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Baseball’s Eternal Optimist

CreditHarold Filan/Associated Press

His death, at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, was announced by Major League Baseball and the Cubs, who did not give a cause. Banks’s fellow Hall of Famer and longtime teammate Billy Williams told that Banks had fallen about a month and half ago, but said he did not have further details.

President Obama and his wife, Michelle, called Banks “an incredible ambassador for baseball, and for the city of Chicago” in a joint statement.

“It’s a beautiful day, let’s play two” became the mantra of the man known as Mr. Cub, a fixture in what he called the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. The most popular Cub ever in a franchise dating to the 1870s, Banks became as much an institution in Chicago as the first Mayor Daley, Studs Terkel, Michael Jordan and George Halas.

Banks cut a slender figure at the plate in his right-handed stance, at 6 feet 1 and 180 pounds, but he whipped a light bat with powerful wrists, hitting 512 home runs. He was named the most valuable player in the National League in 1958 and 1959, the first to win the award in consecutive years, although the Cubs finished tied for fifth place each time. He was an All-Star in 11 seasons and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1977, his first year of eligibility.

Banks became the Cubs’ first black player on Sept. 17, 1953, six years after Jackie Robinson broke the modern major league color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Like Robinson, he had played for the Kansas City Monarchs, one of the Negro leagues’ best-known ball clubs, and when he joined the Cubs, many major league teams were still all white. He was among the first black stars of the modern game, along with Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe of the Dodgers, Larry Doby with the Cleveland Indians, Hank Aaron with the Milwaukee Braves and Monte Irvin and then Willie Mays with the New York Giants.

Banks received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, from Obama in 2013. “I handed the president a bat that belonged to Jackie Robinson,” he told Sports Illustrated the next year. “The president held the bat in his hands — that was a thrill.”

Apart from Banks’s slugging feats, Obama hailed his “cheer and his optimism and his eternal faith that someday the Cubs would go all the way.”

“And that’s serious belief,” Obama added, to laughter. “That is something that even a White Sox fan like me can respect.”

Long after retiring, Banks recalled the sweltering midsummer’s day in 1969 when he bubbled over in a phrase that became his trademark.

“We were in first place, and all the reporters were already in the locker room when I arrived at Wrigley for a game with the Cardinals,” Banks told The Arizona Daily Star. “I walked in and said: ‘Boy, it’s a beautiful day. Let’s play two.’ They all thought I was crazy.”

Banks was the ninth player in major league history to hit 500 home runs, and when he retired after the 1971 season, his 293 home runs as a shortstop and his 47 homers in 1958 were career and single-season records for that position, marks eclipsed by Alex Rodriguez. He appeared in 2,528 games for the Cubs, a record for regular-season appearances by a player who never reached the postseason, playing at shortstop until the early 1960s, when he switched to first base because of leg problems.

Each spring, Banks predicted a pennant for the Cubs, who had not won a World Series since 1908 or a National League title since 1945. But each October he was back at home, most painfully in 1969, the year the Cubs experienced one of baseball’s most memorable collapses when they were overtaken by the Miracle Mets. Through all the losing seasons, he exuded an unbridled joy.

“Ernie was the eternal optimist,” the former Cubs second baseman Glenn Beckert told Peter Golenbock in “Wrigleyville” (1996). “Everything is fine, a great day. You’d go back to Chicago from the nice weather in Arizona. A lot of times we’d open against St. Louis, and when you did that, Bob Gibson was going to be their pitcher. Gray, overcast, 32 degrees in Wrigley, big crowd, start snowing about the sixth inning, and Ernie says: ‘Isn’t this a great day? We’ll keep nice and cool so we don’t get overheated.’ ”

Williams told upon Banks’s death: “He always told Bob Gibson, ‘This guy is going to hit a home run off you today.’ We’d say, ‘Leave Bob Gibson alone.’ ”

Williams said that when he was asked whether Banks was always like that, “I’d say, ‘From the minute he woke up to the minute he went to bed, he’s the same way with a positive attitude and a joy to be around.’ ”

Ernest Banks was born in Dallas on Jan. 31, 1931, one of 12 children of Eddie and Essie Banks. His father, a former semipro player in black leagues in Texas, picked cotton and worked as a janitor in a grocery chain. His mother wanted him to become a minister, like one of his grandfathers.

