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Baseball mourns passing of Ernie Banks

CHICAGO — To Chicago Cubs fans, Ernie Banks was sunshine that cut through decades of darkness. To baseball players, he was the spirit of the game.

His teammates loved him, and his list of admirers ranged from Barack Obama to Pearl Jam to athletes all over the sports world.

And they all got the same person, all the time.

"Ernie was exactly what you saw," said Don Kessinger, a shortstop who played with Banks in the 1960s. "He was a great ballplayer, a great teammate and a great friend."

What everyone saw included 512 home runs during a 19-year career that put him in the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. But perhaps more importantly, what everyone appreciated was "Mr. Cub," an always positive attitude that sparked a steady stream of tributes after Banks' death Friday night at age 83.

"I know he was Mr. Cub, but he was really Mr. Baseball," White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf said. "He was really a great, great ambassador for the game."

A makeshift memorial outside Wrigley Field on Saturday included flowers, an Ernie Banksbobblehead and pictures of the slugger with fans. A No. 14 jersey was draped over one part of a small fence with the inscription "'Let's play two'" — the iconic saying he was known for — and then "Not without you" written under his trademark line.

Another small green sign read "Say 'Holy Cow' to Harry and Ron for us," referring to broadcaster Harry Caray's famous saying and Ron Santo, another former Cubs player and broadcaster who passed away in 2010.

"He was the franchise," said Jim Banach, 53, a lifelong Cubs fan who grew on the South Side of Chicago.

Linda O'Brien, 54, a pharmacy tech from nearby Oak Lawn, said she met Banks a couple of times.

"He was just so nice," she said. "The one time when I got his autograph at the Cubs convention, he was making everybody do exercises in line. I thought that was pretty funny."

The Cubs will certainly spend the upcoming season honoring Banks, right from the start. The 2015 major league opener is at Wrigley Field, a Sunday night game on April 5 against St. Louis.

In a statement, Obama and first lady Michelle Obama expressed their condolences "to the family of Ernie Banks, and to every Chicagoan and baseball fan who loved him." The president said Banks became known as much for his optimism and love of the game as his home runs and back-to-back National League MVPs.

"He was beloved by baseball fans everywhere, including Michelle, who, when she was a girl, used to sit with her dad and watch him play on TV," Obama said. "And in 2013, it was my honor to present Ernie with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

"Somewhere, the sun is shining, the air is fresh, his team's behind him, and Mr. Class — "Mr. Cub" — is ready to play two."

Hall of Fame umpire Doug Harvey said Banks was equally positive around umps. Banks, in fact, never was ejected from a game.

"He wasn't a griper. Never complained about a strike or an out or a call," Harvey told The Associated Press. "Some guys would turn their heads after a pitch and look at you like you were nuts. Not Ernie. It was always, 'Isn't this a great day to be alive and playing baseball?'"

Banks was playing for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues when the Cubs discovered him in 1953, and purchased his contract for $10,000. He made his major league debut at shortstop on Sept. 17 that year — he was the Cubs' first black player — and three days later hit his first home run.

One of Banks' biggest influences was Buck O'Neil, a former player and manager in the Negro Leagues who had a hand in the slugger joining the Cubs. O'Neil, who died in 2006, helped prepare Banks for the racism that some of the first black players encountered in the majors.

"They all seemed to have that innate ability to not allow those experiences to harden their hearts, and an uncanny ability to love universally," said Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. "And Ernie got that. I think he got a lot of that from Buck O'Neil."

Banks was a perennial All-Star, but never reached the postseason and retired in 1971. The Cubs finished below .500 in all but six of his seasons and remain without a pennant since 1945.

Like Banks, Hall of Famer Al Kaline made his big league debut in 1953 and played his first All-Star game in 1955. Kaline reached his only World Series in 1968, leading the Tigers to the title.

Soon after, he got a telegram from Banks.

"He knew he was running out of time to get to the World Series. He knew I had played a lot of years, too," Kaline, now 80, told the AP on Saturday. "I didn't know him well then, but he understood what it meant to get there later in your career. He congratulated me on becoming a world champion.

"He played on a lot of good teams, not a lot of great ones. Those fans in Chicago, they loved him. They never got to see a World Series, but they can always say they got to see the greatErnie Banks."