Columnist recalls final days of Ernie Banks: ‘Just as he was defined by his image, so was he imprisoned by it’

ernie_banks_si_coverRon Rapoport offers a different perspective of Ernie Banks in a terrific piece in Chicago Magazine.

He reveals another side of the public happy-go-lucky Mr. Cub as an elderly man who often was lonely and even tormented by his demons.

Rapoport writes:

What was it about him? I wondered. Why was Ernie, virtually alone among the great players of his generation, such an idealized, one-dimensional fantasy? Why did he seem to have no existence beyond the baseball diamond? Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron were seen as important civil rights pioneers. Mickey Mantle’s character flaws were so well chronicled they became part of his appeal. Ted Williams’s defiantly cold-blooded grip on Red Sox fans became the stuff of legend and literature. Joe DiMaggio was a cultural phenomenon all to himself. Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Roberto Clemente, Yogi Berra, Stan Musial—they were all made recognizable out of uniform.

But Ernie escapes all context. He is nothing but sunshine and smiles. Just as he was defined by his image, so was he imprisoned by it.

The Ernie his family and close friends knew, the man I came to know—first as a Sun-Times sports columnist and later in the scores of talks we had in Chicago and Los Angeles during the last decade of his life—was far different. As the unseemly battle over his estate would indicate, he was not a grinning, happy-talking caricature. He was thoughtful, introspective, and complicated—and difficult and exasperating, too. And toward the end, I came to see that he was one thing more: a fundamentally lonely man who could not countenance being alone.

“I think he was a tortured soul,” one of Ernie’s friends told me. “He just hid it very well.”

Later, Rapoport writes:

After a while, I began to see the calls as part of a pattern. A friend from Chicago, a Cubs fan who works for NPR in Los Angeles, told me that at the party celebrating the opening of their new regional headquarters, she looked across the room and there he was. She hurried over, excited to meet him. Only later did she wonder what he was doing there.

And there was the time I walked into Harry Caray’s around noon and saw him sitting alone at a corner table. We chatted for a while, and then I joined some people I was meeting for lunch. An hour and a half later, he was still there, still alone. I sat with him for another hour before I said goodbye and left him there.

 “Thank you for taking care of Ernie,” the hostess said. Her tone indicated this was a common occurrence. The image of him sitting at that table by himself haunted me for days.

“He would call me five, six, seven, eight, nine times a day,” Regina Rice said when I called her in Chicago recently. “He had a lot of pain, a lot of fear of being alone.”

There’s much more. Highly recommended.


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