Banks played softball (there was no baseball team) at Booker T. Washington High School in Dallas as well as football, and he competed in track and field. During his high school summers, he toured with a black semipro baseball team, the Colts, based in Amarillo, Tex.

After graduating from high school in 1950, Banks played one season for the Monarchs, then spent two years in the Army, returned to the Monarchs, and was sold to the Cubs in September 1953 for $10,000.

Another black player, Gene Baker, a slick-fielding shortstop, was called up by the Cubs at the same time after spending four seasons with their Los Angeles team in the Pacific Coast League. Banks became the first black player in a Cubs lineup because Baker was injured.

In his major league debut, Banks was 0 for 3 with an error against the Phillies in a 16-4 loss. But three days later, he hit his first major league homer, at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, off the Cardinals’ Gerry Staley.

Banks became the Cubs’ regular shortstop in 1954, with Baker installed at second base. He hit 19 home runs that season, then emerged as a star in 1955.

Banks had been using a 34-ounce bat, but toward the end of the 1954 season he switched to a 31-ounce model. That helped him handle outside pitches and enabled him to whip the bat, taking advantage of his strong wrists, which he had developed playing handball.

“Everybody believed you had to have a big piece of lumber and then muscle the ball over the fence,” Banks told The Austin American-Statesman in 1994. “But by the time I, and Hank Aaron, another guy who did it with his wrists, were through, there were a lot of guys ordering light bats and playing handball.”

At a time of civil rights struggles in America, Banks ventured few thoughts beyond the baseball world. In his autobiography, “Mr. Cub,” written with Jim Enright (1971), he commented on the perception that as a celebrity, he should have spoken out.

“Some people feel that because you are black you will never be treated fairly, and that you should voice your opinions, be militant about them,” he wrote. “I don’t feel this way. You can’t convince a fool against his will.”

He added, “I don’t think it’s up to black athletes to get involved in political or racial issues.”

Banks set a major league record for grand slam home runs in a season when he hit five in 1955, and he hit more than 40 home runs five times. He led the National League in home runs and in runs batted in twice. He had 2,583 hits, drove in 1,636 runs and had a career batting average of .274.

He set single-season records for fewest errors (12) and best fielding average by a shortstop (.985) in 1959 and he won a Gold Glove award in 1960, his last full season at shortstop.

Banks was a player-coach in the late 1960s with the Cubs, and after his playing career ended, he spent two years as a full-time coach for the team. He later did part-time promotional work for the Cubs. When the team dropped him from that role in June 1983, saying he had missed some scheduled appearances, there was consternation in the Chicago press. “Cubs Snub Mr. Cub,” one headline read.

But the Cubs had Banks back as an honorary member of their 1984 divisional champions when they played the San Diego Padres in the league championship series — and lost.

Banks also served as a corporate spokesman and founded the Ernie Banks Live Above and Beyond Foundation, which raised money for charities.

He was the first player to have his jersey number retired by the Cubs, and his No. 14 flies from the left-field foul pole at Wrigley Field on game days. A statue depicting Banks in his batting stance was unveiled outside the ballpark in 2008. “Let’s Play Two” is inscribed on its base.

Banks was married four times. He and his fourth wife, Liz, who is among his survivors, adopted a newborn girl, Alyna, when he was 77; he had twin sons, Joey and Jerry, and a daughter, Jan, with his second wife, Eloyce. His first three marriages ended in divorce. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

When Banks was elected to the Hall of Fame in January 1977, he talked about his outlook on life:

“I guess my critics say: He must be crazy. Nothing can be that beautiful. But when you think that there are so many people around the world who have nothing, you realize how lucky you are to be making a living in the big leagues. There’s an unbelievable, indescribable love for baseball in Wrigley Field.”




