Baseball

Phil Rosenthal: 10 facts about Ernie Banks from a new book, including his ties to O.J. Simpson and Norah Jones

Ernie Banks was far more complex than the ever-cheerful Mr. Cub persona he created for himself.

Former Chicago Sun-Times columnist Ron Rapoport has done a magnificent job lifting the veil and illuminating the shadows in "Let's Play Two: The Legend of Mr. Cub, the Life of Ernie Banks."

A definitive biography, "Let's Play Two" was born of remnants from an aborted autobiography on which Rapoport was to collaborate. The result is a far more candid and nuanced story.

It introduces us to a more human Banks than most ever knew while fully appreciating the part of his life that made him one of Chicago's most beloved figures.

Banks came to this city by way of an impoverished childhood in a Dallas home without electricity or running water and then the dying days of Negro League baseball.

Once here he was a bright light on a string of low-wattage Cubs teams, winning back-to-back National League MVP awards in 1958-59, and then there was the crushing letdown of 1969.

There are places where Banks fades into the background as Rapoport – a colleague of mine at two newspapers – tells the story of the teams and teammates with whom Banks played, some more familiar to today's Cubs fans than others. But it helps put him and his frustrations into perspective.

Then there is Mr. Cub in twilight, the challenge of what to do with his playing days behind him.

Rapoport goes at his subject with a reporter's eye, filling "Let's Play Two" with details that should be a revelation to many, though some will merely jog the memories of older die-hard Cubs fans.

Here are 10 things in the book you may not know about Mr. Cub:

1. Banks was related to O.J. Simpson.

Banks' mother and Simpson's mother were first cousins.

2. As a teen, Banks' friends nicknamed him "Casper the Ghost."

He had a reputation for disappearing whenever there was trouble.

3. Banks played for the Harlem Globetrotters.

He played part time with the team while in the Army.

4. Norah Jones, Erykah Badu, Edie Brickell and Roy Hargrove all graduated from the same Dallas high school as Banks.

Booker T. Washington High School is now Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

5. While still a player, Banks ran for alderman.

Rapoport writes that the Tribune endorsed Banks' 1963 run as a Republican in the 8th Ward, calling him "an intelligent public-spirited citizen." Republicans rejected Banks, backing Gerald E. Gibbons by an 84-3 vote. "I don't understand this political game too well," Banks said. "They try to strike you out before you even get a time at bat."

6. Monte Irvin suggested late in the 1954 season that Banks switch to a 31-ounce bat rather than his 35-ouncer, which enabled him to unleash more power.

Banks and Irvin, then with the Giants, were at the Polo Grounds when Banks picked up one of his friend's bats, according to Rapoport. Banks said it felt good in his hands, and Irvin said he ought to use one like it.

7. Future syndicated columnist and author Georgie Anne Geyer was ghostwriter for Banks' bylined Chicago Daily News dispatches during his 1968 goodwill tour of Vietnam.

Geyer was covering the war for the paper. "What she did not understand was that Banks would tell her things to write in his name that he would not have said for himself," Rapoport writes, noting some of the topics "could only have made the Army brass wince."

8. Banks' total earnings over his 19-season career with the Cubs was just $800,000.

The most Banks made in a season was $85,000. Adjusted to 2019 dollars, he averaged about $400,000 per season, which Rapoport notes is about 10 percent of the average MLB salary in 2017.

9. Before Banks got the call in 1977, only 12 players had been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility.

While the number is more than 50 today, it was fairly rare at the time. Rapoport points out that Joe DiMaggio, Roy Campanella, Yogi Berra, Mel Ott and Jimmie Foxx were among those who did not make it on their first ballot.

10. Banks' last Chicago home was in Trump International Hotel & Tower.

The Ricketts family, owners of the Cubs, paid for his apartment as part of his deal with the team. "He needed a place to live, so we got him the apartment," Tom Ricketts told Rapoport. "You should take care of your Hall of Famers."

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