Ernie Banks' reputation as THE greatest Cub has been apparent for so long, even evident during his days as an active player, that it has become a cliché, obscuring his true magnitude. He is not a first tier Hall of Famer (e.g. Aaron, Ruth, Mays), but is at the top of what may be called the "second class", and that's not intended as a slight. However, he was definitely headed for that first tier in the early years of his career, only to be derailed by serious injury. Indeed, a large part of Ernie's greatness is that he overcame that obstacle to achieve as much as he did.
Ernie's public presence, invariably sunny, and his instantly recognizable catchphrases ("The Cubs will be fine in nineteen sixty-nine!", "Let's play two!", and he is personally responsible for dubbing Wrigley Field "the Friendly Confines"), has also served to shroud his greatness; it is part of the cliché that he is the greatest Cub as much for all of this, as for his baseball performance. This is a shame, as his achievements on the field can, and do, speak for themselves.
A fairly obvious question forms and must, thus, be asked: how real is the "Mr. Cub" persona? The greatest athletes have no illusions about what is required, mentally and psychologically, as well as physically, to achieve and maintain such a high level of performance. Even so self-effacing a personality as Ryne Sandberg displayed the competitive drive, and near killing instinct, that all players need at that level; it was apparent, however subtly, in everything he did on the field. Nothing in Ernie's outward demeanor, at any time, has ever betrayed any of these qualities.
If what Banks showed all of us in public is absolutely genuine, the only way he could have been as great is to have been the athletic equivalent of a savant. In the absence of any cracks in the façade, it can be viewed as a Potemkin village, hiding a much more intense and profound personality, one that Ernie had no intention of displaying before his fans.
Bill Bryson, a well-respected chronicler of modern life, in his recent book "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid", tells of meeting Banks one day in Chicago, when he was accompanying his sportswriter father on a road trip; this anecdote clearly shows the image Banks wanted to present, especially to a child:
The photo you see at the top of this profile was taken the day Banks arrived at Wrigley Field for the first time, in 1953, before the game face became permanent. You can see his physical power in those hands and forearms, and in the wrists that Jack Brickhouse spoke of on Cubs telecasts so many times; they are the source of those five hundred twelve home runs.
But there is no sunshine in this countenance. The smile isn't forced or unnatural, the eyes are wary and searching. This is the Banks of Texas and Kansas City, the one who had to fight for the position he'd just reached, in a manner no one who wasn't a black man during that time and place can possibly understand.
Ernest Banks was born in Dallas on January 31, 1931. Or maybe he wasn't -- in the last few years, some unconfirmed research has indicated that he might have been born on that date in 1925. Ernie's mother is still living, aged 95, and perhaps the birth date was altered in order to save her the embarrassment of people knowing she had given birth at age 19. We may never know the truth, but if in fact he is six years older than he always has claimed to be, then he had a 100-RBI season at the age of 44, in 1969, long after he was a dominant player, still good enough for fifth in the National League that year. (From here on, I am assuming that his "official" 1931 birth date is correct.)
After Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in the major leagues, the Negro Leagues began a fairly rapid decline; but in 1949, they were still quite active. That is when a teenage Banks was signed by Buck O'Neil for his Kansas City Monarchs, still the dominant team in black baseball -- and via a recommendation from none other than the Negro League immortal and Hall of Famer, Cool Papa Bell. From O'Neil's book "I Was Right On Time":
Ernie has been kind enough over the years to credit me with his positive outlook on life, but I have to say he was a delight right from the start, on the field and off. He didn't demonstrate his tremendous power in 1950, his first season with us, but after a two-year stint in the Army he came back and drove in forty-seven runs in just forty-six games. He was hardly a secret anymore. John Donaldson tried to get the White Sox to sign him, but when a white scout overruled him, John told them to take the job and shove it.
