Friday, April 19, 2024

Review: Let's Play Two (2019)

By Ron Rapoport

We may have reached the point where Ernie Banks has become one of the most underrated players in baseball history. 

Note: This does not include certain locations around the Chicago area.

Banks was one of the last stars to come out of the Negro Leagues when it broke up as the majors became integrated. It took him about a year and a half to figure out the majors after signing with the Chicago Cubs, He arrived in 1953 and was pretty good (second in Rookie of the Year voting) in 1954. But by 1955, Ernie had figured things out. He batted .295 with 44 homers and 117 RBI. It was sort of like that throughout the rest of the 1950s, as Banks won back-to-back MVP trophies. 

But by the early 1960s, Banks' knees had started to deteriorate. He moved off shortstop, a spot where power wasn't expected, to first base, where it was. Ernie wasn't legging out many singles in those years, as he never hit .300 again. But he was still a threat to go deep, finishing with 512 homers in his career - a big number back in 1971, when he retired. So the number of people who remember him at the peak of his powers is decreasing rapidly.

Oddly, Banks became remembered about as much for his personality as for his skills on the diamond. He was the game's Mr. Sunshine, at least outwardly. Ernie is still remembered for his quote, "It's a beautiful day for baseball, let's play two." That reputations stayed with him for the rest of his life.

But what was he really like? That's the mission that Ron Rapoport sets out to accomplish in the book, "Let's Play Two."

The author covers all the bases quite nicely, pardon the pun. Banks grew up relatively poor in Dallas, and it comes out that Ernie's mother was a cousin of - wait for it - O.J. Simpson's mother. Small world. But he was good at athletics, and eventually was steered to baseball. From there it was on to the Kansas City Monarchs, who were at the end of a memorable run in the Negro Leagues. Banks took a detour into the Army for a while, but soon after his release he was off to start a career in the major leagues with the Cubs.

Banks was tough on stereotypes once he settled in for a job. Shortstops of that era were supposed to be good fielders who could steal a base every once in a while after hitting at the bottom of the order. Johnny Logan of the Braves was a good shortstop of that era, hitting .297 with 13 homers. He wasn't in the same area code as Banks.

Despite having a great building block in Banks, the Cubs never did much in the standings during the shortstop's best years. Rapoport does a really good job of bringing back the era of the early 1960s when the Cubs thought it would be a great idea to rotate head coaches instead of having a single manager. It was rather typical of a dysfunctional franchise that never could get out of its way. 

It took some years for Chicago to figure out how to win some games. The Cubs brought in names such as Billy Williams, Ron Santo and Ferguson Jenkins, who led the team to respectability. What's more, they brought in Leo Durocher as manager, who if nothing else was never boring. There's plenty here about the fabled 1969 season when the Cubs collapsed - allowing the Mets to win the division and eventually the World Series. That was a very sore subject in Northern Illinois until at least 2016 ... and maybe still qualifies in some households today. 

That's an interesting baseball life, but Banks didn't really inject much of his personality into it. At times he disappears into something of a supporting role in the stories about the team. If he was a team leader, he was a quiet one. The slugger wasn't one to criticize Durocher when the skipper tried to push him out of the lineup. Ernie discovered at an early age that keeping relatively quiet and staying upbeat in dealing with strangers worked well on most levels. That means he doesn't play a key role in some of the highlights of Cubs' play during the course of his career.

Meanwhile, the book opened with a long story about how difficult it was to get Ernie to talk about himself. And when he did so and repeated some of them to others, the stories didn't quite match up. Banks spent a lot of time during conversations asking strangers about their lives, an interesting defense mechanism. 

Ernie's home life comes under a bit of scrutiny here. He went through four wives in his life, and his children didn't get the chance to be as close to their dad as they would have liked. The relatives couldn't figure him out either.

Banks remained a somewhat elusive personality right through his death, so this is about as close as we're likely to get to a complete portrait. "Let's Play Two" is a very good review of the life of arguably the most popular baseball player in Chicago's history.  

Four stars

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