By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
As Mr. Cub and Mr. Sunshine, Ernie Banks had a good word publicly for tens of thousands of people he met over a lifetime.
So on a July afternoon in 2003 in Wrigley Field’s upstairs press box lunchroom, it made perfect sense Banks – the most beloved baseball player in Chicago history — would have some kind words to say about announcer Vince Lloyd, who had just died of cancer at 86.
A special Diamond Gems syndicated baseball radio show was being planned on Lloyd’s career. Lloyd was one of five figures who were with Banks his entire Cubs playing career from 1953 to 1971, along with Jack Brickhouse, owner P.K. Wrigley, clubhouse boss Yosh Kawano and trainer Al Scheuneman.
But Banks shockingly refused to comment.
“Just because someone’s been with you a long time doesn’t mean he’s your friend,” he said with seeming hurt in his voice.
The interviewer was stunned. Ernie Banks angry at Vince Lloyd, who was as likeable as the Hall of Famer? The same Vince Lloyd who practically busted his diaphragm with baritone-tinged radio calls of Banks’ homers in his first two at-bats during the legendary Opening Day of April 8, 1969?
Even after chronicling much of Banks’ personal side, as best as it could be revealed, the jab at Lloyd still shocked longtime sportswriter Ron Rapoport.
“I have no idea about that animosity,” he said. “I’m startled he’d say something (publicly). I’m stunned.”
A bit of psychoanalysis about the turndown of Lloyd tribute was offered by Bill Marovitz, who over the decades got close to Banks.
“In a lot of cases he felt people were using him,” Marovitz said. “He didn’t trust that people were there for genuine friendship reasons, that they would not be asking for anything, that they cared about him and loved him. In my life, if something happened, at 2 a.m., I feel I have a half dozen friends who would be there for me.
“I don’t think Ernie felt he had that depth of friendships, of people he’d call brother. Ernie wanted to be loved.”
The Lloyd incident did not make the cut in Rapoport’s just-released massive Banks’ biography, “Let’s Play Two: The Legend of Mr. Cub, The Life of Ernie Banks.” Former Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist Rapoport had been told the story years before when he began researching the book while Banks was still alive. He assembled a voluminous amount of material for the 455-page hardcover work.
Marovitz kind of teamed up as a junior partner with Rapoport in trying to chronicle both sides – very much separate and unequal – of Banks. A former state senator from the North Side, he is now a raconteur, restaurant owner and producer of “Miracle,” a 2016 Cubs-themed musical opening at the Royal George Theater in Chicago on May 8.
Also owner of Carnivale, a South American-themed restaurant in River North, Marovitz hosted a recent book party for “Let’s Play Two” in which he added to the narrative with “I knew Ernie” stories.
Four years after his death at 83, passing away shy of the World Series dream denied to him, Rapoport and Marovitz offer the closest portrait possible of Banks, the eternal optimist who coined the phrase “Let’s play two,” emblematic of his pure love of baseball that Cubs pitcher Fergie Jenkins figured was his release from a tough personal life, much of which was Banks’ own doing. The further Banks got away from an active career, Jenkins, Rapoport and Marovitz postulate, the less he had to lean on that release.
No Rosetta Stone actually exists as a guidepost to perform an FBI-profiler-style analysis of what really made Mr. Cub tick. But Rapoport, ably assisted by Marovitz’s remembrances, boils the speculation down to two major factors.
Banks was conflict-averse, called “the ghost” by friends and family, nowhere to be found when trouble beckoned in a poverty-stricken Dallas childhood. When a domestic squabble flared at his home at 82nd and Rhodes on Chicago’s South Side, he simply jumped into his car and drove away.
“Ernie’s way of dealing was to run away,” said Rapoport. “No drama, just walk away. That’s the way Ernie lived his life. You can’t do that all your life. You have to come to terms with things. One thing I heard from (Banks son) Jerry, is if you try to live up to your image, eventually you become prisoner to it.”
He seemed an often indifferent father, his twin sons not often enjoying backyard games of catch with the Cubs’ greatest-ever player, yet somewhat reconciling with adult games of golf decades later in California.
Mr. Cub also appeared to be reticent to make commitments. He went through four wives, with his estranged final wife Liz dueling over his estate with his care-giver that had latched onto him as he passed 80.
Although a savvier, more personally stable Banks could have lived comfortably the rest of his life as Mr. Cub in an adoring Chicago, and always be employed in the Cubs organization, he instead moved from job to job, relocating to the Los Angeles area starting in the mid-1980s. He spent his final years subsidized by the Ricketts family in a Trump Tower condo and glad-handing around Wrigley Field through 2014.
Rapoport gained fame as one of a number of prominent Jewish sports columnists in Chicago starting in the 1970s. After working in Los Angeles, interviewing Jackie Robinson in a darkened hotel room months before his death in 1972, Rapoport moved to Evanston and was Sun-Times columnist from 1977 to 1988. After returning to Los Angeles, Rapoport moved back to Chicago as assistant sports editor at the Sun-Times in1996, then switching after two years to author a sports-notes column until 2006.
Marovitz has returned to the public spotlight as producer of “Miracle.” He comes from a prominent Jewish political family. He is the nephew of the late federal Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz, who swore in best friend Richard J. Daley for all six of his mayoral terms from 1955 to 1975. While a state senator, Marovitz played a key role in helping negotiate the 1988 agreement for lights at Wrigley Field after six years of fractious debate. He also was married to Playboy scion Christie Hefner from 1995 to 2012.
