Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Ernie Banks one of a vanishing breed: us

     Journalism is a kabuki, a ritualized form, polished over the years.
     We have our traditions. Some subjects we avoid. You’ll never see the “Lotto: Sucker’s game or stupid tax?” headline.
     On the other hand, every snowfall is covered like a fresh shock, like an unexpected occurrence. Snow in January in Chicago; who’d have imagined?
     Our rituals are particularly strong when a celebrity passes away. Scribes automatically share a personal vignette, supposedly to offer illumination into the fallen star, but actually thinly disguised braggartry. Yup, knew him, hung with him.
     Though my one encounter with Ernie Banks says nothing about me, other than I can give directions, and a lot about why the city is honoring him today.
     Banks walked up to me, about 15 years ago, because I was the guy at the desk by the door on the fourth floor of the old Sun-Times newsroom. He introduced himself and asked where the picture desk was.
     Not that I believed it was him immediately. Back then, all sorts of people would show up at the paper. Delegates from distant planets. A pair of men in full braided gaucho outfits, brandishing guitars, wearing enormous sombreros. You never knew who you’d bump into. I once turned the corner and almost smacked into Ben & Jerry, the ice cream makers (“Ben!” I cried, almost falling to me knees. “Jerry! I love you guys!”)
Banks, me, Tom McNamee, Don Hayner
   But he looked like Banks. And he had on this expensive-looking leather Cubs jacket. I figured, if he were a street person, he probably wouldn’t have that jacket. So I walked him back to the photography department.
     “Ernie just wandered upstairs,” remembers Rich Cahan, who was a photo editor. “I do recall him saying that he just didn’t remember what it looked like — the game that is. That he remembered the sounds, the cheers, but couldn’t remember what it looked like.”
     The photographers gathered around, started pulling out photo files.
     “Keith Hale, who was working in the lab during those years, offered to make copies of Ernie’s favorite pictures, or all of the pictures,” said Cahan. “Ernie was thrilled, and Keith went right to work as soon as he left. They were ready for Ernie the next day.
     But Banks never came back for his photos, which was also in keeping with him. Childlike innocence and follow-through do not go together — if they did, Banks might have spent his career on the Cleveland Indians or the Chicago White Sox: both teams wrote him letters, while he was in the Army in Germany, inviting him to try out. But in his excitement returning home, he forgot. He rushed back to the Kansas City Monarchs, where the Cubs snapped him up, for a song.
     Which relates to why Banks came by the paper himself. Derek Jeter would send a go-fer. When you have money up the ying-yang, you have go-fers, and you send them.
     Banks did not have money up the ying-yang. When the Cubs signed him in 1953 to play for their Cedar Rapids farm team, he did not dicker. He did not negotiate. He did not use a lawyer or an agent. He had forgotten about the Indians and White Sox.
     “I was so nervous I had to hold my right hand with my left as I scribbled Ernest Banks … on a document that seemed to be a mile long,” Banks wrote in his autobiography, “Mr. Cub.”
     He did not even notice how much he was being paid. Banks found out later, from the Monarchs manager, Buck O’Neill.
     “On the way back to the South Side, Buck kiddingly grabbed hold of my right arm so I wouldn’t jump out of the automobile as he asked, ‘Do you realize that you signed for $800 a month? After your first full year in the majors, I want you to write me with news that your salary has been doubled. It’s all up to you now.”
     Even in 1954, $800 a month wasn’t much for a professional athlete. Banks earned just $6,000 in 1954; an average American salary was $4.500. It’s the equivalent of earning $60,000 a year today.
     It’s easy to rhapsodize the simple past, when you’re not the one who got shafted. “Show me the money” is never going to tug at your heart strings the way, “Let’s play two” does. But someone was making big money from baseball in 1954. It just wasn’t players like Ernie Banks. Our affection is cold comfort, a booby prize. People still love Derek Jeter, despite his millions..
     When Jeter retired from the Yankees last year, Gatorade produced a rhapsodic video where Jeter, the grateful star, instructs his driver to pull over and he walks the last few blocks to Yankee Stadium, a god among mortals, as the camera records the stunned and grateful reaction of the delighted proles and Sinatra sings "My Way."
     Derek Jeter earned $12 million in 2014, about 300 times the median household salary.
     Ernie Banks earned $85,000 in 1971, his last year in baseball, about 10 times the median household salary.
     That’s how America has been going. The top floats away, and the the lower classes scrabble for crumbs. We don’t even get the same quality hero anymore. Ernie Banks was a great guy, but there was something tragic about him, about all those players, because they got screwed. Which is also why we love them so much, because we’re getting screwed too.


