Former Cubs great Banks’ visit to Linton made memories

There will be a lot written about Ernie Banks in the next few days, and without a doubt it will all be positive.

“Mr. Cub” or “Mr. Sunshine” will forever be remembered for his infectious smile and zest for the positive in life. In a day when Major League Baseball players despise doubleheaders, Banks was known for his frequent quip, “It’s a beautiful day, let’s play two.”

Even though I grew up in Logansport, I was not a Cubs fan. The Yankees were my love, but if you wanted to watch baseball in northern Indiana back in the 1960s, it was going to be on Channel 9. So, it was Jack Brickhouse and Vince Lloyd calling the games and introducing us to Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ron Santo. The Cubs of the ‘60s were mostly mediocre. Banks spent his entire career with the Cubs and obviously never played in a World Series.

“Mr. Cub” broke into baseball in 1953 as a shortstop and was a two-time National League MVP, in 1958 and 1959. When I saw him play in the ’60s he was well into his career as a first baseman. Banks was clearly the face of the Chicago Cubs and finished his career with 512 home runs.

He was the first black player to wear a Cubs uniform. When race relations flared in the ’60s, Banks was a pacifist. Some labeled him an “Uncle Tom” because he refused to be vocal at a time when many black celebrities were.

“My philosophy about race relations is that I’m the man and I’ll set my own patterns in life. I don’t rely on anyone else’s opinions. I look at a man as a human being; I don’t care about his color,” Banks once said. “Some people feel that because you are black you will never be treated fairly, and that you should voice your opinions, be militant about them. I don’t feel this way. You can’t convince a fool against his own will. If a man doesn’t like me because I’m black, that’s fine. I’ll just go elsewhere, but I’m not going to let him change my life.”

I met Banks in the mid-1980s. He came to Linton to play in the Phil Harris Celebrity Golf Tournament. There were lots of Cub fans in Linton, but there were no blacks in town. Linton had a prejudiced past. There are legendary photos of black men who had been hung in Linton during a coal strike 50 years earlier.

The town motto was portrayed on two large signs that bordered the entrances of Humphreys Park at the east edge of the city limits: “You’ll Like Linton.” For 17 years I did like Linton. My golf career started there, and it was a great place to raise a family. But Linton was a blue-collar coal mining town, and it had its fair share of bigots — even in the 1980s.

There was a buzz about town when it became known that Banks was coming for Phil’s tournament. It was exciting for this town of 6,000 people to meet one of the all-time greats in baseball history.

There were also a few wisecracks that spring in my pro shop about it being one of the few times a black man would play the Linton links. George Taliaferro, former Indiana University running back, might have been the only black to play golf there before Banks.

I remember thinking how great it was that Banks would come to Linton but also worrying that somebody might say something stupid to offend him. You just never knew.

Part of me was jubilant to bring a guy like this to town, and the rest of me was kind of scared. Should I tell Banks anything ahead of time? Maybe I should warn him. But if I did he probably wouldn’t come.

He showed up for a Friday practice round with his famous smile and a set of Ping golf clubs. Banks was wearing beige sans-a-belt slacks, a white striped golf shirt and a visor. He wore saddle shoes, and I was amazed at how fit he looked for a guy in his mid-50s. The most amazing part was how well he played given his brief time in golf. We played together that day, and there was nothing not to love about him.

Banks never turned away an autograph seeker over the next three days. His smile never faded, and he lifted everyone around him. Kids hung on him. Women were charmed, and even the older men who weren’t quite sure about hosting this black baseball player became starstruck. In the course of 72 hours Ernie Banks not only had the key to the city, but he had its heart.

On Sunday morning I was approached by the mayor of Linton, Jimmie K. Wright. He said, “You know you made history last night when you took Ernie to the Elks to eat supper. It was the first time that a black man has ever stepped foot in the Linton Lodge.”

I didn’t know what to think and asked the mayor if I was in trouble. He smiled and cracked me on the back. “Not at all,” he said.

As luck would have it, Banks’ team tied for the tournament lead after Sunday’s round. Before the playoff he went to the back of the course to hit some balls. When he returned to the first tee he was greeted by a standing ovation.

Hole No. 1 at Linton was a 135-yard, par 3. Both teams played the hole simultaneously. Banks became the final player to putt, and he drained the winning birdie to the delight of the crowd.

No one can remember who was on the other team. They are still talking about Banks’ putt some 30 years later in Linton. No doubt the putt is longer and the crowd around the No. 1 green larger with time. Much to the delight of Lintonians, Ernie came back the next year.

More importantly, “Mr. Cub” would be joined by Jim “Mudcat” Grant, the first black pitcher to win 20 games in the America League; Tommy Davis of the Los Angeles Dodgers, one of baseball’s great hitters; and Tommy Agee, a star on the 1969 Miracle Mets.

I last saw Banks in Chicago when the PGA announced Davis Love III as the 2012 Ryder Cup captain. It was in January 2011, and “Mr. Cub” was 80 years old. He joined Dan Hampton, Denis Savard, Scottie Pippen and Paul Konerko as Chicago sports legends to welcome Love to town for the upcoming competition at Medinah. Banks still talked about making that winning putt.

Ernie Banks leaves legacies all over the place, but none better than in Linton, Indiana.