I once had a memorable meeting with a baseball legend: Ernie Banks. He starred as a shortstop and first baseman for the Chicago Cubs between 1953 and 1971, was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and named to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team. He was a National League All-Star and Most Valuable Player. Shortstops generally don’t hit a lot of home runs, but Banks’ 277 home runs were a career record for that position. He finished his career with 512 home runs.
Banks was known for his catchphrase, “It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame, let’s play two!” wishing for a doubleheader every day, out of his love of baseball.
His nicknames were “Mr. Cub” and “Mr. Sunshine.” If you see a photo of Ernie Banks, the first thing you notice is his radiant smile.
I was on a Hewlett-Packard business trip to the San Francisco Bay area in 1984, and after work decided to go to a baseball card convention. The autograph guest was supposed to be Willie McCovey, a San Francisco Giants star, but he couldn’t make it.
At the last minute, the show promoters managed to get Ernie Banks to be the autograph guest. Most people attending the show were disappointed. I’m sure a lot of them had brought items for Willie to sign — cards, hats and so forth — that didn’t pertain to a Cubs player. Plus, a Cubs star wasn’t as big of a deal in the Bay Area as a Giants star.
For me, though, having a legend like Ernie was a big step up.
The autograph line was very short, and after about 20 minutes the line was gone and Ernie was sitting all by himself, feet propped up on the autograph table. I felt sorry for him — a seemingly forgotten star.
Then Ernie began singing. He had a nice voice, but none of the astonished show attendees joined in. He sang for perhaps half an hour, big smile on his face, feet still propped up on the table.
I decided to go over and talk with him, but not about baseball. I had read an in-flight magazine on the plane down to San Francisco, and coincidentally one of the articles I read was about Ernie Banks. But it wasn’t about Ernie’s storied baseball career; it focused on his new career in banking.
OK, “Banks in banks” sounds like I’m making this up, but I swear it’s true. I thought, “I bet no one ever asks Ernie about banking, just baseball. I’ll surprise Ernie by asking him about banking.”
So I did, and Ernie lit up like a Christmas tree. Expecting that he would just be a famous figure-head for his bank, I was stunned by Ernie’s knowledge and love of banking. He was very excited to talk about it. It was like a dam had burst.
After a while, Ernie asked, “Dan, what do you do?”
I told him I worked for HP and was on a business trip to meet with experts regarding total quality control. Again, Ernie surprised me. He knew a lot about HP, as well as a lot about total quality control. Ernie was definitely not a stereotypical jock. He was extremely smart and had a wide range of interests.
Then Ernie made me an offer: “Dan, I’m going on a business trip to Brazil. Why don’t you come with me? You can be my guest.”
Being relatively new at HP, I told him my company might not like my leaving suddenly to go on a South American jaunt.
“It would be OK, Dan,” Ernie said. “HP has offices in Brazil. We could visit them and talk about TQC.”
I was, once again, stunned. Ernie knew the locations of HP properties in Brazil! However, his plane was supposed to leave the next day and I had meetings scheduled at various HP divisions, so I declined Ernie’s wonderful offer.
I think back on that and wonder, “What if I’d gone with Ernie to Brazil?”
I’ll never know, and it’s one of the few regrets I have. I think HP would’ve understood. Back then, it was a company that almost never fired people. I would have eventually gotten back in everyone’s good graces, although it would have required a fair amount of explaining.
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