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BGS: Mr. Cub Remembers

Ernie Banks, scouted by the legendary Buck O’Neill, and best known as Mr. Cub, died yesterday. We salute him with this column that John Schulian wrote for the Chicago Daily News on August 5, 1977.

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“Mr. Cub Remembers”

By John Schulian

He works in an office now. How that must hurt, even though the office is at Wrigley Field. When he dreamed as a young man, there was probably never a hint that he would have to stop playing the game that was, and as, his life.

But he did, and now he finds himself growing more and more apart from the new breed of Cubs. He has visited their clubhouse only once in this delicious season. The rest of the time, he has done nothing more than watch the players through his window as they leave the ballpark.

Ernie Banks says he doesn’t mind.

He is the Cubs’ group sales manager and their unofficial host, and he insists that he has all he can do to take care of those jobs. But he still leaves the impression that he would love to have someone tell him the clubhouse isn’t the same without him.

“When I walk in there,” Banks was saying Friday, “I think of where Billy Williams used to sit, and where Ron Santo used to sit, and where Glenn Beckert used to sit. It’s a real emotional jolt for me.”

In less that twenty-four hours, Banks would be playing in the Cubs’ first old-timer’s game with the men who populate his happy memories and the happy memories of fans who go back four decades and more. “It’s hard to believe I’m an old-timer,” he said.

He has already begun a campaign to make Saturday’s crowd forget that he is forty-seven years old and that his final game as an active player was in 1971. On Tuesday, he jogged a mile in Wrigley Field, sweated through a set of calisthenics, and stirred a breeze by swinging a bat big enough to fell an ox.

“Fifty-four inches, forty-eight ounces,” he said. “They don’t allow any bigger bats in professional baseball. You swing this one—just swing it—and you’ll build up the muscles in your forearms.”

Banks followed his self-prescribed regimen until Friday. Then he pronounced himself almost ready to face live pitching for the first time since he smacked a home run in an old-timer’s game in Los Angeles a year ago. What he had to do before that, though, was confer with Lew Fonseca, the attending physician for the Cubs’ hitters.

“Lew Fonseca told me a very important thing,” Banks said. He picked up a thirty-five-inch bat bearing his name from against a file cabinet and took his stance behind his desk. “Lou Fonseca told me not to swing the way I used to. I’ve got to get set when the pitcher takes his sign. Hey, I tried it. It worked beautiful.”

So Banks had the safeguard he was looking for. While he is as courtly as he has been painted, he is also unrepentantly proud of his 512 career homers and his membership in the Hall of Fame. “I want people to remember me the way I was,” he said, “not as someone who couldn’t pick up a grounder or hit the ball out of the infield.”

It is easy to see him as a man-child who may never be able to accept a role in the world outside the white lines of a baseball diamond. After all, he was so bewildered by retirement that he almost left the Cubs organization and returned to Dallas, where he was born. But P.K. Wrigley, the team’s reclusive owner, wouldn’t let that happen. He stepped in and saw to the invention of a job where Banks would spend half his time hustling tickets and the other half wandering around the ballpark, charming the customers.

It was a splendid idea with one possible flaw: The public might see Banks as the Chicago equivalent of wasted old Joe Louis greeting round-the-clock gamblers in a Las Vegas casino. Banks would have not of it Friday, however, as he signed autographs with one hand and guided a camera crew from ABC-TV news on a tour of the bleachers. The best word for his every move was dignified.

“It shouldn’t be any other way,” he said. “The fans respect me and I respect them back.”

Dignity does not translate into stiffness where Banks is concerned. After the Cubs stymied the Mets 5-0, he told everyone who approached his office, “It was Ladies Day and we made all the ladies happy.” When he discovered Dave Lamont, who occupies the desk next to his, had a prospective ticket buyer on the line from Webster, Iowa, Banks shouted, “Tell him we want all of Webster to get behind the Cubs.”

The office litany continued until Banks remembered something more important. “I better hang up my uniform for the old-timer’s game,” he said. “Don’t want any wrinkles in it.”

He reached into a well-worn duffel bag with a peeling identification tag and pulled out his uniform. “These people in Milwaukee made it for me special,” he said. “It’s just like the one I wore when I broke into the big leagues in 1953.”

He held it high and turned around to look at the blue 14 on the back. Then he stood and pulled the top on over his white shirt and striped tied. When he had zipped it up all the way, he spun slowly, modeling it for everyone in the office and wishing perhaps that he could go back to the time when the feel of a big league uniform was brand-new.

[This column can be found in Schulian’s essential collection, Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand. And for the true story behind Banks’ famous saying, “Let’s Play Two”, dig this from Glenn Stout.]

Photo Credit: John Dominis via It’s a Long Season

Saturdazed Soul

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Winter.

[Photo Credit: Daniel S. Sorine]

Beat of the Day

sitting there

Sunroof top:

[Picture by Bags]

After the Fire

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The latest on John Sterling, from Michael Kay’s radio show.

[Photo Credit: Julio Cortez/AP]

Beat of the Day

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Had another sneeze and a blew my nose:

[Picture by Sacha Goldberger]

Afternoon Art

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Picture by Bags. 

New York Minute

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Here’s our pal Ivan Solotaroff on New York street football:

On the FDR Drive overpass by lower Manhattan’s Houston Street, a group of men begins assembling an hour before nightfall one steamy Thursday in late June. Some come from security, construction, or livery jobs, others from long subway rides or carpools from the Bronx or Spanish Harlem. A few have brought wives and children.

Ranging in age from 19 to 51, short and wide to superbly conditioned, they seem a ragtag group, but for the cleats around their necks, the footballs a few carry, and the insults, bro-hugs and daps they exchange as their number swells to a dozen and they head into the Baruch Projects and its 75-year-old playground. More than 90 minutes of grueling calisthenics and sprints in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge, it’s clear this is an elite, disciplined group: These practices are every Tuesday and Thursday night it’s not raining or snowing, 40-plus weeks a year. As twilight falls, passersby ogle the regimented testosterone on field, though not for long: The spectacle of men bonding to face the realities of barrio life is fairly common, and it rarely lasts.

These guys do, because they’re Carver Mobb — the name from Spanish Harlem’s George Washington Carver Projects, where the core half-dozen grew up in the 1970s. A team for 21 years, they’ve been the powerhouse of New York’s half-dozen seven-on-seven rough-touch football leagues for a decade. Essentially two-hand-touch taken to bloodsport level, with two 25-minute halves, a mostly running clock, and referees to nominally control the mayhem, it’s the closest these weekend warriors will come to professional sport, though many are high-caliber athletes. Most played high school ball, but only a half-dozen of the 200-plus devotees I’ll meet made it to college; two were walk-ons for the New York Giants or Jets, one played semi-pro in Coney Island, another plays Arena football.

[Photo Credit: SB Nation]

Only the Lonely

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Dig this fine piece on Roy Orbison by Rachel Monroe for the Oxford American:

The Orbison family moved to Wink in 1946, when Roy was ten years old, so his father, Orbie Lee, could find work in the oil fields. Though he did eventually get hired on as a rigger, the Orbisons were late to the oil boom party: Wink’s population peaked at around 6,000 in 1929; seventeen years later, when the Orbisons settled in, most of the wells had dried up and the town had shrunk to about 1,500 residents. “It was macho guys working in the oil field, and football, and oil and grease and sand and being a stud and being cool,” Orbison said later. “It was tough as could be, but no illusions, you know? No mysteries in Wink.”

Orbison wasn’t popular; later he said he felt “totally anonymous, even at home.” He started wearing glasses at age four. When he tried out for the Wink Kittens, the junior high version of the Wink Wildcats high school football team, the helmets didn’t have face guards, and his glasses kept falling off. He didn’t make the team.

Growing up is a lonely enterprise, even more so in a town that’s past its prime. Once he made his money, Orbison left for Tennessee, then Malibu. He wasn’t one to rhapsodize about his childhood very often, but once I visited his hometown, I couldn’t help but hear a telltale hint of Wink every time I listened to his songs: that sense of missing out, of having been passed by. An absence, a longing, a loneliness.

Morning Art

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“La Chouette” by Pablo Picasso (1953)

Taster’s Cherce

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The Wife and I were in Florida for a few days. On our flight home, a stewardess showed us a nifty trick. Squeeze a bit of lime on a Biscoff cookie and presto! you’ve got Key Lime pie.

F’realz.

Beat of the Day

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I want to fly.

[Photo Via: Kateopolis]

No Flipping

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I was a big NFL fan growing up but am a casual fan at best now. Still, I’ve watched every Super Bowl since the Rams almost upset the Steelers 35 years ago. I’m sure I’ll watch this year’s game, too, but for the first time that I can remember I’ve entertained thoughts of skipping it because I find both teams so unlikable.

Who are you guys pulling for?

Arms and the Man

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Scherzer to the Nats. Jay Jaffe looks at what’s next for the Tigers.

[Photo Credit: USATSI]

BGS: Occupied Territory

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And here’s another piece I’m honored to present–James Baldwin’s 1966 story about police brutality and racism:

On April 17, 1964, in Harlem, New York City, a young salesman, father of two, left a customer’s apartment and went into the streets. There was a great commotion in the streets, which, especially since it was a spring day, involved many people, including running, frightened, little boys. They were running from the police. Other people, in windows, left their windows, in terror of the police because the police had their guns out, and were aiming the guns at the roofs. Then the salesman noticed that two of the policemen were beating up a kid: “So I spoke up and asked them, ‘why are you beating him like that?’ Police jump up and start swinging on me. He put the gun on me and said, ‘get over there.’ I said, ‘what for?’ ”

An unwise question. Three of the policemen beat up the salesman in the streets. Then they took the young salesman, whose hands had been handcuffed behind his back, along with four others, much younger than the salesman, who were handcuffed in the same way, to the police station. There: “About thirty-five I’d say came into the room, and started beating, punching us in the jaw, in the stomach, in the chest, beating us with a padded club—spit on us, call us niggers, dogs, animals—they call us dogs and animals when I don’t see why we are the dogs and animals the way they are beating us. Like they beat me they beat the other kids and the elderly fellow. They throw him almost through one of the radiators. I thought he was dead over there.”

[Photo Via: Renata Cherlise]

BGS: The Mongoose

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Bunch of years ago, my pal John Schulian hipped me to “The Mongoose”, Jack Murphy’s long 1961 New Yorker profile of Archie Moore. Murphy was a sports writer in San Diego–you remember, they named the ballpark after him–and this was a one-off freelance assignment. It’s a really nice, meaty piece. Reason you won’t find it in any boxing anthologies is because it’s just prohibitively long.

Enter–the Internet! It took awhile to secure the rights–a few years of hunting around, in fact–but I’m proud to finally bring it to you. So if n your interested, head on over to The Stacks and check out this story about one of boxing’s great characters:

Moore is acutely aware of his special position as a champion—and, more particularly, as a Negro champion. “A Negro champion feels he stands for more than just a title,” he says gravely. “He is a symbol of achievement and dignity, and it is tough to be a loser and let down a whole race.” In 1959, not long after the Durelle fight, Sam Goldwyn, Jr., invited Moore to try out for the role of Jim, the runaway slave, in a movie version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Both Moore and his wife were leery of what they called “handkerchief-head parts,” and a Negro publication cautioned him against taking an “Uncle Tom” role, but he proceeded with the screen test, was offered the part, and signed a contract with Goldwyn.

Moore is unconscionably proud of the fact that he won the role in competition with professional actors as well as amateurs. (Among the latter was Sugar Ray Robinson, who was then the middleweight boxing champion. “Ray lost the part because he was too sleek,” said Archie. “They didn’t have sleek slaves in those days.”) Moore has boasted about how, although he was training for a title fight at the time, he memorized a sixteen-page transcript for his screen test and went before the cameras after only one rehearsal. The way he tells it, his performance in the test alone entitled him to an Oscar. At the end of the scene, as he recalls it, the professionals on the set—electricians, stagehands, and the like—broke into spontaneous applause. “Tears came from the director’s eyes,” says Archie. “Goldwyn was dabbing his eyes and shaking his head in wonder. An electrician told me it was only the second time in 30 years that he had seen such emotion during a test.” However accurate these recollections may be, the director of the movie, Michael Curtiz, appears to agree with Moore’s own estimate of his talent. “Archie has instinctive acting ability,” said Curtiz. “He seems to know just the right inflection to give a line, and his facial expressions are marvelous.”

When Moore first saw the script of the movie, he noted that the offensive word “nigger” appeared in it now and again, but he said nothing about this until the part was his and the contract signed. Then he began maneuvering. “I’m not a clever man, but I know how to get things done,” he said later. “The script used the word ‘nigger’ at least nine times. I went through it with a pencil and struck out the word everywhere I found it. Then I took it up with Mr. Goldwyn. I told him I couldn’t play the part unless he would agree to the deletions. I told him, ‘You are a young man, Mr. Goldwyn, and times are changing. How could I play this part when it would cause my people to drop their heads in shame in a theater?’ Goldwyn thought about it and he agreed with me. He ordered the deletions. The man who wrote the script was furious; his anger meant nothing to me. I had saved my people from embarrassment.” (Actually, the word was used only once in the movie, and then when Moore was offstage.)

[Photo Credit: Boxing Record Archie]

In Praise of the The Greasy Spoon

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Dig this Serious Eats post–which I found via Kottke–by Ed Levine about diners:

There’s one more diner criterion that I haven’t previously mentioned: The food is not usually a diner’s main attraction, nor should it have to be.

When I first started thinking about this post, I tried to devise an ultimate diner test: a list of dishes a diner has to do well to be considered a “good” diner. Then I ate in 25 diners across New York City and quickly realized that good food isn’t the ultimate test of a good diner.

I’m not trying to bash diner food here. I’m just saying that food is not what you come to a diner for, and it’s not why diners remain a vitally important part of our culture. Diners are so important because they are the greatest bastions of civility, service, and dare I say grace available to all economic strata in this country. Service-oriented restaurants, like Danny Meyer’s Union Square Cafe and innumerable Shake Shacks, are all about treating all guests with equal dignity and respect. And I love them for doing so. But diners have been doing this for years, and for an even greater cross-section of the population. The only dining institutions that reach a wider audience are fast food chains, not exactly known for their kindness to customers.

So many greasy spoons in town close up shop. I hope they are never truly extinct though. They are a window into our past.

[Photo Credit: Ian Boys]

Qu’est-Ce Que C’est?

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Most cool.

[Photo Credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns, via Getty Images]

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver