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Baseball great Ernie Banks dead at 83

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CHICAGO – The next time Ernie Banks plays two — as he liked to say, feeling one baseball game a day wasn’t enough — it will be in the diamond in the sky.

The former Negro League upstart turned Cubs legend turned favorite son of Chicago died Friday in the Illinois city, family attorney Mark Bogen said.

Banks was 83.

“His death was not expected,” said Bogen.

Banks’ family has scheduled a new conference for Sunday. Until then, the condolences and tributes are pouring in.

Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts described Banks as “one of the greatest players of all time.”

“Words cannot express how important Ernie Banks will always be to the Chicago Cubs, the city of Chicago and Major League Baseball,” Ricketts said. “… He was a pioneer in the major leagues. And more importantly, he was the warmest and most sincere person I’ve ever known.”

“Approachable, ever optimistic and kindhearted, Ernie Banks is and always will be Mr. Cub.”

The thing is, Banks wasn’t just a great baseball player, but a great champion for his sport and adopted city. The Windy City’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, called him “one of Chicago’s greatest ambassadors.”

Emanuel said, “He loved this city as much as he loved — and lived for — the game of baseball.”

And baseball loved him back — not just for the player he was, but the man he was.

This sentiment was evident on social media, with one man writing, “I’ve heard a lot of Ernie Banks stories in my life, a lot. But not one of them showed him in a negative way. ” One person tweeted that, like the recently departed Stan Musial, Banks was “never too big for fans.”

“Mr. Cub will play 2 today,” wrote another man. He’s with the Angels now and hopefully he’ll get a ring.”

From the Negro Leagues to the Major League

That message alluded to the fact that Banks, despite all his stellar play over his career, never earned a World Series ring. In fact, the last time the Cubs won baseball’s ultimate prize was 1908.

But you’d never know it from Banks’ omnipresent smile.

He became the Chicago franchise’s first black player in 1953. That happened three years after the Dallas native started his professional career in the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs, then spent two years in the Army.

After appearing in a few games his first Major League season, Banks very quickly became one of the Cubs top players.

The first baseman’s accomplishments piled up along the way: 2,583 hits, 11 National League All-Star selections, two the league’s Most Valuable Player and 512 home runs, including five seasons hitting more than 40 homers.

And in 1977, six years after his last at-bat, Banks was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

‘Nice guys finish last’ — except for Banks

It’s no wonder, then, that he was voted the “Greatest Cub Ever” in a 1969 Chicago Sun-Times fan poll. After all, he was known both as “Mr. Cub” and “Mr. Sunshine.”

Hall-of-Fame manager Leo Durocher, who was known for saying “Nice guys finish last,” made an exception for Banks.

“Banks is one nice guy who finished first — but he had the talent to go with it,” Durocher said.

And this from sportswriter Arthur Daley: “He rejoices merely in living, and baseball is a marvelous extra that makes his existence so much more pleasurable.”

In 2013, Banks was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

“To have this award passed on to me is certainly a great joy,” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “It’s something I’ll never forget.”

And it left an impression on the President and First Lady Michelle Obama too.

In a White House statement, Obama noted how Banks — who made $7 a day coming up through the Negro Leagues — never lost “his cheer, his optimism, and his love of the game.”

“He was beloved by baseball fans everywhere,” Obama said, “including Michelle, who, when she was a girl, used to sit with her dad and watch him play on TV.”

TM & © 2015 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

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