It was April of 1974. I was just a 23 year-old kid fresh out of college and only weeks into my first ever baseball job as Assistant to the President of the Texas League, Bobby Bragan.
As if it were not thrill enough for a young baseball fan like myself to be working for a great man and former major league player, coach and manager, I was about to experience what was, and remains, one of the greatest moments of my 40 plus years in the game.
It was opening week of the Texas League season and Bobby decided to attend the opening game in Shreveport, Louisiana. Knowing I had grown up a Cubs fan and that my childhood idol was Ernie Banks, Bobby assigned me to travel to Midland, Texas to represent the league at the opening game of the Midland Cubs, the Texas League farm club of the Chicago Cubs.
Ernie Banks had retired as a player after the 1971 season and was now working as a “goodwill ambassador” and doing some instruction with the Cubs’ minor league teams. Bobby Bragan knew how much I had idolized Ernie and that Ernie was to be an honored guest at the Midland Cubs’ opener. Needless to say, I was beside myself when he sent me to Midland for that game.
Not only was I standing next to Ernie on the field for the National Anthem as a guest “dignitary”, I was also seated next to him behind home plate for the game! I did not get a lot of time to visit with him during the game due to the fact that he was pulled away by local media and the play-by-play broadcasters for both teams and when he was not doing media interviews, he was besieged by fans seeking autographs.
However, after the game, we were invited to the home of a local businessman who was a huge supporter of the ballclub for a special private party at which Ernie, of course, was the guest of honor. There, I had the opportunity to sit with Ernie and talk for about two hours. He was just as I expected, a cordial and outwardly happy person who was a master at making others feel comfortable in his presence.
The thrill continued when it was time to go back to the hotel. Naturally, both Ernie and I were housed at the Sheraton Midland Hotel and Hal Freidman, the host of the party, knowing that I had driven to Midland from the league office in Fort Worth, asked if I would be willing to drive Ernie back to the hotel. Need I tell you I was beside myself at this opportunity?
We had a short ride back to the hotel and headed into the hotel together. When entered the elevator, we learned we were going to the same floor. Then, down the hall, we realized we were in adjoining rooms. There was a double door connecting the rooms on the inside. When we got into our rooms, Ernie tapped on the door from his side. I opened my door and he said “we’re roommates!”.
By this time, I am about to pinch myself as I thought I must truly be dreaming. The first words out of my mouth were “my dad will never believe this”.
What do you suppose happened next? Ernie said…. “Let’s get him on the phone!”… which we did. Ernie proceeded to talk with my dad and said some very nice things about me to him. After he hung up, we both retired to our rooms, but the connecting door remained cracked.
I would see Ernie several more times over the years in a variety of baseball roles for both of us. Including being present at his Hall-of-Fame induction. He was always friendly and always remembered me. He would ask about Bobby Bragan and he would ask about my dad. There are more memorable stories about those encounters.
It took me forever to fall asleep that night, knowing that the greatest Cub of all time was sleeping just inches from my head.
Of course, there are hundreds of other folks who knew him better than me and who have stories like this.
Rest in peace, Mr. Cub, you were without question, one of a kind. On behalf of Cubs fans everywhere, thanks for the memories.