“One Last Autograph”
My brother Jimmy and I met Ernie Banks the same way I met Brian Piccolo. He would park his car across from Wrigley in the lot across
from the fire station on Waveland Avenue.
Ernie was an especially nice person and super friendly to kids. He was always cheerful, and he would remember our names. We felt like we were friends with him from day one. By the time we got there, Ernie had already been MVP twice for the Cubs. He was a superstar in Chicago, and everybody loved him.
One reason Ernie was so well loved in Chicago was his upbeat personality. He had a famous catchphrase that summed up his love for baseball: “It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame. Let’s play two!” You never ever heard anybody talk bad about Ernie Banks, despite all the racial tensions of the time. That was significant too, because he was the first black player for the Cubs. Ernie was one of those guys who naturally bridged the racial gap without talking about it. He had that unforgettable batting stance, his delicate long fingers wrapped around the bat, always moving, kind of like Carrie Underwood does with a mic. (I bet she never heard that one before!)
I had no idea of the significance he would later have in my life, or that we would stay friends for the long haul. We saw him regularly at Wrigley Field. Sometimes we’d have phone calls with him, and he would ask if we were keeping up with our studies, being respectful to our parents and siblings, and playing ball. We could not have had a better friend or role model. In 1968, when Martin Luther King was murdered, it was Ernie who went on TV and asked the people of Chicago to remain calm.
Ernie was also one of the first celebrity-endorsement guys. He and Cubs catcher Randy Hundley used to do commercials for a bank in Chicago, Uptown Federal Savings. They were classic commercials, and the two of them couldn’t have been more different: Randy was a Southern white guy, a shitkicker who spoke with a slow drawl, and Ernie’s voice was pleasant, cheerful, and soulful in contrast. They loved doing those ads.
By the time Ernie retired in 1971, Jimmy was working on becoming a writer. When Ernie got out of baseball, he was making the most you could make at the time, something like $100,000 a year. It took a little effort for him to find his feet after retiring; players in those days weren’t set for the rest of their lives the way they are now.
Ernie and my brother started working together. Jimmy was going to help Ernie find his voice and his way as he ventured out of the only business he’d ever really known. With his great and immediately recognizable voice (at one point he had been a broadcaster on WGN), he did a rap song about the Cubs. Jimmy started writing press releases for Ernie, acting as his press agent during the ’70s.
We stayed friends with Ernie throughout all these years. Ernie would come to Mesa for spring training, and I got to see him at the ballpark every now and then.
* * *
In 1981, my brother got really sick.
Jimmy and Ernie worked together right up till Jimmy died in April of 1981, right at the beginning of baseball season. He was thirty years old. When I was summoned back to Chicago to see Jimmy one last time, Ernie was one of the first people I called. He immediately came over to the hospital and visited with us, and Jimmy died the next day.
It was an awful time for all of us. Ernie came to the wake, and when he saw me there, he came over to me, shaking his head.
He said, “Hey, man, all these people want me to sign autographs. What should I do? What should I tell them? I hate to turn them down, but we’re at a wake; it’s your brother.”
“Look in his casket,” I said. Inside it, next to my brother, was a picture of Jimmy and Ernie.
I said, “Why don’t you do what you’d normally do?”
I turned around and said, “Folks, if you want an autograph, line up. You can have one of Jimmy’s funeral cards to get signed if you don’t have anything else for Ernie to sign.”
A line formed in front of my brother’s casket for Ernie to sign autographs. There were five people being viewed that day, and damned if everybody from every one of those viewing rooms didn’t come over and get one. I stood by Ernie the whole time.
Mom was just shaking her head and saying, “This is so unbelievable.”
I said, “Well, think about how many hours, and how many times Jimmy stood by Ernie waiting for him to be done so they could go do whatever they were going to do.”
That’s how it was every time. Anytime Ernie went anywhere in Chicago, he got stopped for autographs, and he would sign every one until everybody was happy. He never stopped. It was completely fitting that this would happen. I know Jimmy was very proud when he made his way through the Pearly Gates.
In the early ’80s, after Jimmy passed, Ernie came out to help out at a baseball camp that Randy had started here in Scottsdale. This was a new thing at that time. Guys over thirty would pay a lot of money to spend a week with some Cubs legends, and Ernie came out as a celebrity instructor. For a few hundred bucks you would get instruction from big-league ballplayers and actually play in a game with them at the end of the week. They do these all the time now, and the same thing is done with rock bands—you can get lessons from rock-and-roll musicians and play gigs with them. You get to live out your fantasy playing with the pros.
