The Last Years of Ernie Banks
Cubs fans remember him for his pervasive optimism. But he was a far more complicated man than it appeared. And toward the end, he was a lonely man, too—one tormented by his demons.
I was on the road when the story broke, so the news arrived in a text from a friend in Chicago.
“So sorry about Ernie,” she wrote.
I walked into the hotel bar and ordered a glass of red wine the way he would have—whatever they were serving; he never consulted a wine list or stated a preference—raised it off the counter, and said goodbye to Ernie and hello to the inevitable. It was not long in coming.
“Even as the Chicago Cubs lost one game after another,” said the Associated Press, “Ernie Banks never lost hope. That was the charm of ‘Mr. Cub.’ Banks, the Hall of Fame slugger and two-time MVP who always maintained his boundless enthusiasm for baseball despite decades of playing on miserable teams, died Friday night. He was 83.”
“ ‘It’s a beautiful day, let’s play two’ became the mantra of the man known as Mr. Cub, a fixture in what he called the friendly confines of Wrigley Field,” said The New York Times. “The most popular Cub ever in a franchise dating to the 1870s, Banks became as much an institution in Chicago as the first Mayor Daley, Studs Terkel, Michael Jordan and George Halas.”
“A man would grow old, wrecked by madness or more by shame, trying to find just one posed photograph of Ernie Banks when he was not smiling, or just one recorded complaint from the man, or just one negative word about him from anyone with a shred of human decency,” said Sports Illustrated. “Ernie Banks, the great symbol not only of Chicago Cubs baseball but also of a Major League Baseball ideal, really was that kind and that joyful.”
What was it about him? I wondered. Why was Ernie, virtually alone among the great players of his generation, such an idealized, one-dimensional fantasy? Why did he seem to have no existence beyond the baseball diamond? Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron were seen as important civil rights pioneers. Mickey Mantle’s character flaws were so well chronicled they became part of his appeal. Ted Williams’s defiantly cold-blooded grip on Red Sox fans became the stuff of legend and literature. Joe DiMaggio was a cultural phenomenon all to himself. Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Roberto Clemente, Yogi Berra, Stan Musial—they were all made recognizable out of uniform.
But Ernie escapes all context. He is nothing but sunshine and smiles. Just as he was defined by his image, so was he imprisoned by it.
The Ernie his family and close friends knew, the man I came to know—first as a Sun-Times sports columnist and later in the scores of talks we had in Chicago and Los Angeles during the last decade of his life—was far different. As the unseemly battle over his estate would indicate, he was not a grinning, happy-talking caricature. He was thoughtful, introspective, and complicated—and difficult and exasperating, too. And toward the end, I came to see that he was one thing more: a fundamentally lonely man who could not countenance being alone.
“I think he was a tortured soul,” one of Ernie’s friends told me. “He just hid it very well.”
“I’ve been writing a book,” Ernie told me as he signed pieces of paper, gloves, bats, whatever was thrust in front of him by those crowding around. This was 10 years ago at the Cubs Convention, an annual midwinter carnival that draws fans to fawn over players and listen to this-year-will-be-different speeches from club executives.
He was sitting at his usual table in the back of a room up a broad staircase from the Chicago Hilton lobby—a room reserved for players past and present, team officials, media, and anybody who knew somebody who could get them in. I had seen him in this setting before and been intrigued by how, after about 20 minutes of hail-fellow good-old-Ernie bushwa, his voice would become quieter, his words more substantial. There’s a real person in here, he seemed to be saying. You don’t know me.
“It’s about time,” I told him, thinking about how nearly all of his most illustrious peers, long after their careers were over and there was time for reflection, had written or been the subject of serious books. Mr. Cub, Ernie’s once-over-lightly memoir ghosted by his sportswriter friend Jim Enright, had been published decades earlier while he was still an active player, at a time when athletes’ biographies were meant to burnish images, not examine them.
He had signed a contract with a New York publisher a few years earlier to write his autobiography, Ernie said, but his coauthor had died. Did I want to help him try again? The timing was certainly right. I was retiring from the paper and moving to Los Angeles, about 20 miles from his home in Marina del Rey. By L.A. standards, that was right around the corner. We could get to work right away.
“How much money do you think I can get?” he asked.
“RON RAPOPORT! HOW ARE YOU FEE-LING?! I’M IN CHICAGO! WHY AREN’T YOU IN CHICAGO! CHICAGO NEEDS YOU! GET ON A PLANE! GET OUT HERE!”
He usually called early in the morning, often from Chicago, where he was doing promotional work for the Cubs, and put on his act for an unseen audience of one. We would chat for a while before he got to whatever was on his mind. Often it was to ask me for a timeline for the events of 1969, the year of the Cubs’ greatest implosion.
I was never sure why he wanted the timeline, but it was easy enough to work up. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. The Manson Family went on a rampage in Los Angeles. Edward Kennedy drove off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island. In a few months, he would call and ask for the timeline again. I must have sent it to him half a dozen times. Shortly before the dedication of his statue outside Wrigley Field in 2008, he called to ask what I thought he should say. I sent him a few notes, which I doubt he ever read.
During one call, I mentioned that I was visiting my daughter, who was a manager at a tech company in Boston. “WELL, PUT HER ON!” he said. A big Cubs fan, she was thrilled to talk to him, though a little bewildered, too. “We had these manager training sessions where we would write down one thing no one knows about you and people would try to guess whose was whose,” she told me later. “Mine was ‘Ernie Banks once asked me about hiring in Bangalore.’ ”
After a while, I began to see the calls as part of a pattern. A friend from Chicago, a Cubs fan who works for NPR in Los Angeles, told me that at the party celebrating the opening of their new regional headquarters, she looked across the room and there he was. She hurried over, excited to meet him. Only later did she wonder what he was doing there.
And there was the time I walked into Harry Caray’s around noon and saw him sitting alone at a corner table. We chatted for a while, and then I joined some people I was meeting for lunch. An hour and a half later, he was still there, still alone. I sat with him for another hour before I said goodbye and left him there.
“Thank you for taking care of Ernie,” the hostess said. Her tone indicated this was a common occurrence. The image of him sitting at that table by himself haunted me for days.
“He would call me five, six, seven, eight, nine times a day,” Regina Rice said when I called her in Chicago recently. “He had a lot of pain, a lot of fear of being alone.”
Rice had been Ernie’s friend and confidante for a dozen years, and toward the end of his life, when he returned to Chicago for good, she became his caretaker. She was troubled to see him bringing some of this loneliness upon himself, she says, by distancing himself from his family and former teammates. It seemed that he only talked to Billy Williams, Ferguson Jenkins, and other ex-Cubs when they happened to be at the same event. Though they always had a good time, sharing laughs and swapping stories, months would go by before they found themselves together again.
During Ernie’s final years, his three grown children, twin sons Jerry and Joey and daughter Jan, would call from California occasionally—there never seemed to be time for a visit—but that didn’t please him either, Rice told me. “He would say, ‘Change my landline and cell phone so they can’t call me.’ I would change them, but then I would text them and say, ‘This is his new landline and new cell phone.’ He’d say, ‘I knew you would give them the numbers. I wish you wouldn’t do that. They don’t care about me.’ ”
Ernie’s fourth wife, Liz Banks, whom he married in 1997 but from whom he was estranged at the end of his life, has a different take. She claimed in court documents that Rice prompted Ernie to change his phone numbers and that she “isolated” him from the family. In his will, Ernie left no money to his family, cryptically explaining that it was “not for a lack of love and affection for them and for reasons best known by them.” (My attempts to reach Ernie’s children were unsuccessful.)
I brought him an offer from a Chicago publisher that was worth more than his original book contract. We met at his preferred spot, the outdoor deck at the Ritz-Carlton in Marina del Rey. We drank red wine and chatted as the beautiful boats and expensive people passed by. He signed autographs for those who recognized him and occasionally called out, “Are you two married?” to couples who didn’t. He told me I should talk to his lawyer about the contract the publisher had sent us. The lawyer didn’t call back. After a while, neither did Ernie. We didn’t talk for at least six months.
“RON RAPOPORT! HOW ARE YOU FEE-LING?!”
“Hi, Ernie. What’s new? Where are you?”
“I’M HOME FROM CHICAGO! I WANT TO TALK TO YOU!”
He wanted to make a film about himself, he said. What did I think? I asked if he was thinking of a feature film or documentary. He wasn’t sure. He was talking to people. He’d let me know. Neither of us mentioned having been out of touch for so long. I drove over to his house and found him standing in the courtyard with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had become an author of historical books and a producer of documentaries, and a woman I recognized as the basketball legend’s business associate. I stayed for a few minutes and then left them to it. Maybe Kareem could get him off the dime, I thought. Nothing came of it.
A few months later, Ernie called again. “What about the book?” he said.
I hesitated. I wondered if it was the loneliness talking, if he viewed an autobiography as something to make him relevant, to keep him in the game. I wondered if he would change his mind again. I went back to the publishing house. Honorable men, they stuck with the terms they had agreed to a year earlier. I told Ernie we should get to work immediately.
Our first recording sessions on the Ritz-Carlton deck were a disaster. The tapes contained as much chatter from waitresses taking orders and people passing by as they did substantial conversations between us. I insisted that we move to his house. The improvement was immediate: For the first time since I had known him, there was no 20-minute warm-up period, nobody asking for autographs, no audience to play to. Every couple of days for two weeks, we got right to work and stayed at it for hours. The stories tumbled out of him, real stories about a real person who had lived a real life.
He talked about growing up in Dallas as one of 12 children in a rickety shotgun house lit by kerosene lamps and how the family foraged for food the stores tossed out—chicken feet, ham bones, wilted vegetables. “We lived near a supermarket, and whatever they threw away we would get it, and my mother would make soup,” he said. “Or she would get a big can of lard, a big can of meal, a big can of flour, a big can of beans, and fix the same meal for months.”
He talked about his parents’ fraught relationship. Eddie Banks was 35 when he married Essie. She was 16. Eddie was a minister, but he supported his large family by doing whatever menial jobs came along. Though Eddie built furniture and could fix just about anything, Ernie wasn’t sure his father had ever learned to read.
A reticent man who passed his distrust of white people on to his children, Eddie Banks was not someone who shared his emotions easily. Ernie said he and his mother were looking at photos years later and came across one that showed him sitting with his father in the dugout at Wrigley Field. “That was the first time I ever saw him smile,” he recalls his mother telling him. Often, when Ernie was on baseball road trips, she would call at night and read to him from the Bible.
He talked about life playing in the Negro Leagues. Barnstorming with the Kansas City Monarchs at 19. Eating peanut butter on crackers and sardines while riding the team bus. Making $240 a month, which he shared with his family back home. It was a respectable amount for those days—to Ernie it seemed like a fortune—and certainly a step up from his earlier, semipro days, when the income was less predictable: “I hit a home run in my first game, and they told me to go into the stands and pass my cap around,” Ernie told me about his pre-Negro League experience. “I made six dollars in nickels, dimes, and quarters.” The legendary Buck O’Neil was the Monarchs’ manager, and his instructions were not limited to the ball field. There were certain restaurants and bars Ernie should avoid, O’Neil said, and he should be careful about “reckless eyeballing” of white women.
Life was good—so good, in fact, that when the Cubs bought his contract from the Monarchs, Ernie was conflicted. He had seen the stress that Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, and the others in baseball’s first wave of integration had been under, and he was not eager to take it upon himself. Nor was his arrival in Chicago toward the end of the 1953 season, which the Cubs would finish 40 games out of first place, an unmitigated joy.
“Some of the players are angry with you,” he was told by Gene Baker, an infielder the Cubs promoted to the majors with him so he wouldn’t be the only black player on the team. “They think you’re hustling too much. They’re in last place, Ernie, and just playing out the season. They think you’re trying to show them up.”
He talked about Leo Durocher, who chose to demonstrate his authority as manager by challenging him, the Cubs’ biggest star, even going so far as to intimate that Ernie was responsible for the team’s famous failure in 1969. The real problem, Ernie said, was that Durocher was jealous of his popularity: “Leo thought he should be Mr. Cub.” The rift was not healed until long after both men had retired and Durocher, growing old and perhaps sensing his mortality, was looking to make amends. “Leo attended a reunion of the 1969 team,” Ernie told me, “and he stood up and said, ‘The one thing I regret about that year is the way I treated Ernie Banks.’ That made me feel good.”
And he talked about how he really felt about never having played in the World Series, something he had always spoken of wistfully or laughed off in public. His admission that he had suffered nightmares and had seen a psychiatrist left me speechless.
We now had about 10 hours of tape, and I figured 30 more would cover it. But then, as I was driving home from the beach thinking about what we had talked about the day before and preparing questions for the next day, he called.
“Liz doesn’t want me to do the book,” he said. He was pulling out.
I considered trying to change his mind but finally decided against it. I never stopped wondering what his wife’s objections might have been, though, so not long ago I called her at the house she and Ernie had shared in Marina del Rey and asked. She laughed.
“It certainly wasn’t me,” she said. “Never would I at any point of any time say, ‘Ernie, don’t do that.’ I encouraged him to leave his recorded thoughts behind. I thought he had an interesting life. I just don’t think he wanted the commitment of a book. I think he liked the idea of a book.”
Maybe so, but I still wondered if the underlying reason for his defection might have been a simpler one: The longer we worked, the more upset he became about the money he was getting.
“Did you see that Willie Mays signed a book contract for a million dollars?” he asked me once. How could I tell him he was not Willie Mays?
Ernie’s preoccupation with money came up often. When a publisher put his picture on the cover of a book about the 1969 Cubs, he said he was going to call and demand $50,000. I didn’t try to explain the concepts of public figures and public domain, but I did tell him that I doubted the entire budget for the book had been that large.
His finances were a mystery to me. He had played before baseball’s big-money days, when one good contract could set up a player for life. His top annual salary was $85,000. Phil Wrigley, the Cubs’ owner then, counseled him to invest his money, and there were reports he had once been worth $4 million, this at a time when $4 million was $4 million. He lived well enough—his home in Marina del Rey, near the harbor, was lovely if not opulent—but not lavishly. He certainly didn’t grab every check he saw. Yet he didn’t seem to pursue the idea of exploiting his name in any methodical, businesslike way.
“He never really had a legitimate businessperson with his best interests at heart,” said one of his friends, who requested anonymity because he didn’t want to be seen as breaking Ernie’s confidences. Why, this man wondered, had Ernie never tried to capitalize on his famous phrases “Let’s play two” and “the Friendly Confines”? “I wish he’d had someone to manage that part of his life.”
The Cubs did pay him to make appearances—his annual salary from that eventually reached six figures—and there was income from card shows and a few local commercials. But this was little more than walking-around money for a man with his public profile. So I wasn’t really surprised that the Cubs paid for his funeral or that the lawyer for Regina Rice, who was named sole beneficiary in Ernie’s will, estimated his estate at only $16,000. (Liz Banks disputes that figure and got a court order forcing Rice to produce a list of Ernie’s assets, which include potentially valuable baseball memorabilia.)
I apologized to the understanding publishing house for the second about-face. Ernie and I didn’t talk for a while.
In November 2013, Ernie received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House (he had often said he wanted to win the Nobel Peace Prize), and watching the ceremonies on television, I was startled to see how much he had changed. Two years earlier, when he had called to say, “I’M AN OCTOGENARIAN!,” I had said, “Congratulations, you don’t look it.”
Which was true. He’d still had that unmistakable old-ballplayer look about him. He had a home run hitter’s thick wrists and big behind, and while he had gotten bulkier through the middle, his face was full and unlined, and he moved with an athlete’s purposeful gait. We should all look so good at 80, I had thought. But as I watched Barack Obama drape the medallion around his neck, he seemed to be smaller, frail, and moving much more slowly.
I dug out the tapes we had made, took them to a transcription service, and was struck once again by how promising our start had been. I decided that as soon as I finished the book I was working on, I would show him what we had done and try one last time. Maybe the fact that he was slowing down would convince him to go back to work.
Some months later, I picked up the phone and heard, “Ron Rapoport, it’s Ernie Banks.” The swagger was gone, and the softness of his voice told me he had given his last performance.
“Are you living in Chicago full-time now?” I asked, wondering about something I had heard. “What happened to your place in the Marina?”
“My wife threw me out,” he said. He was living in Trump Tower. We chatted for a bit, and then he said, “Listen, that timeline of things that happened in 1969 . . .”
“It’s on its way.”
“That certainly was not true,” Liz Banks told me when I later asked her about his change of address. “I loved Ernie. There is no way I would have kicked him out. He was running from himself. Sometimes the people who love you cannot help. He was loved. He was not kicked out.”
She would not discuss her estrangement from Ernie—divorce proceedings were ongoing at the time of his death—but it led to competing claims over his estate. She has alleged that Rice had coerced Ernie into rewriting his will, something Rice has denied. There was even a dispute over whether or not he should be cremated. (“He wanted his ashes spread at Wrigley Field when the wind was blowing,” Rice told me. The family insisted on burial at Graceland Cemetery instead.)
In the summer of 2014, Rice says, she arrived at Ernie’s Chicago apartment and saw he had boxed up many of the autographed books he had been given over the years and a large collection of clothes—ties, sweaters in the bright colors he liked, straw hats that had come back into fashion, and more. Some still had the price tags on them.
“I’m giving these to Goodwill,” he said.
“Why?” she asked, thinking he was going to need smaller boxes. These were too heavy to lift.
“Because I’m not going to be needing them anymore.”
His remaining months were not pretty. The jolly Ernie Banks whom Rice had always known became somber and fearful. The floor-to-ceiling windows in his apartment made him nervous when it rained and the winds were high. He could feel the building shaking, he told her. He didn’t like being alone then.
“Guess where I am?” he asked her on the phone one day during a rainstorm.
“In the lobby.”
Once, she asked him, “Are you happy? You stopped laughing.”
“Truthfully?” he said. “There’s nothing funny.”
That fall, Ernie fell in his apartment twice, and though tests didn’t reveal a stroke or any fractures, he now had stitches in his head and was feeling even worse. More worrisome was the fact that during a postfall examination he was diagnosed with moderate to severe dementia—a condition that was listed on his death certificate as a “significant” contributor to his death.
“After the falls, it was really draining,” said Rice, who works as a singer in Chicago clubs and at corporate events but came by a few times a week to check on him and made arrangements for others to do so on the days she couldn’t. “I’d ask him if there was anything I could do for him, and he’d say, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine. You always treat me like a baby. You go about your business. You haven’t got time for an old man.’ ”
“So what are you saying?” she challenged him, hoping one of the feisty exchanges that had characterized their relationship might help him snap out of it, stop feeling sorry for himself.
“That I’m going to be alone.”
“As long as I’m around, I’m going to take care of you,” she said. “And if I can’t do it, I’ve got a bunch of girlfriends who can.” He had to laugh at that.
She called his children in California and told them he was failing. “I wanted them to mend whatever it was between them,” she told me. “I wanted them to look into each other’s eyes, to say, ‘I’m sorry. I love you.’ ” They bought airline tickets, she said, but didn’t make it in time.
On January 23, 2015, Ernie died of a heart attack in the ambulance that was taking him to the hospital.
There was, of course, one part of Ernie’s existence that was not complicated or oversimplified, that was exactly what it seemed: what he meant to people who lived in Chicago while he was playing for the Cubs. It was an appeal that crossed all barriers—age, race, gender, occupation, economic and social status, even any particular interest in baseball—and it remained constant through the years. Marcel Proust ate a cookie to recall the carefree joys of his youth. Ernie was Chicago’s cookie.
The large civic celebration after his death was a final tribute to that bond, and one part of it made me laugh out loud. The moving of his statue, which had been in storage during the construction at Wrigley Field, to a spot near the Picasso in Daley Plaza meant that one of my favorite stories about him had, if only for a few days, become reality.
When the Picasso was unveiled in 1967, many Chicago residents were perplexed. What was it? A woman? A dog? And one alderman, John Hoellen, was outraged. Why display such an ugly hunk of iron? he demanded. Why not erect “a living symbol of a vibrant city”? Why not a statue of Ernie Banks?