CHICAGO — On the ballfield, Ernie Banks earned himself a spot in the Hall of Fame.
And everywhere else, Mr. Cub’s unshakable loyalty, sunny disposition and his eternal hope — that incurable condition that symbolizes everything it means to be a Cubs fan — cemented his place as a beloved Chicago icon.
Banks, 83, died Friday after suffering a heart attack. On Wednesday in Daley Plaza, there will be a public memorial for one of the best big league ballplayers never to play in a postseason game, a Presidential Medal of Freedom awardee and a guy who always seemed to see the bright side.
I’ll best remember Banks for the way he smiled — wide as the Chicago River — the day I got to shake his hand outside Wrigley Field. He was friendly and kind even to a South Sider wearing a Sox cap. That smile, if only for a moment, transcended my baseball allegiances.
The day after he died, I asked the biggest Cubs fan on my block, Ron Stampley, a former general manager at the Cubby Bear, if he ever met Mr. Cub.
He did, at the 1998 Cubs Convention. But, Stampley said, it was more like Banks met him.
“The Cubby Bear had a booth, and I was just leaning against a wall across from a big crowd gathered around Ernie asking for autographs,” Stampley said. “He saw me and stopped, walked right through the crowd up to me and said, ‘Do I know you? You look like you could be one of my sons.' ”
And they talked for a bit like they had known each other for years.
“Ernie was just like an old uncle, somebody nice and friendly and humble,” Stampley said. “Whenever I saw him after that it never felt like he was famous. It was just like, 'That’s Ernie, a really nice older dude.'”
By the time the next Cubs Convention rolled around, Stampley’s then-wife was pregnant with twin boys and “about to pop any minute.”
Stampley saw Banks there. They made time to sit down for lunch together with a mutual friend, the team’s longtime unofficial mascot, Ronnie “Woo Woo” Wickers.
As Stampley shared his good news with Mr. Cub over a sandwich, his very-pregnant wife called.
“I was talking to her, and Ernie was yelling, ‘Tell her I said you guys have to name those boys Clark and Addison,'" Stampley said.
Even though the twins’ due date was quickly approaching, Stampley and his wife, Danielle, couldn’t agree on names until that moment.
Stampley relayed Mr. Cub's playful message, “So I’m sitting next to Ernie Banks … and he thinks we should name the boys Clark and Addison … and that’s what we’re gonna do.”
After all, Ron and Danielle met at the intersection of Clark and Addison, just across the street from Wrigley Field. And with the gentle urging of a Chicago legend, it felt like the right thing to do.
A few days later, on Jan. 19, 1999, Clark and Addison Stampley were born.
They grew up in Pullman — tall and strong, gentle and polite. And, despite their South Side upbringing, lifelong Cubs fans.
In some ways, their father will always have Ernie Banks to thank for that. He couldn’t be prouder.
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