This column was orginially published on July 24, 2005.
"I don't have a husband," the young woman told Banks.
"Well, now," he replied, flashing a trademark smile as identifiable as the Cubs' red C. "We'll have to work on that, won't we?"
This was a typical, innocent Banks greeting. Saying hello usually takes him longer than rounding the bases did during any of the 512 home runs he hit as "Mr. Cub."
He will ask women about their husbands and fathers, men about their wives and mothers, people he has just met about the state of their marriage and family.
His interest seems sincere, his curiosity insatiable, his nerve unnerving.
Before agreeing last week to a rare interview about his legacy in Chicago and the next phase for Ernie Banks International Inc., Banks began a phone conversation with a reporter he had never met by asking, "How's your mother-in-law?"
The shtick helps Banks accomplish his goal of making at least one new friend a day and, in his eternally optimistic mind-set, also increases the chances of adding to his collection of wedding invitations. He was invited to 35 marriage ceremonies last year and hopes to be offered the chance to RSVP even more often by the end of this one.
"I try to go around and find people to get married all the time," Banks said. Indeed, he was notorious in the Wrigley Field administrative offices for how hard he tried to find former Cub Mark Grace a wife before Grace tied the knot.
"I don't like going to more funerals than weddings," Banks said, his tone turning serious. "So I have to find some way to balance out all the funerals I go to."
Banks turns 75 in six months and has enjoyed many a breezy night in Marina del Rey, where he spends most of the year making a living being Mr. Cub, pondering how to maximize the latter innings of his life.
One day last week, he showed up for lunch driving a silver Lexus and wearing a hat that summed up his personal game plan in bold letters above its bill: "Busy Is Good."
Dressed in a yellow golf shirt and casual green slacks and still radiating the enthusiasm to play two, Banks entered the outdoor restaurant slowly but gracefully for someone with two rickety knees. He spoke to at least three members of the wait staff, asking each a different personal question.
Despite carrying around a small paunch like so many grandfathers, Banks looked good enough to hit one onto Waveland Avenue. He said he feels better than he thinks he deserves.
"Sometimes I say this to my close friends, I say, `I don't believe I suffered enough in my life,"' Banks said. "They say, `What do you mean you didn't suffer enough?' I see people in other parts of the world, they have no shoes, sleep on the floor, no food. That's real suffering. When I see some people struggling, I have empathy for them, but they really don't know what the bottom is."
More than anything these days, Banks wants to lift those people at the bottom a little higher. He wants to tell the homeless and hopeless all over the globe that if a poor kid from Dallas with 11 brothers and sisters who grew up picking cotton can cultivate an enriched life as an adult, so can they.
He says he stays up late some nights thinking about all the world problems he wants to solve and wonders if he has used his celebrity enough to change society. Banks' list of remaining goals is as crowded as the back of his baseball card: writing his autobiography, creating a foundation for 1,000 athletes and entertainers to invest $100,000 apiece to create generational wealth for themselves, reaching out to Steve Bartman, winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
In his mind, Banks still is swinging for the fences.
"I look at my life and I don't think I've done anything," Banks said, shaking his head.
Banks has enough money to live comfortably in Southern California with his fourth wife, Liz, whom he wed eight years ago. He plays golf regularly with twin sons Jerry, a mortgage broker, and Joey, a transportation specialist in Hollywood, and samples the entrees of daughter Jan, a local chef.
He could settle for gripping and grinning the summers away at Wrigley Field or representing the Cubs at events such as the upcoming Hall of Fame induction in Cooperstown, N.Y. On Friday, for instance, Banks will congratulate Ryne Sandberg in person, one of the few Cubs in Banks' stratosphere of popularity.
Instead, and in verse, Banks proclaimed, "I want to do more at 74."
He dreams of partnering with Oprah Winfrey and helping her help women and children all over the world. He has scouted property in the West Loop so he can increase his trips to Chicago, widening his reach and extending his impact. He started marketing a new licensing venture called the 500 Home Run Club with a Web site, www.500HRC.com, so when baseball fans hear his name it still means something.
Forget the label Hall of Fame legend and Mr. Cub. Nowadays, Banks prefers the title social entrepreneur and said a psychologist friend gave him a test a year ago that convinced him he would make an ideal philanthropist.
"I know my life is like seeing the world through rose-colored glasses and I don't see the world like the general public sees it," Banks said. "Sometimes I feel like an alien."
Asked to elaborate on his otherworldly description, Banks took a sip from one of the five shot glasses of fruit and vegetable juices he used to wash down his shrimp salad. Then he pulled out a white sheet of paper he had brought with him in anticipation of the question.
"Where does [my attitude] come from? How does it develop in my life? Is it genes?" he asked, shrugging his shoulders. "I had a friend who is a physicist and he [gave me] these words, and they explain who I am and what I believe in. Here, read this."
The last three sentences of the seven-paragraph personal statement reveal an introspective part of Banks his extroverted public persona often masks.
"I want to know what sustains you from the inside when all else falls away. I want to know if you can be alone with yourself. And if you truly like the company you keep in empty moments."
