By Richard Babcock
April 19, 2019 9:45 a.m. ET
My late father, who suffered a lifelong passion for the Chicago Cubs and passed the affliction to his three sons, liked to tell this story: When I was 10 or so, I’d been out for the day and hadn’t followed my usual summer routine of listening to the Cubs game. Returning home, I asked Dad what had happened. “Ugh. They lost, 11-1,” he growled. My face fell, but immediately brightened with hope. “How’d they score the one run?” I asked.
I was hoping, of course, that Ernie Banks had hit another home run—the lone solace for countless Cubs fans through the wilderness years that stretched over the Banks era of the 1950s and 1960s (and continued for decades after Banks retired). Banks was one of the great players of the game: His 512 career home runs and two MVP awards put him in a select circle. But for most of his career, Banks was surrounded by mediocrity or worse. Ernie was all there was. Toward the end, when a number of strong players joined him in the lineup, the team suffered a humiliating collapse in 1969 and lost the NL East Division title to the surging New York Mets, a team that didn’t even exist until Banks had been in the league nine years.
Throughout that long run of despair, Banks stayed famously upbeat—every day was sunny, every setback was trivial, every season was promising. His mantra became “Let’s play two,” adopted now as the title to an admirable biography by the veteran Chicago sports journalist Ron Rapoport, who was collaborating with Banks on an autobiography until Banks backed out in the years before he died.
Though Banks was revered in Chicago by everyone except sometime manager Leo Durocher, I suspect few fans really believed he was quite the unrelenting optimist he played. For one thing, even children recognized that life carried harsh realities—just look at the performance of the Cubs. For another, Banks was no fool, and no thinking human being remains implacably happy.
Mr. Rapoport works diligently to penetrate the curtain of enthusiasm in which Banks wrapped himself. And if the mystery of the man inside never quite gets solved, “Let’s Play Two” at least offers several facts and observations that part the curtain slightly. Banks was so tormented by never playing in the World Series that he once saw a psychiatrist. With the Cubs on the road, he rarely mingled with his teammates off the field. “I always appreciated his outward presence of loving life and loving the Cubs,” Don Kessinger, a classy Cubs shortstop, told Mr. Rapoport, “but I always thought there was a side to Ernie that most of us never got a chance to be a part of.”
Meeting new people, Banks would erupt in a torrent of friendly questions, but almost never said anything about himself. He married four times—always to strong, independent women, by Mr. Rapoport’s account—but didn’t seem drawn to family life and had a distant, constrained relationship with his children. Banks’s third wife, Marjorie Lott, starkly characterized her husband of 13 years: “I think he would have lived a lot longer if he had not been so sad inside.”
That sadness, if it existed, was glimpsed by few. He described his childhood as happy, though it couldn’t have been easy. He was the oldest boy in a family of 12 children and grew up in a ramshackle house with no indoor plumbing and no electricity in a black neighborhood in Dallas. An unusually quiet and withdrawn child, he proved so adept at disappearing as a confrontation loomed that a friend called him Casper the ghost.
Banks grew into an astonishingly gifted athlete. At the segregated Booker T. Washington High School, he played receiver on the football team only through sophomore year—his anxious mother made him quit—but a local college coach came away so impressed that he tried to recruit him. Later, while in the Army, he took the court occasionally with the Harlem Globetrotters.
Because his high school didn’t field a baseball team, Banks had played softball in a friendly church league. Still, his grace on the diamond caught the eye of the owner of a Negro league semipro club, and Banks spent several high school summers playing hardball for the Amarillo team. Word of his skills led to an offer from the Kansas City Monarchs, a powerhouse of the Negro leagues, though by then the leagues were fading—decimated by the opening of the Major Leagues to African-Americans. Banks excelled for the Monarchs, a stretch interrupted by two years of Army ball, and the Cubs signed him in September 1953. He trotted out to shortstop at Wrigley Field soon after, never having played a game in the minor leagues, the first African-American to play for the Cubs.
Mr. Rapoport thoughtfully examines the role of race as it crossed Banks’s life and career. To read about the treatment of African-American players in that era continues to dismay, and it remains appalling that Major League Baseball accommodated prejudices for so long. In 1954, at Banks’s first spring training in Arizona, he couldn’t stay at the same hotel as the white players. Mr. Rapoport reports that eventually the management relented and let the black players stay, as long as they didn’t go into the dining room—they had to order room service. During the season, their lives on the road frequently tendered similar indignities.
Growing up, Banks had spent little time with white people. Indeed, during Banks’s brief run with the Globetrotters, owner-coach Abe Saperstein once told Banks to sit next to him to learn the plays. Banks had trouble concentrating. As Mr. Rapoport writes, “It was, he said, the first time he had ever sat next to a white man and he wasn’t sure what to do.”
The mercurial and egocentric Leo Durocher plays villain in the Banks story. “Leo the Lip” managed the Cubs toward the end of Banks’s career and constantly demeaned the Chicago favorite and tried to replace him at first base, where Banks had moved because of bad knees. Banks remained stoic and outplayed every contender for his position. Years later, weakened by age, Durocher said he regretted how he had treated the Cubs star.
Mr. Rapoport wisely spends little time on the restless and sad years from the end of Banks’s playing days to his death in 2015—years filled with glancing business associations, fraying ties with his family, glad-handing at events where he acted out a role he’d written decades before. In one sense, sadness pervades this book, the story of a man who seems to be trapped inside a narrow but splendid talent. But that’s an unfair assessment of the man and his biographer. The sweet, potent flick of his bat, the constant, handsome smile—throughout, Banks stayed true to his skill and his style, the mark of a worthy hero for any young fan.
—Mr. Babcock, the former editor of Chicago magazine, teaches journalism at Northwestern University