Photographer Jerry Holt and I had the privilege of spending 90 minutes with Willie Mays in his “Say Hey’’ suite at AT&T Park in late May. This was for an article that would be part of the Star Tribune’s All-Star Game coverage, and based on this theory:
The greatest baseball team ever assembled represented the National League in the 1965 All-Star Game at Met Stadium in Bloomington, and the greatest player on that team was Mays.
Willie sort of shrugged off that theory early in the interview, pointing out that it was difficult to classify the NL’s 1965 machine (a 6-5 winner over the feisty American Leaguers) as superior to most of the All-Star teams his league fielded during that era.
Hey -- make that "Say hey,'' or even "Hey, yey" -- it was a good excuse to convince the greatest ballplayer of all to give a hunk of time to a couple of reps from a Midwest newspaper, and that’s what counted.
One thing I noticed when Mays was talking about the players who were staples with the National League All-Stars was the reverence with which he used the names “Hank’’ and “Ernie.’’
He talked with admiration of Frank Robinson and Roberto Clemente and other greats, but Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks brought a special smile to Willie’s face. It could’ve been based on the fact that, like Mays, Aaron and Banks played in the Negro Leagues before being signed by a major league organization.
Willie. Hank. Ernie. There had to be a little something extra in those relationships, knowing they had pretty much seen it all on the way to big-league glory.
Ernie Banks died on Friday at age 83. He was a player so good that, in 1958 and 1959, he became the first National Leaguer to win back-to-back MVPs. He was a player so good that he received those MVPs while playing on Cubs teams that went 72-82 and 74-80 and finished fifth in an eight-team league.
He was a Cubs’ lifer and never seemed bitter over the second-division finishes, never seemed bitter that he never had a chance to show his talents in a World Series.
“Let’s play two,’’ was the battle cry attached to Banks, three happy words to summarize Ernie’s love for playing baseball.
Tim Sullivan, a columnist for the Louisville Courier-Journal, suggested that herewith major league baseball change its lexicon: When two games are to be played in one day, it will no longer be called a “doubleheader’’ but rather an “Ernie Banks.’’
Or an Ernie for short.
I can hear Twins closer Glen Perkins going with it this summer, some weekend when his team is making up an April rainout with two games on a Saturday:
“I wanted to keep my pitches to a minimum tonight, because we have that Ernie tomorrow.’’
Yeah, Perk would say that, and I think everybody in the clubhouses would feel better about playing a split doubleheader if it was an Ernie in honor of the magnificent Mr. Cub, rather than simply a pair of 3 ½-hour games played with a 2 ½-hour gap in the middle.
NOTE: "Hey, hey.'' Play-by-play man Jack Brickhouse's salute when the Cubs -- and thus Ernie -- hit a home run.