By Ross Forman
Chuck Jacobson went to New York City in 2005 to watch his beloved Chicago Cubs play against the Yankees at iconic Yankee Stadium. He was sitting close to the Cubs dugout and was given a foul ball by then-Cubs manager Dusty Baker – and boy did that ball come in handy.
During the game, Jacobson spotted Ernie Banks seated nearby, so he asked the long-retired Cubs hero to autograph the ball.
But Banks refused.
So Jacobson walked away and simply thought, “Oh well.”
A few seconds later, Banks started throwing peanuts at Jacobson and said, “Give me that ball.”
Jacobson did; Banks signed it – and both smiled.
“Ernie always had fun and truly loved the game,” said Jacobson, who lives in San Diego and is a diehard Cubs fan. He still has the Banks-signed ball. “I always related to Ernie Banks in the way he just wanted to have fun. Ernie always had something positive to say to everyone.”
Jacobson and the entire sports world was shocked to hear that Banks, nicknamed “Mr. Cub,” had died at age 83, just seven days before his 84th birthday on Jan. 23. Days later, his family announced that Banks died of a heart attack.
“It is certainly a sad day for us,” Ernie’s wife, Liz Banks, said two days after his death at a press conference. “I’d like to thank everyone for being here. He was very beloved and he is going to be dearly missed by family, friends and all of his fans.”
Banks’ legendary stature reached well beyond the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field – Banks’ home for all 19 years that he played in the major leagues, from 1953-71. President Obama, for instance, issued a statement about Banks.
“Michelle and I send our condolences to the family of Ernie Banks, and to every Chicagoan and baseball fan who loved him,” Obama said. “Ernie came up through the Negro Leagues, making $7 a day. He became the first African-American to play for the Chicago Cubs, and the first number the team retired. Along the way, he became known as much for his 512 home runs and back-to-back National League MVPs as for his cheer, his optimism and his love of the game. As a Hall of Famer, Ernie was an incredible ambassador for baseball, and for the city of Chicago. He was beloved by baseball fans everywhere, including Michelle, who, when she was a girl, used to sit with her dad and watch him play on TV. And in 2013, it was my honor to present Ernie with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“Somewhere, the sun is shining, the air is fresh, his team’s behind him and Mr. Class – ‘Mr. Cub’ – is ready to play two.”
Banks’ stature also led to a statue, which the Cubs temporarily moved from outside Wrigley Field to downtown Chicago. It was on display in Daley Plaza for several days. Meanwhile, a makeshift memorial – with flowers, photos, empty beer cans, autographed baseballs and more – was built outside Wrigley Field, particularly along Addison Street, inches away from where Banks’ name is etched into the concrete, along with many other Cubs legends.
The famed, red Wrigley Field marque also paid tribute to Banks, and Banks’ flags hung surrounding the marquee. Plus, Banks flags were hung on either side of the scoreboard, which can been seen from outside the stadium on Addison Street.
“Ernie Banks transcended all fandom, especially in Chicago where most people are either Cubs fans or White Sox fans. Ernie Banks had respect on both sides of town. He was that guy who absolutely everyone respected, not just for his baseball skill, which mind you earned him a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but more so, for who he was and how he lived his life,” said Mark Sakalares, 53, who grew up a Cubs fan and remains a diehard.
Banks was a 14-time All-Star, yet never reached the postseason. Still, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977, the first year he was eligible, and he was selected to baseball’s all-century team in 1999. Banks was a Cubs goodwill ambassador for decades after retiring and made countless autograph appearances around the country, including multiple times at the annual National Sports Collectors Convention.
Some of his 2014 appearances included Fanatics Authentic shows in Rosemont, Ill., in March and June; at the Cow Palace in San Francisco for Tristar Productions in late April; and in Cooperstown, N.Y., on behalf of MAB Celebrity Services. His last reported public signing was Nov. 15 in Brooklyn Center, Minn., for Sportsnews Productions.
“Ernie was a great autograph guest, always,” said Mark Dehem, who coordinated Banks’ appearance in 2002 at the Gibraltar Trade Center in Taylor, Mich., when Dehem arranged all of the venue’s autograph appearances.