  1. I remember when almost every player had an off season job.
    Many sold cars or real estate, but Richie Hebner, who spent most of his career with the Pirates, but a year with the Cubs, had the most unusual off season job. He was a gravedigger at a cemetery for over 30 years.

    1. I remember, not so long ago, when public school teachers had summer jobs in order to make rent. It's all relative for certain professions. But, teachers are now criticized for making better wages. A very small fraction of what MLB players now take in, with all due respect concerning representation.

  2. I loved the 1969 Cubs as only an 11-year-old girl can. To this day, I remember obscure stuff like Jimmy Qualls broke up Tom Seaver's no-hitter, and Archie Reynolds was from Tyler, Texas.

    Which is why it absolutely galls me that I know that one of the Cubs had an off-season job driving a beer truck and I can't remember who it was. Can you even imagine a current player doing something like that? Even more, out of economic necessity?

    It was also a time when the players came to spring training terribly out of shape because there wasn't money for off-season conditioning regimens, and spring training was more like boot camp than a refinement of skills.

    I loved Ernie. He beat out Mighty Mouse as my hero when I was three years old, and he never lost that ranking. I can't even process what being a Cubs fan will be like from now on.

  3. It's interesting how many people on both the left and the right bemoan how the pre-modern-era players got "screwed" by the owners, but take similar positions to the owners of yore when it comes to public workers. Derek Jeter gets millions because of Marvin Miller and their ability to bargain collectively. Teachers in Chicago can't strike without a super-majority though arguably they're more valuable to society than baseball players.

    Are the 1% and the rest of "the top" so different? A reminder that the top 5% of this country is household income of $167,000 per year, the top 2% starts around $225,000. The top indeed floats away, in-part by glutting the nation with cheap farm labor, caretakers, house and office cleaners etc. while protesting that doing anything to stop the glutting of that labor pool would be an economic disaster.

  4. I love this quote from the NY Daily News website introducing that Jeter video. God forbid he actually walk down a, oh, I don't know, regular street: "A portion of River Avenue was roped off before a home game in July, allowing Jeter to mingle with fans on the street, "

  5. Wish I owned that autographed baseball in the photo!

  6. I'm not sure if I agree with you 100% about Ernie and the rest of us getting "screwed." Even the least skilled of major league ballplayers today receive more than a million dollars a year in salary as well as the perks that go along with their status. To me, this is the equivalent of winning the lottery each and every year for as many as 20 years in a row. And you know what happens to lottery winners: they lose their friends, alienate their relatives, get divorced, and spend all their money. We should be proud to be losers instead: with friendly friends, lovely relatives, a modest marriage, and few enough bucks in the bank to keep us getting up every morning to go to work.


  7. reminds me of a possibly apocryphal story about when Babe Ruth signed what was then the largest contact for a major league ball player. $100,000.
    someone pointed out that he was making more than the president. "I had a better year than he did," Ruth is supposed to have replied.

    and am i the only one old enough to remember the hoo-hah when Joe Namath signed for an unheard of $400,000?

  8. We lament about athletes of yesteryear being paid poorly compared to athletes of today. But we also wax rhapsodic about the old days of $1 bleacher seats and 40 cent beers. We can't have it both ways.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Good point, Weiland.

      And Mr. S, nice column.


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