On Jan. 23, Chicago lost one of its finest.
Ernie Banks passed away late on a Friday night, with news breaking around 9 p.m. local. The news exploded on social media and overwhelmed the sports conversation on a night that saw the NHL host their annual All-Star Game fantasy draft and an NBA player - Klay Thompson - break a league scoring record.
That's because people respected Mr. Cub.
On the field, his exploits were undeniable. Banks won two National League MVP awards (1958, '59) and hit 512 career home runs. He (sadly) holds the record for games played without a postseason appearance (2,528). Considering the era in which he played, Banks is the finest offensive shortstop to ever play the game.
Banks played his entire 19-year career with the Chicago Cubs. He was the first African American player to suit up for the Cubs, and his number 14 was the first retired by the organization. In between his debut and final swing, Banks become a quote machine. He's known around the country for saying "Let's play two!" and for always being available for comment.
Banks meant something to the Cubs.
And the Cubs - especially their fans - meant something to Banks.
The love for Banks came pouring across social media on Friday night with teams and players from every generation and every division of the league expressing their heartfelt condolences.
In marketing today, agencies and thought leaders throw around the idea of being a "brand ambassador." In 1953, a 22-year-old middle infielder stepped onto the grass on Chicago's North Side and created the term. He bled Cubbie blue, but he was so much more than a Cub. He was a champion for the game, an ambassador for the city of Chicago, and a truly special human being. Which is why, in 2013, President Obama - a White Sox fan - presented Mr. Cub with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Last year, Banks appeared after midnight on stage with Pearl Jam to join Cubs fan frontman Eddie Vedder to sing a love song to his Cubs. "Maybe Next Year" was the refrain of Banks' life, but Vedder's "All the Way" imagines the day that the Cubs will no longer wait.
As Chicago fans look back over their lives in the coming days, no matter who they cheer for, most have a Banks story. From a sports perspective, perhaps only two other players - Walter Payton of the Bears and Stan Mikita of the Blackhawks - could even be considered for a Chicago Mount Rushmore with Banks. Michael Jordan wore another team's jersey. As did Bobby Hull. And Frank Thomas. And Harold Baines. Banks, Payton and Mikita finished where they started - Chicago.
Cubs fans are mourning the loss of a friend, not an icon. Every Cubs fan you talk to will have a favorite Banks memory, and many of them will include a personal experience with the great. He rarely turned down an autograph or photo request, and always asked fans about them. It was rarely about the man whose stature as a player was revered by many when you spoke to him. He wanted to know you, and make a personal connection. And, as he did at the plate, Banks almost always succeeded.
His tombstone will tell us that Banks was 83 when he passed, but his legacy is timeless. RIP Mr. Cub.
Photos: Ernie Banks statue courtesy of picbot via flickr