Ernie Banks receives Presidential Medal of Freedom

Ernie Banks receives Presidential Medal of Freedom

November 20, 2013, 1:30 pm
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Mr. Cub stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Mr. President.

Barack Obama put the Presidential Medal of Freedom around Ernie Banks’ neck during Wednesday’s White House ceremony, giving him the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Obama loved the attitude and energy summed up in three words: “Let’s play two!” 

“That’s Mr. Cub,” Obama said, “the man who came up through the Negro Leagues, making $7 a day and became the first black player to suit up for the Cubs and one of the greatest hitters of all-time.

“In the process, Ernie became known as much for his 512 home runs as for his cheer and his optimism and his eternal faith that someday the Cubs would go all the way.”

[RELATED: Mr. Cub: Baseball’s 'first' African-American manager] 

Banks spent 19 seasons in a Cubs uniform but never played in a playoff game. At the age of 82, he’s still waiting for that World Series celebration.

“That’s serious belief,” Obama said. “That is something that even a White Sox fan like me can respect. He is just a wonderful man and a great icon of my hometown.”

Former President Bill Clinton headlined a diverse group of 16 recipients that featured another Chicago legend in Oprah Winfrey. Others included country-music star Loretta Lynn, activist Gloria Steinem, longtime University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith and The Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee, who guided the newspaper’s Watergate coverage.

Born in Dallas, Banks rose up from the Negro Leagues and put together a Hall of Fame career on the North Side, winning National League MVP awards in 1958 and 1959. He recently supported gay marriage in Illinois. He also served in the U.S. Army and ran against the machine as a Republican candidate for alderman in the early 1960s.    

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Banks remembered first connecting with Obama’s camp at a Jesse Jackson dinner on Navy Pier.

“The next day he announced his candidacy,” Banks recalled in August. “I was going to tell him not to run. I’d say: ‘You really want to do this?’”

Banks laughed at the beginning of the 2008 presidential campaign – and his attempts at converting a South Side guy like Obama.

“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.”

This marks the 50th anniversary of the executive order signed by President John F. Kennedy. Since then, more than 500 individuals have received the award, including baseball icons Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Aaron and Stan Musial.

This time, a name was put up in lights on the Wrigley Field marquee on Wednesday: “ERNIE BANKS PRESIDENTIAL MEDAL OF FREEDOM.”

As Banks said with a big smile in August: “Is this a great country or what?”