Remembering Mr. Cub

Ernie Banks is one of those rare men, like Stan Musial and Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, who you just can’t imagine will ever die. He’s always been there, and should always be there. Friday afternoon, I got in my car for a long drive, and Ernie Banks was there. Yet somehow when I got out of the car, he was gone.

Oddly, I’d just been thinking about Banks.

I’d received a new book in the mail: 100 Years of Who’s Who in Baseball. If you’re a baseball nostalgist or know one, this would make a lovely gift. Every other page shows a Who’s Who cover, going all the way back to 1912 — the pamphlets weren’t published from 1913 through ’15 — with a facing page filled (or half-filled) with text about the player or players on the cover, and the big happenings of the previous baseball season.

Ernie Banks never appeared on the cover of Who’s Who. Which I happened to notice only because no black players appeared on the cover of Who’s Who for a long, long while. Jackie Robinson integrated the modern majors in 1947. From 1948 through ’64, 19 players were on the cover and not one of them was black. Not Jackie Robinson, who was MVP in 1949. Not Roy Campanella, MVP in 1951, 1953, and 1955. Not Don Newcombe, Cy Young and MVP in ’56. Not Willie Mays, MVP in 1954, or Hank Aaron, MVP in 1957, or Maury Wills, MVP in 1962. And not Ernie Banks, MVP in 1958 and ’59.

The first appearance of a black player on the cover of Who’s Who doesn’t come until 1965. Ken Boyer takes center stage, but for the first time there are thumbnail images along the side, among them Juan Marichal and Tony Oliva. In the text, we read that Marichal "was the first Dominican to grace the Who’s Who cover, and was one of the first two Hispanic players to appear (with Tony Oliva the same year).

One year later, Mays gets a thumbnail, and this terse note: "Mays was the first African American to appear on the cover."

I would have appreciated a another sentence or two about that. Just for the sake of seeming objectivity. Since it’s sort of an elephant in the room. 

Or maybe it’s just me. The good news is that the great black stars of the 1950s and early ’60s did appear on innumerable magazine covers. But it does seem true that those players, however well-acclaimed and -compensated, hardly were treated with perfect fairness. And what’s always struck me about Ernie Banks was his enthusiasm despite what must have been some discouraging times.