King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in 2007. Credit Dylan Martinez/Reuters

The Royal Court said in a statement broadcast across the kingdom that the king had died early Friday. The royal court did not disclose the exact cause of death. An announcement quoted by the official Saudi Press Agency said the king had a lung infection when he was admitted on Dec. 31 to a Riyadh hospital.

The king’s death adds yet another element of uncertainty in a region already overwhelmed by crises and as Saudi Arabia is itself in a struggle with Iran for regional dominance.

The royal family moved quickly to assure a smooth transition of power in a nation that is a close ally of the United States, the world’s largest exporter of oil and the religious center of the Islamic faith. In a televised statement, a brother of Abdullah, Crown Prince Salman, announced that the king had died and that he had assumed the throne.


Abdullah, left, with Crown Prince Salman, right, in 2010. Salman announced Friday that he had assumed the throne. Credit Saudi Press Agency, via Associated Press

Salman’s ascension appears to signal that the kingdom will preserve its current policies, but he faces exceptional new challenges. Though Saudi Arabia has traditionally preferred to push its agenda through checkbook diplomacy, it has taken a far more muscular approach since the Arab Spring, offering generous support to its allies, like Egypt, while working to oppose adversaries like President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Even as the drop in the price of oil has depleted its own treasury, it has steadfastly refused to cut the supply, hoping to increase market share at the expense of adversaries that are less able to pump oil at low prices.

“As our countries worked together to confront many challenges, I always valued King Abdullah’s perspective and appreciated our genuine and warm friendship,” President Obama said in a statement issued by the White House. “As a leader, he was always candid and had the courage of his convictions.”

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. announced that he was to lead the American delegation “to pay our respects and offer condolences.”

Accidents of birth and geology made Abdullah one of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful men. In control of a fifth of the world’s known petroleum reserves, he traveled to medical appointments abroad in a fleet of jumbo jets, and the changes he wrought in Saudi society were fueled by gushers of oil money.

As king he also bore the title of custodian of Islam’s holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, making him one of the faith’s most important figures.

Abdullah had grown accustomed to the levers of power long before his ascension to the throne in August 2005. After his predecessor, King Fahd, a half brother, had a stroke in November 1995, Abdullah, then the crown prince, ruled in the king’s name.

Yet Abdullah spoke as plainly as the Bedouin tribesmen with whom he had been sent to live in his youth. He refused to be called “your majesty” and discouraged commoners from kissing his hand. He shocked the 7,000 or so Saudi princes and princesses by cutting their allowances. He was described as ascetic, or as ascetic as someone in the habit of renting out entire hotels could be.

Abdullah’s reign was a constant effort to balance desert traditions with the demands of the modern world, making him appear at times to be shifting from one to the other.

When popular movements and insurgencies overthrew or threatened long-established Arab rulers from Tunisia to Yemen in 2011, he reacted swiftly.

On his return from three months of treatment for a herniated disk and a blood clot in New York and Morocco, his government spent $130 billion to build 500,000 units of low-income housing, to bolster the salaries of government employees and to ensure the loyalty of religious organizations.

He also created a Facebook page, where citizens were invited to present their grievances directly to him, although it was not known how many entries actually reached him.

But in at least two telephone calls he castigated President Obama for encouraging democracy in the Middle East, saying it was dangerous. And he showed no tolerance for the sort of dissent unfolding elsewhere.

The grand mufti, the kingdom’s highest religious official, proclaimed that Islam forbade street protests. Scores of protesters who failed to heed that message were arrested in the chiefly Shiite eastern provinces. A new law imposed crippling fines for offenses, like threatening national security, that could be broadly interpreted. Reaching beyond his borders, Abdullah sent tanks to help quell an uprising in neighboring Bahrain.

Moves of Moderation

President George W. Bush escorting Abdullah, then the crown prince, to Mr. Bush’s private office on his ranch in April 2005. Credit Pool photo by Rod Aydelotte

Still, Abdullah became, in some ways, a force of moderation. He contested Al Qaeda’s militant interpretations of the faith as justifying, even compelling, terrorist acts. He ordered that textbooks be purged of their most extreme language and sent 900 imams to re-education sessions. He had hundreds of militants arrested and some beheaded.

