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Monday, March 31, 2008
Cubs legend Banks honored with statue outside Wrigley Field

Associated Press

CHICAGO -- Ernie Banks couldn't believe what he saw when he yanked away the blue tarp.

Ernie Banks
Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, stands in front of the statue that commemorates his career that was highlighted by two MVP awards, 14 All-Star appearances and a bust in the Hall of Fame.

"Is that me?" he kept asking. "Is that me?"

There was No. 14 in his batting stance, clutching a Louisville Slugger and wearing a grin similar to the one on the face of the real Mr. Cub during the ceremony.

The Chicago Cubs unveiled a statue outside Wrigley Field on Monday, and on a rainy day in which they would be lucky to play one, let alone two, Banks saw nothing but sunshine. And who could blame him?

This was his moment, his day.

"It's the best," Banks told reporters. "This is the epitome of American life to be able to have this honor bestowed upon me, think about that. Just me. And when I'm no longer here, I'll still be here. It's amazing. This is amazing to me."

In 1982, Banks became the first Cub to have his number retired. This time, he became the second to be immortalized in bronze -- joining the late broadcaster Harry Caray. He also threw out the first pitch and sang "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the seventh-inning stretch, despite a sore throat.

Besides being honored by the team, the city declared it "Ernie Banks Day."

"This is a miracle," Banks said.

"So are you," one of the hundreds of fans lining Clark Street yelled back.

Banks' credentials speak for themselves.

A two-time MVP and 14-time All-Star, Banks hit 512 homers and drove in 1,636 runs while batting .274 in 19 seasons from 1953-71 with the Cubs and uttered that famous phrase -- "Let's play two" -- before a game.

"All of them looked at me and said, 'This guy's gotta be crazy,'" Banks said after the seventh-inning stretch. "They still think I'm crazy. I just loved it. It's a wonderful place, and I hope it stays here forever."

Besides putting up Hall of Fame numbers, he also helped clear the way for other black players.

"I just wish [the statue] had been done 15 years ago," Hank Aaron said during the ceremony. "Be that as it may, I for one am going to be very proud of the fact that I had the opportunity not only to play baseball with you but to share in your dream. You were the greatest ambassador for baseball, and you still are a great ambassador."

The former home run king was one of many dignitaries at the ceremony, along with Rev. Jesse Jackson, Gov. Rod Blagojevich, White Sox great Minnie Minoso and Cubs legends Ferguson Jenkins, Billy Williams and Ron Santo.

"Ernie was truly a trailblazer," Williams, a Hall of Famer, said during the ceremony. "He paved the way for so many African-Americans."

Santo recalled watching Cubs games on Saturdays when he was a high school senior in Seattle.

"There was something about Wrigley Field, when I watched the Cubs, and Ernie Banks," he said. "I had 16 major league teams after me, and I picked the Chicago Cubs mainly because of this man right here."

With Banks, Williams and Santo, the Cubs had two Hall of Famers and another player that many believe should be inducted. No wonder manager Lou Piniella wanted to know: "How in the hell the Cubs didn't win then?"

It's an issue the Cubs have been trying to address since 1908. After winning the NL Central last season, the current group hopes to break the championship drought.

During the ceremony, Banks thought about his parents raising a family on $10 a week and how "they were satisfied." He used that word -- satisfied -- often during his speech.

"Every player that came to Chicago, they all thought they would be playing in the World Series," said Banks, who never did. "I always thought to myself, 'I'm here at Wrigley Field, playing day games for the best fans in the world,' and I was satisfied. I was the only professional athlete who played his entire career in one city, Chicago. One mayor, Richard J. Daley. One owner, P.K. Wrigley. One park, Wrigley Field. And I played all my home games under one light, God's light."

He pointed toward the sky, the crowd laughed and applauded.

"I was satisfied," Banks said.

Then he steered back toward his childhood, toward that lesson he learned from his parents about satisfaction and happiness.

"It's a miracle that I made it from there to here," the 77-year-old Banks said. "When I had my number retired, I thought it was the greatest honor because it was the first number ever retired by this franchise. It will still be there 100 years from now, and that's how I feel about this statue. I know it'll be here 100 years from now. It's a miracle. But it is proof that if you find satisfaction in your life, miracles can happen."