by Peter Burchard
Sweet swinging Ernie Banks, the Hall of Fame infielder for the Chicago Cubs, has always had my heart. Now he has my Cubs baseball memorabilia.
For me, growing up in Des Plaines, Illinois with nine siblings meant two things – eat fast and plan to lose everything I owned. Meals weren’t family time but survival time for the fastest moving of the twenty-four hands that descended upon the dinner mom had mixed. I often used the dinner table to scan my six brothers – imagining a police line-up to finger the one who stole my baseball glove or a comic book. At an early age, probably seven or eight, I learned that owning stuff was temporary.
Two weeks shy of my ninth birthday, thanks to Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, my tactics for protecting childhood treasures changed forever.
Ernie Banks, the greatest baseball player the world has ever known, was the only person our family collectively loved. Cheering for Ernie was our favorite past time. It was Ernie who seemed to always come through for the Cubs in a clutch situation. He was always happy. Words like “positive” petitioned to become a proper nouns so they could also love Ernie. He had a sweet swing long before Sweetness was born. To the whole of Chicagoland, Ernie was like a dessert of Tiramisu – translated from Italian as “Pick-a-me-up.”
As we collectively leaned toward the TV for each Cubs game on WGN-TV, a room full of gibberish grew silent when Ernie came to the plate. My mom or dad would shush us silent, “Quiet, Ernie’s up.” On such occasions, we obeyed.
If one of us missed seeing the game, we always asked, “How did Ernie do?”- showing faint interest in the final score.
On August 15, 1964, my dad took enough of us to play the infield to a Cubs game at Wrigley Field. This wasn’t an ordinary day for baseball or life. The Chicago Cubs and a grateful city were celebrating what the Burchard’s celebrated every day – Ernie Banks Day! A national holiday was in the making.
Our semi-frequent adventure to Wrigley Field at Clark and Addison would start the same way – with a stampede out the back-door and up the alley from the house that once stood at 717 Graceland Avenue. The first part of our trip was a three block hustle to the bus stop in downtown Des Plaines. Momentarily distracted by the hand dipped chocolates in the front window of the Sugar Bowl Restaurant, we were soon seated on a bus headed east on Dempster Street to the Skokie Swift. A quick transfer and we were on the Howard Street “L”.
Suburban style pandemonium awaited the conductor’s announcement of “Next stop, Wrrrigley Field”. As if we had arrived at the Pearly Gates, there was a chorus of “We’re here” and a race to exit the elevated tracks to gain street level. Taking every opportunity to run past less important fans, we soon gathered in the sunshine at the corner of Addison Street and Sheffield Avenue – right field for those less familiar with this hollowed ground.
Wrigley Field was perfect that day. Our tickets pushed us down the left field line, perhaps twenty rows in from the Cubs bull-pen. “Mr. Cub” received a treasure trove of gifts. My dad, made sure I received a gift – an Ernie Banks Day button. I recall the moment he handed it to me. He was wearing his usual short-sleeved white dress shirt. “Happy Birthday” he said.
Ernie and I smiled a lot that day. Friendly confines. Sunny skies. “Let’s play two.”
In the days that followed, I wore my Ernie Banks Day button everywhere; to church, to play, to sleep. Proud, I let everyone know that Ernie was my hero and that I attended his game. Clearly, if I kept wearing the button, less was the chance that it would be lost or, more likely, fall into the hands of one of my brothers. I knew my sisters Dorothy, Peggy and Katy would never do such a thing. As for the other six, I knew better. What if my Ernie Banks Day button was stolen from me and traded for something like candy? Life would lose all meaning.
So I hid it! I squirreled the button away. I hid it in a cigar box in the far reaches of a closet where it lived with the less meaningful trinkets of my youth – bottle caps, scout badges, a Burchard’s Service Cleaners golf tee and a catholic scapular.
I kept it well-camouflaged from my brothers Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul and James. These bandits, whom my mom had cleverly disguised with biblical names, would never get their fingers on my Ernie Banks Day button.
