I SAY GIVE HIM TWO – Ernie Banks Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom
President Obama puts the Presidential Medal of Freedom onto Mr. Cub… Ernie Banks.
My wife is a Chicago Cubs fan. And if you don’t know what that means, then you’ve simply never known a Cubs fan. You’ve never known someone who feels a connection to a baseball team on a level the rest of us can barely understand.
The Chicago Cubs hold quite a few notable records. They’re the oldest active team in American sports. They haven’t won a World Series in 105 years, which is the longest championship drought of any major North American sports team, and they play in Wrigley Field, the oldest National League ballpark in the country, having been built in 1914. The team is the longest continuously existing franchise having existed in the same city for their entire history.
If you’ve never been to Wrigley Field, it’s truly something to behold.
First of all, your seat might be right behind a two-foot wide iron girder, making it impossible to see anything but the two-foot wide iron girder. They still have a scoreboard that someone sits inside of and changes the score by hand. And it sits in the middle of an area on Chicago’s North Side known informally as “Wrigleyville,” with bustling city streets on all sides. On the rooftops of the surrounding buildings there are bleacher-style seats that get sold out just like the seats inside the ballpark.
Wrigley’s outfield walls are covered with ivy, well… not at the beginning of the season, but as the season progresses, the ivy grows thick and green and you can no longer see the brick walls behind. It’s the only professional ballpark with an ivy covered outfield wall, and there’s no mystery as to why that’s the case.
It’s not unusual for a ball to be lost in that ivy and when that happens, the outfielder raises his hands and the umpire calls it a ground-rule double.
The wind from Lake Michigan can “blow in” during April and May and knock home runs down to outs. But during summer the wind can “blow out” and transform a harmless fly ball into a home run. And then there’s the cross winds that can come up and cause all sorts of havoc. There’s no question, Wrigley’s perhaps the most unpredictable ballpark in the country.
When the opposing team hits a home run in Wrigley, the Chicago Cubs fan that catches the ball immediately throws it back onto the field.
It’s all a little bit insane, and you can’t help but wonder whether it’s time to upgrade to a new, modern mega-ballpark, with sky boxes and sushi stands, but don’t even think about saying anything like that around a Cubs fan. If my wife hears you say it, you can pretty much forget about coming over to our house very often… just honk and I’ll come out to the car.
My wife grew up on the North Side of Chicago; one of four children in a blue-collar family that beat the odds… all four kids graduated from college and somehow managed to stay close even when divided by a couple thousand miles and pulled by life in different directions.
They grew up in a home with a lot more love than money, her father always working more than one job, but somehow he always managed to find tires for the family car that would take all six there and back to Ft. Lauderdale for a vacation. Great memories.
And then, of course, they had the Cubs at Wrigley Field.
My wife’s stories are of sneaking into Wrigley Field and sitting in the left field bleachers. She had two brothers, a whole slew of uncles and cousins, and her dad… all sports guys, and between watching and their teachings she learned everything about baseball, like something out of the movie Field of Dreams.
My wife’s heroes played baseball for the Chicago Cubs. And when you talk about the Cubs, there’s one player that makes her face light up like no other… Mr. Cub himself… Ernie Banks.
Life’s funny sometimes… one year as a member of a company’s Advisory Board, I found myself sitting next to Ernie Banks. We’d talk a bit, but we had about as much in common as… well, we had nothing in common. For some unknown reason, however, it never occurred to me that my wife might want to know that I was at meetings with Mr. Cub… her childhood hero… Ernie Banks. I honestly never gave it a second thought, thus proving that I’m entirely capable of being a moron.
The day I told her that I knew Ernie all she said was, “What?” She was stunned to the point that she couldn’t talk in more than single word sentences. “You. Know. Ernie. Banks. And. You. Didn’t. Think. To Tell. Me.” I knew I was going to pay for this for a long time.
Then something terrible happened. Something that changed everything for a while… my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer… and not some early stage sort of breast cancer. It was bad. At one point the doctors said stage four. Moments like that freeze time… they suck all the air from the room… shake you to your core. After the first few days of complete shock, a level of fear I had never experienced before, and copious amounts of Ativan… we set out to overcome whatever the odds and beat the hell out of cancer.
But that’s not what this is about… this is about Ernie Banks.
I’ve always believed that climbing any mountain is part physical and part mental… that you have to believe that you can make it to the top… if you’re going to make it to the top. And I wanted to do everything I could to make sure my wife was pumped up and psychologically ready to take the summit.
I had meant to introduce Stacey to Ernie and his wife Liz, but I hadn’t gotten around to it… there’s times in life when you regret the things you never got around to doing… but I knew it would mean the world to my wife to receive something from her hero, Mr. Cub… I was thinking of an autographed photo or maybe an autographed baseball… something like that.
