Let’s Play Two: The Life and Times of Ernie Banks
Let’s Play Two: The Life and Times of Ernie Banks by Doug Wilson. Review by R. Zachary Sanzone.
Any baseball fan worth their salt knows Ernie Banks, a.k.a “Mr. Cub.” The late Chicago Cubs’ infielder played from 1953-1971 after jumping directly from the Negro Leagues into the Majors. His status as a fourteen-time All-Star, member of the 500 Home Run Club, and Baseball Hall of Famer contribute to his reputation as a brilliant baseball player who is also remembered for his upbeat attitude and love for the game. In Doug Wilson’s latest book, Let’s Play Two: The Life and Times of Ernie Banks, baseballs fans meet Mr. Cub and learn about what kind of man Banks was on and off the field. Readers learn about his early days growing up in Dallas, his career with the Cubs, his interactions with teammates like Ron Santo and Don Kessinger, his views on Civil Rights, his relationship with Leo Durocher, and how he struggled to redefine his identity in a post-baseball life.
Wilson, the author of the Casey Award-nominated biography The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych, brilliantly immerses his readers into the life and times of Banks, who he portrays as a man who never seemed to have a bad thing to say about anyone or anything. “Where’s your smile? Don’t you know it will increase your face value?” Banks would ask people later in his life, reflecting a life-long positive attitude that brought great joy to Cubs fans, sick children in hospitals, and even service people in Vietnam. Wilson repeatedly revisits the theme of warmth and kindness throughout the biography but each time with a refreshing outlook that redirects the reader towards a new perspective on the legendary Cub. Readers will not feel bogged down by details that describe a saintly man, as much as they will appreciate the confirmation that Wilson provides to readers who ever wondered if Banks was truly the generous man and talented ballplayer they remember.
Three years ago when I interviewed Wilson, he told me about the challenges of writing his 2014 biography on the Orioles’ Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson. Wilson described how everyone he interviewed for the book loved Robinson so much that it was challenging to objectively write about the man. With that said, it’s not surprising that Wilson chose another equally great man to write about. While Wilson’s biography of Robinson stands well on its own, it seems that Wilson went to great lengths to scrutinize the kind of man Banks was as a ballplayer to show his readers he went to painstaking lengths to ensure that he learned as much about Banks’ as he could. Readers learn that Banks was married four times in his life, a number that may surprise readers as they learn how admired Banks was in multiple circles in the Chicago community. While Wilson does not elaborate in depth about the source of Banks’ marital issues, he methodically combines the issues with his marriages with the challenges Banks had with fulfilling the responsibilities he had off the field, particularly as a lackadaisical board member of the Chicago Transit Authority. It is in these details that Wilson’s Ernie Banks comes alive as a man readers can find a level of fault with, but not without chasing any condemnation with a heavy dose of forgiveness. In fact, readers will feel as though any faults attributed to Banks came through no mistakes of his own. “Ernie had created the magnificent Mr. Cub character, and that’s what everyone wanted,” Wilson writes about Banks’s life, “No one seemed interested in the real Ernie Banks. Baseball had been his savior, his refuge; armed with a bat and glove, he had been a true knight of elite realm. Now, he was just a guy who used to play baseball.”
Wilson’s biography also succeeds in providing details about Banks that are neither too dull nor rich. Some biographers seem to enjoy including overwhelmingly specific detail about their subjects that readers find themselves counting how many pages are left in the chapter. Wilson’s biography of Banks is not one of those books. Wilson skillfully provides his readers with a balance of insightful detail about Banks’ playing days and personal life. What stands out more than anything in Wilson’s biography is his portrayal of an enthusiastic and energetic Ernie Banks. In fact, Wilsons seems to hint that Banks’ generosity and kindness may have been his only flaw. Wilson quotes teammates and opponents alike who felt that Banks’ polite manner was nothing more than a front. Banks’ fondness for saying, “It’s a beautiful day – Let’s play two,” made other ballplayers believe that he was more superficial than genuine, but that impression is inconsistent with man we get to know throughout the book. It’s as though people that embody Banks’ persona are so few and far in between that when we meet them we automatically assume they have a secret agenda. Fortunately, the detail with which Wilson masterfully depicts Banks will leave readers convinced that Banks was nothing other than a man who humbly appreciated every accomplishment he achieved in his lifetime. Wilson’s ability to maintain a consistent view of Banks as a man of integrity is the book’s strongest aspect.
The aspect of the biography that surprised me the most was Wilson’s depiction of Banks as a man who took a passive approach to major issues that affected baseball. Banks had strong feelings about race relations in baseball, especially as a man who grew up in the south, but he wasn’t as vocal about his views as other players like Jackie Robinson were. Banks claimed that he supported Marvin Miller’s plans to provide players with stronger labor rights, but went to spring training in 1969 anyway despite the players’ vow not to report to spring training until a new labor agreement was reached. This defiance does not mean Banks was indifferent to his teammates’ concerns as much as he believed in honoring his contract. I was personally surprised (and happy) to read that Banks took part in the 2010 Chicago Gay Pride Parade after revealing in a 2004 interview that his sister was an alleged lesbian. Whether it was honoring his sister, reaching out to Steve Bartman in the wake of his blunder that arguably cost the Cubs a World Series birth in 2003, or encouraging Sammy Sosa to answer questions about his steroid use, Wilson paints a picture of a man whose personal kindness and devotion to others never faltered.