Recalling an old story as if he were telling it for the first time, Banks pinpointed the genesis of such introspection to a banquet in Dallas about 25 years ago. Former Cubs manager Leo Durocher emceed and introduced guest of honor Willie Mays. Durocher dutifully recited Mays' statistics and accomplishments on the field, emphasizing the famous over-the-shoulder catch in the 1954 World Series.
Afterward, Banks had an exchange with a boy he still credits with making him a better man.
"This 12-year-old kid walked up to me and said, `Ernie, they said everything about Willie Mays, but I still don't know who he is,"' Banks said. "It opened my eyes. I learned from that kid that many of us have people we idolize, but we don't know them. In entertainment, in sports, people naturally know what you've done, but they don't know who you are."
A Sosa moment
He delivered a similar message to Sammy Sosa a few years back when Sosa invited Banks to his mansion in the Dominican Republic. The two biggest Cubs superstars ever played golf, shared meals and talked about their responsibilities to their families and their fans. Mostly Banks talked and Sosa listened.
"He's so idolized there, and I told him that everywhere you go, some kid or somebody is watching you," Banks recalled. "He looked at me, and said, `Yeah?' He didn't really get it."
Respectful of Sosa's place in Cubs history, Banks praised the slugger's charisma and his role in revitalizing interest in baseball during the 1998 home-run race with Mark McGwire. He has no interest in debating whether performance-enhancing drugs played a role in Sosa's home-run binge, or baseball's resurgence.
"I don't know anything about steroids, about drugs--nada," Banks said. "I have a trainer I work out with, and he was a bodybuilder and he explained that stuff to me. So when I look at Sammy and having been around him, his personality and demeanor and his love for the game, that's the only thing I look at."
Asked how Sosa's career with the Cubs compared to his, Banks left no doubt.
"He is the best Cub ever," Banks said.
When reminded Sosa also was the highest-paid Cub ever, making $16 million last year, Banks leaned forward.
"How much? He made $16 million? He made $16 million a year? Sixteen million dollars? Really?" Banks asked.
The man who never made more than $75,000 in 19 seasons on Philip K. Wrigley's payroll raised his eyebrows and shook his head. The mention of Alex Rodriguez's $25 million salary with the Yankees made Banks put down his glass of carrot juice.
He did not hazard a guess as to what he might be worth in today's baseball marketplace.
"Sixteen million a year? Hmmmm. Twenty-five million a year? Hmmmm. What do you think?" Banks said.
He still gets a kick out a study conducted by the University of Dayton in the '80s that estimated salaries of past baseball greats. The study took the best 10 years of players' careers and compared the numbers to the highest-paid players at the time. Lou Gehrig topped the list at $4 million per season, but Banks took pride in the projection that he would have earned a $2.9 million salary at the time of the study--higher than Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.
"I used to kid Willie and Hank and Stan [Musial] at old-timers games that my best 10 years were better than theirs," Banks said.
Half of every paycheck Banks earned with the Cubs after the midpoint of his career he invested in a trust fund the team set up at a local bank. Banks recalls being the only player to take Wrigley up on his offer. He once estimated in an interview that the investments had grown to as much as $4 million by the time he had access to them.
"I saved a little bit of money for 20 years and couldn't touch it till I was 55," he said. "When I retired, I didn't change my lifestyle, drove the same old car, wore the same clothes. [Thomas J. Stanley] did a book, `The Millionaire Next Door.' That's me."
The Cubs briefly took Mr. Cub off the payroll after Tribune Co. bought the team in 1981 because then-general manager Dallas Green once could not locate him. Today they retain him on a personal services contract that pays him basically to be Ernie Banks.
That sounds simple, but the job recently has become harder than ever to define for Banks.
Defining Mr. Cub
Yale Gordon met Banks nearly 25 years ago while doing a study for the Bank of Ravenswood, for which Banks worked, on financial planning and professional athletes. The two became good friends, close enough that Banks asked Gordon to write his speech when the Cubs retired No. 14 on Aug. 22, 1982.
"Ernie was on the pitcher's mound with Jack Brickhouse and I was on home plate, holding the speech, and I pointed to the script to remind him to pull it out to follow it," Gordon recalled. "And Ernie just pointed to his head and smiled. Then he read it, verbatim."
A mutual trust continues two decades later, never more evident than when Banks approached his old buddy about six months ago. Gordon is a managing partner in Heisler Gordon and Associates, a marketing company in Bucktown, where Banks keeps an office.
"I went to [Gordon] because I don't know who I am and who knows me for what," Banks said.
Gordon worked with the Lake Forest Graduate School of Management to develop an answer. A study indicated 86 percent of the 459 people surveyed responded positively to Banks, better name recognition than he enjoyed 20 years ago. Among Chicago celebrities and athletes, only Michael Jordan and Winfrey appealed to a higher percentage.
"It was clear that Ernie has risen to the top again," Gordon said. "His name is stronger than it ever has been."
To capitalize, Gordon has begun working with Banks on the branding of Ernie Banks with interested businesses in the Chicago area, such as restaurants and banks.
Commercial opportunities intrigue Banks, but not as much as global ones. Banks says he has a recurring dream of standing on a stage in Stockholm, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. He has quizzed Nelson Mandela about poverty and Hillary Clinton about world peace.
"I want to collaborate with Oprah," Banks said. "I'm going to call her. This lady is doing the things I want to do, to win a Nobel Peace Prize. I've looked at people who have won it, [Desmond] Tutu, Lech Walesa, people who gave of themselves, helped others and made this a better world. I can imagine myself in Stockholm. I visualize that, dream at night about that, being on that stage. That's the legacy I'm searching for."
Lifetime of learning
Banks will listen to anybody he believes can teach him something. A graduate of Booker T. Washington High School in Dallas, he has taken college courses at Arizona State and Columbia College just to broaden his knowledge.
Last year, Missouri Valley College in Marshall, Mo., awarded him an honorary doctorate, and “Dr. Ernie Banks” is displayed proudly on his business card.
"My life is learning something every day because you can pick up unbelievable things from kids, women, prisoners, people in law enforcement, presidents," Banks said.
He rarely delves into hot-button topics or engages in a heated debate on an issue because "I never got into that," he said.
During the two hours Banks answered questions over a leisurely lunch, he only seemed uncomfortable discussing O.J. Simpson's recent claim that Banks snubbed his autograph request as a boy in San Francisco after a Cubs-Giants game. And the only reason Banks felt uneasy discussing the matter was his fear that his version might make Simpson look bad.
"That was a surprise to me when he mentioned coming out of the park in San Francisco, at Candlestick, because I didn't usually go the way he was talking about, so I knew it wasn't the truth," Banks said. "I knew a guy who worked there who would always take me out on the other side of the park in San Francisco."
Banks likes Simpson and, before the Heisman Trophy winner was infamous, he went to a Notre Dame-USC football game with him. He quickly pointed out he later discovered they were more than acquaintances; they are second cousins.
"For a long time I had no idea we were related, otherwise I'd have asked him for a loan," he said with a chuckle. "But my grandfather and his grandfather were twin brothers. You know, I have to ask my mom for sure."
With that, Banks pulled out his cell phone and dialed 93-year-old Essie Banks, who still lives in Dallas.
"How you doing today?" Banks asked his mom on the phone. "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. Mom, talk to my friend. Tell him how O.J. and I are related."
After Banks handed over the phone, his mother detailed one of the most fruitful family trees in sports history.
Then in a proud but feeble voice, she added, "Ernie always was such a good boy."
More than happy talk
For 12 years, Billy Williams and Banks played together as Cubs teammates. They ended their playing days atop the pantheon of Cubs greats, but Williams always will savor the journey of their careers as much as the destination. Especially the hourlong trips they shared in a carpool to the North Side when Williams lived at 74th Street and Constance Avenue and Banks at 82nd and Rose.
"I learned a lot during those rides, about the Negro leagues, about him," Williams recalled. "And I know nobody's happy all the time, but I've never seen Ernie have a down day. People ask me if he's like that all the time. I say, `Yeah, that's just who he is."'
It never occurred to Banks that grown men, as much as kids, might try to emulate who he was. But then he ran into Jordan during the height of the Bulls' dynasty at Seven Bridges Golf Club in Woodridge, and it hit him.
"I stopped Michael and said, `I always wanted to say this: Michael, you're really doing a wonderful job, I'm so proud of the way you handle yourself,"' Banks said. "And Michael said, `Ernie, I learned everything from you.' I was stunned. I never told anybody. I just got into my car and smiled."
Banks' smile was never wider than one day at Augusta National Golf Club in 2002 that, to Banks, best illustrates the fairy tale he considers his life to be. Banks played in a group with befriended billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, two guys who know a thing or two about going for the green.
"I golfed with half of the U.S. economy at Augusta National!" Banks said, pumping his fist twice at the thought. "Here's a young kid from Dallas, Texas, from a family of 12, playing golf at a private club with Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. Is this a great country or what?"
Ernie Banks says the following text, from "The Invitation" by Oriah Mountain Dreamer, summarizes his personal outlook on life.
It doesn't interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for, and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart's longing.
It doesn't interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dreams, for the adventure of being alive.
It doesn't interest me what planets are squaring for your moon. I want to know if you have touched the center of your own sorrow, if you have been open to life's betrayals or have become shriveled and closed from fear of further pain. I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own, if you can dance with the wildness and let ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without causing us to be careful, be realistic, or to remember the limitations of being human.
It doesn't interest me if the story you're telling me is true. I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself, if you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your soul. I want to know if you can be faithful, and therefore trustworthy. I want to know if you can see beauty even when it's not a pretty day, and if you can source your life from God's presence. I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand on the edge of a lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, "Yes!"
It doesn't interest me to know where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you can get up after a night of despair, worn and bruised to the bone, and do what needs to be done for the children.
It doesn't interest me who you are or how you came here. I want to know if you will stand in the center of the fire with me and not shrink back.
It doesn't matter to me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know what sustains you from the inside when all else falls away. I want to know if you can be alone with yourself. And if you truly like the company you keep in empty moments.