The Game's Greatest Writer on the Game's Greatest Years
by Red Smith
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"They voted Joe Cronin the greatest living shortstop," said Cliff Keane of Boston during the All-Star festivities of 1969 in Washington, which celebrated a centennial of professional baseball. "He couldn't wear Ernie Banks's spikes."
"I wish colleges didn't always feel they had to save their honorary degrees for fat cats who give them a lot of money," a member of the Roosevelt University administration in Chicago confided one day. "I want Roosevelt to confer a doctorate on Ernie Banks."
"I call it Picasso's fiasco, a rising heap of rusting iron," said Alderman John Hoellen when Pablo Picasso presented his five-story metal sculpture to the city of Chicago in 1967. Hoellen introduced a resolution in city council rejecting the gift and proposing for its place in front of the civic center a five-story statue of Ernie Banks as "a living symbol of a vibrant city."
These are a few of the people who have had their say about Ernie Banks since Sept. 8, 1953, when the Chicago Cubs bought him from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American league. Now Ernie Banks has his. With Jim Enright as collaborator, Ernie tells his own story under the title, Mr. Cub.
Nobody who has felt the sunny warmth of Ernie Banks, either in per- sonal contact or by reflection through the sports pages, will be surprised to learn that his book has little in common with other recent products of the sweaty literati, such as Jim Bouton's Ball Four and Curt Flood's The Way It Is.
Bouton's opus made the best-seller lists on the strength of the intimacies he reveals about some former teammates and the sneers he directs toward others. Flood says he detested Solly Hemus, one of his managers. If Banks ever met anybody he didn't like, the secret is still locked inside him.
His choice of a collaborator is evidence of his tolerance, for although Jim Enright is a jovial soul and an amiable pressbox companion who has covered the Cubs longer than Ernie has played with them, he has a black past as a basketball referee. It was only a few years ago that Enright, a spherical man, went square after breathing through a whistle practically all his adult life.
In his years with the Cubs, Banks played under Phil Cavaretta, Stan Hack, Bob Scheffing, Charley Grimm, Lou Boudreau and Leo Durocher. He not only has warm words for all of them; he also esteems Phil Wrigley as the most considerate of employers and Jim Gallagher and John Holland as general managers, and even speaks well of the college of coaches that presided during the five seasons when the Cubs had no manager at all.
"It has been my good fortune," Ernie recalls, "to have exceptional rapport with all my managers, but Bob Scheffing paid me the most flattering compliment I've ever received." In an interview, Scheffing said:
"During my first 26 years in baseball, Joe DiMaggio is the only player I'd ever consider rating ahead of Ernie Banks after the year Ernie had for me in 1959. He batted fourth behind three hitters who didn't come even close to averaging .260 and still he batted in 143 runs. He also hit 45 homers and I figure that his bat was directly responsible for 27 of our 74 victories that season. Afield he was the equal of any shortstop I've seen."
Ernie, of course, was on the team whose collapse in 1969 prompted Durocher to say he "could have dressed nine broads up as ball players and they would have beaten the Cubs." "That's Leo all the way," Ernie tells us. "A bark now, a good laugh a little later ... Leo can build a player's morale like no one else."
The author, it must be remembered, is a man who says of his high school football coach: "I've never known a man who coached with more dedication than Coach Hollie. He made us practice until dark, and if you made a mistake he rapped you across the rump with a board he always carried."
Though it has much to enjoy and admire, Mr. Cub is not recommended as reading for fans of the Giants, Mets, Expos or any other National League club outside of Chicago. It makes you root for the Cubs so Ernie Banks can play in a World Series.
From Red Smith on Baseball Copyright © 2000 by Phyllis W. Smith. Used by permission.