Gabby Hartnett and Freddie Lindstrom were at Wrigley Field to mark the occasion, along with Ray Schalk, Red Faber, Hippo Vaughn and even Jimmy Archer, who not only filled-in at first for Frank Chance during the 1910 World Series, but who also played against the Cubs in the 1907 Fall Classic as a late season call-up with the Tigers.
Phil Cavarretta certainly was there too, not only as a famous old-timer, but also as Cubs manager and 25th man, still pinch hitting occasionally while waiting for his 20-year pension to vest at the end of a disappointing but momentous season, one that would set the tone for all 60 campaigns that have unfolded since September 13, 1953.
It was Pat Pieper Day at Wrigley Field, and on a glorious Sunday afternoon in mid-September, these Cubs and Sox greats gathered with other baseball luminaries to honor a man who had witnessed every Cubs World Series game at West Side Park between 1906 and 1910, and virtually every Cubs home game since 1904. Pieper, the famous Ivanhoe Restaurant waiter and Cubs PA announcer, was about to receive a $1,000 check from the Chicago Old-Timers Baseball Association, along with a room-size air conditioner and a bouquet of 50 roses from the Cubs in recognition of his 50 years of service to the club.
Ernie Banks might have been there too, if only the Cubs had booked his flight from Pittsburgh to Midway Airport a day earlier. But with the Cubs riding an eight-game winning streak and jobs on the line in front of a rare crowd of more than 20,000, Cavvy was in no rush to play September call-ups, even a player like Ernie, who was leading the Negro American League with a .388 batting average and 23 home runs when the Cubs bought his contract from the Kansas City Monarchs the previous week.
Instead, the legend of Mr. Cub would not begin until the following day, with the Cubs going after their 10th straight win while facing the World Series-bound Brooklyn Dodgers at the ballpark that one day would be known as the Friendly Confines.
Banks quickly turned heads from the moment he stepped into the batter’s box by drilling the first pitch he saw at Wrigley Field all the way out onto Waveland Avenue. Of course this was only batting practice, and Ernie would spend the next two games on the bench with other September call-ups Gene Baker, Don Elston, and Bob Talbot. Together they would watch the Cubs winning streak climb to nine on a ninth-inning single by another Cub destined for fame, Joe Garagiola, then to 10 behind a three-hitter by Johnny Klippstein.
The magic spell was broken the following day in a loss to Cincinnati, giving Banks, Elston, and Talbot a chance to start on getaway day in front of a paid crowd of 2,793, in an otherwise meaningless game that ended in a 16-4 loss to the Phillies.
Either fate or the front office kept Gene Baker on the bench with a minor injury that day, permitting Banks alone to forever be known as the first African-American to play for the Cubs. Ernie went 0-3 against Curt Simmons, and also was charged with an error on an easy grounder. But with this first game out of the way, Banks became an all-but-unstoppable force for the next seven years, as perhaps the best all-around player in the game. Through early 1961, Ernie set records and new standards for shortstops while at the same time keeping the Cubs interesting and profitable, even in the midst of the team’s Terrible Twenty seasons of second-division confinement under Phil Wrigley.
Like Pat Pieper, Ernie hardly ever took a day off. By 1956 he held the major league record for consecutive games played from the start of a career, before injuries forced him to sit out a few games. As soon as he returned from that lone trip to the DL, Banks started another streak that in 1961 would threaten Stan Musial’s National League consecutive games record. A chronic knee injury ended this second run at 717 games, eventually forcing Ernie to become a first baseman.
Even in 1965, on bad knees at age 34, Ernie along with teammates Ron Santo and Billy Williams set the record for games played in a single season at 164. Unless MLB brings back the no-lights policy of the Wrigley years, this mark is as safe as Cal Ripken’s 2,632.
Then too, there were the home run records that started to fall as soon as Banks truly arrived in ’55. Before Ernie, there were only a few power-hitting shortstops in baseball history: Vern Stephens, Honus Wagner of course, maybe even a couple of forgotten Cubs: Bad Bill Dahlen of the 1890’s (who should be in the Hall of Fame), and Roy Smalley of the early 1950’s, a downstate high school phenom remembered today as the guy with the scattershot arm who lost his job to Ernie Banks.
Although the model Ernie created for modern shortstops took decades to become the norm in MLB, his power game from ’53 to ‘61 slowly set the stage for the Ripkens, A-Rods, Jeters, Tejadas, and Tulowitzkis of recent years. Underscoring his remarkable success was the fact that of the few players who came directly to the majors from the Negro Leagues, only Ernie became an instant star. As Jack Brickhouse would remind Channel 9 viewers many times, Ernie never spent a day in the minor leagues.
