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Happy Birthday, Ernie Banks: Mr. Cub Turns 80

Ernie Banks has lived quite a life -- not just for his 19-year playing career with the Cubs, but in the 40 years since it ended.

Ernie Banks throws out the first pitch before the Gillette Civil Rights Game between the Cincinnati Reds and the St. Louis Cardinals at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Ernie Banks throws out the first pitch before the Gillette Civil Rights Game between the Cincinnati Reds and the St. Louis Cardinals at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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If Jack Brickhouse used to proclaim Ernie Banks "you wunnerful ol' man, you" when he'd belt a clutch homer at 38, what would have Brick called Mr. Cub now that he's more than doubled that time on the calendar?

He truly is "Ol' Ern," for on Monday Banks turns 80. He's up and about and still as enthusiastic as ever. Prior to a gala birthday party for Banks on Saturday at Harry Caray's downtown (at which he took a spill, but got up unscathed), his previous public appearance was a few days earlier, when he helped former Cubs farmhand-turned-Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White and Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts unveil a new team-themed license plate. Ricketts seems intent on drawing every great Cub back into the fold, and Banks of course tops the list.

Ernie is the oldest regular from the fabled 1969 Cubs -- in fact, in 1969 he was the oldest position player in the major leagues. For all the positives of his milestone birthday, there's one big negative -- the recent death of Ron Santo, whom he followed at No. 5 in the batting order for the better part of the Sixties. That puts a framework on Mr. Cubs' mortality. You simply count the blessings he's on his feet and as glib as ever.

Thus it's never too late to find out what makes Banks tick. I've tried, and he's often been quicker with this feet off the field than on it. Baseball's champion sloganeer ("Let's play two," "The Cubs' will shine in '69" and "The Cubs will be heavenly in '70") could juke and feint with you with the best of 'em.

What a grand story he could tell, rising up from a poor family in Dallas to become the greatest Cub ever, breaking the Wrigley Field color line in a much-anticipated, much-delayed crossing in Sept. 1953. He was expected to be a civil rights activist, a spokesman, but that wasn't Banks' personality. No one is stamped out of an assembly line, even in a noble cause such as ending Jim Crow south of the Mason-DIxon line and more subtle but no-less-effective discrimination north of it. Still, what Banks went through and how he handled himself as sometimes a stranger in a strange land would be captivating to hear. He was one of five African-American Cubs in a starting lineup in the team's home opener in 1956 -- a few days after the Brooklyn Dodgers were first to field a majority lineup of color. In contrast, he was the only African-American Cub for most of 1957 and 1958 -- did that feel lonely?

He was projected near the end of his career in 1970 as a candidate to be the first African-American manager. And he got that distinction, if only for a couple of innings. Then the first-base coach, Banks took over the Cubs in the 11th inning on May 8, 1973 in San Diego after manager Whitey Lockman was tossed out. Third-base coach Pete Reiser and pitching coach Larry Jansen were not with the Cubs due to health reasons. Banks guided the Cubs to a 3-2 victory in the 12th, two years before Frank Robinson became the first full-time African-American manager in Cleveland. All this, on a team that prohibited Buck O'Neil, the first African-American big-league coach, from running the Cubs when head coach Charlie Metro was ejected just 11 years previously. Banks' cameo appearance at the Cubs' helm should not be underrated, and I wonder what he thinks about that?

Stick to statistics, and it gets even more riveting. Banks probably was baseball's best right-handed hitter for a six-year period from 1955 to 1960. He out-performed Hank Aaron and Willie Mays during that period, winning back-to-back MVPs in 1958-59 on fifth-place teams which finished a collective 16 games under .500. Had he played on winners in New York, Banks would have been as celebrated as Mays. As it was, he and Stan Musial were just passing references on Ken Burns' classic "Baseball" series. Mr. Cub had a helluva run -- that must make him proud 'till the end of time, right?

Perhaps his own personal wanderlust matches his hard-to-catch personality. Despite his prominence, Banks could not stick at one gig long enough to cement his post-baseball legacy. He went from first-base coach to minor-league hitting instructor, to Cubs group-sales director to an assured $25,000 salary for being Mr. Cub, then off the team payroll under GM Dallas Green in 1983. Banks ran for alderman as a Republican in Chicago in 1963, was named to the CTA board by Gov. Richard Ogilvie, and later toiled for a moving company in Los Angeles. He shuttles all the time from Chicago to LA.

I caught him in May 1980 when he was a management trainee at the Bank of Ravenswood, now a branch of Chase Bank, on Lawrence Avenue just east of Damen Avenue, about two miles from Wrigley Field. We sat at a desk in the middle of the bank. Banks had plenty of time that afternoon to reminisce. His desk seemed clean; he did not appear loaded with work. He listened intently to audio highlights of his career I had brought in on tape cassettes. Banks did not stick with banking too long. Maybe the interest rates of the hyper-inflationary time -- in the high teens -- cut into his sunny disposition.

A couple of times I somehow pinned him down around the dugout at Wrigley Field. A 1998 "Diamond Gems" radio tape has Banks astoundingly proclaiming he would not be unfufilled if the Cubs never won a World Series in his lifetime. There had to be more in-depth feelings inside that man, but he never let it on.

There was a sad side. A July 2003 encounter in the pressbox lunchroom at Wrigley Field resulted in two innings' worth of dodging in trying to get comments for a "Diamond Gems" tribute I was putting together to honor broadcaster Vince Lloyd, who had just died at 86. Lloyd, along with Brickhouse, P.K. Wrigley and Yosh Kawano, were the only major Cubs figures with Banks his entire Chicago playing career. Somehow, Banks did not feel close enough to Lloyd to utter some thoughtful remembrances. Finally, he relented, just as front-office stalwart Joe Rios closed in to take Ernie to his appointed seventh-inning stretch singalong in the TV booth. But why did he feel so cold about Lloyd, a true gentleman in a business of scoundrels?

Banks has gone through a number of marriages, and the end of his second to Eloyce Banks, mother of his three children, resulted in many of his awards and plaques in the possession of his ex-wife. That was either some incompetent divorce-attorney work, or Ernie didn't care at the time. Years later, a key award was auctioned off by Eloyce and Ernie desperately tried to bid to get it back. How did this happen?

There's a lot more to this man that he lets on. Sammy Sosa's disgrace ensures he remains "Mr. Cub" for all time. I want to know as much as you can about the man who was the best in franchise history. But I'm a long ways away. In the end, that's probably the only frustrating thing about Ernie Banks, outwardly seeing nothing but sunshine at 80.