Ernie asked me to pick him up and take him to the field, where all this would take place. It was a fun day, and all these over-thirty guys were thrilled to be around the likes of Ernie, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, and Fergie Jenkins—all Cubs legends. Afterward, I drove Ernie back to his hotel and we went to his room together. He took off his uniform and handed it to me.
He said, “You’re going to be Ernie tomorrow.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I got to go. I can’t do this.”
“What do you mean you got to go? Where?? Aren’t you going to tell Randy?”
He said, “You tell Randy tomorrow. You show up dressed in my uniform. These guys don’t need Ernie Banks’s help. They need a lot more help than that. Tell them I’ll be back for the game at the end of the week, but I’m going to LA.”
Ernie then gave me his uniform, which was really big on me, and I went home, not feeling so good about this.
The next day, I had to tell Randy Hundley that Ernie wasn’t going to show up. He couldn’t believe it. In that drawl of his, he said, “He sent you to tell me that, and you’re wearing his uniform. Isn’t that incredible? You aren’t even thirty years old, not to mention nobody paid to be with you; no offense, but they came to be with Ernie.”
Randy was disappointed, but there was nothing I could do. He graciously allowed me to stay and help in a limited capacity.
I imagine they had words on the phone about it, but when Ernie came back to participate in the ballgame with these guys, everything seemed to be fine. I guess I’ll never know what actually took place there. Bottom line, I think Ernie was kind of embarrassed that he was asked to do this thing for Randy—after all, he was Ernie Banks, one of baseball’s best. I was happy to help, and to do this for a friend. I still have the uniform to this day, of course. That wasn’t going back.
Over all of these years, Ernie and I have had lots of phone calls, and great visits. He’d call me up at unpredictable moments, and he’d always have something on his mind. One time he wanted me to book Lady Gaga for him because Wrigley Field was going to give him the park for free to do a show. I called up her rep, Gerry Barad, but unfortunately, she wasn’t available.
Ernie loved music. Besides Lady Gaga, he loved Alicia Keys and Stevie Wonder. He’d call me up just to talk about whom I was booking, how these people were, and how my business was. He was always very inquisitive. One day my friend and partner, Arny Granat from the local legendary Jam Productions, and I were at a game and there was a rain delay, which isn’t unusual at Wrigley. I asked Arny to call a Cubs office guy to see if Ernie was in the house, and as luck would have it, he was. We met in an office on the Addison side of the park, and while waiting for Ernie, I was looking at all of these incredible, vintage photos on the wall, of the old Cubs and Wrigley Field. I asked Ernie about them when he came in, and he said they were from the Dave Phillips collection. Dave and I soon met and became fast friends. He is one of the most eloquent gentlemen I have ever met. He has millions of pictures of the Cubs and everything thing else Chicago from back in the day, all the way back to the Chicago fire of 1871. Today, as Dave approaches age ninety, our relationship continues, made possible by a rain delay … and Ernie Banks.
Ernie ended up doing well over the years. He worked a lot of the collector shows, where they would pay him to sign autographs and take pictures with people. Ernie was worth every penny. As the ’80s and ’90s went on, Ernie was always hustling and doing something with someone somewhere. He remained close to the Cubs all the way through, showing up in Arizona for spring training every year. We used to play golf every now and then, and yes, his golf swing was every bit as sweet as his baseball swing.
He and his wife Liz invited me to take part in his statue unveiling at Wrigley on opening day, 2008. White Sox legend Minnie Minoso was there, and so was Hank Aaron, and many of the old Cubs players I had grown up watching. Ernie, Hank, and I sat in the new private box in center field and had a great afternoon. There were dinners and all kinds of other fun I was able to take part in over a couple days of celebrations for Ernie. It was nice to see Ernie get this ultimate honor while he could enjoy it, and he was very proud of this recognition.
The last time I spoke with Ernie was after he had appeared on stage with Pearl Jam at their Wrigley Field concert. I wasn’t able to accept his invitation to join him for that event, and I regret it. He was very happy to be asked to participate in it. I asked him to come see Roger Waters there in 2012, but unfortunately, he couldn’t. I would have loved to see Ernie on the stage of the legendary Wall concert. He died a couple years later, and I never got to say a proper good-bye. Hardly anyone meant as much to me as Ernie. He always understood me, and we really loved each other. I feel blessed to be able to say that Ernie was one of my “besties.” (His word—he was very hip in his eighties!)
I was very happy when President Obama gave Ernie the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest honor given to civilians in the United States, established in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy. It is presented to those who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural, or other significant public or private endeavors.” He was so proud of this honor.
There will never be another like him. Let’s play 2!