Baseball in the early 1970s was still a gentile place in a world full of turmoil at the time. The Vietnam War was still raging, there was unrest in the Middle East, an energy crisis, urban decay, a faltering environment, and a lack of confidence in leadership.
Sports, baseball included, were enjoying unprecedented popularity through television, and had yet to be spoiled by free agency and contract bickering. Although the tell-all book Ball Four had just been published, most ball players still held up an image as idols. Not very many lived up to that image, but Ernie Banks was the exception.
It was also a time when a mother, for the price of a bus ride and two general admission tickets, could take four children (myself, my brother, and my two sisters) for an afternoon at Wrigley on a “Ladies’ Day.” These Tuesday home games were a frequent summer diversion in my youth, and my brother and I were getting the routine down pat.
After arriving and purchasing our tickets, my brother and I would each buy a scorecard (10 cents, 25 cents if you wanted a Cubs pencil to be the envy of your class when you brought it to school). But scoring the game wasn’t our main concern, it was for autographs! At that time, the park gates opened at 10:00am for a 1:15pm game. Fans got to witness the players’ preparation, especially batting practice, where a youngster still had a chance of coming away with a prized souvenir, a baseball! During this time, fans young and old lined the wall separating the box seats and the playing field, hoping to cajole an actual Major Leaguer into signing an autograph. Upon entering and finding our seats, my brother and I would scramble down in the hopes of gaining these mementos of our heroes.
It was a fine summer day during that time when our family arrived early at Wrigley, and had to wait in line before entering the park. This gave us an advantage, as the slow arriving crowds of that era would allow us to land a prime spot by the Cubs’ dugout. Even with that advantage, we could both see a large throng gathered by the dugout. When we made our way down, we could see what the fuss was about. Ernie Banks! The Cub legend!
Memory fails at this time as to whether Mr. Cub was still an active player or a coach, but there he was! Banks had come out with a coach to start his daily preparation and was immediately spotted by the fans. Aware of the crowd, Banks turned the moment into theater. The ever-optimistic Ernie launched into a monologue on how beautiful the day was, and how terrific he felt. Banks then made everybody repeat the phase I FEEL TERRIFFIC until it met with his satisfaction. Ernie then patiently signed an autograph for everyone. Forgetting about the other players who were now taking the field, my brother and I returned to our seats, basking in the glow of our triumph.
Some years later, I would meet Mr. Cub again at one of the conventions. I had to stand in a long line to receive his autograph on a baseball, so there wasn’t much opportunity for interaction. The program he signed is long gone, and the baseball is probably buried somewhere after several moves, but the memories are what endure.
So rest in peace Mr. Cub, and condolences to your family. The only disappointment I had was not having the chance to meet one more time. Not as a child or a fan, but as a writer.