Friday, May 8, 2015

When Ernie Banks Ran For Alderman

The young candidate woke up early, dressed sharply in a sport coat, white shirt and pencil-thin brown tie, kissed his wife and twin toddlers, then set off walking through the frigid Chicago weather for another day of campaigning. He covered the neighborhood, ringing door bells, shaking hands and handing out literature. He made cold calls on businesses and chatted up school officials, listening to opinions about taxes, juvenile delinquency and the need for local improvements, such as blacktopping a playground or installing a sewer at the corner of 83rd and St. Lawrence. He walked into a crowded pharmacy and introduced himself to the entire establishment. Few people gave him a second thought—just another guy stumping for election--until he introduced himself: “Hello, I’m Ernie Banks. I’d appreciate your support.”

                As unlikely as it seems to modern baseball fans, Ernie Banks, who at the time was on the very short list of the best professional baseball players in the land, once ran for Alderman in Chicago, spending virtually all of his time in January and February campaigning. I was reminded of it during the recent primary elections. The episode is worth revisiting because it provides insight into the character and personality of Ernie Banks. The year was 1963 and Banks was 32 years old. 

                It had been almost a decade since Banks had shown up in Chicago as a skinny kid with huge hands, rope-muscled forearms and a lightening-quick wrist power the likes of which had never been seen. His play on the field captured the hearts of Midwestern fans as he copped the MVP award in both 1958 and 1959 and hit more home runs than anyone in the major leagues from 1955 through 1960, clubbing 248 in the six years --more than Mays (214), more than Mantle (236), more than Aaron ( 206), more than Mathews (226 )--an average of 41 a year, unheard of numbers for a shortstop.

                While his play for the miserable Cub teams of the era was decidedly spectacular, it was his personality that solidified his place in the psyche of the city Martin Luther King, Jr. once called the most segregated city in the United States. Banks had made an improbable transformation from a painfully shy 22-year old; a kid from a ghetto in rigidly-segregated Dallas, the grandson of slaves, the son of a man who worked odd jobs to raise a family of 11 kids and who taught his kids by example to be wary of white people, to hold their cards close to their chests and never show emotion. But Ernie was his own man and forged his own public persona. He took over Chicago with a unique brand of unfailing optimism and openness. Some people thought it was an act--his schtick--and it might have been, but it was remarkably consistent and the question remains: if you have to come up with an act, what's better than one that puts a smile on people's faces, makes them feel good about themselves and makes you always comes off as a nice guy?

                 By 1963 Banks had been known as Mr. Cub for several years. His performance in baseball opened doors and allowed him to rub elbows with important people and to do things that he could never have imagined even a few years earlier. He seemed determined to better himself and to become a factor away from the field. He rarely turned down a speaking invitation, often showing up for kids programs for free.

He took college classes at Northwestern and the University of Chicago several times over the years, taking classes in sociology, psychology and economics, as well as courses in real estate and the insurance business. He was a young man on the move, eternally grateful for the opportunities presented to him, determined to improve himself and make his mark.

Still, it came as a surprise to the baseball world (and the Chicago political world) when Ernie Banks announced his candidacy for Alderman of Chicago's Eighth Ward on December 20, 1962. 

          While many former baseball players have had successful political careers, and it was not entirely unheard of at the time for off-duty baseball players to hold positions such as deputy in the off season in small towns back home, this was different. This was the big time--a leading position in the second-largest city in the country. Banks had been contacted while vacationing in California by Harold Rainville, aid to United States Senator Everett Dirkson (R-Ill.) who wanted someone to run as a Republican in the ward against Democratic incumbent James A. Condon. The Republicans soon double-crossed Ernie, however, by throwing their support to another candidate and letting it be known that they hoped Ernie would bow out gracefully (no reason was given for the change of heart). But Ernie, while disappointed to lose Republican support, was not discouraged. He apparently liked the idea of being Alderman and decided to stay in the race, campaigning as an independent. He announced that he had gotten the approval of the Cub brass before deciding. The election was set for February 28, the day before Ernie was scheduled to report for spring training. Owner Phil Wrigley said it was okay as long as the civic duties did not interfere with the baseball ones. "I don't want a part time ballplayer," he told reporters.

          The announcement was met with a less-than-enthusiastic response from both the baseball and political worlds and neither could resist mixing corny baseball aphorisms for a laugh at Ernie's expense. John Baspar in the Chicago Daily Calumet said, “Ernie Banks should be right at home as Alderman of the 8th Ward. After all, the Cubs have been wards of around 8th place for some time.”

          One wag noted that Banks was certain to win the election if only all of the Cubs’ coaches voted (the joke at the time being that Wrigley, in his disdain for the title "manager" had instituted a much-ridiculed and reviled policy called "the college of coaches" in which a massive rotating team of coaches took turns managing the club).

          The Honorable Richard J. Daley, long-term Mayor and Czar of Chicago Democrats, publicly predicted that Banks would finish the alderman race, “Somewhere in left field.”

          Flamboyant Alderman Benjamin (aka Duke, aka Big Cat) Lewis of the rough and tumble West Side 24th Ward said of Banks, “He’s a major league ballplayer, but he’s a minor leaguer as far as politics is concerned.”

