SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Every Saturday, in the studio, caffeinated and ready to leap upon the news, I pause to make a page over our system here at NPR headquarters.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SIMON: It's a beautiful day for a radio show. Let's do two today.
That's a tribute to Ernie Banks, all wrapped up in a tradition of mine. Let's play two was the motto by which Ernie Banks was known for keeping his sunny disposition through his career with the hangdog Chicago Cubs, during which he was a two-time most valuable player, a 14-time All-Star and a first ballot Hall of Famer but never played in a World Series.
Ron Rapoport, longtime sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and our sports commentator here on WEEKEND EDITION has a biography of one of baseball's most ebullient, beloved but inscrutable stars, "Let's Play Two: The Legend Of Mr. Cub, The Life Of Ernie Banks." Ron joins us from WBEZ in Chicago. Ron, thanks so much for being back with us.
RON RAPOPORT: It's great to be with you, Scott. Thanks for having me.
SIMON: You tried to do a book with Ernie Banks, didn't you?
RAPOPORT: I did. We had long conversations about all kinds of things - growing up in segregated Dallas, missing school for a whole year to pick cotton with his dad, playing with Buck O'Neil in the Negro Leagues, coming to those awful Cub teams, fighting with Leo Durocher, his problems with his family and getting adjusted to life after baseball.
I was really excited about it, and then he pulled the plug. Scott, I could've strangled him. He decided he didn't want to do it. So I decided that we would turn it into a biography. And I talked to more than a hundred people.
SIMON: You pointed out and may have discovered the reasons why he didn't talk about himself a lot, which we should explain is exactly what those of us who are fans usually want someone like Ernie Banks to do.
RAPOPORT: Well, people would talk to Ernie. And they'd say, my golly, I had a chance to talk to my childhood hero. What a thrill. And then they'd pause a minute and say, but all we talked about was me. And that was Ernie. He played defense by going on offense.
If he could control the conversation - how's your wife? How's your family? Ernie had a photographic memory, by the way. So he'd remember if he'd met somebody five years earlier. Then, if he could do that, then he didn't have to talk about himself. And Ernie was a very private person.
SIMON: So much attention to his personality. Remind us. How good a player was Ernie Banks, first for the Kansas City Monarchs, then the Cubs?
RAPOPORT: Scott, from 1955 to 1960 - 6 seasons - Ernie hit more home runs and had more runs batted in than Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Eddie Mathews, everybody else in baseball. During those six seasons, all those players went to multiple World Series. And during those six seasons, the Cubs finished a total of 123 games out of first place.
RAPOPORT: I mean, he was this great, great baseball player, and it all went for nothing.
SIMON: I want to play a clip now - May 12, 1970.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JACK BRICKHOUSE: Jarvis fires away. That's a fly ball, deep to left, back, back. That's it. That's it. Hey, hey. He did it. Ernie Banks got No. 500. A line drive...
SIMON: Ernie Banks' 500th home run. By the way, that's my Uncle Jack making the call.
RAPOPORT: It is your Uncle Jack.
SIMON: Yes, it is.
RAPOPORT: I've heard that clip once or twice before.
SIMON: Yeah, well, a million times I think we've both heard it.
He used to say, oh, I didn't mind that we never got to the World Series. I was just happy to play for this great club here in Chicago. Your book developed the idea he wasn't all that happy about it.
RAPOPORT: It broke his heart, Scott. He would go - Ernie would go to Cooperstown for Hall of Fame reunions. You know, the Hall of Famers would go every year, sit around in a room, josh each other, talk about the good old days. And Ernie would look around the room. And he'd see that he was the only one there who'd never been to a World Series. And it bugged him. He told me that it got to him so much, it hurt him so much that he went to see a psychiatrist.
RAPOPORT: And what could the psychiatrist say? Only that he'd done his best - had done as best he could.
RAPOPORT: It really hurt him.
SIMON: Should've signed with the Yankees (laughter).
RAPOPORT: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was a hole in his life. You know, he did pretend - you're right - but it really bothered him.
SIMON: It would be fair to say that he was a better teammate than a father. Let me put it that way.
RAPOPORT: Yeah. His teammates adored him. They really did. But he - I had these frank conversations with Joey and Jerry, Ernie's sons. And they were very honest with me that they were never as close as fathers and sons should be. Jerry once told me that his dad never played catch with him. He was busy. He was not home, you know?
RAPOPORT: It was really a problem. I'm really grateful to them for being so honest with me about it, as were so many of the other people that I spoke with. They loved Ernie. They revered Ernie.
RAPOPORT: But he frustrated them at times, too.
SIMON: I was very glad to read that in his later years, the Ricketts family, who own the Cubs now, did their best to stand by Ernie Banks.
RAPOPORT: Ernie had trouble under the Tribune ownership. And in fairness, he didn't always show up where he was supposed to be...
RAPOPORT: ...And caused a lot of problems. But when the Ricketts family bought the club - I had a long conversation with Tom Ricketts, and he told me, you know, you got to take care of your Hall of Famers. Well, they did.
They put him back on the payroll. They paid him to just kind of go to Wrigley Field and sit in suites with the fans. They took care of him. They paid for his apartment in Trump Tower. When he died, they paid for the entire funeral. It was like a state funeral. It was on television. It lasted for three hours. They brought in...
SIMON: Believe me, I know. I saw it.
RAPOPORT: Yeah. For anybody who's interested, it's on YouTube. You can watch the whole three hours.
They were good to - the Ricketts family ownership was very good to Ernie. So they made those last years, along with Regina Rice, his friend and caretaker - made him as comfortable as he could be, estranged from his family and not really having any of his family around him.
SIMON: Yeah. Yeah. I - you know, I was pallbearers with him at Uncle Jack's funeral. I remember that day. He knew everybody wanted him to be Ernie Banks.
RAPOPORT: He was very good at being Ernie Banks. He was really great. And you couldn't be in his presence and not smile. You know, that smile was real. It was genuine. But it was also a mask that he hid behind. I found his third wife, Marjorie, a lot. She's living in Palm Desert. She tried to get him to come out of his shell. And she said something that stopped me cold when she said, if only he could've been as happy as he pretended to be.
SIMON: Oh, that breaks my heart.
RAPOPORT: On the other hand, when he insisted on playing this role, this mask, this happiness, this trying to bring joy to other people, she stopped and thought, well, maybe that was why she married him in the first place.
SIMON: Ron Rapoport - his book, "Let's Play Two: The Legend Of Mr. Cub, The Life Of Ernie Banks." Ron, thanks so much for being with us.
RAPOPORT: Thanks for having me, Scott. It was a great pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL THE WAY")
EDDIE VEDDER: (Singing) Don't let anyone say that it's just a game, for I've seen other teams, and it's never the same. When you're born in Chicago, you're blessed and you're healed the first time you walk into Wrigley Field.
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