How Ernie Banks and the 1969 Cubs Helped Save My Life

Michelle Bowdler | Essay

In 1960, Chicago became the home of the first Playboy Club in the United States. It began as an experiment in a new design of “men’s clubs,” a themed respite where visitors were catered to with great food, expensive drinks, and gorgeous women. Members were given giant keys with a bunny head on the upper end. The clubs soon became a raging, iconic success. The Chicago Playboy Club was on Walton Street about an hour’s drive from my northern suburban town house. My neighbor, Bill Hickey, worked there as an executive. He took me to the club once for lunch after one of the many Cubs games we enjoyed together at Wrigley Field. The waitresses really did wear stiletto heels, silk bunny ears and one-piece suits with a white bunny puff on their behinds. Bill Hickey ordered me a hamburger and a ginger ale that came with a maraschino cherry; I was eight years old.

Mr. Hickey lived down the block from us with his wife and kids. I didn’t know them well, but my sister, Judy, was friends with his oldest daughter, and hung out there sometimes after school. They invited all the families on our small block over to watch the moon landing because they were the only ones with a color TV. He and his wife turned out all the lights and passed out popsicles to everyone as we listened to Walter Cronkite.

When my dad died from an aggressive cancer in the fall of 1967, there was no shortage of men coming over to check on what chores we needed done. We had multiple offers every weekend to mow our lawn, take in the trash, or help my sister or me with homework. My mom was a 32-year-old widow who looked like a cross between Sophia Loren and Cher. She had high cheekbones that could have cut glass and her Persian skin was the shade of a Coppertone bottle. She was careful about which male kindnesses she accepted, and knew that the wives of these men preferred she denied all the help they offered. From my perspective, our little house was filled with so much grief that any company offered a lifeline that I was all too willing to grab onto. My mother was technically there with my sister and me but I worried that if I tried to hug her, I might, pass straight through her body like I had seen in a Casper the Friendly Ghost episode. She was always so quiet. I missed her terribly, mostly when she was right in front of me. And the way I missed my dad had no words.

Bill Hickey had season tickets to Cubs home games, probably a Playboy Club perk, right near their dugout on the 1s base side. I loved baseball, and customarily walked around the neighborhood with my glove on, and a rubber ball, always open for a friend ready to play catch or a nice brick wall to practice my pitching on. I had a Cubs hat I never took off, sometimes even when I was sleeping. Mr. Hickey asked my mom one day if I wanted to go to a game, and I overheard him ask the question.

“Mom, please let me go,” I begged. I wonder now if my mom wondered about Mr. Hickey and what he did for work. Times were different then, I suppose, and she let me go. I don’t think she had a choice once she saw me smiling at the thought of a real ballgame with the Cubs. In the year after we lost my dad, I didn’t smile much. Mr. Hickey took me to my first game, and it was the start of several more in the summer of 1969, the year it looked like the Cubs were headed to the playoffs.

You could practically reach out and touch Ernie Banks from the seats. It was near the end of his career and he had been moved from shortstop to 1st base. He had slowed down a little, but he had an incredible stretch. Ernie often came right over to sign autographs and said hello to all the kids screaming his name before the game started. I loved how happy he looked on the field. Seeing him play, or just stand there, looking so happy, made me feel like crying at first. “I used to feel that way once,” I thought when I saw him. It was unsettling. Then, after a handful of games, I started dreaming about him. No matter what the dream, he would appear in uniform, laughing, taking my hand, sharing a meal, asking a question.

It had been a little over a year since my dad died, and at that point couldn’t picture his face clearly anymore. I kept a small photograph of him tucked under my bed in an envelope. I’d lie in bed, holding it face down, first trying to piece together the image of his face in my mind, first the eyes, then the corners of his mouth, then the exact spot on his forehead where his hairline had receded. After Ernie began entering my dreams, I still took the picture out sometimes, but focused less on only what was lost, what was fading. I didn’t worry at all anymore that I would forget my dad, and started to enjoy what adventures might be possible, which usually included looking forward to another trip to Wrigley, another name in my autograph book, Ron Santo clicking his heels when the Cubs won, the ivy, the bleacher bums. And Ernie Banks. Always, Ernie Banks.