Ernie and I both went to Chicago for the 1953 East-West Game at Comiskey Park, where he was the shortstop for the West and I was the manager. Late in the game, when the score was tied, Dr. J. B. Martin, the owner of the Memphis Red Sox, who was sitting in the box next to the dugout, leaned over and said to me, "Buck, I think we might need another dozen balls." The East squad was supposed to furnish the balls that year, but it was running low, and Doc knew I always carried a dozen or two extra balls on our bus. But Ernie was coming to bat, so I said, "No, Doc, I don't think we're going to need any more because this kid is going to hit the ball out of the ballpark." And sure enough, he did. Doc Martin thought I was a swami. What I knew was that Ernie Banks was destined for greatness.
After the game, Tom Baird [the Monarchs owner] called me and told me to bring Ernie to Wrigley Field the next morning. When we got there, Wid Matthews, the Cubs' general manager, said, "Buck, I'll tell you what. Tom is going to sell his ballclub pretty soon because that baseball of yours is just about over. When he does, we want you to come to work for us." I thanked him, and then he said, "You signed Ernie to a contract with the Kansas City Monarchs. Your first assignment as a scout with us is to sign him to a contract with the Chicago Cubs." So I got to sign Ernie twice.
And so, that is how Ernie Banks became a Cub (imagine -- based on O'Neil's account, he could just have easily become a member of the White Sox), and also how Buck O'Neil began a decades-long association with the Cubs, an association that brought to the North Side players such as George Altman and Lou Brock, and later, through the draft, players O'Neil had scouted like Oscar Gamble, Lee Smith, and Joe Carter.
In the early 1950's, when not every team had integrated (the last holdout, the Red Sox, would not have their first black player till 1959), teams generally signed two black players as their "firsts". Why? In a sad legacy of racism, it was thought that many white players would not accept a black roommate on the road. Thus, the Cubs also signed second baseman Gene Baker, and both made their major league debuts, the first black players for the Chicago Cubs, in September 1953; Banks on September 17 and Baker on September 20. They would be the Cubs' doubleplay combination for three full seasons, 1954, 1955 and 1956, lasting together until Baker was traded to Pittsburgh early in 1957. In 1954, Banks' 19 HR, 79 RBI, .275/.326/.427 performance was good enough for second place in Rookie of the Year voting (won by Wally Moon) and sixteenth place in MVP balloting, the first of eleven seasons in which he would receive MVP votes. He also was selected (in those pre-fan voting days) to eleven All-Star teams.
Banks was fast becoming a star. Athletic and rangy, he was an early prototype of the sort of shortstop that we have seen over the last twenty-five years in, for example, Cal Ripken and Derek Jeter, hitting for average and power. In the photo above, you can't see his fingers, but anyone who saw him play, particularly on television where you could see closeups, will remember those fingers, moving to and fro on the handle of the bat, just waiting to get locked into position to slam another double or triple or home run.
In the field, while his range factors were above average, so were his error counts -- but he worked hard to improve this, and by 1959, he made only twelve errors in 519 total chances, while still having a superior range factor of 5.13. From his debut, he played in 424 consecutive games until the first of a series of injuries that would prevent him from the top-tier stardom he seemed destined for, a broken hand in 1956. The 424 consecutive games Banks played from the start of his career remains the National League record for such things today (the major league record is now held by Hideki Matsui, who played in 519 consecutive games from the start of his major league career in 2003, until he himself was injured last May).
After he returned from the hand injury, Banks began another consecutive-game streak, which ran for 717 straight games starting on August 26, 1956, and ending on June 23, 1961, when knee problems were beginning to end his time at shortstop and force him to other positions. Ernie sat out that June game voluntarily; the streak and the nagging injuries had apparently begun to press on him.
It was in the years before those knee injuries that Ernie appeared to be heading for the top rank of the record books. From 1955 through 1960, he hit forty or more home runs five times in six seasons. Since then -- a span of forty-six seasons -- only Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey Jr., Harmon Killebrew and Alex Rodriguez have accomplished that feat; Hall of Famers such as Willie Mays and Henry Aaron, Banks' contemporaries, never did. In 1955, he hit five grand slams, a record that stood for thirty-two years (and still stands as the NL record). The climax to all this production was the back-to-back MVP awards he won in 1958 and 1959, the first time a National Leaguer had won two in a row.
