Friends, fans, and people whose lives have been touched by Ernie Banks flocked to his memorial service in Chicago early this year. The service was attended by hundreds of fans, baseball dignitaries, and political leaders, with many more watching the service on TV.
Banks died of a heart attack on January 23, shortly before his 84th birthday, after a long and fulfilling career as a baseball player and ambassador of baseball and of the city of Chicago.
Reactions to his passing and tributes to his legendary career were immediate and widespread.
The Chicago city government made the unprecedented gesture of moving Banks’ statue from storage, where it was kept while Wrigley Field was being renovated, to Daley Plaza, where fans congregated to pay tribute. The Blue Cross-Blue Shield Tower’s lights, spelled out “Mr. Cub” and his retired uniform number “14” in blue and white lights.
Mayor Rahm Emmanuel issued a statement on Banks’s passing, saying, “Ernie Banks was more than a baseball player. He was one of Chicago’s greatest ambassadors.”
“It’s a beautiful day, let’s play two!” was Banks’ most famous saying.
Banks, also called “Mr. Cub” and “Mr. Sunshine” by fans, was known for his selflessness and unshakable optimism. He began his career in baseball in the Negro Baseball Leagues in 1950. After serving two years in the military, he returned to baseball and was eventually drafted in the majors, and signed up with the Chicago Cubs in 1953. He was one of the few players from the Negro Leagues who went on to play in the majors without going through the minor league. He was the Cubs’ first black player and was credited with helping to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball. He endured the same hardships that other black players went through in those days, but his smile never seemed to waver. “He disarmed his enemies with optimism,” Rev. Jesse Jackson said during the memorial service.
Banks went on to play exclusively for the Cubs for the rest of his career. He was named MVP twice, was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1970, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2013.
Banks’ family set up a Facebook page, “Ernie Bank Remembered,” where people can continue to share their fond memories of Banks. “He loved people and wanted to hear their stories,” the Banks family attorney, Mark Bogen said.