Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks was honored for his performance on field and zeal for life Wednesday, when he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor, by President Barack Obama.
The 82-year-old Banks, was joined by 15 other recipients, including former President Bill Clinton, former Sen. Richard Lughar, R-Ind., former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, former University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith, feminist Gloria Steinem, country music singer Loretta Lynn, and Chicago media talk show host Oprah Winfrey.
Awards were also given to the late Sally Ride, the first female astronaut to travel to space, and Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii.
Obama cited the infamous story about Banks arriving at Wrigley Field and his pep talk to his teammates, “Let’s play two.”
“That’s Mr. Cub — the man who came up through the Negro Leagues, making $7 a day, and became the first black player to suit up for the Cubs and one of the greatest hitters of all time,” Obama said. “In the process, Ernie became known as much for his 512 home runs as for his cheer and his optimism, and his eternal faith that someday the Cubs would go all the way.”
Laughter filled the room while Mr. Cub buried his balded, bespectacled head in his hands.
“And that’s serious belief,” Obama said. “That is something that even a White Sox fan like me can respect. He is just a wonderful man and a great icon of my hometown.”
Banks started his professional baseball career in 1950 with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League, and at the age of 22 he was the first African-American Cubs’ player when he made his debut on Sept. 17, 1953.
Banks played 19 seasons with the Cubs and hit .274 with 512 home runs and 1,636 RBIs over 2,583 hits earning him the nickname Mr. Cub. He was twice named Most Valuable Player (1958, 1959), won a Gold Glove Award (1960), was named to 14 All-Star teams (1955-1962, ’65, ’67, ’69), was inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1977.
The Cubs retired his No. 14 in 1982 and a bronze statue of Mr. Cub was unveiled outside Wrigley Field in 1982.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the award that was established by President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Banks joins Joe DiMaggio (1977), Jackie Robinson (1984), Ted Williams (1991), Hank Aaron (2002), Roberto Clemente (2003), Frank Robinson (2005), Buck O’Neil (2006), and Stan Musial (2011) as other baseball players to receive the honor.
“It means everything to me,” Banks said in August about the award. “It means life is just wonderful. When you do things to try to help people and share things, it really comes back to you. I try to do that. I love the players, love Wrigley Field, love all the players. … This award means a lot to me. It’s almost like the Nobel Peace Prize to me.”
“I didn’t play in a World Series, I didn’t play in the playoffs, but this takes the place for me,” he said of the honor.