Looking back on those awards from a 2007 perspective, they are even more impressive than they must have seemed at the time. The Cubs were mediocre clubs both those seasons -- losing 82 games and finishing 20 games out of first place in '58, losing 80 and winding up a closer, but still poor, 13 games behind in '59. But Ernie dominated. In 1958 he led the league in: games, at-bats, SLG, total bases, HR, RBI and extra-base hits, and finished second in OPS, and for good measure, second in triples with 11, though he was never much known for having any baserunning speed. He got sixteen of the possible 24 first-place MVP votes. He became only the third Cub to hit forty homers in a season, after Hack Wilson and Hank Sauer, and it would take another twelve years (until Billy Williams hit 42 in 1970) for anyone else to join that exclusive club (since joined by Dave Kingman, Andre Dawson, Ryne Sandberg, Sammy Sosa and Derrek Lee).
He repeated this performance in 1959, including a career-high 143 RBI, eighteen more than anyone else in the majors; he nearly singlehandedly put the Cubs in contention. As late as July 29, 1959, the Cubs stood over .500 at 50-49 and only five games out of first place, but they faded and finished sixth.
Ernie's non-stop power barrage continued in 1960; he led the major leagues with 41 HR, his fourth consecutive forty-homer season. On April 29 against the Cardinals, Ernie's 232nd career HR broke Gabby Hartnett's team record. Just to put an exclamation point on that date, he hit another home run in that game, and drove in all six Cub runs ... in a 16-6 loss. His average declined a bit that year, to .275, and with the Cubs' even poorer performance (a 94-loss season), he finished fourth in MVP voting. At age 29, he had hit 269 career HR, and had averaged 41 HR over the previous six seasons -- had he continued at that pace, he would have broken the 500-HR plateau in 1966, and perhaps headed on towards 600.
But Ernie never made it there. And a clue as to why can be found if you look up his "most-comparable hitter" at age 29. There you find the name... Nomar Garciaparra.
And that's a good comp not only on a statistical basis, but also for another reason, because both Nomar and Ernie suffered career-altering injuries right about that juncture, turning a superstar player into someone just "above average". It appears that Nomar is following precisely the path that Ernie did in resurrecting his career, becoming a very good everyday player, though not at nearly the performance level he had established prior to being hurt (and following the same path across the diamond, too, moving from shortstop to first base). In May 1961, Ernie, off to a decent .281/.360/.529 start, but with only 7 HR and 15 RBI through 33 games, suffered a knee injury that forced him out of the infield. He was moved to left field on May 23, and even played a handful of games at first base before finally, as noted above, benching himself on June 23, ending his streak of 717 consecutive games played. At the time it was the fourth-longest such streak in history, and stood as the Cubs' club record until Billy Williams broke it on June 18, 1968. When Ernie returned, he went back to SS for the rest of the year, but failed to hit 40 HR for the first time since 1956, finishing with 29, and 80 RBI. In an otherwise unremarkable season-ending game on October 1, 1961 at Wrigley Field, in front of 4,325, Ernie Banks played his 1125th and final game at shortstop.
Installed as the Cubs' regular first baseman in 1962 (he also, inexplicably, in that bizarre College of Coaches year, played three games at third base, and played eight others there in 1966), he returned to near his MVP levels with 37 HR and 104 RBI, but his average dropped to .269; he never again hit over .276, nor had an OBA higher than .328, for a single season. The 104 RBI, good for eighth in the NL, are actually fairly impressive for a last-place team that lost 103 games and scored only 632 runs.
In 1963, Ernie had hit 14 HR, though with poor production of .244/.296/.488, when on June 15 he was diagnosed with subclinical mumps. He tried to battle through the rest of the season, but hit only four more home runs and didn't play after September 11. It was the worst year of his career; he finished at only .227. The Cubs had briefly contended that year (standing fourth, 5.5 games out, as late as August 2), the year I attended my first major league game (the Cubs got shut out on three hits -- Ernie had one of them), and finished over .500 for the first time in seventeen seasons. One is left to wonder what they might have done in 1963 had Banks been in his form of three or four years prior.
