Banks immortalized next to Wrigley
Statue of beloved Mr. Cub unveiled on Opening Day
CHICAGO -- "Oh wow," a beaming Ernie Banks said after a statue of the Hall of Famer was unveiled Monday morning outside Wrigley Field. "Is that me?"
With a cocked bat, head tilted slightly and an expression that clearly captures Mr. Cub at the plate, there was no mistaking the subject of this work of art.
From this day forward, No. 14 will stand at Clark and Addison Streets, staring out at an unseen Warren Spahn.
"Wow, I love it," Banks said of the statue, the work of sculptor Lou Cella.
Cella used Banks' at-bat against Hall of Famer Spahn on Aug. 29, 1959, as inspiration for the 300-pound steel, wood, fiberglass and bronze piece. Banks hit a grand slam off Spahn that day. The statue was clearly a home run with the hundreds of Cubs fans who stood in the cold and rain for the ceremony.
While the weather was uncooperative, Banks and the dignitaries who came out for Ernie Banks Day made for a ceremony to warm the heart of any Mr. Cub fan.
Clearly, there are a lot of them.
"I wouldn't have missed this for the world," Hall of Famer Billy Williams said. "Ernie helped me more than anyone. I wanted to be here today to celebrate. Ernie was a trailblazer, and of course he always had fun playing this game."
Hall of Famer Henry Aaron remembered that Banks was the first one there when Aaron's statue was unveiled in Atlanta.
"I'm really thrilled to be here," Aaron said. "Ernie has always been part of everything my wife and I have done. He's always supported me. Ernie came up [to the Major Leagues] just about one year before me, and I used to listen to Ernie."
Aaron praised his friend's character, love of the game and all that he has done not just for Chicago, but baseball.
"You were the greatest ambassador for baseball, and you still [are] a great ambassador for baseball," Aaron said.
"Sixteen teams were after me [in the pre-Draft days of the early 1960s]," Santo recalled. "I picked the Chicago Cubs mainly because of this man right here. There's no doubt he is Mr. Cub."
Banks hit 512 home runs and drove in 1,636 runs during his 19 years with the Cubs. He won the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1958-59 and was named to 14 All-Star teams.
"I remember he really had great wrists," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "He was a power-hitting shortstop with a wonderful personality and a great disposition, love of baseball. He was a productive one -- a Hall of Famer. I really enjoyed watching him buggy-whip that bat through the strike zone."
For all his individual achievements, Banks never appeared in a postseason game. But even that regret couldn't cloud this day for the ebullient Banks, who makes a habit out of focusing on the positive.
He pointed out he's the only professional athlete to play his entire career in one city under one mayor (Richard Daley), one owner (P.K. Wrigley) and one park (Wrigley Field). He feels blessed to have played in all day games at home.
"I played all my home games under one light, and that's God's light," Banks said.
No championships? No problem. This wasn't the day for nitpicking.
"I have so many other things to be thankful for, grateful for," Banks said.
Piniella doesn't believe the lack of championships diminishes Banks' career.
"Championships are team sports, they're not individual things," Piniella said. "You have to have all the components working at once, and a lot of great players have played this wonderful game of baseball and never had a chance to put on a World Series ring. Winning championships is team, making the Hall of Fame is more individual.
"Ernie still has the enthusiasm. He's a special man."
A special man who rose from humble beginnings in Dallas to become a baseball icon. Banks remembered his parents during Monday's ceremonies.
Neither had more than a sixth-grade education, but both gave him wise counsel that would serve him well in life.
"It's a miracle I made it from there to here," Banks said. "They didn't have much, they made 10 dollars a week, but they had wisdom. They taught me to be satisfied. If you do that, you'll always be a happy person."
And he'll always be Mr. Cub.
"Long after I'm not here, I'll still be here," Banks said, smiling, as he pointed up to the statue.
Jim Molony is a writer for MLB.com. MLB.com reporter Carrie Muskat contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.