While a columnist, Rapoport attended Cubs Conventions at which Banks sat at the very same table at the press party. He’d offer his usual Mr. Cub homilies until, like clockwork, he turned serious 20 minutes in – something noticed by Rapoport. He sensed there was another, less sunny side.
“He was a real guy. He’d been putting us on all these years,” Rapoport said, who filed the mood turnabout for future actions.
Rapoport reports in “Let’s Play Two” how Banks would take the Tribune’s George Langford and the Sun-Times’ Jerome Holtzman, the most prominent Jewish beat writer, over to the first-base side during batting practice to stay out of earshot of manager Leo Durocher and other Cubs figures on the other side of the cage.
Rapoport said Banks took the scribes aside because the slugger knew they would not print his narrative. The writers got more than Banks’ teammates.
In “Let’s Play Two,” 1969-vintage lefty Rich Nye said Banks was hardly seen on the road and never joined in teammates’ dinners. Fergie Jenkins said his hotel room conversations with Banks focused on baseball. The Cubs’ ace said Banks never told him he sent sons Joey and Jerry to a southwest suburban military academy for middle school. Amazingly, the sons were away at a time when their father was home in the off-season. “He could have been a more attentive father, a better father,” said Marovitz.
Returning to Los Angeles in 2006, Rapoport looked up Banks in Marina del Rey and proposed cooperating on an autobiography. Banks began talking into the scribe’s tape recorder.
“I’d drive over to his house, and we’d go sit on the deck at the Ritz Carlton,” Rapoport said. “He’d drink wine. He really got into it. I didn’t realize how good (starter) material I had until I listened later. We were together maybe 10 times for a couple of hours each time. Maybe it was 15 to 20 hours of recording. It was the real guy. Talking about Leo, Edna (Warren, his eldest sister), Dallas, Buck O’Neil.”
But Banks’ commitment issues and avoidance of conflict bit Rapoport like it had so many others. Rapoport had a book contract, but Banks did a dance through his attorneys that others witnessed in other forms. He had an excellent radar to intercept people wanting to probe him on their terms. Eventually Banks dropped the project and moved back to Chicago. Banks put the blame on wife Liz for nixing the book.
“After he died, I called Liz and told her what he said about not wanting to do a book,” Rapoport said. “Liz said that was not true. She said Ernie didn’t want to do a book. He liked the idea of a book, but didn’t want to actually do it.”
Rapoport went to Banks’ old neighborhood in Dallas to profile his economically deprived, but relationship-rich, two-parent upbringing. Decades later, Banks often brought his father, Eddie, to Wrigley Field. Sister Edna Warren was a fabulous source of information.
He also profiled Philip Wrigley’s paternalistic attitude toward Banks. The gum magnate helped his greatest star invest part of his salary. But there were limits. Rumors abounded that Banks signed blank contracts each year, which Wrigley’s general managers supposedly filled in without much negotiation amid the conflict avoidance.
He could not settle down to a steady Cubs job, as Henry Aaron did as Atlanta Braves farm director, once he played his last game in 1971. Banks moved from first base coach to roving minor-league hitting instructor to group sales director to team speaker. When he failed to show up at multiple speaking appearances in the early 1980s for his $25,000 annual payout, general manager Dallas Green cut Banks from the payroll for awhile.
Banks did not lack for work outside of baseball. But none of the gigs were long-lasting. Wrigley called Henry Ford II in 1967 to make Banks the first African-American Ford dealer in the country. Three years later, Wrigley’s attorneys worked to extricate Banks from the South Side dealership. He had regular sportscasts on WGN-TV and Radio, but they, too, were not long-lasting. Post-baseball, around 1980, Banks even underwent management training at the Bank of Ravenswood on Lawrence Avenue, two miles north of Wrigley Field. But his role seemed limited to playing on the bank’s softball team and entertaining visitors at a desk in the lobby.
Whenever he made an appearance, though, he was mobbed and delighted kids with his positive personality and autographs. Rapoport recounted how 7,000 showed up at a Gary, Ind., department store in 1962 to see Banks, and in the crush some kids were pushed through a window. Banks visited the injured at a hospital. A police lieutenant and three officers were needed as a flying wedge to get Banks to his car after 1969 games at Wrigley Field.
Banks never stopped playing to the crowd. As a senior citizen, he accompanied Marovitz, a frequent golfing partner, to Bulls games at the United Center. Ushers were needed to control a steady line of fans snaking down to get autographs. Banks ensured he brought enough baseballs to accommodate the demand.
Marovitz got past some of Banks’ defenses in a “planes, trains and automobiles” manner in mid-September 2001, as detailed in the prologue of “Let’s Play Two.” Both attended a Warren Buffett golf tournament in Omaha, scheduled on 9/11/01. Days later, with airlines still grounded, Marovitz and Banks decided to return via car to Chicago. But Marovitz made a wrong left turn and almost ended up in North Dakota. With now a really marathon drive ahead of them, Banks had no choice but to open up from the passenger seat. All ears, Marovitz still did not get the true “A” material.
“The only thing he was disclosing was what it was like coming up in a segregated society,” he said. “So many of the things he had to go through. You couldn’t sleep in the hotels, eat in the restaurants and use the bathrooms. But I never felt a hostility in him.”
Perhaps an alternate title for Rapoport’s massive work could be “Mr. Cub: We Hardly Knew Ye.” Even though he goes a good eight innings in explaining the man who brought so much joy to millions, Rapoport cannot totally close it out in the ninth through no fault of his own. Banks the baseball player concocted too many prevent defenses in his personal life.
The Banks record with 512 homers and so many memories is imprinted in the book, but his story was not neatly concluded. Marovitz aptly told Rapoport, “The man could not die in peace.”