Two years later, Ernie hit his 400th career HR on September 2 at Wrigley Field off the Cardinals' Curt Simmons, who had also given up Willie Mays' 400th HR and who, a year later, would become Ernie's Cub teammate. And on the final day of the 1965 season, October 3, Ernie and Don Kessinger turned a triple play, the Cubs' third of that year. They lost anyway, 6-3 to the Pirates at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh.
And then, at age 35, Ernie's life and career were to change irrevocably, with the Cubs' hiring of Leo Durocher as manager for the 1966 season. As you can imagine now, forty years on, Durocher's irascible temperament and Ernie's sunny disposition were a deadly mix. Leo didn't like Ernie and was bound and determined to find a replacement for him. Keep in mind that in the mid-1960's, thirty-five was considered ancient in baseball terms. Nearly all the over-35's in that era were pitchers (example: of the twenty oldest players in the majors in 1966, fifteen were pitchers), and Durocher kept trying "kids" at first base, to try to find Banks' "replacement". For example, John Boccabella, a catcher, played there 30 times in '66. Ernie hit only 15 HR and there were whispers that maybe Durocher was right.
But Banks had turned himself into a good defensive first baseman, and his contributions there weren't unnoticed. In 1967, the Cubs leaped into true contention in midseason and Ernie hit .276/.310/.455, his highest batting average in six years, and drove in 95 runs. The following year, his power stroke came back -- oddly, in a pitcher's year -- and he hit 32 HR in 1968, good for third in the National League.
The 1969 season dawned brightly for both Ernie and the Cubs. On Opening Day, April 8 at Wrigley Field, Ernie hit two homers and drove in five runs, and Willie Smith's extra-inning walkoff launched the ballclub on what we all thought was going to be "the" year; at age 38, Ernie didn't have much baseball time remaining.
On June 30, 1969 in Montreal's Jarry Park, Ernie was cheated out of a home run in one of the freakiest ways in baseball history. It had rained hard for hours before the game that night in Montreal. Jarry Park, in its first major league season and with poor visibility on a good day, had that visibility made much worse by the poor weather and field conditions. In the second inning, Ernie hit a long fly ball which appeared to leave the park. However, it wasn't counted as a home run; read this bizarre PBP:
You're reading that exactly right -- the umpires believed Expos RF Rusty Staub and ruled that the ball went UNDER the fence, thus giving Ernie only a ground-rule double. Had that been credited properly as a home run, Banks would have hit his 500th career HR on May 9, 1970, a game on a sunny Saturday attended by 33,168 (myself included -- this began a whole series of events where I missed seeing major milestones, including Lou Brock's and Robin Yount's 3000th hits, by one), instead of the following Tuesday, May 12, a gloomy, chilly, rainy day, where only 5,264 saw Banks lace a Pat Jarvis pitch into the LF bleachers for baseball history. Asked afterward what he was thinking when he hit it, Ernie said:
Click here to hear Vince Lloyd's WGN radio call of Ernie Banks' 500th home run (opens .mp3 audio file)
Ernie was reaching the end -- he was a backup now, playing in only sixty-two games in 1970 and hitting only twelve HR, and became a player-coach in 1971, with only 83 AB and three home runs, the final, five hundred twelfth, coming on August 24, 1971, off Jim McGlothlin of the Reds. It was around that time that some Cubs players, chafing under Durocher's yoke and frustrated that, as good as they were, they hadn't won, started publicly calling for Leo to be fired. In early September, P. K. Wrigley took out full-page newspaper ads blasting those players, ending with the quote, "If we could only find more team players like Ernie Banks." But Banks' knees could not stand up to the rigors of major league baseball any longer. He played his final major league game on September 26, 1971 at Wrigley Field, the Cubs' last home game of that season, in front of 18,505 appreciative fans, batting cleanup. I'd love to tell you that, like Ted Williams, he hit a home run in his last at-bat, or at least got a hit and was removed for a pinch-runner to an ovation. Unfortunately, Ernie's career ended more prosaically -- with a popup to third base. His final hit was an infield single in the first inning that day; the Cubs lost 5-1. His 2528 games played, fortieth all-time, is the most for any player who never played in the postseason.