          The fact of the matter was that Ernie Banks was indeed out of his league; and out of his element. Banks' public persona was one in which he always wore a smile, was nice and agreeable to everyone and reflexively avoided all conflicts--not exactly ideal for politics which, as they say, is a dirty business and Chicago was one of the places “they” had in mind when they said this. It can safely be stated that over the years, certain episodes have occurred in the political arena in Chicago that have given citizens cause to wonder aloud whether the whole thing was really on the up and up. Alderman is a position that carries definite power and influence in Chicago--one of fifty men who form the City Council and make decisions for a city of millions. The temptations are numerous--think civic contracts, construction projects, valuable government jobs--and, apparently, more than one Chicago Alderman has attempted to use the powerful position to further his own cause. The first conviction of an alderman for accepting bribes to rig crooked contracts came in 1869. In the years from 1972 to 1999, 26 current or former aldermen were convicted of official corruption--essentially one in three of all who served during that time.
          Also the risks to unwanted candidates were real. Threats, intimidation and even murders were not unknown for Chicago political wannabes. The above mentioned Lewis, who flaunted an extravagant lifestyle that, according to contemporary reports, was much out of proportion to his known income, was found the morning after the 1963 election in his office, executed gangland style--handcuffed with three close-range bullets fired into the back of his head. It is a crime that remains "unsolved" to this day. Chicago politics--not a business for the faint of heart.
          Ernie Banks faced long odds in his bid for election.  Independents have a hard time winning elections for county clerk in rural Idaho; they have little chance winning elections against hard political veterans backed by political machines in Chicago. The Eighth Ward had very strong Democratic organization and the incumbent Condon told reporters he was not worried. Condon wasn't worried because he knew a little secret that Banks apparently did not: the odds of a non-Democrat without the express written consent of Mayor Daley winning the election was about the same as the odds of the Cubs winning the Series--that is to say, don't expect it more than maybe once every 100 years or so.
            But long odds were nothing new to Ernie Banks. Having no chance never stopped him from showing up at the corner of Addison and Sheffield with a huge smile on his face every day of every long, hopeless summer—greeting everyone in sight with his customary, “Welcome to the friendly confines of Wrigley Field,” and later admonishing the guys to play two.
          “We’re gonna win it,” Ernie told a visiting reporter. “The Eighth Ward and the pennant.” But his promise sounded about as good as the preposterously optimistic promises he had been making in spring training every year. Ernie explained his belief against long odds: “I believe in P. M. A. Positive Mental Attitude, that’s my theory of life.”

               Ernie's campaign headquarters, on South Cottage Grove, displayed a big picture of him in baseball uniform in the window. Above it, a red and blue sign announced, “South Side Committee to Elect Ernie Banks Alderman, Eighth Ward.” Ernie's campaign slogan was "We need a slugger in City Hall." He eventually had a group of 65 volunteers helping him. The son of a local undertaker was his campaign manager (insert your own symbolism here) and promised, "Ernie will be a vocal spokesman for all the people in the ward."
               "We need someone with a little independence in this ward," a local businessman told a visiting reporter from the Sporting News. "Someone who doesn't jump every time Daley says something."
               Asked if he would have speech writers, Banks said he would not, that he would talk about things he knows. Banks had become an excellent public speaker, making in excess of 50 speeches in recent years mostly appearances to juvenile groups.

              The sprawling Eighth Ward contained 93 precincts, with 46,000 registered voters: 45% black, 55 % white. It lay within the so-called "Black belt" of the South Side in which blacks were free to obtain residence and was rapidly changing from white to black. Incumbent Condon was white. Daley's successful strategy in such wards seemed to be to stick with the white Alderman until the ward was nearly 100% black, then make the switch. In general, it was still a good ward, with a majority of homeowners, although in 1962, a small article in Jet magazine had noted that a rear breakfast room window of the Banks house had been broken by a bullet and Ernie's wife Eloise noted that "young toughs" had begun hanging around the "Negro" neighborhood looking for trouble.
                Ernie campaigned hard.  He averaged about four speeches a day during the two months. His main stated goal was to combat juvenile delinquency. By all indications, Banks was entirely altruistic in his desire for office. He did not appear to be motivated by the potential for monetary gain. He had never lived extravagantly and was currently under contract to the Cubs for $65,000--not as much as Mantle, Mays and Musial, who were $100,000 guys, but firmly entrenched in the second tier of baseball salaries (about as much as Aaron at the time). It was more money than anyone in his family had ever dreamed of. Banks maintained that his political aspirations were not a stunt. He said that he wanted to get into politics in order “to do everything in his power to help youth.”

              Unfortunately, Ernie had about as much success in politics as he did in his bid to get to a World Series. He came in a distant third in the four-man race, with 2,028 votes. Condon won easily with 9,296, the Republican's man Gerald Gibbons was second with 4,264. Coleman Holt, another independent, finished last with 1,335.
             An Associated Press headline February 27, 1963 led with the predictable, “Ernie Banks strikes out in First At Bat in Politics.”

           While Ernie initially said he was anxious to try his luck again in 1967, he never did--apparently realizing the obvious.“I learned a lot," he said a little later. "I learned that those professional politicians are a lot tougher than the National League pitchers. Those boys don’t leave much to chance." He had earlier noted, “I don’t understand this political game too well. They try to strike you out before you even get a time at bat.” (editor's note: he was apparently much more perceptive than he let on)

          Years later, Ernie said, “My timing was a little bit off.” But he added, “I don’t regret doing it.” He remained active in the community, however, and later served on numerous boards including Jackson Park Hospital, Glenwood Home for Boys, Metropolitan YMCA, the Woodlawn Boys Club, Chicago Rehabilitiation Institute and Big Brothers.

           In retrospect, perhaps it is for the best that Ernie Banks did not win his election. He was able to maintain his public integrity and popularity, becoming a symbol for cooperativeness and optimism throughout the rest of that difficult decade. He understood that politics is not a game for nice guys and decided to make his mark in other ways.


  1. Nice piece! I had remembered reading once that Ernie ran for alderman back in the 60's, but never knew all that much about the details of it all. Thank you for informing me!

  2. It's still amazing that a player as prominent as Banks ran for such a powerful office while he was still playing.