Encounters with Ernie
We grew up with Ernie and the Cubs watching WGN-TV. The announcer, Jack Brickhouse, seemed like family and brought the excitement of the game into our home with shouts of “Back – back — Hey – Hey” as the baseball cleared the ivy covered outfield wall.
Our dad was a true Cubs fan. Even though he mumbled expletives during each game, dad loved watching the Cubs in the basement den; it was always cooler down there. Over the years, the scene was repeated a thousand times. Dad sat in his large white vinyl comfort chair – usually holding a “CC” with water and his shirt off. With runners on and Ernie at the plate, we were waived off and shushed to silence. When Ernie hit one, we all jumped and cheered. Dad would say “Can you believe that?” – astonished how Ernie came through once again. I think dad was at his happiest in these moments.
In 1968, when I was thirteen, we moved into a larger home a few blocks away from our old house in Des Plaines. Our new house was a typical Chicago style brick bungalow. Since my dad’s name was Jack, one of my brothers made a sign that read: “Jack’s Brick House.” Dad loved it.
Our family was smitten by Ernie’s cheerfulness for life and his hapless Cubs. In the early 70’s, several of us Burchard’s had a close encounter with Ernie. Mr. Cub had since retired from playing and was now coaching first base. We planned well in advance and bought tickets for seats adjacent to Ernie’s new position – albeit more than a few rows away from the field. Bashful for a minute or two, by the end of the first inning we were loudly chanting “We want Ernie. We want Ernie.” Other fans joined in. We knew these lesser fans didn’t understand what we believed.
After several innings of hearing us chant his name, Ernie, perhaps realizing that we came to Wrigley Field to see him, turned and glanced at us over his left shoulder. He nodded. We went nuts! Smokey Links and Frosty Malts for everyone!
Over twenty years later, while eating dinner at my home in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, the phone rang. The caller was Dwight McGee, a man I met through my work in municipal government. Over several lunches we had discussed business and Ernie Banks. Dwight knew Ernie when Dwight was a kid in Chicago. Dwight told me that in the early 1960’s, Ernie often took him to work – at Wrigley Field! Dwight spoke highly of Ernie – of his character, kindness and generosity. I told Dwight that I felt Ernie was my brother. “Some day,” Dwight said, “I will find a way for you to meet Ernie.”
Over the phone, Dwight said he was with Ernie Banks at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Rosemont, Illinois. I don’t remember hanging up the phone or kissing my wife and daughters Stephanie and Lauren good-bye. But I do remember standing in the hotel lobby as Dwight introduced me to Ernie Banks. Ernie said, “Dwight’s told me a lot about you. Let’s sit down.” We talked for over thirty minutes about faith, family and fun at the old ball park. As we said good-by, Ernie grabbed a sheet of paper and wrote “To Peter. Be JoyFul. Ernie Banks. Chi-Cubs. 6/2/92.”
Sitting and talking to Ernie was the experience of a life time. Ernie was personable. He looked right at me when we talked. He gave me his full attention. Life seemed fully accomplished that day. As a fan, Ernie had given me so much. As a human, he had now given me his time.
Giving Back to Ernie
A number of years later, on October 14, 1999, I learned that Ernie was planning to speak at the city hall in Naperville, Illinois – where I worked. His visit was part of a press conference and awareness campaign regarding the dangers of hypertension. I had only one day to plan our reunion.
With my six brothers living far enough away, I felt safe retrieving and wearing my Ernie Banks Day button. The button was easy to find. So were the memories. His smile. His nimble fingers around the handle of a bat. Ernie Banks Day was here again!
The next day was very sunny. Ernie spoke to a crowd of nearly two hundred fans gathered in the lobby of the Naperville city hall. His smile authenticated his presence. Finished with his remarks, he turned to greet each person in a long line that had formed. The button was in place. When it was my turn, Ernie glanced at the button pinned to my shirt. We talked about meeting a few years earlier. He asked if we could talk outside after he completed his visit. Finished, I picked up Ernie’s bulky brown leather briefcase and we walked out into the sunshine. We sat down alongside the fountain that graces the entrance.
Ernie Banks asked me about my family. He then told my about a company he represented that provides employee benefits. I told him again about Ernie Banks Day and our family chanting “We want Ernie.” Ernie asked if he could come back another day to tell me more about his company. “Mr. Cub” come see me? The blazing sun was causing me to hear things.
Hoping our conversation would last extra innings, it was time for Ernie to leave. He glanced again at the button on my dress shirt. “I don’t have one, can I have it?” Hesitation has no place in a true fan’s heart. In a fraction of the time it takes a baseball crushed off Ernie’s bat to sail into the left field bleachers, the button was off my shirt and in his hand. I felt the rush of a life-time. Ernie smiled. I beamed.
Later, the mayor of Naperville, Illinois, George Pradel, who witnessed the exchange, said “I can’t believe you gave him your button.” “It was always Ernie’s to have,” I said.
I had just been part of a trade put into play in about 1960 – when I first became aware of Ernie Banks. And now, with forty or so years of memories in place, I got to hand Ernie Banks something meaningful to him. Most improbable. Synchronicity has a new outer reach. How did that button my dad bought for me survive all these years for this moment – a moment I saw as giving back to Ernie for a wonderful life anchored in his smile?
Months later, my secretary announced that Ernie Banks was on the phone – for me! Ernie asked how my wife Denise (he remembered her name) and kids were doing. Old friends ask such questions. Ernie talked about the company he worked for and asked if we could meet. I talked about his sweet swing. A few days later Ernie was in my office. We had the obligatory hour-long business meeting and then moved on to our understood purpose.
I showed Ernie the dozen or so Chicago Cubs baseball cards I had collected – all dated from 1969. For about the length of two innings, I sat alone with Ernie as we slipped back to the year the Cubs should have won it all. Mr. Cub looked at each baseball card – pausing and reflecting on his former teammates including Ron Santo and Don Kessinger. He held Billy Williams’ card the longest, carefully examining the back-side statistics. With the sunshine that graces Wrigley Field coming through the window, I watched Ernie as he thought about Billy. My memories of 1969 grew larger.
Ernie asked where I got the baseball cards. I told him I purchased many of the cards on-line and others were around from years past. Ernie was curious. He was soon seated in front of a computer looking at Chicago Cubs paraphernalia that was for sale on eBay. I sorted for Ernie Banks; perhaps one-hundred items stared back. At every step of the search he asked me what I was doing – how was I searching his name. As Ernie began to scroll through the list, he was surprised and amused at the number of items that represented his life – and that were for sale. While examining the list, Ernie paused to inspect the details surrounding a limited edition autographed baseball bat that he had commissioned. He seemed surprised to see it on-line. He took a few notes. He asked to use the phone. He called his wife to talk about the minimum price he had set. Mr. Cub, a five-time All Star, confirmed that the price for the baseball bat wasn’t below what he had set. Mr. Cub was now Mr. Business.
Before we left to have lunch at Seven Bridges Golf Course in Woodridge, we went back to the sun-soaked room where the baseball cards were waiting – still spread on the conference room table. Ernie asked if he could have the cards. I put a duplicate Ernie Banks card to the side. He autographed it. I stacked the remaining cards, placed them in a plastic case and gave them to their rightful heir. Ernie smiled. I beamed. The first part of this trade was complete.
Ernie placed the case with the baseball cards into his briefcase. His hand returned with a Rawlings OFFICIAL MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL. He asked, “Who would you like me to address the ball to?” “To my son David” I said. Ernie wrote, “To David – Aim High – Ernie Banks – Mr. Cub 7/24/00.” We both smiled.
Ernie Banks gave the Burchard family years of joy and a reason to believe – to this day – in the Chicago Cubs. Knowing all that Ernie did for us and baseball, the possibility of giving back to him was unthinkable. Pure joy had happened for me, just a kid from Des Plaines.
Seeing the Chicago Cubs win a World Series is no longer my necessary dream; although it would be nice. For me, the improbable has already occurred.
From everyone at Jack’s Brick-House and my family: “Go-Ernie. Go-Cubs.”