Saying Goodbye to a Legend: Thoughts on Ernie Banks’ Funeral
“Move over Honus Wagner; there’s a new shortstop in heaven.”
The sentiment many of us have been expressing since last Friday was voiced perfectly by Joey Banks, son of the legendary Cub many had gathered to remember on what would have been his 84th birthday. More celebratory than sad, the service was a fitting tribute to the life of a man best remembered for his smile and his ebullient spirit.
Let me start here by saying that it did feel a bit odd to be watching a funeral on TV. It was even more odd to have listened to the start of it on the radio. But Ernie Banks wasn’t a normal guy; whether it was his preternatural skill or his innate sense that he was more than just a baseball player, his life more than justified the broadcasts.
The crowd represented a who’s who of baseball elite, as Hall of Famers waited their turn to pay their respects to the late star who only shined brighter in his passing. My first thought was of the striking image of the black casket draped in that 14 flag, with Banks’ portrait behind and a folded American flag adjacent.
The smile on that picture seemed to tell me, to tell all of us really, that everything was all right. I wasn’t watching because Ernie had died; I was watching because he had lived. And, as Tom Ricketts put it: “Ernie Banks is not Mr. Cub because we loved him,” he said. “Ernie Banks is Mr. Cub because he loved us back.”
I’ve been critical of Mr. Ricketts’ words in the past, feeling that they’ve often been political and disingenuous. But on Saturday, I felt as though he hit the nail on the head. Likewise, Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins, Joe Torre, and others shared heartfelt memories of Banks as both a teammate and a man.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the political contingent was absent from the proceedings; quite the opposite, in fact. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Gov. Bruce Rauner lent their thoughts, though I recall little of what the former said. Rauner was a bit of a downer, however, with his talk of the ’69 collapse. Still, he did at least come across as a legitimate fan.
Lou Brock’s hair even said a few words and performed a scripture reading. Okay, Lou himself did the reading, but it was the hair that held my attention.
And while he certainly got off to a good start, rousing the crowd to its feet to applaud the late legend, Jesse Jackson quickly turned incomprehensible and self-aggrandizing. I did rather enjoy his analogy that Banks was not a thermometer but a thermostat; Ernie didn’t reflect the environment, he created it.
But then Jackson went on talk about how he himself was instrumental in the creation of the statue that now immortalizes Banks. He also invoked the name of Mike North in said effort, so there’s that. True or not, I felt as though it was the wrong time and place.
That’s nothing to linger on though, as it’s just Jesse being Jesse. And any sour thoughts I might have had were quickly washed away by the time Banks’ twin sons Joey and Jerry took the lectern to speak. I believe it was Jerry who thanked his late father for letting their mother spank them, as receiving corporal punishment from his dad’s hands would not have been fun.
Then again, Billy Williams apologized to the twins in his address for having to “beat your butt that one time,” drawing laughter all around. Williams also spoke of Ernie’s never-ending stream of chatter, how he used to talk about how various pitchers tried to get him out.
Or the times Williams would have to admonish Ernie for telling Bob Gibson that Williams was going to hit a homer off of him that day. “Man, don’t make him meaner,” the sweet-swingin’ lefty would complain.
It must have been quite a unique experience for pastor Shannon Kershner of Fourth Presbyterian Church, presiding over such a proceeding. By her own admission, she had to study up on Ernie Banks, having lived in Chicago for less than a year.
Interestingly enough, Kershner hailed from Banks’ hometown of Dallas, though I’m willing to bet that her experiences there were quite a bit different from his. Admittedly, I didn’t follow her sermon as closely as I could have, but I felt she did an admirable job given the situation.
Perhaps the most impactful moment of the morning came when I saw various baseball dignitaries gathered around the casket, accompanying it as they walked down the aisle. Seeing men like Hank Aaron, Williams, and Jenkins et al. hobbled by age was truly eye-opening.
Despite the fact that their exploits may be immortal, the men themselves are not; Banks himself is a perfect example of that. But to see these mythical men trade their bats for canes was sobering in a way that I really can’t describe. And this is from someone who never got the chance to see them play.
I was taken a bit aback by those fans seated in the back who were wearing Cubs gear and chose to record the proceedings on their phones, but I’ll choose not to dwell on that for too long here. I understand that we all have different ideas of propriety, but I don’t feel that a funeral in a church is the proper place for a jersey. Or a Giants coat. Again, my opinion.
As the ceremony was concluding, even my young kids sat with me and watched for a bit, asking about the identities of some of the people they were seeing. Even they seemed to understand the impact Ernie Banks had had, albeit in a very abstract way.
But isn’t that baseball? Football has grown more popular and basketball is cooler, but baseball has the ability to tap the wells of our souls in a way no other sport can. As such, its greatest practitioners are imbued life everlasting.
If I may steal a line from the great Babe Ruth, albeit an actor-portrayed version of him from The Sandlot, “Remember kid, there’s heroes and there’s legends. Heroes get remembered but legends never die.”
Never was this more true than for the man to whom we said goodbye yesterday. Ernie Banks was legendary as both a ballplayer and a person, perhaps more so than any athlete before or since. He will be missed, but, then again, he’ll never truly be gone.