When Ernie Banks played baseball, white boys weren’t supposed to idolize black men. Fortunately, most white boys didn’t know that.
Baseball legend Ernie Banks died Friday. Another icon of my youth is gone. The loss is especially poignant, because I wanted to be Ernie Banks.
Imagine that. A white kid, from a 98% white neighborhood, wanting to grow up to be a black man. More accurately, wanting to grow up to be a great man, one who happened to be black. But my story is far from unique: if you were a boy in the Chicago area while Ernie Banks played for the Cubs, you wanted to be Ernie Banks, no matter what race you were.
Even if the color of his skin didn’t matter to us, it surely mattered to him. He began his baseball career in the Negro leagues and eventually became the first black player for the Cubs. He won National League Most Valuable Player in 1958 and 1959, the first NL player to win back-to-back awards. Before the Civil Rights Act. Before black people could share “our” drinking fountains. Before Woolworth’s would serve them. And during a time when almost all black baseball players were still confined to the Negro leagues.
He hit 512 home runs in his career, and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame during his first year of eligibility. His number was the first ever retired by the Cubs. In 2013 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Not a bad man for a towheaded white boy to idolize, was he?
I’m convinced racism is learned, and more probably taught. In the late 60s and early 70s, as Ernie Banks was wrapping up his career, my brothers and I bought Motown 45s and listened to them in our thin-walled rooms. If someone had pointed out the musicians were black we would have blinked in confusion; we didn’t care about the color of their skin any more than we cared about the color of their socks. We just liked good music.
All the white boys I knew felt the same way. Motown records sold briskly in our 98% white town.
Years later, at a Florida hotel, while I was sipping a rum runner and gazing out at the ocean, a middle-aged white guy sidled up next to me. Thinking I was a member of his tribe, he pointed at the swimming pool in front of us and said, “I was going to take a swim, but the water’s polluted.”
I looked at the water. It was a fine cerulean blue, with low crystal wave peaks generated by a splashing and giggling family of four—the pool’s only occupants. I was about to ask what was wrong with the water when it dawned on me: the family was black.
I wish I could classify the incident as isolated, but as a middle-aged white guy I’m often mistaken for a tribesman. Nowadays it’s about “getting the monkey out of the White House.” Nowadays racism lurks beneath the surface, in online comments, in quiet discrimination. My last company actively promoted diversity, yet its entire leadership consisted of white males. Racism is alive and well in America, it’s just dressed in more subtle clothing.
Ernie Banks, speaking on racism, once said, “You can’t convince a fool against his will.”
I had the pleasure of watching him play in two Wrigley Field games. He hit home runs in both. Once during a seventh inning stretch he approached the stands, in the area where my family was sitting, and my brothers and I raced to the railing to be near him. We weren’t fast enough. Hundreds of other fans had the same thought, and the space before him was mobbed.
Imagine that. The 1960s. A lone black man in a sea of white people, young and old, all wanting the privilege to touch him.