July 28, 2106
As I look back on my idyllic childhood after moving from Detroit to Scottsdale at age 7, I can name a multitude of advantages I had growing up in a sleepy Scottsdale, labeled “The West’s Most Western Town”. As a boy who loved baseball, I was living in one of two states that were at the epicenter of major league baseball for one month a year being in the heart of the Cactus League Spring Training country.
Becoming a fan in the early 70s, security was nowhere close to where it sadly is today We always found ways to get into the games by slipping through back lot gates into the stadium and having the freedom to walk around the entire park, watch the Cubs players take batting practice and perform their warm-ups. I remember the players being so friendly and it was quite evident they were enjoying spring training.
As some background, I was a member of the Scottsdale Boys Club which at the time was next door to the old Scottsdale Stadium that was the then the spring training home of the Chicago Cubs. Also members of the Boys Club were the twin boys of Ernie Banks, Joey and Jerry. I became friends with the twins and was lucky enough to see the Ernie’s 500th home run trophy at his spring condo. I remember being in complete awe as I saw the date of each HR listed on this huge award. It was quite an impressive sight! Most days after the games Ernie would walk next door to the Boys Club and make the rounds visiting the kids and talking with everyone he could.
We had no idea of the struggles he had as the first black to play for the Cubs or any of his other conflicts coming up through the Negro Leagues. He had retired the year earlier but was obviously still a Chicago icon. All we knew was his velvety voice could paint such a picture and his stories all had one thing in common, he had such a genuine love of the game of baseball. He was larger than life to a bunch of early teen boys that had watched him on TV. I feel so blessed to be able to look back on that time with such fondness. At one point I was lucky enough to get a baseball signed by most of the Cubs players at the time like Banks, Williams, Hundley, Beckert, Santo, Pepitone, Fergie Jenkins and some others. Unfortunately a couple years after that I needed a ball to play catch with in front of the house and grabbed that signature ball. A couple of skips on the asphalt and that was the end of that. Probably one of the most idiotic sports moments of my life!
Banks’ passing in 2015 brought me a sadness I had never really felt before. Obviously the passing of family members is filled with tremendous sorrow, but this was different. I had been a part of a unique opportunity. Not only was Ernie Banks a sports legend, he was an extremely nice, kind hearted man who never let his “status” get in the way of who he genuinely was. I look back on those days and remember the times (yet again) when our world was calmer and all seemed well within ourselves.
As we grow up and old, I see nothing wrong whatsoever with revisiting such thoughts. After all, we are made up of recollections and experiences which help morph us into ultimately the people we become at the end. When the time comes and my life is winding down, I can only hope that I’m still able to look back through the years and remember the man that gave us such enjoyment. We can recall his love for the game of baseball and all of those wonderful afternoons when he would proclaim…. “Let’s play two”.