I met Ernie Banks while I was executive vice president of casino operations for the Frontier Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas in the mid 1980s. During my tenure there, it was under the control of the Summa Corporation, which was the company managing the holdings of the late Howard Hughes. For those of you looking to find the Frontier, good luck, for it was torn down many years ago, to be replaced by someone’s dream, and that dream was crushed by the financial trauma of the Great Recession and never became a reality.
The details of how I met Ernie have escaped me, but he did become involved in our marketing efforts at the Frontier. We would fly him out on occasion during our golf tournaments, and he would help host our golfing guests. We also had a few commissioned marketing representatives in the city of Chicago, and our databases were occupied by a fair sample of good players from the area, and so we would have different functions in that city to maintain our loyalty with these players. One of these functions involved renting a boat called the Star of Chicago, docked at the Navy Pier, and we did an early evening cruise along the shores of Lake Michigan. The Star had three enclosed floors including a bandstand and dance floor, areas dedicated to bars, and serving areas for hors d’oeuvres. Our luck on this venture was amazing, for the weather was absolutely perfect, and many people would savor the incredible views of the city and warmth of the air from the outer decks.
Ernie attended this function in the company of his wonderful wife Marjorie. The two of them stood at the gang plank welcoming our guests, with Ernie handing a long-stemmed rose to each of the women guests, often accompanied with a polite hug, and he robustly shook the hand of any hand that was offered. I would stand near Ernie during these welcoming processions and I was always fascinated by the look on the faces of the guests. These were people who had earned their invitation to the party because they gambled, and they gambled big. This generally implied that they had proven fairly successful at their chosen field and were somewhat accustomed to being treated as if they were important. But the look on their faces as they were about to meet Ernie mirrored the excitement of a child about to meet Santa. In short, they were awestruck, and often brought along baseballs or programs for Ernie to sign. And sign away Ernie did, treating the 200th guest with the same patience, respect, and importance as the first. One thing I always noted about Ernie at these events was that he was having a great time. If there was ever a man that gave the impression of thoroughly loving life, and enjoying the company of other people, it was Ernie. He was the consummate host, and what was ironic about that was that he was not really hosting, but just doing what he always did, making the absolute best out of every moment.
When the Frontier would be involved with a golf event in Las Vegas, we would always invite Ernie. As I recall the basic offering was a RFB comp, airfare, and a bit of walking about money for he and Marjorie. There was never an agent or manager involved. I don’t remember ever signing anything more that a short letter agreement stating the deal points. Ernie was certainly not doing this for the money. He was just doing it for the joy of doing of it. He would not only play in the tournament, but in a practice round before the event, normally involving some of our better players. In the morning we would meet under the porte cochere at the hotel to load into the limo and head to the course, and whenever I would get there Ernie would already be waiting with his clubs, laughing and scratching, as we used to say, with the bell staff and valet parkers, waiting for the rest of us to arrive. And again, Ernie was full of good cheer and humor throughout the round of golf. At the social functions surrounding the tournament Ernie was always actively engaged with our invited guests, telling them to “let’s play two!” a reference to his claim that his favorite days were when the Cubs had a doubleheader and he could look forward to playing two baseball games in one day. When the formal function was over, he would go into the public areas of the casino to meet people and just say hello. Ernie Banks had this absolutely amazing ability to infect his immediate area with fun and excitement, and to make people feel significant, and he did it all of the time.
During one of the summers of my tenure with the Frontier, I needed to be in Chicago to handle a bit of business. I had sent Ernie a letter mentioning that I would be in town, and he called and said to contact him when I arrived. I followed his instructions and we ended up meeting at a bench overlooking Lake Michigan during a warm and beautiful day in Chicago. Neither of us had an agenda, we just got together to visit and enjoy each other’s company. What amazed me about this visit was that he was asking most of the questions about me. Here is one of the most famous men in baseball history, a man that was forced to enter the sport through what were known as the Negro Leagues, and who had as amazing a career as one could possibly have, and he spent most of our time together asking about my life. This was Ernie Banks doing exactly what he did with everyone I ever saw him meet.
If anyone reading this has come to the conclusion that I was a close and/or important friend of Ernie Banks, they have missed the point, for that is not true. I was but a very small speck of light in a cascade of brightness that defined his amazing career and life.
Celebrities and athletes have always been a part of the fabric of the casino environment throughout its history. Of recent years, we have heard of the exploits of Ray Rice, John Daly and Charles Barkley within the casino context. And I suspect that these are interesting and important stories. I would suggest, however, that there is none more important than Ernie’s story with Las Vegas; a story that I had the great good fortune to be a part of. Ernie Banks died yesterday, yet somehow I am totally convinced that today he is figuring out a way to play two.