Ernie Banks, who died Friday at the age of 83, was one of the greats of baseball during the time I was coming of age. He began his Major League career in 1953, when I was seven, living in England, and knew little of baseball other than that it was a game my compatriots back home played and liked (neither of my parents was a fan). He retired in 1971, when I was 25, had settled in New York, and was beginning to get interested in the game again after a long latency period.
He spent all of his eighteen year career in the Majors with the Cubs, a team in which I had little interest, although his teammate Hal Jeffcoat was a neighbor in Tampa, and Hal's two sons were in high school with me. Chicago was remote from any of my connections, and the Cubs were a perennial also-ran. Actually, my predisposition towards underdogs--the reason the Brooklyn Dodgers were my first baseball love--has made me, on an occasion when the Mets' outlook for the season had become seemingly hopeless while the Cubs' hadn't yet, briefly root for the Cubs.
Nevertheless, Ernie Banks was one of those names, like Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Bob Gibson, Mantle and Maris, and Stan Musial, that kept cropping up in my consciousness even when I wasn't following the game. He was great on both offense (512 career homers, .330 on base percentage, .500 slugging percentage) and on defense (.986 career fielding percentage). He's credited with giving Wrigley Field the nickname "the Friendly Confines." His characteristic quotation (on a sweltering Chicago summer day): "It's a beautiful day. Let's play two!"
Addendum: Today's New York Times has a splendid reminiscence by Chicago native and cradle Cubs fan Barry Bearak, who recalls how Banks "wiggle[d his] fingers around the handle of the bat...like a virtuoso fingering the keys of a saxophone."