As he approached retirement, Ernie didn't seem to know what he wanted to do after baseball. He continued the coaching duties he had begun in 1971 through the 1973 season, though with somewhat undefined duties (primarily, however, he coached first base). On May 8, 1973, manager Whitey Lockman was ejected in the third inning and Ernie took over for the rest of the game, technically becoming the first black manager in baseball history.
He also briefly tried his hand at broadcasting, at which he was, well, not very good. I will never forget one of the nights that he filled in as an evening sportscaster on WGN-TV's nightly news. It may be difficult for many of you to wrap your minds around the fact, in these ESPNized days, that in the early 1970's WGN would not allow taped highlights of Cubs games to be shown on other local stations' newscasts -- and for years, the other stations in town had to send a separate single camera to Wrigley Field to record their own highlights. This was done in an effort to try to boost the ratings for WGN's own news programs. Anyway, Ernie sat down on the news set one night after he himself had homered, and when the appropriate highlight was about to be aired, he said, memorably: "In the third inning, I came up.", followed by Jack Brickhouse's call of his home run.
After that, the Cubs put him on the payroll as a roving goodwill ambassador, something you'd think would be a natural job for Ernie. And he was good at it. Too good, in fact -- Ernie's problem was that he was both too nice and too disorganized. Any time a group would invite him to speak, he'd say yes, leading, inevitably, to him not showing up somewhere because he'd booked two engagements at the same time.
In 1977, Ernie was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, named on 83.8% of the ballots. In the unenlightened days of Wrigley ownership, the Cubs didn't believe in retiring uniform numbers, though no one wore Ernie's #14 after he finished playing [want a good trivia question? Who was the last player to wear #14 before Ernie? Paul Schramka, who played in two games in April 1953 and never returned to the majors. Others who wore #14 were: Guy Bush(1932), Zack Taylor (1933), Charlie Root (1934), Larry French (1935-41), Ken Raffensberger (1941), Lou Novikoff (1942), and Vallie Eaves (1942)]. Finally, after the Cubs were sold by the Wrigleys, Ernie's #14 was retired, the first Cub uniform number to be so honored, on August 22, 1982.
Since then, Ernie has spent his days being the image he created, Mr. Cub. In 1984, he was asked to throw out the first ball before game one of the NLCS -- and he did so, but not until he had bowed deeply to everyone in the ballpark, including us in the bleachers, thanking those who had supported and loved and cheered for him for his nineteen seasons as a Cubs player, more years spent in the uniform as a player than anyone other than Cap Anson and Phil Cavarretta.
Ernie Banks' rankings on the all-time Cub lists (ML rank in parentheses where in the top forty):
Games: 2528, 1st (40th)
At-bats: 9421, 1st (39th)
Runs: 1305, 5th
Hits: 2583, 2nd
SLG: .500, 7th
Total bases: 4706, 1st (27th)
Doubles: 407, 3rd
Triples: 90, 7th
Home runs: 512, 2nd (17th)
RBI: 1636, 2nd (22nd)
Bases on balls: 763, 8th
Extra-base hits: 1009, 1st (25th)
Intentional walks: 198, 1st (11th)
As noted at the top of this profile, it's hard to tell whether Ernie's happy-go-lucky, sunshiny personality is really who he is, or whether he's using it as a mask to cover hurts in his personal life (at one point in his life, he went through a bitter divorce in which he lost virtually all the memorabilia from his baseball career), hurts he cannot bring himself to think of or speak of. He appears cheerful and bright, but may hide unspoken storms beneath.
Reports circulating at the Cubs Convention last month from people who saw Ernie were a bit distressing ... they said he was starting to repeat stories over and over, and sounded a bit weary and confused. He is now seventy-six years old, and perhaps nearing the end of a memorably spent life -- a life filled with accomplishment and joy brought both to himself and millions of Cub fans who admired his play on the field and his cheerful demeanor off it. For both the sunshine and the statistics, Ernie Banks is, and perhaps shall forever be, the greatest Chicago Cub.
Memories. Ernie at the plate, in the Wrigley sunshine, immortalized forever: