I was oblivious in the late 1950s to some of the real plights of Ernie Banks, but his sportsmanship and stellar stats easily earned him a place in my shoebox collection of treasured Topps baseball cards.
The Washington Post reported this in his obituary Friday night: “Banks, who was born in Dallas, began his career in the Negro Leagues as a teenager, then moved to Major League Baseball after serving two years in the Army. He joined the Cubs in 1953, during the time of Jim Crow, and was the team’s first African American player. As Chicago’s ABC affiliate noted, ‘he often was not allowed to stay at some of the same hotels or eat in the same restaurants as his teammates.’”
The publicly cheerful, deft-fielding, hard-hitting shortstop made it into the Hall of Fame. And, in my small world of 1960 — just after we got our first TV — he hit for the fences in the brief run of Home Run Derby. I liked his name. I liked his style. For me, these were the Golden Days of baseball.
Even though I oiled and slapped and fielded with a Rocky Colavito glove — admittedly, it might not have been my first choice — Banks was a hero. But, in those days, what I knew of ball players mostly was what grownups and friends said, what I heard on the radio, studied on baseball cards kept under my bed or saw on the limited use of our black-and-white TV. I’m afraid that, as great a player as Banks was, the first senses that came back to me when I saw the news of his death was the smell of a stale sheet of pink bubblegum and the powdery feel of gum dust on slick cardboard — the gum being the supposed bonus of buying a pack of Topps cards.
Mickey Mantle was the same for me: slugger, hero. And there were others. I liked Enos Slaughter for obvious reasons. Fox and Aparicio for snappy double plays. Ted Kluszewski for ripping the sleeves off his uniforms — I’m sure he tore, disdaining scissors. Willie Mays for his grace, bat and great catches — one of which I would later see in Candlestick Park. Harmon Killebrew for his threatening name. Jimmy Piersall for his centerfield antics. Whitey Ford for his control and just looking good in those Yankee pinstripes. And who would not rely on a first baseman named Moose Skowron.
One of life’s first heartburns came for me in the seventh game of the 1960 World Series when Bill Mazeroski of the Pittsburgh Pirates — never one of my favorite teams, although I recognize now that Hall of Famer Mazeroski was a great second baseman — hit a bottom-of-the-ninth home run to beat the Yankees. I believe I was listening on a transistor radio someone had on the playground of Acequia Madre Elementary School in Santa Fe. I also believed the Yankees were invincible.
Heartburn returned again in 1961, when Roger Maris challenged and ultimately overtook Mantle — also invincible, I thought — in a race to beat Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record.
Those were hard moments, but back then, even the sheets of stale, brittle bubblegum that came with the baseball cards tasted good.