My office-in-the-home is something of a shrine. I have a large framed photograph on one wall of Ernie Banks, which Banks signed for me some ten years ago. It says “To Jim, Let’s Play Two.” For the uninitiated, that was Ernie’s saying. He played for the Cubs for 18 pretty much fruitless seasons (counting 1953, when he came up late in the year) , but when the visiting team showed up to play day games (all they had at Wrigley during Ernie’s career), he’d say that it was a glorious day for baseball, and that they should play two.
On the same wall I have this large framed poster of Ernie, and on the facing wall another picture of him. In the garage I have a collection of Ernie-obilia. In the mid-fifties, the Cubs let you send postcards to the players. These were two-cent postcards. You’d send them in, and the players would sign them and mail them back to you. I have one of those from Ernie, who signed and returned it to me in 1956. I also have post cards from Dee Fondy (first baseman) and Vito Valentinetti. Fondy you may have heard of; Valentinetti, probably not. Vito was a starting pitcher who went 6-4 for the Cubs in 1956 with a respectable 3.78 ERA. He went on to pitch without too much distinction for several seasons with Washington (the Senators in those days), Cleveland and Detroit.
I actually met Ernie Banks in 1959. Our family lived in Arizona at the time, and my mom, dad and I went to Tucson to see an exhibition game between the Cubs and the Indians. After the game my dad, warmed by quite a few beers and the Arizona sun, barged into the Cubs locker room and told Ernie that his wife and son wanted to meet him. So Ernie came out, still wearing his game pants and a tee shirt, and signed my program for me. My mom gushed that we were huge fans. Ernie asked how I was doing in school.
The “Let’s Play Two” picture I mentioned above? Ernie signed that for me at a card show my son and I went to in Washington DC. Ernie wanted to know how my then 12-year-old son was doing in school. I told him about meeting him all those years ago in Arizona, and he acted like he remembered.
After that, for a time, my son got interested in baseball cards, and I started my own collection. I knew that current and former baseball stars didn’t give autographs away. So what I did, I had several pictures of Ernie that I’d found in various places, and I sent those to Ernie asking if he’d sign them for me. I wrote a note, saying I knew he couldn’t do it for free, but I didn’t know how much he charged. So I sent a blank check, and told him to fill in a reasonable amount. He signed everything for me and sent the check back.
Ernie died a week or so ago, just before his 84th birthday. I wanted you to know why people are making such a fuss about him. Athletes are fond of saying of certain of their brethren, that “They played the game right.” All of my data suggests that Ernie played the game right.
Speaking of “the game,” do you know what it was like in the fifties and sixties when Ernie played? The recent film “42,” about Jackie Robinson, gives a pretty good idea. During much of the fifties, batters hit without helmets. There were fewer teams, and the talent level on those few teams was very high. Ernie would go up there sans helmet and face Don Newcombe, Carl Erskine, Don Drysdale, Robin Roberts, Juan Marichal, Warren Spahn, and Sandy Koufax. Umpires were much more relaxed about pitchers knocking batters down and hitting them. Supplying, as they said, “A little chin music.” Sal Maglie of the Giants was nicknamed “The Barber” because he gave hitters so many close shaves. A different game.
Ernie would face those guys (and another phalanx of them including Bob Gibson in the sixties) and say “Let’s play two.”
There’s a joke in which a baseball fan is allowed a conversation with an angel, of whom he asks, “Is there baseball in heaven?” To his relief, the angel replies “Yes there is.” The fan’s relief is short-lived, however, because the angel adds—“You’re pitching tomorrow.”
Ernie’s there now, and he’s saying “Let’s play two!”