear. Banks was one of the greatest players in Major League Baseball. He made the Hall of Fame even though the World Series, like the Nobel Prize, always eluded him. He played for the Chicago Cubs.

ERNIE BANKS: Every year, I always looked at spring training as a brand new year and I didn't think about what happened in the past. I was thinking about new ways for new days, and I couldn't wait to get to spring training.

INSKEEP: The other day Mr. Banks came to Washington to open a conference on baseball at the Library of Congress. We found him at his hotel and brought along an old tape.


JACK BRICKHOUSE: Well here it is, Tuesday, May the 12th, 1970, as Ernie Banks comes to bat. There's two out and nobody on - the top half of the second inning against Atlanta.

INSKEEP: We played that tape for Ernie Banks and the smile spread across his face. He knows this play. He remembers standing in the batter's box. And as he listens, he knows exactly what's about to happen.


BRICKHOUSE: Unidentified Man (Sports announcer): That's a fly ball, deep to left, back, back, that's it, that's it. Hey, hey - he did it, Ernie Banks got number 500.


INSKEEP: His 500th homerun.


BRICKHOUSE: Everybody on your feet. This is it. Whee.

INSKEEP: All these years later, at age 79, Ernie Banks rises to his feet. He throws his strong arms over his head in celebration. And across the hotel lunchroom, people applaud as if the homerun is happening all over again.

BANKS: Oh boy, what a life, what a life. I remember those things like they were yesterday; the pitch, the time, the fans. And when I heard that tape, I felt how I felt that day; and the spirit that I had; and the feeling in my body; and running around the bases; and, you know, just thinking about my mother and father, my dad who trained me and had great interest in me playing baseball. And I think about all of that, my family, my friends, my school - and all that has come back to mind.

INSKEEP: Could you name a point when you thought you'd fallen in love with baseball?

BANKS: Hmm, that's a good question. When I first stepped into Wrigley Field in 1953, the Cubs was on a losing streak, they had a ten game losing streak and...

INSKEEP: How unusual to have the Cubs on a losing streak?

BANKS: It was interesting, but I put on the uniform and I couldn't wait to get down and walk on the field, just to see the place, you know. I think I was the first one on the field. I just said, God, this is the place I want to be. So I found out later that Mr. Wrigley had an apartment in left field, and I went to look at it and I wanted to stay there. I really did. I didn't want to leave the park. It just captured me, it just grabbed me - said this is the place you need to be, like it was talking to me, the park itself. This is your place. This is the place where you do all the things you need to do in the game. And I just fell in love with it.

INSKEEP: How did you come to learn how to deal with disappointment?

BANKS: I guess I was with a writer one time, named Herb Cohen(ph), and he would give me little quotes and things to think about in my life. And he said, well, most things, Ernie, in your life, you care about them, but not that much. So that kind of stuck with my life. I care about it, but not that much. You know, we play a game, we lose, I care about it, but not that much.

INSKEEP: Did you ever ask to be traded, maybe to a team that had won the World Series within anybody's lifetime?

BANKS: No, no I did not. They talked about it, but I didn't think about no trade at all. I just was so focused on playing. When I walked into that ballpark, my mind just, boom, on the game. 'Cause it's a park where you can easily lose your concentration because you're close to the fans and all of that; and you know, you can see people in the stands walking around, pretty girls, and all of that. You could lose your concentration real fast. And I played the game as if nobody was there but me. That was it. When I walk in a ballpark today, I mean it's the same thing, just me and the ball. And my life is like a miracle. I mean, I don't even know how I got into baseball. And I always felt bad about attention coming my way, for some reason. Something happened to me, I do something pretty exciting, and I didn't want the spot light on me. I got an award the other day, at the Library of Congress, and I said, gosh, I'm getting an award for doing nothing. I haven't done anything yet. Nothing.

INSKEEP: Well, I think that record book would dispute you there.

BANKS: No, but me personally, I mean. I always had a bigger goal when I was 15, and that was to win the Nobel Peace Prize. And I think about that a lot. I dream about it. I see myself in Stockholm. That has been my journey. I mean I've been chasing the footsteps of my life to do something worthwhile. I haven't done anything yet. I have not done anything yet.

INSKEEP: Once again, this year, Ernie Banks did not win the Nobel Prize for Peace. His disappointment is real, and yet as we talk, his cell phone rings and the ring tone suggests a corner being turned.

BANKS: The sun is shining and, you know.


GLORIA GAYNOR: (Singing) ...lay down and die? Oh no, not I...

BANKS: Shh. What am I going to do, lay down on die?

INSKEEP: His ringtone is the '70 disco hit, "I Will Survive." That could be the theme songs of the Cubs. "I Will Survive."

BANKS: I Will Survive.

INSKEEP: Ernie Banks survived. He's a father again, at age 79, having adopted a one-year old girl with his wife. And although he's just passing through this Washington hotel, everybody seems to know him. People stop to shake his hand. After a while, Ernie Banks is greeted by a businessman from Libya. Maybe that peace prize is still within reach - for a man that told us during our visit that it's possible to win without winning.


INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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