In listening to the tributes last night, what struck me was how everyone had a personal memory of being with Ernie. I can’t imagine a more accessible superstar ever. The platitudes were more about the person than the player, and man, he could play.
Luckily, I was fortunate to have a few encounters with Ernie. I’m going to share a few of them here.
My first meeting occurred during the 1994 baseball strike at a golf outing. To fill the massive space void in the Chicago Tribune with both the White Sox and Cubs not playing, we decided to run a classic games series, complete with box scores and old photos.
One of those games happened to be from a Mr. Cub day at Wrigley Field. It included a photo of Ernie with his family.
“Did you see the picture, Ernie?” I asked at the golf outing.
“I sure did,” Ernie said. “Where did you get that?”
“Ernie, the Tribune library has a stack of your photos as high as the Hancock Building,” I said. “You should come down sometime and see them.”
“You know what, I’m going to do that,” Ernie said.
It definitely sounded like one of those things that never would happen.
A few days later, I got a call from the front lobby at the Tribune. “Ernie Banks is here to see you,” the man said.
I went downstairs, and sure enough, there was Ernie.
“I’m here to see my pictures,” he said in that distinctive upbeat tone, making it seem as if this was going to be the highlight of his life.
“OK, let’s go,” I said.
When we walked into the library, I said, “Ernie Banks is here to see his pictures.”
This was in the days before digital. Pictures were kept files. When one got full, you went got another.
As I told him, there were literally stacks of files with Ernie Banks pictures. Slowly, he started to go through them.
It seemed as if every picture had a story. Ernie saw a shot of him with Stan Musial. “What a wonderful man,” he said.
On and on, it went. We were in there for nearly two hours going down his memory lane.
The whole thing felt surreal. Ernie was one of the heroes of my youth. Never in my wildest dreams when I was 12 did I imagine I would get a chance to spend an afternoon with Mr. Cub.
I also got my first up close look at that magnetic personality. When people walked in the library, he let out in a rather loud voice, “How are you? Are you having a great day?”
As this routine went on, I laughed at the stunned reaction of my colleagues. It isn’t everyday you get greeted by a baseball Hall of Famer in the Tribune photo library.
Finally, we exhausted his files. I got ready to escort him out when he asked where I was going next. I told him I had to get ready for our daily sports planning meeting.
“Oh, can I come?” Ernie said. “I’d love to see that.”
So off we went to the sports editor’s office. Again, the reaction on the other editors’ faces was priceless when they walked in and saw Mr. Cub in their midst.
Ernie listened to us going through the rundown. Typically, he stayed in character. A few times, he said, “That’s going to be a great story.”
When it finally came time for him go, he thanked me. “This was really great,” Ernie said.
I assured him it was going to be a day I’ll never forget.
As it turns out, it wouldn’t be our last meeting. Ernie loved golf and Tiger Woods. Thankfully, our paths crossed many times when I assumed the Tribune’s golf beat in 1997.
More to come.