So, I thought about calling Ernie.
I knew, however, that people called or contacted famous people for such things all the time… I’d seen others ask Ernie for signed baseballs before and he was always politely apologizing while saying something about not having a ball with him. And I didn’t want to be one of those people.
But, I wanted more than anything to present that autographed photo or baseball to my wife, maybe with a positive message written on whatever it was so she could look at it every day of the fight that was ahead. Anyway, that’s what I was thinking.
So, I called Ernie on a Saturday morning… didn’t know how to being it up, so I made a little small talk and then told him about my wife and fighting breast cancer… how she grew up watching him from Wrigley’s bleachers and that she’s among his biggest fans. And I asked him if he could send her something signed by him, maybe with some sort of positive message… that I knew it would mean the world to her.
Ernie wouldn’t hear of it, however, he wasn’t going to send her anything… he said, “I think I have to come over to your house.”
He would come over to our house the next day and spend the afternoon with us… he wanted to meet his biggest fan face-to-face. He wanted to tell her she could fight and she could win… beat any odds.
I never told anyone before now, but I had tears streaming down my face that day sitting in my car talking to Ernie as he took down my home address and made plans to be there the very next day. I tried to sound normal, and it was hard.
I can’t tell you how excited my wife was when I told her Ernie would be coming over the following day. She started cleaning the house immediately, almost like a reflex action. And what do you know… her mom, sister and sister-in-law all just happened to be coming over the next day… and at the exact same time Ernie was scheduled to arrive. What a coincidence, right?
Ernie arrived promptly the following day, it was a Sunday and I was just getting up, so although I wasn’t exactly dressed for church, all the women in my house certainly were. I saw him pull up and went out to greet him, and to warn him that it wasn’t just my wife… there were four women inside waiting to greet him.
Ernie was his normal smiling charismatic self… you’ve never met anyone as positive and upbeat about life as Ernie. When I call him the conversation goes like this…
Martin: Hi, Ernie… it’s Martin Andelman.
Ernie: Martin Andelman, how are you?
Martin: I’m good, Ernie, how are you doing?
Ernie: Fantastic… I feel like I could fly.
Do you know anyone that feels that good… ever? I don’t.
Ernie walked around to open his trunk… he had brought a ton of Ernie Banks stuff… baseballs, photos, all sorts of memorabilia he would sign for his fans who were waiting for him inside. “Where’s your beautiful bride?” He was clearly here to see my wife.
Ernie walked straight through our front door and into our living room, giving my wife a huge hug, like he’d been living there all his life. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her smile quite like she did at that moment.
My wife introduced Ernie to her mom, her sister and her sister-in-law and he hugged everyone and started autographing photos and baseballs for my wife. Before I knew it they were all in the family room eating appetizers my wife had prepared, drinking wine, and smiling like six year-olds with ice cream cones.
I left them alone to socialize and when I came back Ernie and my wife were in our front yard… playing catch. I grabbed my camera to take pictures, but also to conceal the tears in my eyes. My wife never looked happier… Ernie looked pretty darn happy too. I know it sounds like it couldn’t be true, but I’d swear that Ernie made that entire day on our block sunnier, brighter, and happier.
He stayed for several hours, drinking wine and asking my wife all about her family, her childhood, her professional life… Ernie wanted to know all about her. And then he told stories about his wife, Liz, and about Chicago, and about playing baseball in the days of the Negro League.
He told us about traveling on the bus from town to town throughout the South, pulling up at some ballparks only to find members of the Ku Klux Klan as if standing guard, telling them to just keep moving. It had to make everyone feel the shame of segregation, but it was fascinating to listen to him talk about those times.
Ernie was the first black player to play for the Chicago Cubs… back then he made $7 a day… and that afternoon I realized that he had an understanding of this country and its past that I could never have.
Ernie made my wife forget about breast cancer that day, but even more importantly he made her feel strong for the fight that was ahead. He had never met her before, but you never would have believed it to see them together that sunny Sunday afternoon.
Ernie has an ability that might actually be magical. He brought his magic into our home that day… everyone felt it… I’ve never experienced anything like it… and here’s the thing… from that day forward, I knew my wife would win her battle with breast cancer.
I don’t mean, “I knew,” like “I thought.” I mean that I KNEW it for sure… I was 100 percent positive. Battling breast cancer is a bit of a marathon… it goes on and on for a year and then some. But after that day, I never worried about it again. I just knew that we would beat it cold.
My wife went on to totally defeat breast cancer, and today, going on seven years later she’s completely cancer free, which means her odds of getting it again are the same as someone who has never had it. Thank God.
The day Ernie came to visit my wife, we hadn’t yet told our daughter of the diagnosis, and I had been dreading it for a couple of weeks. She was young at the time, just turned 10 years old, and I didn’t want anything to have a negative impact on her childhood. She was a straight A kid… the one the teachers love to have in class… she had been moved up a grade… and was already great dancer taking lessons some 14 hours a week and dancing competitively… she had learned to play the piano… she was always happy… everything was perfect in her life.
In truth, I was scared to death both because of my wife’s diagnosis, and because I didn’t want my daughter to ever be scared… didn’t want her to see my tears… so I was putting it off, hoping that somehow I would never have to do it… but knowing that soon I would have no choice… I’d have to tell her.
But, somehow that Sunday evening, after Ernie had left… I wasn’t scared anymore. All of a sudden I had the strength to tell our daughter about mom being sick, and I knew I could do it in such a way that she wouldn’t worry for a moment, because I knew that mom was going to be just fine.
I told her and all she asked me was, “But she’s going to be fine, right?” And I’m sure the newfound confidence in my voice reassured her as I said without hesitation or shakiness in my voice that she would be absolutely fine. Then I kissed her goodnight and she went straight to sleep, as happy as ever, not a care in the world.
Years later, when she was applying to colleges and considering topics on which to write essays, my wife asked her if the year spent fighting breast cancer was something she would want to write about… she thought about it for a few seconds and then said no… it didn’t really impact her at all, she explained… she never really thought about it.
I had to turn away for a moment and I said to myself… thank you Ernie.
I’m proud to call Ernie Banks my very good friend. And I’m so incredibly happy that he is being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Since then, it has been my privilege to help Ernie on several very important projects, once in a lifetime sort of things that I wouldn’t want to mention here, but I am also very proud to be able to say that I invented and designed his current position as “Ambassador for the Chicago Cubs.”
Today, Ernie Banks was at the White House being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. It is the highest civilian honor that this country bestows, and this year was the 50th anniversary of the award, which was established by President John F. Kennedy.
As it says on The White House Blog…
The medal has been presented to more than 500 individuals who have made especially “meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
This year, Ernie was one of 16 to receive the Medal of Freedom, but he was the first recipient introduced by President Obama, who told the story of how Ernie had walked into the Cubs locker room one day when the team was sitting around feeling depressed, and uttered the line that would become his signature:
”It’s a beautiful day for a ball game… let’s play two.”
The announcer went on to say the following about Ernie Banks…
With an unmatched enthusiasm for America’s Pastime, Ernie Banks slugged, sprinted and smiled his way into the record books. Known to fans as “Mr. Cub,” he played an extraordinary 19 seasons with the Chicago Cubs during which he was named to 11 All-Star Teams, hit 512 home runs, and won back-to-back Most Valuable Player honors. Ernie Banks was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977 and he will forever be known as one of the finest power hitters and dynamic players of all time.
I sent Ernie an email the night before he was to leave for Washington D.C. to receive his award from the president… I wanted to congratulate him and tell him how happy I was to see that he was among such notable recipients as President Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey.
I should have known… it wasn’t even five minutes after my email had been sent that my phone rang, and I saw the name “Ernie Banks,” on my screen. I jumped to answer it, excited to hear his voice…
Martin: Ernie Banks, how in the world are you?
Ernie: Martin Andelman, I’m just fine and how are you?
Martin: I’m great Ernie… just great. I guess you got my email. I just wanted to say congratulations on the Presidential Medal of Freedom… that’s a really big deal.
Ernie: Thank you, thank you… yes, I’m flying to Washington D.C. tomorrow. You’ve been to Washington D.C.
Martin: I have been there, yes.
Ernie: And how’s your beautiful bride? Everything okay?
Martin: She’s great too, Ernie… and she’s still your number one fan remember.
Ernie: Yes she is… and how is your daughter?
Martin: She’s incredible Ernie, you won’t believe how beautiful she is when you see her… she’s a freshman at U.C. Berkeley this year.
Ernie: Oh my goodness, that’s a very good school.
Martin: Yes, it certainly is.
Ernie: And she’s a very smart young lady.
Martin: Yes she is.
Ernie: She takes after her parents.
Martin: It’s from Stacey mostly… that’s where she gets her looks and her brains.
Ernie and I have been friends ever since… we’ve worked together on several exciting projects and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. Every think he does or touches… well, it’s just magic, that’s all.
So, as far as I’m concerned… not only does Ernie deserve to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award as much as any recipient I can imagine… but if it were up to me… I’d say… GIVE HIM TWO!
God bless and come home soon, Ernie. You’ve still got a lot of work to do.
Watch as President Obama presents Ernie Banks with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.