I was at the Four Seasons in Chicago in early winter of 2002. My wife and I were in town for the annual Housewares Expo at McCormick Place, and the Saturday night found us enjoying a million different foods and almost as many wines, beers and spirits found in the many hospitality areas at that fine hotel. I came down from the Martini Bar with a cigar in my hand to find my wife talking with a handsome couple, and as I neared I realized it was none other than Mr. Ernie Banks and his lovely wife Liz. As I approached, my wife turned to see me and smiled, then said to the couple, “I’d like you to meet my husband Jack. Jack, this is…”.
And I finished the sentence for her.
“Mr. Ernie Banks!” was my exclamation. I was in shock. You see, in addition to being a foodie-addict, I’m also into every sport there is. Before girls, before I knew better, Baseball was my First Lady. My first real love. Ernie Banks finished up his career in Chicago by the early 70’s, but I was lucky enough to have actually seen him play if only on television. But his legend was so much larger than his superb game, if that were possible.
Mr. Banks extended a warm hand and a brilliant smile and said, “Jack! Your wife here was just telling us you sang to her at your wedding! Man, now THAT takes a lot of guts!” It wasn’t a line, not filler for the conversation before he moved on to the next adulating fan. “Come on and let’s sit down here and talk a little music!” And I sat there for the next 15 minutes talking to one of the all-time greats not about baseball, but about music and our wives and life in general while our wives stood there and had their own warm, engaged conversation. I’ve met more than a few big celebs in my day, but it was the first time someone from that rare air revealed their true self to me. I was more in awe than if he’d just given me an autograph. It was so much more than that. We talked music and food and getting older and then he asked me what I sang to my wife on our wedding day. I told him it was a James Taylor number, ‘I Will Follow Love’. He slapped my knee and said I must have been sweating through my tuxedo I was so nervous. I smiled at him and said, “No, I wasn’t nervous at all…in fact, it was the one time all day I was actually looking forward to doing something instead of just standing there looking like an idiot”. That did it. Ernie threw back his head and laughed that wonderful, musical laugh of his. And we just sat there enjoying our time together. We never said a word about baseball. Not one.
On this day, I’m remembering that glorious 15 minutes with him, and knowing if Ernie Banks isn’t in Heaven, the rest of us don’t stand a chance. In the end, I did get an autograph from him, another warm handshake and we hugged — a manly, Spanish-style hug, us shaking hands and slapping each other on the back. My wife and I bid our goodbyes and then Ernie and Liz chatted for a bit before the next wide-eyed baseball lover stepped forward to say hello to one of the greatest baseball players who ever lived and his beautiful wife. Ernie Banks might have been a baseball legend, but in my book he’s one of the better human beings that walked our fair Earth.
The sporting world will always know Ernie Banks as Mr. Cub. But to me, he’ll always be Mr. Class. You take a good rest now, my friend.
P.S. Dear Readers, thank you for allowing me to talk about something other than food in my blog on this day. It was necessary. Now…..go eat something! -Jack