Mr. Cub got connected with the future Mr. President at a Jesse Jackson dinner on Navy Pier. Ernie Banks wanted to chat with the featured speaker that night and gave his business card to one of Barack Obama’s assistants.
“The next day he announced his candidacy,” Banks recalled. “I was going to tell him not to run. I’d say: You really want to do this?”
Banks laughed at his memories of the beginnings of the 2008 presidential campaign. In his second term Obama will give Banks the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the nation’s highest honor for civilians – at a White House ceremony in November.
“Is this a great country or what?” Banks said with a huge grin.
The Cubs recognized Banks before Tuesday’s game at Wrigley Field, where it sounds like the president won’t be throwing out the first pitch anytime soon.
“I tried to get him to come to Wrigley Field and he won’t come,” Banks said. “He follows the White Sox. That’s his team and that’s it. He won’t wear a Cub jacket. I tried to get him a Cub jacket, a Cubbie hat at the All-Star Game and different places. But his great loyalty with the White Sox is just unbelievable.”
Pairing a Cubs hat with a gray suit, white dress shirt and yellow tie, Banks spoke into the microphone near home plate and addressed the fans at Clark and Addison. With “I Believe I Can Fly” playing over the sound system, Banks danced with Laura Ricketts and twirled around the Cubs executive. Hall of Famer Billy Williams introduced Banks as “my hero.”
Dusty Baker – the former Cubs manager now running the Cincinnati Reds – remembered getting to know Banks and Williams as a young guy playing with Hank Aaron and the Atlanta Braves.
“Ernie was never in a bad mood,” Baker said. “I couldn’t believe how a guy could never be in a bad mood. Forty years later, and he’s still never been in a bad mood.”
Banks credited his relentlessly upbeat attitude to his time in the Negro Leagues, soaking up wisdom from men like Buck O’Neil. With this award, Banks will join a distinguished list that includes O’Neil, Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Frank Robinson, Jackie Robinson and Ted Williams.
This year’s group includes former President Bill Clinton, another Chicago icon in Oprah Winfrey and legendary University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith.
Beyond a Hall of Fame career, Banks served in the U.S. Army and recently came out in support of gay marriage in Illinois. He also ran for alderman against the machine as a Republican in the early 1960s.
“Mayor Daley was running the city,” Banks recalled. “Somebody asked him: ‘Where is that baseball player going to finish out there in the Eighth Ward?’ He said: ‘He’s going to finish in left field.’”
Banks smiled and shook hands as if he was the mayor of Wrigleyville. He joked with reporters about the White House ceremony: “I’ll get clearance from the Secret Service and you can all come.”
Banks is 82 years old but still felt young enough to appear on stage last month during the Pearl Jam concert at Wrigley Field. That’s how he answered a question about when the Cubs will finally put it all together.
“What did Eddie Vedder say? Some day we’ll go all the way.”