Bloop Hits: Thanks Mister Banks

It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of the late Ernie Banks, both to the Cubs and to the entire city of Chicago.

The first black player to ever take the field for the Cubs (the organization signed Negro Leagues/PCL star Gene Baker in 1950, three years before Banks, but Banks made his MLB debut three days before Baker in 1953), the uncannily ebullient shortstop left a lasting mark with his bat, his glove and his smile. In addition to giving Cubs fans a legitimate reason to show up at Wrigley Field during many remarkably dire seasons, he became the first black hero of an entire generation of white Chicago kids — a not insignificant feat, given that racial segregation in 1950s Chicago was as virulent and widespread as in any southern city of the day.

The Cubs, and maybe baseball as a whole, never had a better or more enthusiastic ambassador, a role Ernie continued to joyfully inhabit for over forty years after his retirement. (I was too young to see him in action, but when I made my first visit to Wrigley, on August 31, 1980, the fact that I was watching a ballgame “where Ernie Banks used to play” was even more exciting to me than the Cubs’ eventual comeback victory in the bottom of the ninth.) So it came as something of a surprise to realize last week, upon the sad occasion of his death, that there weren’t any songs about Ernie Banks. Given how deeply loved he was in Chicago — and how vital the Chicago music scene was during the 50s, 60s and 70s — surely someone must have recorded a tribute to “Mr. Cub,” right?

Well, it turns out that someone actually did, though it took my pal Mal Thursday (whose show on Trash Can Radio is a must-listen for anyone who digs raw and righteous sounds) to hip me to the existence of “Thanks Mister Banks,” an obscure 1979 single by singer-songwriter Roger Bain.

A rootsy new wave number reminiscent of early Nick Lowe, “Thanks Mister Banks” recalls a baseball-obsessed childhood in which “the number one man was Number 14,” and cutting class to catch a game from the Wrigley bleachers was just about the coolest thing imaginable. In the song’s final verse, Banks comes to the plate with Billy Williams on third and Ron Santo on first, and drives a pitch out onto Waveland Avenue, prompting a “Hey Hey!” from Cubs broadcaster Jack Brickhouse and sending a bunch of kids in a mad scramble after the home run ball. It’s a sweet and sincere tribute, one that waxes nostalgic while neatly sidestepping the sappiness that so often sinks such endeavors. Thirty-six years later, Bain tells me he’s still extremely proud of the song.

“Though it ends up being categorized as a novelty song, I never intended it to be that way,” he says. “It was really a song from my heart, talking about growing up in Chicago, and following the Cubs and Ernie Banks. When we weren’t playing baseball or reading comics, we’d be having a Hostess cupcake and watching the Cubs on TV. Ernie Banks was the total baseball icon of my neighborhood, and all of Chicago, really.”

Bain, who spent his childhood in Chicago’s western suburbs, saw his first game at Wrigley in 1959, the year Banks won his second straight NL MVP award; he wrote and recorded “Thanks Mister Banks” twenty years later. Through a connection of his father’s at WGN radio, he was able to get a tape of the song to popular Chicago radio personality Roy Leonard, who gave it a spin on his midday show. The initial response was positive enough that a Midwestern record distributor, convinced that Bain had a potential regional hit on his hands, encouraged him to press up 10,000 45s of “Thanks Mister Banks”. Released on Bain’s own Barking Gecko label, the single received its “official debut” on WGN on April 5, 1979, during Leonard’s Opening Day broadcast. Bain was a guest on the show that day, as were Banks and Santo, both of whom responded enthusiastically.

“Ernie hadn’t heard the song before,” Bain remembers, “but when it came on, he jumped up and started dancing and waving his arms! He kept going, ‘Disco! Disco!’ — which it wasn’t, but since disco was really popular at the time, I guess that meant he liked it. And Santo, recalling the old American Bandstand patter, said, ‘I’ll give it a 98. You can dance to it!’”

Sadly, despite the WGN airplay and his heroes’ endorsement, “Thanks Mister Banks” failed to take off. “Some stations played it, but there’s an element of luck that has to happen with any hit record, and it never happened with this one,” Bain says. He still has about fifty or sixty copies of the record, but doesn’t recall what happened to most of the 10,000 copies he originally pressed up. “I sold some here and there, and gave some away; I know I would occasionally throw away a box of 250 of them, just to downsize the clutter in our closets or basement.”

Though Bain wrote and recorded “The Ballad of George Brett," the following year, “Thanks Mister Banks” — which is now available digitally at Bain’s CD Baby page — remains the only baseball song he’s ever committed to wax.

“I’ve written songs about everything from Pizarro and Magellan to plastic inflatable companions,” he laughs, “but I also like to write about things that mean a lot to me, personally — and there’s really no other Cub, of that era or any other, that I could or would have written a song about. He just meant so much to me!”

“I suppose it’s disappointing in a way,” he says of the song’s obscurity. “But not really — I don’t get disappointed at the lack of success of any of my songs. I did think it would have gotten more traction, especially with sports broadcasts and such. But to see your childhood hero dancing to a song you wrote about him? That was just magical!”