Ernie Banks had a brief brush with Chicago politics.
  • Jim Prisching/AP Photo
  • Ernie Banks had a brief brush with Chicago politics.

To read the outpouring of heart-felt grief over the passing of the great Ernie Banks, you might be surprised to learn that, when given a chance, voters in the Eighth Ward wouldn’t elect him alderman.

This is true. But before I delve into the details, let me set the scene.

The year was 1963, and Banks was 32 years old and playing for a typically dreadful Cubs team that was best known for using a “college of coaches,” as opposed to a single manager, to run the club.

Banks was running as a Republican, not as odd as it sounds. There were lots of black Republicans back then—at least more than we have today. Even the great Jackie Robinson was a Republican.

The Eighth Ward was centered in and around the Chatham neighborhood—Banks lived at 8159 S. Rhodes—which was then starting to change from white to black.

The incumbent, James A. Condon, was a white man, and Mayor Richard J. Daley (different Daley, youngsters) was under pressure to replace Condon with a black candidate.

But, generally speaking, Mayor Daley—who was also boss of the Democratic Party—had a formula for racially changing wards: he stayed with the white flunky till the ward was almost 100 percent black. Then he brought in a black flunky.

Flunky being the key part of that formula.

Banks was recruited to run in December of 1962, while he was on vacation in California, by a local aide to former U.S. Senator Everett Dirksen.

But by the time, Banks had returned to Chicago from vacation, he’d already been double crossed. As another faction of the local Republicans had lined up to support a guy named Gerald Gibbons.

“Politics is a strange business,” Banks told reporters. “They can strike you out before you get a turn at bat.”

Truer words were never spoken.

“I’m in this with or without the support of the Republican Eight Ward organization,” Banks continued. “I intend to win.”

Not everyone was impressed with Banks’s candidacy.

Tribune gossip columnist Herb Lyon wisecracked, “Ernie Banks can’t lose in his race for alderman, if he can just get all the Cubs coaches to vote for him.”

Not a bad line, actually.

And Mayor Daley said: “Ernie Banks is a great athlete and a good ballplayer. But this is a question for the people of the Eighth Ward.”

Translation: Stick to baseball, Ernie!

And 24th Ward alderman Ben Lewis said: “He’s a major league ballplayer, but he’s a minor leaguer as far as politics is concerned.”

This is the same Ben Lewis who—just a few months later—was found in handcuffs, dead on the floor of his west-side ward office, killed gangland style, with three bullets to the head.

Police never charged anyone with the murder, though there’s no shortage of theories as to why he was killed. As one cop told the Tribune: “[Lewis] was defrauding people right and left in his insurance company. He was an embezzler. That guy had a broad for every night of the week.”

Sorry for that tangent. But I find it hard not to digress when writing about Alderman Lewis.

As the campaign wore on, Banks’s biggest challenge was convincing voters that he would not shortchange them with his day job, which, come to think of it, would be taking him to Arizona for spring training just a few weeks after the election.

Banks promised to hire a “trained staff to handle ward matters” while he was on road trips. And he vowed to do what he could to promote “youth athletics” and “combat juvenile delinquency.”

He opened a campaign headquarters at 79th and Cottage Grove. And came up with a snappy slogan: “Put a slugger in City Hall.”

Alas, he got swamped—winning only 2,028 votes to Condon’s 9,296.

In retrospect, his chances were about as hopeless as the team he played for.

He was a black Republican running in a largely white, though racially changing, Democratic ward without the backing of Mayor Daley. All in all, a series of obstacles that even the universally beloved Mr. Cub could not overcome.

But let’s look on the bright side . . .

Ernie’s nemesis—Cubs manager Leo Durocher—once opined that “nice guys finish last.”

For the record, Banks—one of the nicest guys Chicago’s ever seen—didn’t finish last. He finished third, ahead of a fourth candidate named Coleman Holt.

And, of course, he’ll be remembered long after all the other candidates in that race have been forgotten.