"I used to run into Ernie all the time in the '80s at the driving range in Westchester, out by LAX. We'd talk about the game, and it was always, 'What do you think about my Cubs? This is our year, right?' He was always upbeat. I don't think anyone ever had a bad word about Ernie -- because there was nothing bad you could say about the guy. He was as great a person as he was a ballplayer."
Banks arrived in Chicago as the Cubs' first African-American player in 1953, an unusually big shortstop for the time at 6-foot-1 with amazing bat speed generated by powerful wrists and forearms.
He was the National League Most Valuable Player Award winner in 1958 and '59, hitting 47 and 45 home runs, respectively, and a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1977. Remarkably durable, he led or tied for the league lead in games played in six of his first seven seasons and played for 19 years, retiring at 40 after the 1971 season. He finished with 512 home runs and 1,636 RBIs. Banks was an NL All-Star 14 times.
"Ernie was the guy who coined the phrase, 'Let's play two,' and that was true to his personality," Downing said. "He loved everything about the game. I don't remember ever facing him, but when he saw me on the field before a game, he'd always yell something like, 'Hey, Al, isn't that Fergie [Jenkins] some pitcher?' He was always talking about somebody else, not himself. That's the kind of guy he was.
"It's too bad he never got to experience a World Series, but that doesn't diminish what he did in any way. What I hate is hearing, 'This guy won a World Series.' There's no such thing as a guy winning a World Series in a team sport. It's all about the team, not the individual, and that's how Ernie was about his Cubs.
"The closest they came was '69 when they lost out to the Mets, but the Cubs had a lot of talented teams. They had Ernie, Billy [Williams], Ron Santo. They had Donnie Kessinger and Glenn Beckert, Randy Hundley behind the plate. And they had pitching -- Fergie, [Ken] Holtzman, [Milt] Pappas, guys like that. For some reason, they always seemed to fade out the last third of the season."
One of Downing's fondest memories of Banks came from an exhibition game in Maui in 1984, matching a collection of Major League Hall of Famers against Japanese Hall of Famers. Davey Johnson, organizing the American team featuring such legends as Banks, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron, Billy Williams and Willie McCovey, called asking Downing if he'd like to come face the Japanese team led by the great Sadaharu Oh.
"I told him, 'Heck yes, I can still pitch, and I'll be there,'" said Downing, who retired in 1977 after 17 Major League seasons. "We had five days there, and we had a great time. But when it was game time, it got very competitive. Guys were playing to win. I pitched two innings and we beat them pretty badly. But it was really all about the experience, the camaraderie.
"They had a home run-hitting contest, and we had Ernie, Frank and Hank from the right side, and Billy and Stretch [Willie McCovey] from the left side. I remember Ernie and Frank -- and Stretch, of course -- hitting some unbelievable shots. Ernie was a big guy for a shortstop. I remember being struck by his size the first time I saw him on the field."
Downing, who broke in with the Yankees at 20 years old in 1961, recalls the deep pride taken by the early African-American players -- starting with Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella -- in establishing their rightful place in the game.
"What I've always noticed about the supreme players is the tremendous amount of respect they have for each other," Downing said. "Ernie, Willie, Frank, Hank, Mickey [Mantle], Yogi [Berra], Whitey [Ford], Elston [Howard] ... all those guys always showed such respect for each other.
"Ernie was really something special. He was the consummate ambassador of the game."