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The greatest Cub of all time, Ernie Banks, could have been even greater

Ernie’s career was fantastic, but injuries prevented it from being even better.

Photo by Focus On Sport/Getty Images

There isn’t, I don’t believe, any doubt among Cubs fans as to who the greatest Cubs player of all time is.

It’s obviously Ernie Banks — he even bears the honorary title “Mr. Cub.” Even if you never saw him play in person, or if you’re too young to have watched him live on TV, that ramrod-straight bat in his batting stance pictured above is something all Cubs fans know.

Ernie’s 512 home runs are a number seared into the memories of Cubs fans, even though that’s no longer the franchise record. That’s 545, held by Sammy Sosa.

But Ernie’s 512 homers were hit in a lower-offense era than the steroid-fueled times Sammy played in, and that’s part of what I want to take a close look at here.

In many ways, Banks was the prototype of today’s power-hitting middle infielder. When Ernie debuted, middle infielders were expected to produce great defense. If they hit, so much the better, but some didn’t. Even Don Kessinger and Glenn Beckert, All-Stars for many years as the Cubs’ shortstop and second baseman, weren’t great hitters, and many of that time were far worse.

But Banks, installed as the Cubs shortstop in 1954, hit and hit for power immediately. He hit 19 home runs his rookie year, finishing second to Wally Moon for NL Rookie of the Year.

Then the power really took off. He hit 40 or more home runs five of six seasons from 1955-60. His contemporaries Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, both of whom hit far more homers than Ernie, never did that. It would have been six straight years, but in 1956 Banks missed time with a hand infection, which broke a consecutive-game streak of 424 games. He hit “just” 28 home runs in ‘56.

Ernie’s two MVP seasons — he was the first NL player to win back-to-back MVP’s — are among the greatest years in Cubs history.

1958: .313/.366/.614, 47 HR, 129 RBI, led NL in HR, RBI, SLG, total bases, 8.5 bWAR
1959: .304/.374/.596, 45 HR, 143 RBI, led NL in RBI, 7.8 bWAR

Ernie almost single-handedly kept the Cubs in contention in 1959; as late as July 29 they were 50-49 and only five games out of first place. A poor pitching staff couldn’t hold up and they finished 74-80, in a compressed league that was only 16 games from first to seventh place they finished 13 games out of first. Can you imagine what Chicago would have been like with a Cubs/White Sox World Series in 1959?

Banks’ 1960 season wasn’t quite as good as the previous two, though he did lead the NL in home runs (41) and finished fourth in MVP voting.

Through 1960 — his age-29 season — Banks hit .292/.354/.557 with 269 home runs. Mike Trout is 29 now. He’ll miss some time in 2021 due to injury, but as of now Trout has a lifetime slash line of .305/.419/.583 with 310 home runs — and 1,000 more plate appearances than Banks had at the same age.

Am I saying Banks through age 29 was as good as Trout at 29? Obviously not, Trout’s OBP was far superior, though Banks, like Trout, played plus defense at a premium defensive position. But their power numbers weren’t that different, and remember this: In 1959, only three players had 500 career home runs (Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx and Mel Ott) and just three others had 400+, two still active (Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial).

What happened? Injuries. A knee injury, originally suffered by Ernie when he was in the Army, flared up in 1961. He missed some time, his numbers were down, and though he finished the season at shortstop, he also played significant numbers of games in left field and at first base. In Jim Enright’s 1971 book “Mr. Cub,” Ernie was quoted regarding playing left field: “Only a duck out of water could have shared my loneliness in left field.”

By 1962, Banks’ knees were so bad he could no longer play shortstop and was installed as the everyday first baseman. He’d never play another game at shortstop after 1961, and just a handful of games away from first — at third base, one in 1962, eight in 1966.

Beyond his knee injuries, Banks also lost a significant portion of the 1963 season to a case of the mumps — he hit just .227/.292/.403 with 18 home runs that year, his worst in the big leagues. Too bad again, because the Cubs contended through May and June that year and finished 82-80. One can only wonder what a 1959-vintage Banks could have done for them that year, a season where they allowed the second-fewest runs in the NL (578, just 28 more than the pennant-winning Dodgers), but scored only 570, just seventh-best in the 10-team league.

Ernie Banks was simply not the same hitter the second half of his career. After 1960 he hit .260/.310/.454 with 243 home runs, a significant downgrade, in 1,000 more PA (5,763) than he’d had previously (4,633). If Banks had homered at the same pace he’d set through his age-29 season for the rest of his career, he’d have wound up with about 335 more homers, or 604 for his career.

At the time Ernie retired, his 512 home runs (which should have been 513) ranked tied for eighth in MLB history with his contemporary Eddie Mathews. 604 would have put him fourth, ahead of Williams, Foxx and Mickey Mantle. Banks likely would have been hailed as a “first-tier” Hall of Famer, spoken of in the same breaths as the men above. It’s not that Ernie didn’t have a great career; certainly, he did, and he was elected to the Hall in Cooperstown in his first year of eligibility (1977) with 83.8 percent of the vote. Here’s his induction speech, if you haven’t previously seen it:

I was lucky enough to see Ernie play on TV for the last half of his career and to see him play in person a handful of times before he retired. But what I got was the second part of a career, a part that wasn’t nearly as good as the first half. As wonderful a player as Ernie Banks was, absolutely the greatest Cub of all time, injuries prevented him from being even greater.