In 1971, aged 40, Ernie Banks suffered from chronic knee problems that made him a pinch-hitter and very occasional starter. He played in just 39 games and started just 19 at first base, his position for the previous decade.
This, back in a time when teams routinely carried only nine or 10 pitchers and you could keep a guy like this on your roster for the entire season.
Banks had hit his 500th home run in May 1970 and hit just 12 for that season in 72 games, ending the year with 509. In 1971, his first home run didn’t come until June 2. No. 510 was a three-run shot in Cincinnati that turned out to be the difference in a 6-3 win over the Reds. He hit No. 511, tying Mel Ott on the all-time list, July 21 at Wrigley Field as a pinch-hitter in an 11-7 win over the Mets.
He played sparingly over the next month, but Leo Durocher inserted him in the starting lineup against the Reds August 24 at Wrigley, a Tuesday in front of a full house of 38,065 (remember that Wrigley’s capacity was lower then).
The Cubs trailed 3-2 with two out in the bottom of the fourth when Banks faced Reds righthander Jim McGlothlin:
No one could have known at the time that this homer, No. 512, would be Ernie’s last, but I find it ironic that after having Jack Brickhouse say “Hey! Hey!” to virtually all of Ernie’s homers throughout his career, that one was called by Jim West. (You can hear Jack shout “Hey! Hey!” in the background of that clip.) The Cubs lost the game 5-4 despite scoring a run in the bottom of the ninth and loading the bases with two out; Cleo James hit a fly to left to end it.
Banks played in just eight games after that, starting five of them. He actually hit fairly well over those eight games — 6-for-20 (.300) with two walks and no strikeouts. His final hit was a single in the first inning of his final game, September 26, 1971 against the Phillies, off Ken Reynolds. Banks had three more plate appearances that afternoon, resulting in a walk, groundout and infield popup.
Banks didn’t travel with the team on their final road trip of 1971, as his wife was having surgery and he received permission to remain with her in Chicago.
And his final home run was hit August 24, 1971, 50 years ago today. His home total of 512, tied with Eddie Mathews, ranked eighth in MLB history at the time he retired. Now it’s 27th, but Banks is in the Hall of Fame, enshrined with baseball’s greatest players.