Banks quickly became the biggest name in Chicago sports, with his sudden arrival and instant success becoming one of the most enduring legends of baseball’s most star-crossed franchise. In the traditional retelling, Ernie was added to the late-season roster in ’53 almost as an afterthought, mostly to be Gene Baker’s roommate on road trips. By some accounts, Phil Wrigley never heard of Ernie until he saw Banks’ name in a box score.
Far more likely than this fable is a scenario where Wrigley took at least as much care in finding a can’t-miss player to integrate the Cubs as Branch Rickey did when he signed Jackie Robinson to play for the Dodgers. The price tag to acquire Ernie from the Kansas City Monarchs confirms this – no team in 1953, especially the Cubs, was spending $35K ($305,000 in 2013 dollars) for a single player without first performing due diligence.
While other big-city teams took the best talent from the Negro Leagues early in the postwar years of racial integration in baseball, Wrigley maintained the color line on the North Side. As chairman of a giant publicly traded consumer goods firm, he understandably was risk-averse, and in 1947 no one in baseball had more to lose from possible racial incidents at the ballpark than did Mr. Wrigley. For seven years, he took a wait-and-see approach to integrating the Cubs roster while gradually signing a few black players for his farm system.
By 1953, Wrigley had been facing pressure to integrate for several years, especially after Minnie Minoso became an instant star for the White Sox in 1951. Given that history, combined with Wrigley’s hands-on management style and the fact that he personally paid for all Cubs-related expenses over his 45 years as team president, it makes no sense to think he would let Wid Mathews or Pants Rowland spend $35,000 of his real 1953 dollars to purchase Banks as a mere roommate for Baker.
Until the Cubs ran up that shocking 10-game winning streak in September, the 1953 season had been perhaps the worst in team history, not only on the field, but also in terms of advertising revenue and especially in terms of attendance. The exciting play of the Go-Go White Sox and the newly-arrived Milwaukee Braves combined to make the Cubs the third choice of Chicagoland baseball fans, causing paid turnout at Wrigley Field to drop by 30 percent from the 1952 total. For the first time under Wrigley ownership, the Cubs were losing money.
Also suffering a 30 percent drop in performance was 36-year-old Cubs outfielder Hank Sauer, the previous season’s National League MVP. Wrigley desperately needed a new star, and at midseason he traded for Ralph Kiner, who like Sauer was a great home run hitter nearing the end of his playing career.
By September, still looking for a drawing card and finally ready to let a black man play for the Cubs, Phil Wrigley was willing to pay big money for a star who could fulfill both needs. Banks’ sensational performance with the Cubs demonstrates that on those rare occasions when Wrigley was concerned with results on the field, he was willing and able to scout well and pay top dollar for talent.
Of course, Banks’ steadfast presence and unfailing good humor created enormous goodwill as he not only became the face of the Cubs, but perhaps baseball’s greatest ambassador. When the Cubs finally became contenders late in Ernie’s career, it seemed only fitting that he go out on a pennant-winner. When that didn’t happen, countless fans felt Ernie’s loss as if it were their own.
For many at the time, the most painful part of the Great Collapse of ’69 was the recognition that a true sportsman and competitor like Ernie wouldn’t get that World Series ring after all. Unfortunately, individual talent and dedication sometimes are not enough, and without the right script and supporting cast even the best will fail.
There was a photo on BCB a few years ago that seemed to capture the whole story of Banks and the Cubs: the respect and goodwill that Banks has shown to fans and opponents for 60 years, and that has been returned to him in abundance. In the shot, Ernie is shown crossing home plate after hitting his 500th home run, with only a couple of teammates there to greet him. He seems to be taking great pains not to show-up the pitcher who surrendered the blast that secured Banks’ place among the game’s all-time power elite, much as Roger Maris years earlier had resisted taking a bow at Yankee Stadium after his record-breaking 61st home run.
Stands appear almost empty in the background, as the Wrigley Field crowd that day wasn’t much larger than the one at Ernie’s debut in 1953. But despite the downscale surroundings, Ernie’s elation is as apparent as his humility and self-control.
It may have been either the great James Cagney or Pat Pieper who said the keys to success are to learn your lines, hit your marks, show-up on time, look the other fellow in the eye, and tell the truth. Elements of this formula are seen in much of Ernie’s career, and certainly form part of his appeal to millions of fans that try to live by this code.
If you happen to see Ernie today as he joins those select few who have served the Cubs for more than 60 years, he just may stop, look you in the eye, and tell you the riches of the game are in the thrills, not the money. In light of his unfailing optimism and dedication to the Cubs through the years, who can doubt him?