“Ernie was great with the fans; he bent over backwards for the fans. Ernie was funny, comical and entertaining – and he always looked/dressed professionally.”
Though that was the only time Dehem booked Banks at Gibraltar, the two bumped into each other at many other shows over the years. “And he always went out of his way to say hello,” Dehem said. “Ernie Banks treated everyone the same – be it the guy who was sweeping the floors or a paying customer.”
Sakalares said Banks simply was, “an ambassador of good.”
Christina Kahrl, a Chicago-based sportswriter for ESPN, said, “Ernie Banks should be forever remembered as something more than a great ballplayer – he was a great American.”
John Arcand, the longtime hobby shop owner in Chicago who is now the Big Ten Treasure Hunter on the Big Ten Network, said Banks is, and long has been, the first Cubs player who collectors want to buy. And Banks ranks at least in the top five of all Chicago athletes, along with Michael Jordan, Walter Payton and a few select others.
Longtime hobbyist Mike Stoner of Atlanta went the Facebook route, like millions of others, to recall Banks,. After all, Banks’ death was, for a while, the world’s No. 1 trending story.
“When my son was 16, I was asked to come to a room to do some work for a Yankee legend appearing at a memorabilia show,” Stoner posted on the social media site.
“David, at 16, came with. Ernie Banks was in the room. For an hour he sat on the bed opposite David and talked to him. To this day, David cannot remember what was said, except he remembered how very kind Ernie was to a youngster he did not know. Then he went downstairs to the room with the autograph seekers and stood on stage to lead the crowd in ‘He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands.’ And this was typical kindness for Mr. Cub.
“His passing has diminished this world of a wonderful light, and we are all less for his leaving. God rest his soul and great love and best wishes to his family, personal family and the vast family of people he touched in this world.”
Banks appeared at 20-25 card shows across the country produced by Houston-based Tristar Productions Inc., arguably the most of any show promoter.
Tristar Vice President Bobby Mintz said Banks “was a great guest, a fun guy to be around, who never gave us a problem and was never in a rush at our shows; he’d get to [the venue] early in the morning and stay until the job was done.”
Mintz noted that Banks always wanted to talk about current events and always asked how others were doing personally. Plus, Banks always knew the athletes from other sports, Mintz said.
Mintz said Banks would have appeared this summer at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Chicago.
Mintz said Banks will go down as a top-five baseball legend on the card show circuit. “He gave you an experience when you met him,” Mintz said.
Banks had signed two baseballs for Mintz, which he placed in the bedrooms of each of his sons the morning after Banks’ death. Mintz and his sons then spent time reflecting on Banks the player and Banks the show guest.
Banks’ rookie card was released in 1954 by Topps (No. 94). After his passing, the card was available on eBay – with a NM-MT 8 grade from PSA – for $6,999, at the buy it now price. The same Banks 1954 card with PSA 7 was available for $25,000. A non-graded Banks rookie sells for about $1,500.
Banks-signed baseballs often include the “Mr. Cub” inscription – and they now sell for $125 or so. He also often inscribed items “512 HRs” or “58 and 59 NL MVP.”
There were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of authentic Banks signature cards from multiple card makers over the years, even the popular Nabisco cards from the early 1990s or Hillshire Farms release in the late 1990s.
Relic cards of Banks are plentiful – from simple, game-worn uniform swatch cards to tandem swatches with fellow former Cubs to rare, high-demand 1-of-1s and more
Banks’ game-worn spikes from the 1950s were available on eBay for $4,500, or best offer.
Forbes Magazine reported after Banks’ death that Don Hontz, a baseball card dealer, said he sold two Banks cards after his death on eBay. His 1958 Topps in Near Mint-Mint condition sold for $280, while a 1959 in the same condition, for $225, the magazine reported.
“You always hate to see your heroes pass, and Banks certainly was a hero to millions,” Arcand said.
Ross Forman is a frequent contributor to SCD. He can be reached at Rossco814@aol.com.