Presidential honor has Mr. Cub singing a happy tune

Medal of Freedom prompts Ernie Banks to reflect on upbringing, experience as Cubs' 1st black player

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Bizarre only to those who don't know Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub answered a question Monday asking what he did to deserve the Presidential Medal of Freedom by breaking into the song his buddy Sammy Davis Jr. made famous.

"Whether I'm right or whether I'm wrong. Whether I find a place in this world or never belong," Banks sang. "I gotta be me, I've gotta be me. What else can I be but what I am?"

What Banks was as a Hall of Famer who hit 512 home runs for the Cubs from 1953-71 opened his world to presidents and popes and allowed him to discuss poverty with Nelson Mandela and politics with Desmond Tutu. Banks' diverse collection of friends ranges from bleacher bums to billionaires like Warren Buffett, and the next stranger the nicest man in sports meets will be the first. As Chicago's foremost baseball ambassador, Banks slowly evolved into America's envoy for joy, someone whose indefatigable enthusiasm broke down social and racial barriers wherever he went.

And when the 82-year-old received the phone call recently confirming he would receive the country's highest civilian honor in November, Banks' mind went back to when he was a poor kid in Dallas and his dad bought his first baseball glove for $2.98.

"I look at my life and any of my 11 brothers or sisters could have done this, too, so why me?'' Banks told the Tribune. "When (presidential adviser) Valerie Jarrett called me, I said, 'Wow, are you kidding? The same award as (Negro Leagues legend) Buck O'Neil?' I've got to settle into the idea that Ernie, this is it. This is the pinnacle of what you've accomplished for the way you've led your life.''

Has any athlete in Chicago led one more fascinating?

Banks won two most valuable player awards and made 11 All-Star teams as the best Cubs' player ever but never made a secret that his biggest goal remained winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Told Monday that this development might mean his legacy won't include a trip to Stockholm, Banks scoffed.

"I said I haven't done that …yet," he cracked.

The quick wit and colorful banter Banks has become known for — "I'm 82 and know what to do,'' he rhymed — contrasts sharply with the youngster who heeded Dodgers legend Jackie Robinson's advice in 1954. Robinson, baseball's first African-American player in 1947, approached Banks, who became the Cubs' first black player six years later, before a game at Wrigley Field.

"Jackie came to our locker room on the third-base side and said, 'Ernie, I'm glad to see you're up here so now just listen and learn,' '' Banks said. "For years, I didn't talk and learned a lot about people.''

As Banks gradually felt the urge to be more vocal, he floated the idea past teammate Billy Williams. Williams and Banks routinely rode to work together via Lake Shore Drive from their South Side homes.

"Billy would say, 'Ernie you see that lake? It's full of fish. When those fish open their mouths, they get caught. You see what I'm saying?' '' Banks said. "I kept my mouth shut but tried to make a difference. My whole life, I've just wanted to make people better.''

Whether it was an out-of-work fan looking for encouragement or a young player trying to make a mark in the majors, Banks sent the same message rooted in his own experiences: Believing leads to achieving; confidence grows from calm. A favorite example involving ex-Cub and Cardinals great Lou Brock reinforced that.

"Lou was my roommate and so hard on himself he couldn't sleep, so one day (in 1962) he asked, 'Ernie, what does it take? I don't want to go back to Louisiana and chop no cotton,' '' Banks said. "I finally told him: Learn to relax. The next game, he hit one of the longest home runs ever at the Polo Grounds. I asked, 'What happened?' He smiled and said, 'I relaxed.' So maybe I did do some good for people.''

President Obama thinks so, and the irony of the White Sox's First Fan feting the Cubs' all-time most recognizable face isn't lost on Banks.

"I respect his White Sox loyalty because I've tried many times to get him to throw out the first pitch at Wrigley Field,'' Banks kidded.

That's where Banks will be honored Tuesday in a pregame ceremony surrounded by friends, including Williams and Reds manager Dusty Baker, and team officials past and present because, he contends, "without the Cubs, the fans or my teammates, none of this is possible.''

The only thing more perfect for Banks would be a scheduled doubleheader so the Cubs could play two as tribute to the distinguished gentleman ultimately recognized for living every day like opening day.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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