But he was also mindful that his family had, since the 18th century, derived its authority from an alliance with the strict Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam. He accordingly made only modest changes to the kingdom’s conservative clerical establishment. When Islamic State forces conquered vast stretches of Syria and Iraq, imposing a creed linked to Saudi Arabia’s own, the kingdom was slow to respond.

However, Abdullah chastised senior clerics for not speaking out more forcibly against the jihadists, and he eventually sent Saudi pilots to participate in an American-led campaign against the Islamic State.

Abdullah’s Saudi Arabia had hurtled from tribal pastoralism to advanced capitalism in little more than a generation. The fundamentalist clerics who gave the family legitimacy remained a powerful force. Women who appeared in public without the required covering risked arrest or a beating from the religious police.

Abdullah did make changes that were seen as important in the Saudi context. He allowed women to work as supermarket cashiers and appointed a woman as a deputy minister. At the $12.5 billion research university he built and named for himself, women study beside men.

However, he did not fulfill a promise made to Barbara Walters of ABC News in his first televised interview as king in October 2005: that he would allow women to drive, a hugely contentious issue in Saudi Arabia.

Although he ordered the kingdom’s first elections for municipal councils in 2005, a promised second election, in October 2009, in which women would vote, was postponed until September 2011. Then in March of that year, the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs announced that the question of women voting would be put off indefinitely “because of the kingdom’s social customs.”

Abdullah’s greatest legacy, however, may prove to be a scholarship program that sent tens of thousands of young Saudi men and women abroad to study at Western universities and colleges. It has been suggested that the changes long resisted by conservative forces — resistance that even a king could not overcome — would one day come about as those men and women rose in the government, industry and academia.

Perhaps Abdullah’s most daunting challenge arrived in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, with the revelation that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. The royal family at first railed at what it called a vicious smear campaign against the kingdom, then ruthlessly suppressed known militants — not least because the monarchy itself was a main target of Al Qaeda.

Striking a balance was almost always Abdullah’s preference. He strove to keep oil prices high, but not so high that they prompted consumers to abandon petroleum, then hedged his bets by investing billions in solar energy research. In 2008, he convened a meeting of world religious leaders to promote tolerance, but held it in Madrid rather than Saudi Arabia, where the public practice of religions other than Islam is outlawed.

Yet Abdullah could, and did, take strong positions. He denounced the American-led invasion of Iraq as “an illegal occupation”; proposed a comprehensive peace plan for the Middle East that included recognition of Israel by Arab nations; and urged in a secret cable that the United States attack Iran, Saudi Arabia’s great rival. “Cut off the head off the snake,” he said.

His kingdom’s interests always came first. Although American companies discovered and developed the Saudi oil fields, he cut deals with Russian, Chinese and European petroleum companies. He made it clear that the world’s energy appetites mattered less than Saudi Arabia’s future.

A Rigorous Upbringing

Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud was born in Riyadh in 1924 into a vast, complicated family. His father, Abdul Aziz, had as many as 22 wives.

Abdul Aziz, whose ancestors founded a precursor to the present Saudi state in 1744, chose his wives partly to secure alliances with other Arabian tribes. Abdullah’s mother, Fahda bint Asi al-Shuraim, was a daughter of the chief of the Shammar, whose influence extended into Syria, Iraq and Jordan.

Abdullah in 2014. Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times

King Abdul Aziz was not an indulgent father to his dozens of sons. He was quoted as saying, “I train my own children to walk barefoot, to rise two hours before dawn, to eat but little, to ride horses bareback.”

When the young Abdullah once neglected to offer his seat to a guest, Abdul Aziz sentenced him to three days in prison.

Abdullah, who overcame a stutter, was educated in religion, Arab literature and science by Islamic scholars at the royal court. From the Bedouin nomads, he learned traditional ways, including horsemanship and desert warfare. In 1962, he was appointed commander of the National Guard, which draws recruits from the Bedouin tribes, protects the king and acts as a counterweight to the army.

