“Play It Again, Ernie”
A Baseball Mystery
Excerpted from The Cubs: The Complete Story of Chicago Cubs Baseball. Text by Glenn Stout. Photos selected and edited by Richard A. Johnson. With essays by Rick Telander, John Schulian, Penny Marshall, Scott Turow, William Nack, Mike Royko and Richard Johnson. Published October 1, 2007 by Houghton Mifflin.
If it is not the best-known quote in all baseball, it is close. Ernie Banks and the phrase “Let’s play two” are instantly identifiable. The statement embodies both the simple joy of the game and Banks’s unique, indomitable, and optimistic spirit.
So, then, when did Ernie first say it? Surely the origination of baseball’s most famous quote must be documented somewhere, right?
Not so fast.
Banks himself has told at least four different stories detailing the first time he used the phrase. In a 2006 interview for a book with author Alan Schwarz, Banks said, “It was Tuesday, July 18, 1967—at 10:25 a.m. Central Standard Time. I know because it was one of the turning moments of my life. . . . It was about 105 degrees that day, and as I walked into our locker room, my Cubs teammates were really worn down. But I was feeling so great. So lucky. I was getting paid to do something I loved. So I walked in the locker room and I said, ‘Boy, it’s a beautiful day—let’s play two!’ Everybody kind of raised up and looked at me. They were saying to themselves, ‘This guy is crazy. . . .’ A few weeks later in the locker room, a writer in Chicago wrote about it, and it’s really stuck to me ever since. I love it—it’s become a part of me.” Banks also told Schwarz that “I actually had almost said it a few weeks before. On July 2, we beat the Reds behind Fergie Jenkins 4-to-1 to move into a tie for first place. There were almost 40,000 people in Wrigley Field having such a great time. They raised the flag when we went into the tie for first place, and people were standing up and cheering. They didn’t want to leave the park. It was so joyful, I said to myself, ‘Boy, we should play two today.’”
However, in his foreword to a book entitled The Golden Age of Baseball (Publications International, 2003), Banks wrote: “People always ask about ‘Let’s play two.’ It happened on July 3, 1969. The temperature was over 100 degrees. The team was tired and we hadn’t even played yet. I looked around, scanning the solemn faces of my teammates. It was just like a wake or something. And then, it just came out: ‘Let’s play two!’ A couple writers wrote it down and it stuck.”
That story, at least, is more or less in line with Banks’s response when Michael Craig of Salon.com asked him in 2000: “When was the very first time you ever said, ‘Let’s play two?’” Banks responded simply, “July 1969.” He told Carrie Muskat the same thing when he spoke to her for her book From Banks to Sandberg to Grace published in 2002.
But a different account emerged when Banks was interviewed on July 10, 1990, by Chicago Tribune sportswriter Bill Jauss about his memories of the All-Star Game. “Ernie Banks has little trouble picking out his highlighting in thirteen All-Star games,” wrote Jauss in the Tribune story entitled “’60 Game Is Banks Favorite.” He then quoted Banks, who said, “In the [first] 1960 game in Kansas City, I was back in the town where I’d started out with the Kansas City Monarchs. It was hot, about 110 degrees, and before the game I told Jack Quinlan, the broadcaster, ‘Let’s play two today!’” Banks then hit a home run in the first inning to help the NL to a 5–3 win in the first of two All-Star Games played in 1960.
However, on October 7, 1984, Banks was in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for a card convention. Reporter Bob Hersom of the Daily Oklahoman also asked Banks when he first used the phrase. This time Banks claimed that he first uttered the phrase at Wrigley Field on opening day of the 1969 season. Banks told Hersom, “It was such a glorious day, and baseball is a revitalization of people’s lives. When the season opener comes around there’s flowers and sunshine and fresh air and ivy and friendship. I mean, this is the beginning of people’s lives.
“In Chicago, everyone knows the weather is a little tough in the winter. It’s cloudy, it’s raining, people are working and their lives become very dull. The baseball season means a new beginning for people’s lives and when the season opened in 1969 it was about 55 degrees there, we were playing the Phillies and I came out and naturally everybody was around because it was opening day and I said, ‘Boy, it’s such a beautiful day. Let’s play two games today,’ and the writers picked it up.”
So which version is correct? Advances in technology and text retrieval now make it possible to search millions and millions of pages from thousands of newspapers, books, and magazines to try to track down the first published use of the phrase by Banks. Although not all Chicago newspapers are available in such formats, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Daily Herald are available in various formats virtually in their entirety. The Chicago Sun-Times is available from 1988 to the present, and portions of a number of suburban dailies are also accessible.
