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It’s a good day for a baseball game—let’s play two

Dave McNally and Ernie Banks, who played for my favorite National League team while growing up, the Chicago Cubs, almost were in the same place in Billings one day in early 1976. And I, then a sportswriter who had just returned to Billings to work for the Gazette, would have covered that get-together if it had happened.

But that didn’t happen. Dave was unable to join Banks on February 13, 1976. So, it was just my interview with the future Hall of Famer that appeared the next morning in the Gazette. After reporting for 1-1/2 years for the Grand Junction, Colorado, Daily Sentinel, the Gazette hired me to write in my hometown of sorts. I didn't grow up in Billings, but I attended Billings West High School, starting early in my junior year, and graduated there.

My boss, Gazette sports editor Warren Rogers, assigned me to cover Banks’ appearance during store-opening activities at Universal Athletics, which then and now stands on 24th Street West on the West End. I chatted with Ernie for a while as students from nearby schools—West High was diagonally opposite the store, and elementary schools were close—drifted in.

What I'll always remember was Banks’ good-natured ribbing with some elementary school youngsters. Roger Staubach had just quarterbacked the Dallas Cowboys to a Super Bowl win. Fittingly, a poster of Staubach was displayed prominently in the store.

When the youths asked Banks for his autograph, he said they needed to demonstrate their physical fitness.

“First, we’ve gotta get in shape, then I’ll sign,” he said.

Banks told the boys that no other sport surpassed or even matched baseball.

To emphasize his point, he directed their attention to the Staubach poster.

“You know who that is—that’s Willie Mays,” he said.

Banks was noted for his saying: “It’s a good day for a baseball game—let’s play two.”

The then 45-year-old, who played shortstop and first base for the Cubs, won National League Most Valuable Player honors twice, and Chicago fans voted him the “Greatest Cub Ever.”

Banks and McNally played in different leagues and never faced each other except in spring training games. (Dave did pitch against the Cubs twice during his brief stint with the Orioles, losing twice, but Banks had retired by then). Banks, however, had no doubt about McNally's ability. The Orioles’ left-hander had hung it up the previous June after winning 181 games for Baltimore and three more for the Expos. Still, the crafty Montanan was Banks’ pick for a hypothetical doubleheader.

“Yeah, he could pitch the first game.”

Then, on further thought, Banks said McNally “could pitch the doubleheader.”

McNally just might have done that if the opportunity arose.

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Jamie Larson