Cubs great Banks left great memories for Billy Williams, fans
CHICAGO — As he approached the casket to pay his respects to Ernie Banks, a steady flow of memories came rushing back to Billy Williams.
There were so many from their Hall of Fame careers with the Chicago Cubs and their decades of friendship. And there was plenty of reminiscing during Friday’s visitation.
”People not only here in Chicago but people around the world recognize the type of individual he was,” Williams said. ”It’s beginning to sink in now — I’ve lost a great friend, you’ve lost a great friend.”
Banks hit 512 home runs and won two NL MVP awards. But he’s remembered as much for his boundless enthusiasm — despite playing on mostly losing teams — and his desire to connect with everyone he met.
Fans have been placing flowers outside Wrigley Field and stopping in Daley Plaza to take photos of his statue, which normally stands outside the ballpark. The city and the Cubs took the unprecedented step of taking the statue out of storage — where it been kept while the ballpark is renovated — and putting it on public display away from its usual home.
On Friday, dignitaries and fans, some pausing to snap a picture, streamed past his casket draped with a giant ”Banks 14” jersey and a large photo of him in a Cubs cap smiling right behind it.
A memorial service is scheduled for Saturday, on what would have been his 84th birthday. After that, he will take one final trip to Wrigley. The procession will go by the statue before heading north past the ballpark’s famed marquee at the corner of Clark and Addison.
Chairman Tom Ricketts said the Cubs will do ”everything we can” to honor Banks and ”dedicate the season to him,” although he did not have any details. He said they are still finalizing plans.
”Baseball’s lost a great icon,” Hall of Fame teammate Fergie Jenkins said.
Jenkins talked about Banks’ love of day games and carpooling with him and Williams from the South Side to Wrigley. He also mentioned the nickname he gave Banks.
Forget ”Mr. Cub” or ”Mr. Sunshine.” To Jenkins, Banks was ”AM and FM.”
”He was like a radio. You couldn’t turn him off,” Jenkins said.
Williams recalled babysitting Banks’ children and thanked them for ”lending me your father that many years.” He said he tried to call Banks a few days before he died but was unable to reach him. When he got the news, it hit hard.
”It was hard to believe at that time,” Williams said. ”I went to sleep. And then when I woke up that morning, I said, ‘This is a dream. This is a dream.’ This individual, he made a lot of people happy. He was always joyous, and to wind up with a heart attack, it was really something.
”When I got the word, I was upstairs. I remember putting the phone on the bed and just putting my head on the bed and just thinking about the times we had through the years.”
One of Williams’ favorite memories was when Banks called to say he was going to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The ceremony at the White House was in November 2013 and Banks wanted his friend to attend.
”It was one of the moments we shared,” Williams said. ”He was so joyous about it. I think back and I said, ‘I was with Ernie for some of his greatest moments,’ and I really enjoyed that. He’s a guy that I will always — I will always — talk about, enjoy being his friend.”
Banks was not afraid to take on bigger issues, whether he was running for Chicago alderman in the 1960s or riding a Cubs float at Chicago’s gay pride parade in recent years.
People who did not really know Banks felt like they did.
Longtime Cubs fan Trudie Acheatel recalled how he would walk around the ballpark talking to fans after he retired.
”He was so nice to us fans,” said Acheatel, wearing a Banks jersey, plus a Cubs hat with two of his baseball cards and a pin in a protective plastic envelope attached. ”Ernie was such a wonderful gentleman.”
Whether he was talking to a teammate or a fan, Banks seemed more interested in learning about the other person than he was in discussing himself.
In that sense, he was tough to crack. But he always found a way to connect, just like a great hitter.
Ricketts saw it before his family purchased the Cubs. He met Banks at corporate events, and one thing struck him.
”When you do a speaking engagement, you have a contract. It says show up at this time, leave at this time, no autographs. Ernie would never leave. He would stay until the very last person got everything they wanted. He was just special that way.”