I have written about this home run many, many times, most recently last month on its 50th anniversary.
So what could I possibly have to say to add to the story of this milestone blast? Plenty, but first, let’s watch it again [VIDEO].
What I want to talk about to further the story of this home run is its context, by which I mean how it was viewed at the time it was hit 50 years ago.
Ernie Banks is Mr. Cub and beloved by Cubs fans, but it seems to me that in the pantheon of Hall of Fame baseball players, just how great a player he truly was has begun to be forgotten by some.
After the 1960 season, an argument could have been made that Ernie Banks was the greatest active player — no joke. He’d won back-to-back MVP awards, the first N.L. player ever to do so, and he did it playing for lousy teams, only one of which got to within 10 games under .500. Ernie hit 40 or more home runs in five of the six seasons from 1955-60. Neither of his power-hitting contemporaries, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, ever did that at any stage of their careers. He was a power-hitting shortstop, the prototype for players to come decades later like Cal Ripken Jr., in an era when middle infielders weren’t expected to do that.
Banks played 424 consecutive games from the beginning of his career until missing 18 games in 1956 with a hand infection. Then he started another streak which reached 717 games until he suffered a knee injury in 1961. The knee problems eventually forced his move from shortstop to first base and he was never quite the same hitter after mid-1961. If not for the knee issues, maybe it’s Ernie, instead of his teammate Billy Williams, who breaks Stan Musial’s then-N.L. record of 895 consecutive games played.
Through the 1960 season, Banks was on a path to become what we might call a “first-tier” Hall of Famer, to be spoken of in the ranks of Aaron or Mays. He had hit 269 home runs and had 1,213 hits through age 29, with a slash line of .292/.354/.557 — all that in just seven full seasons. Without the injuries, Ernie might have hit 600 home runs and had close to 3,000 hits. He might have become just the second player with 600 homers, if he’d not been injured — Mays accomplished that in 1969 and Aaron not until 1971.
Even with substantially diminished numbers over his last 11 seasons (.260/.310/.454, 243 home runs), Banks was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, 1977.
Beyond all the numbers above, though, what was significant for MLB as a whole on May 12, 1970 was the fact that Ernie Banks became just the ninth player in history to hit 500 home runs. Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, Eddie Mathews and Mel Ott had preceded him and all of those men are what I’d call “first-tier” Hall of Famers. (Mathews and Ott have been mostly forgotten today, largely because they both died at relatively young ages.)
Banks’ career total of 512 home runs now ranks tied for 23rd in MLB history. More of a focus on the long ball in recent years, plus the excesses of the Steroid Era, have launched quite a number of hitters past Ernie’s total.
But back in 1970, hitting 500 home runs was a real accomplishment. It should never be minimized.