A comprehensive search of every available source only deepens the mystery. The first time Banks was quoted as saying, “Let’s play two,” was, apparently, March 14, 1969. A syndicated story by Ron Sons credited to the Chicago Daily News Service entitled “Banks Majors’ Happiest Warrior” was sent nationwide and widely reprinted in a number of newspapers. In the story, Sons interviewed Banks at spring training and detailed his offseason training regimen. The story ends, “Then he trots back on the field to take the one more exercise or that one more lap of running to win his personal fight for another day. And he hollers to anyone who will listen: ‘Let’s play two games today. It’s too nice a day for just one.’”
Clearly, the story Banks told to Salon.com and provided for The Golden Age of Baseball and the Daily Oklahoman is incorrect, for not only does the use of the phrase in Sons’s story predate Banks’s claims that he first used the phrase on either opening day of the 1969 season or in July 1969, but the appearance of the quotation at the end of the story suggests that it is already familiar to readers and presumably had appeared before in some other source. That may well be true, but it is also interesting to note that the phrase was apparently not yet part of baseball’s popular lexicon. It seems not to have appeared in print again until Banks was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, when Dave Anderson of the New York Times quoted Banks as saying, “Let’s play two,” in a widely distributed and reprinted column published on January 20, 1977, entitled “It Was Always a Beautiful Day for Ernie.” When Banks was inducted into the Hall on August 9, a number of stories about him published at the time included the phrase, which also made its initial appearance in the Chicago Tribune. Had it been widely familiar before this date, one must assume that it would have appeared in the Tribune and other sources on numerous occasions. This is not the case. Not until Banks was inducted into the Hall of Fame did the phrase regularly appear in print.
So, then, when did Banks first utter those words? Was it on “Tuesday, July 18, 1967—at 10:25 a.m.,” as he told Schwarz, or, as he told Bill Jauss, before the first All-Star Game in Kansas City in 1960, played on July 11? At first, owing to the specificity of Banks’s memory, the 1967 date seems most plausible. A check of the records reveals that the Cubs were in fact in Chicago on that date, playing the Atlanta Braves.
However, Banks also states that it was “about 105 degrees that day.” But it was not 105 degrees that day. In fact, it wasn’t even hot, which calls Banks’s recollection into question. Weather records from the Chicago Tribune note that the expected high on July 18, 1967, was only eighty-two degrees, and at 10:00 a.m. it was expected to be only seventy-five—not a particularly warm day for Chicago in midsummer.
What, then, of the 1960 All-Star Game in Kansas City, played on July 11? A check of the record book reveals that, in fact, the game was played during the daytime, and while it was not “about 110 degrees,” the expected high in Kansas City that day was ninety-two, and press reports of the game refer to the oppressive heat and blinding sun, giving credence to Banks’s account as told to Jauss.
Several more factors tilt the truth toward that day in Kansas City. Broadcaster Jack Quinlan, who did play-by-play for Cubs games on WGN radio, would normally have no reason to be at the All-Star Game, but according to Curt Smith’s history of baseball broadcasting, Voices of the Game, beginning in 1960 Quinlan did play-by-play for NBC radio, including the 1960 World Series and, presumably, the All-Star Game. In fact, Banks even told Jauss that it was Quinlan’s first All-Star Game broadcast. He may well have been correct.
Perhaps more significant is that when Banks told the broadcaster, “Let’s play two today,” he may not have been speaking figuratively but was referring to a specific situation. From 1959 through 1962, there were two All-Star Games each year. In 1960 the first game was played in Kansas City and the second two days later at Yankee Stadium. One can well imagine Ernie Banks, standing in the Kansas City heat, talking to a familiar broadcaster and saying, “Let’s play two today,” as an expression not of joy but of resignation, as in, “Let’s get these two All-Star Games over with today.” Quinlan, who is no longer living, presumably then referred to the story in his broadcast, perhaps slightly changing its intent, or a reporter overheard the exchange and repeated it somewhere in print, losing the emphasis on the final word and recasting its meaning from a mild complaint to an eager request, one that unintentionally expressed Banks’s sunny personality and resonated with fans.
Or perhaps Banks himself, consciously or not, simply filed the phrase away and began using it more or less regularly, perhaps on July 18, 1967, or July 3, 1969, or a hundred times before or a thousand times after. In the end, it hardly matters, for even if Banks himself does not recall the circumstances surrounding the first time he uttered those words, or even if he never uttered them at all, the sentiment represented by the way the phrase is used today is all that really matters.