Effervescent Banks glad to see Ripken break homer record for shortstops

February 10, 1994|By John Steadman

It came after the fact, almost seven months late, but in no way does the record require an accompanying footnote. What the bottom line tells us is that Cal Ripken Jr. has accounted for more home runs than any shortstop who ever played the game, going back to 1839, which wasn't exactly yesterday.

His totals surpass the previous high, the 277 accounted for by Ernie Banks when he was establishing Hall of Fame offensive credentials while playing the position defensively with impeccable precision.

Before Banks, there were shortstops with substantial power -- Joe Cronin, 170 home runs; Harold "Pee Wee" Reese, 126; Honus Wagner, 101. Ripken left them in his wake.

Banks' overall homer count with the Chicago Cubs reached 512, but 235 of them came when he was being used at first base. In the purity of record-keeping, Ripken surpassed Banks as baseball's leading home run-hitting shortstop on July 15, 1993, but the historical significance was overlooked.

It wasn't until the mid-winter blues had set in, a cold day, Feb. 9, 1994, to be specific, when the record was revealed in its true context by Rick Vaughn, the Orioles' public relations director. Ernie Banks, ever-accommodating, even showed up here to hand a ceremonial Louisville Slugger bat, suitably engraved, to Ripken to mark the occasion.

"Sometimes individual accomplishments embarrass me a little bit," remarked Ripken.

Before he spoke, Banks sounded like what he is -- the No. 1 fan of Cal Ripken Jr., maybe even the self-proclaimed president of the Ripken Marching & Chowder Society. "I'm sincerely happy he broke my record," he said. "I'm asking for a standing ovation for the all-time shortstop home run king."

There's a marked difference in the swings of the two shortstops. Banks was a crack-the-whip type wrist hitter; Ripken is more of a sweeper who generates power from his arms and shoulders. They also have personalities that contrast -- Banks is outgoing, Ripken more introverted. A silent warrior.

Banks is talkative, affable, a life-of-the-party type who is eager to please and something of a walking-around billboard for advocating the positive aspects of baseball. Every day he came to the ballpark provided him with an emotional high.

When Ernie made his celebrated comment, "Let's play two," it was 1969, a steamy July day in Chicago.

"I came in the locker room before the game," he recalled. "The team was a little lethargic because of the temperature. It was over 100 degrees. So I just hollered out, 'Let's play two.' The late Jim Enright, sportswriter for the old Chicago American, a wonderful guy, quoted it in the newspaper and it stuck."

Then Banks, as he was recollecting and philosophizing, sang a line from "Take Me Out To The Ball Game", the part that says, "buy me some peanuts and crackerjacks and I don't care if I never get back." That's what baseball is all about, he said, "especially when you sing, 'I don't care if I never get back'."

Banks, whose personality beams even when the weather is bleak, is perpetually animated.

"You don't look at baseball as making money," he said. "It's doing something you like. You enjoy it. I was talking with my mother the other day. She's 82, bless her. We agree we're living in a time of too much negativity. Life can be so much better if you never allow yourself to deal in negative thoughts."

This is a man who invariably sees the glass as half-full, not half-empty. In observing Ripken he's watching a player who controls his emotions. He does the job, makes the same all-out effort and refuses to become impressed with the records his performances may achieve.

"Right there is the secret of Cal," insisted Banks. "He loves what he's doing. And he goes and does it. He forgets criticism. He puts action before talk.

"Cal keeps it simple. I'm not a psychologist or a psychiatrist, but he goes out every game and does all he can to make the Orioles win. That's his goal. When you approach it that way the records just happen."

Now Ripken is gaining on the ghost of Lou Gehrig and the longevity mark of 2,130 consecutive games, all at first base. Ripken at shortstop, which is more demanding, enters the 1994 season with a total of 1,897 games in a row.

Banks says Ripken will break that, too, because of his basic perspective -- focusing on just one game at a time and ultimately scaling the peak of the mountain.

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