MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Mr. Cub gone but never forgotten

Former teammates, legion of fans among those reflecting on Banks' beloved spirit

Mr. Cub gone but never forgotten

CHICAGO -- Lions in winter, Fergie Jenkins and two of his former teammates, gray-haired Glenn Beckert and Jose Cardenal, sharp in a black leather jacket, settled into the third row of pews at Fourth Presbyterian Church on Friday afternoon.

They were not in a hurry.

Before them lay the casket of Ernie Banks, a beloved teammate and friend. It was dressed with a pinstriped No. 14 flag that flies from the left-field foul pole on summer days at Wrigley Field and a portrait of the handsome Banks, taken when he was young.

When they were young.

For a few minutes, Jenkins, Beckert and Cardenal were quiet. Then one would turn to the other and say something, and all three would smile. The pattern repeated itself for almost an hour as the three old Chicago Cubs sat and watched a stream of heavily dressed men and women walk by, some wearing team jackets and the old cap with that classic red "C."

Finally one of them declared it time to go, and they walked toward the back of the church and out onto North Michigan Avenue.

"We're going to miss him, but that's life, guys," Cardenal said. "We're all going to die sooner or later. He's in a great place now with God. I'm happy for him now."

Tears will be shed in Chicago on Saturday morning, when the greatest Cub is officially laid to rest in a funeral service before he's given one last ride past Wrigley. But there was little to grieve during an eight-hour visitation, as fans and friends remembered Banks, who died Jan. 23 of a heart attack.

There was sadness, sure, but little regret. Banks, who broke the color barrier with the Cubs, was remembered for a remarkable lifetime in which he carried himself like the dalai lama, his smile always belying the talent that allowed him to hit 40-plus home runs in five seasons, the only ones ever by a National League shortstop.

"My emotions are pretty much the same as the people who are walking out the door," Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts said. "It's just a loss."

Fans pay respects to Ernie Banks

When Chicagoans walked away from Banks' closed casket, the only lament consistently voiced was that Banks had never seen the Cubs play in a World Series. He was a teenager in Dallas when they last won the pennant, in 1945, and after joining the Cubs in '53, he went to bed most nights dreaming of a championship on the North Side of Chicago.

With Ricketts and his architect, Theo Epstein, collecting more young talent than any organization in the Majors, there's hope that the Cubs might just win the last game one October in the not too distant future. But they'll have to do it without Mr. Cub.

"With all the people we've lost -- the Ernies and the Ron [Santos], the Harry Carays and [Jack] Brickhouses, all the great people associated with the organization -- there's always that 'didn't quite win the World Series' sadness that goes along with it," Ricketts said. "We can't do anything about that. Obviously it would have been nice to keep Ernie with us until we could deliver that, but we'll do our best. He'll be in our spirits."

Before the Cubs get on with their future, they must lay to rest a gigantic piece of the past. It was fitting that the funeral is being held at Fourth Presbyterian, a church that was dedicated on Oct. 8, 1871.

Historians will note that was the day the Great Chicago Fire began. It would burn for three days, killing about 300 people and destroying about 3.3 square miles, including the land that Fourth Presbyterian was on. The church was rebuilt and opened again in 1874, and almost 40 years later relocated to its current location.

Chicago has always been a city of hope and good intentions, and like Fourth Presbyterian, the Cubs epitomize that history of faith and resilience. Banks was the perfect spokesman for the brand, as fellow Hall of Famer Andre Dawson quickly came to realize after signing that "blank check" contract with the Cubs before the 1987 season.

"We lost a big one," Dawson said on Friday. "He's one of those individuals you think is going to live forever. That's what he personified. Life goes on. But we'll always have Ernie on our mind."

On the last weekend of Banks' career, playing the Phillies at Wrigley Field, Sport Magazine's Paul Hemphill asked Banks why he was always so kind. Banks didn't explain himself but confirmed that his outlook was intentional.

"I always looked at everybody as if they had an invisible sign on their back saying, 'Please Handle With Care,'" Banks said.

One of those people was U.S. congressman Mike Quigley, who represents Lakeview, the Chicago neighborhood with Wrigley Field at its center. He remembers getting Banks' autograph in 1968, when he was on a Park District trip to a game.

"He treated everybody, whether they were a congressman or a 10-year-old fan, the same way -- like they were the most important person, the most important fan at Wrigley Field," Quigley said. "It was extraordinary. You'd sit there [in line] and think, 'I hope he gets to me.' There were 50 people in line. He stayed and was incredibly kind and enthusiastic to everyone there. Made you want to come back to Wrigley Field. Ernie Banks and Wrigley Field were intertwined. He'd talk about playing before God's lights, not night games. How much that meant to him. We've lost an extraordinary gift to the city of Chicago."

Sen. Dick Durbin recommended Banks for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which Barack Obama presented to him in a 2013 ceremony. Durbin, like the thousands of others who walked past the casket on Friday, was beaming about his personal connection to Banks.

"As you spoke to him, clearly he was reflecting on his life, where he started, working for $7 a day in Kansas City as a baseball player in the Negro Leagues and going through that terrible period of segregation," Durbin said, recalling a reception after that ceremony. "Here he was receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from an African-American president. I'm sure, as Ernie said later, his life had come full circle to see that day."

Billy Williams, one of Banks' three Hall of Fame teammates from Leo Durocher's teams in the late 1960s, was one of the first to walk past the casket on Friday. He passed through on his way to lunch, before doors opened to the public.

He said that the shrine to his friend pounded home the sad finality of a life ending. But it won't take the smile off his face talking about Banks, at least not for long.

"In [my house], on the wall, there's a saying from Abraham Lincoln from many, many years ago," Williams said. "It says, 'It's not the years in a life, but it's the life in those years.' And when I read that, I thought about my good friend Ernie Banks, because in those years he spent here on earth he made a lot of people happy. ... It's tough to believe he's gone, but Ernie, may you rest in peace."

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.