by Midnight Freemason Contributor
R.W.B. Michael H. Shirley
“The riches of the game are in the thrills, not the money.” —Ernie Banks
Bill Bryson, who is one of my favorite writers, in his memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, told of his father, a sportswriter for the Des Moines Register, taking him along to ballparks, where he met Major Leaguers. “Once,” he recalled, “on a hot July afternoon I sat in a nearly airless clubhouse under the left-field grandstand at Wrigley Field beside Ernie Banks, the Cubs’ great shortstop, as he autographed boxes of new white baseballs…. Unbidden, I took it upon myself to sit beside him and pass him each new ball. This slowed the process considerably, but he gave a little smile each time and said thank you as if I had done him quite a favor. He was the nicest human being I have ever met. It was like being friends with God.”
I’m not much given to envy, but I envied Bill Bryson when I read that. Ernie Banks was my hero when I was growing up. I came of age as a baseball fan in the 1960s, when there were only two teams a kid growing up in Chicago could root for: the Cubs or the White Sox. Northsiders were Cubs fans, and so I came by my love of the Cubs almost by default. I’d spend hours watching channel nine (WGN), home to the Cubs, with Jack Brickhouse doing the play-by-play, and rooting for my guys: Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins, Jim Hickman, Kenny Holtzman, Don Kessinger, Glenn Beckert, Randy Hundley, Ron Santo, and always, always, Ernie Banks. By that time, he was at the tail end of his career, no longer the great shortstop who’d won back-to-back MVP awards while playing for a last-place team, but still a deadly bat and a soft glove at first. But his skill wasn’t the reason I adored him: he was my hero because of who he was as a man. I didn’t find out he was a Mason until recently, but all the things I want to become as a Mason were things Ernie Banks radiated from the core of his being. He was always smiling, fundamentally kind, and invariably optimistic. He was, in a word, joyous, and that joy was infectious. Everyone who knew him, if only through watching him on television, felt a bit better about the world because of Ernie Banks. Even the normally acerbic Dick Young, sportswriter for the New York Daily News, gushed when he spoke of Ernie: “Ernie Banks,” he said, “is a beautiful man.”
He should have played in a World Series, but never got the chance. His best hope ended when the Cubs collapsed in the last month of the 1969 season, and he had to watch the Miracle Mets win it all. Even then, he was not publically bereft. Although he certainly had regrets about it, I sometimes think his fans were more upset about it than he was, because he never forgot how wonderful it was to play a game for a living, to do what you loved doing, and to make the choice to be happy.
When he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, he said, “What in the world have I done to receive this wonderful honor?” To that display of true humility, I can only shake my head in wonder, and continue to be grateful for having lived in the same world as Ernie Banks.
My hero, Brother Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub, Baseball Hall of Famer, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, and truly beautiful man, was a member of Fidelity Lodge No. 103, MWPHGLIL, and was named Mason of the Year in 1959. He passed to the Grand Lodge Above on January 23, 2015, AL 6015, at the age of 83. His column is broken; his Brethren—and all who knew him—mourn.