Fly It High For Mr. Cub

By Chris Rewers on Sunday, August 22, 2010

I must've heard it a million times. Every time the name of Ernie Banks is mentioned in a conversation or during a broadcast, my grandfather will describe the typical Banks home run.

"Ernie would hit the ball," Pops says. "Boom. And by the time you turned your head, the ball would already be in the bleachers. No kidding."

Banks isn't remembered for generating the titanic blasts that later Cubs sluggers like Dave Kingman and Sammy Sosa produced. Many of Mr. Cub's 512 career home runs landed in the first few rows of the left-field bleachers.

My neighbor, Charlie, is certain that if the Cubs had installed the basket across the outfield wall prior to 1970, Banks would have had a legitimate shot at 600 homers.

Banks was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977, but it wasn't until the Tribune Company assumed ownership of the Cubs in 1982 that the club announced that it would retire the franchise's most popular all-time player's No. 14.

The retirement ceremony was held before a Cubs-Padres game at Wrigley Field on Aug. 22, 1982.

My grandfather was a tavern owner and somehow (wager? from a beer distributor?) came into possession of 50 box seats down the right-field line for that Sunday afternoon game.

Pops tended bar that afternoon, so it was my grandmother who took my 12-year-old self and my 10-year-old brother to the game. We were joined in our section of seats by an assortment of my grandparents' friends and his regular customers.

My grandmother was a big Cubs fan, but she tended to set the bar low. She always hoped for the best, but expected the worst. I guess that was her way of coping. If you have low expectations, you're not going to be disappointed very often.

As Nana drove us to the ballpark, she was preoccupied with what she should do with an extra ticket she had. After she parked the car, we walked past an old peanut vendor on a Clark Street corner. She gave the old guy the extra ticket.

I don't remember many of the details from the pregame ceremony, but recall the long and boisterous standing ovation Mr. Cub received from the announced crowd of 23,601.

I never enjoyed the pleasure of seeing Banks play, but I was certainly familiar with his career and even at a young age was impressed with how universally loved the guy is. You never hear anyone knock Ernie Banks.

Banks spoke to the crowd before the now familiar "Banks 14" flag was raised on the left-field foul pole to more applause.

As for the game, the highlight was getting to see rookie Tony Gwynn play for the first time. Gwynn had been called up by the Padres the month before. The future Hall of Famer hit his first major league homer and also tripled.

I sat across the aisle from Gwynn on a flight a few years ago and was thrilled to know that he remembered that afternoon fondly. He recalled watching the Banks ceremony from the San Diego dugout and remembered that his home run that day was hit off Cubs reliever Bill Campbell.

Cubs starter Dickie Noles didn't have it that day, he was removed by manager Lee Elia in the third inning after allowing five runs on eight hits.

The Cubs rallied from their early 5-0 deficit. A three-run Jody Davis homer capped a four-run fourth against San Diego starter Eric Show. And the Cubs scored three more in the seventh on RBI singles by Bill Buckner, Scot Thompson, and Jay Johnstone, putting them ahead to stay.

Meanwhile, shortly after the game began, the peddler took his seat next to my grandmother. He kept asking nana if she wanted any potatoes, any onions. He had a truck full of vegetables. He was a bit annoying. After the game, Nana told me that when she gave away the ticket, she forgot that the recipient would be seated next to her.

No good deed goes unpunished.

I had the pleasure of meeting Banks at an event I was attending last year with my father. He shook our hands, posed for a picture, signed a couple autographs and talked to us like we were his friends.

My dad told Mr. Cub how much his career meant to him and what a pleasure it was to watch him play.

Ernie asked my dad what he did for a living. My dad told him that he was a retired police officer. The Hall of Famer aksed my dad several more questions about his career in law enforcement and told him how much he appreciated my dad's service.

It was beyond kind.

In a profile of Banks that he wrote, Al Yellon of bleedcubbieblue.com shared a wonderful Banks quote: "You must try to generate happiness within yourself. If you aren't happy in one place, chances are you won't be happy any place."

That philosophy has served Mr. Cub well and because of it he has touched thousands of lives, including mine.

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