Two years later, a man came around who would eventually become my stepfather. He liked baseball too, so I figured we’d have something in common. Terry said he had almost made the major leagues as a star pitcher in a rural Ohio high school, but the reason he got passed over wasn’t all that credible. The scout who was supposed to come see him play on the day he pitched a no-hitter had gone to the wrong field, where another pitcher was somehow even more astonishing. It took the scout two months to even realize he had seen the wrong player, and by that time, he was satisfied with the prospect he had. I never quite understood why that scout didn’t come back to see Terry play. It’s not like pitchers who knew how to shave the corners and throw heat were a dime a dozen. Terry’s baseball career disappeared, and for no reason. There was no career-ending injury, no tryouts, no draft. According to Terry, the scout simply hadn’t shown up, and that was that.

As a fan of the Cubs in the early 1970s, I well understood that sometimes being the best means very little in the end, so I took Terry at his word. Even today, if you ask any Cubs fan which was the best team to ever take the field, we don’t hesitate. Forget about the Yankees of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, the Big Red Machine, or even the Red Sox back around 100 years ago when the Babe helped them win three World Series. No, for us, it was the 1969 Cubs, no question. That season, my summer of baseball with Mr. Hickey, is arguably the best team that ever played. Sure, the Cubs didn’t win a World Series; they didn’t even get into the playoffs, but they would have won it all if it hadn’t been for the month of August and a young pitcher named Tom Seaver who led his team, the Mets, on a rout of the National League East.

I knew my stepfather wasn’t a Cubs fan yet, but he knew baseball, and I hoped I could persuade him. The Cleveland Indians, the club closest to his hometown, hadn’t been good for decades. Why not take a look at the Cubs? Ernie Banks had a smile no one could resist, I knew that much personally. Terry could be convinced to cherish my team, sit and watch a ballgame or two, and maybe even shag some flies with me, if I just worked on him a little. My pitching and fielding were better than most boys, and I could talk baseball with the best of them.

I had a secret belief that the World Series would be ours before the decade was out. We’d own the 70s, win a few Series and start a dynasty. Every fall my disappointment only made me look forward more to the next season.

I didn’t love the Cubs because they always lost and had to figure out how to start over; I loved them because they were overdue for some joy and I knew that when you’ve suffered, it’s just so much sweeter when triumph actually arrives.

In 2016, there was no shortage of Cubs fans opining about what the team meant to them and how they cried, wept even, when the Cubbies finally won the World Series. Fans told countless stories about watching the Cubs with parents or grandparents, who never lived to see a Series victory. Cemeteries in Chicago were filled with Cubs memorabilia and quickly fading headlines of Cubs Win, Cubs Win!

During the 2016 World Series, I watched with no worries, even when the Cubs were down 3 games to 1. When Ernie Banks died in 2015, I knew the Cubs were on their way. “You watch,” I told my wife, “They’ll win this year or next.” I had no doubt Ernie could still work magic, and help heal broken hearts, like he did mine, a girl without a father, who rarely smiled outside a view of Banks and first base, and of course the old ivy in the distance.

I imagined him now up in heaven whispering in God’s ear:  “ It’s really time, don’t you think? Let’s give the fans a little overdue treat shall we?”

And then he smiled.

Michelle Bowdler is a recipient of a 2017 Barbara Deming Memorial Award for non-fiction and will be a Fellow at Ragdale this winter.  She has been published in the New York Times and has two essays in an upcoming book tentatively entitled:  In Her Own Words: Voices from the 2017 Women’s Resistance Movement (McFarland 2018) .  She is a recent alum of the Grub Street Memoir Incubator in Boston.

Image Credit: “19970905 13 Wrigley Field” by David Wilson. Licensed via a Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution License.