Four of Abdullah’s half brothers preceded him to the throne.

King Khalid appointed Abdullah as second deputy prime minister in 1975. In 1982, Fahd, Khalid’s successor, named him deputy prime minister and crown prince.

After Fahd’s stroke, Abdullah ran the government at first as regent. Political pressures later forced the removal of the regent title, but Abdullah remained the effective decision maker. He refused to sign any official papers with his own name as long as his stricken brother lived. Fahd died on Aug. 1, 2005.

One of King Abdullah’s first official acts was to pardon two Libyans accused of plotting to kill him, a result of Egypt’s engineering a reconciliation between the two nations. He also pardoned three Saudi academics who were in prison for advocating a constitutional monarchy.

He went on to establish job-training programs to help ease severe unemployment among educated young Saudis, to develop long-wasted natural gas as a commodity that could be exported, and to bring Saudi Arabia into the World Trade Organization. He became the first Saudi head of state to meet a pope, Benedict XVI, in 2007.

Although he reaffirmed his kingdom’s longstanding alliance with the United States, tensions arose with events. Abdullah refused, for instance, to permit American bases on Saudi territory for the Iraq invasion in 2003, something he had allowed in the first Gulf War.

‘For the Greater Good’

The king also grappled with domestic crises. The deaths of 15 girls in a dormitory fire in Mecca in 2002 caused an international uproar when it was learned that the religious police had not let them escape because they were not properly dressed. Furious, the king dismissed the head of women’s education.

In 2007, he pardoned a teenage girl who had been sentenced to six months in jail and 100 lashes after being raped. She was convicted of being found in a car alone with a man who was not her relative, a crime in Saudi law.

Though Abdullah made it clear that he thought the girl was guilty, pleasing the religious authorities, he pardoned her, he said, “for the greater good.”

In line with Islamic law, Abdullah kept no more than four wives at once, and was married at least 13 times, said Joseph Kechichian, who studies the royal family as a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh.

Abdullah fathered at least seven sons, nearly all of whom have occupied powerful positions as provincial governors and officers in the national guard, Dr. Kechichian said. Of his 15 known daughters, one is a prominent physician, and another has appeared on television to advocate women’s rights.

Abdullah may have resembled his warrior father, but he had a modern sensibility. A diplomatic cable revealed by WikiLeaks in 2010 said that he had suggested to an American counterterrorism official that electronic chips be implanted in detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

He said it had worked with horses and falcons, to which the American replied, “Horses don’t have good lawyers.”

Correction: January 24, 2015
Because of an editing error, a picture caption on Friday with the continuation of an obituary about King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia misstated, in some editions, the day that his brother Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud announced that he had assumed the throne. As the obituary correctly noted, it was Friday, not Thursday.




Peggy Charren in 1978. She was a founder and president of Action for Children’s Television. Credit Barbara Alper/Getty Images

The precise cause was uncertain, but she had had vascular dementia for many years, her daughter Deborah Charren said.

An inveterate cajoler, persuader, petitioner, testifier, public speaker and letter writer, Ms. Charren was  “the principal defender of children’s television in America” and “a conscience sitting on the shoulder of every commercial broadcaster,” Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat and a longtime friend of Ms. Charren’s, told The Boston Globe after her death.

She took up her crusade in the 1960s, when she was rearing two young daughters in a Boston suburb and was frustrated by what she saw on television for them — rampant advertising for toys and sugary cereals and, as she once put it, “wall-to-wall monster cartoons.”

Ms. Charren, an art and literature lover who had operated a gallery and run a business that held book fairs for children, was a founder and president of Action for Children’s Television, or ACT, whose first meeting was held in her Newton living room in 1968.

Seizing on a clause in the Federal Communications Act of 1934 that assigned broadcasters on the public airways a responsibility to tend to the public interest, ACT set about raising money and became a grass-roots force for change. The organization began pestering lawmakers, regulatory agencies and broadcast corporations to help educate children and not pander to them — to treat them as future contributors to society and not as just another consumer market.

The organization grew from a few women in a living room — they were typically referred to in early news reports as housewives — to a potent organization of more than 10,000 members.

By 1970, the group had won a petitioning campaign to reinstate “Captain Kangaroo” on a Boston station that had replaced it with another show. Members, all or nearly all women, met with the Federal Communications Commission and testified before the Senate subcommittee on communications.

Though they were rebuffed in their first attempts to meet with executives at NBC and ABC, they did get a meeting at CBS with the senior vice president for programming, Michael Dann. He told The New York Times that their suggestions were “among the most constructive and logical I have heard.”

Six months later, Mr. Dann resigned from CBS and took a 75 percent pay cut to become vice president of the Children’s Television Workshop, producers of a popular new show on public television called “Sesame Street.”

Led by Ms. Charren, ACT also persuaded the National Association of Broadcasters to reduce the amount of commercial time on children’s shows. It also persuaded networks to stop the practice of having children’s shows shill for the products of advertisers.

In 1974, the F.C.C. issued a Children’s Television Policy Statement, which made explicit the broadcasters’ responsibility to put “educational and informational” programming on the air.

The guidelines were not laws, however, and after Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, his distaste for regulation undid much of ACT’s progress. The Federal Trade Commission called a halt to an investigation, begun in 1978, into advertising on children’s television, and the F.C.C. stopped pushing for more quality programming for children.

“A marketplace approach simply doesn’t work for children,” Ms. Charren said in 1983. “Children’s television can never be profitable because most of the people who watch it are very short, very young and have very small allowances.”

She added: “Broadcasters will deliver as little service to children as they can get away with, because children are demographically unattractive to advertisers. During the ’70s, there was always at least the threat that if the networks didn’t do something for kids, the regulatory agencies would step in. Now, under Reagan, there isn’t even the threat.”

Ms. Charren’s calls for regulation drew criticism from some quarters. Animators, in particular, accused her of advocating censorship. She was adamant in her defense, however, saying that ACT never asked for a show to be taken off the air. When cable television began showing racier fare, she accepted that pornography was going to be available and promoted the idea that cable operators be required to provide users with lockout devices to block unwanted content. Her position was that there ought to be more programming, better programming and a diversification of it.

For Ms. Charren and ACT, the 1980s were an unending lobbying campaign that ended in victory. In 1990, Congress passed the Children’s Television Act, establishing standards for children’s television, limiting the number of advertising minutes permitted during a show, and mandating that stations document that they “served the educational and information needs of children” before they could have their licenses renewed.

Ms. Charren was born Peggy Sandelle Walzer on March 9, 1928, in Manhattan. Her father, Maxwell, was a furrier. Her mother, the former Ruth Rosenthal, was a pianist who gave up a potential concert career to raise a family. Peggy graduated from Hunter College High School and, in 1949, Connecticut College in New London.

She worked for a time in television, at WPIX in New York, before marrying Stanley Charren, a mechanical engineer who became an energy expert and entrepreneur, in 1951. They moved to Providence, R.I., where she opened an art gallery, and subsequently to the Boston area, where she started a company, Quality Book Fairs, that specialized in presentations for children.

Her initial ideas for improvements in children’s television involved putting books and the reading experience on the air.

“My mother loved books, and she loved libraries,” Deborah Charren said. “And she felt TV should be more like a library, with a variety of offerings.”

In addition to her daughter Deborah, Ms. Charren is survived by her husband; a sister, Barbara Korstvedt; another daughter, Claudia Moquin, known as Sandi; six grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

In 1991, the year after the Children’s Television Act was passed, Ms. Charren was given a Peabody Award for her public service. In 1995 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bill Clinton. ACT dissolved in 1992.

“We’ve done what we set out to do,” Ms. Charren said at the time. “And it’s going to take some time to see if it’s working. This is something that the local communities should be doing. We don’t want laws mandating good programs or censorship. We want the communities to tell broadcasters what’s missing.”


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