Ernie Banks connects for the long ball at Wrigley Field.
Today would have been Ernie Banks 89th birthday if he had made it. But he didn’t. He died in a Chicago hospital on January 23, 2015.
When the news his passing came it was a shock to many Cubs. It probably shouldn’t have. After all he was nearly 84 years old. It’s just that he seemed so ever youthful, not just in those memory pictures we had in our head of his days on the diamond, but in the frequent glimpses we would get of him on TV at fan events or in interviews. No matter how gray or sparse his hair became, how lined that lean face, he seemed boyish, bursting with enthusiasm and, yes, ready to play two.
Banks was, bar none, the most beloved player in the long history of the Chicago National League franchise. He was the only longtime Cub player not to draw contempt and scorn from hard core White Sox fans. Beyond the playing field his gentle demeanor and graciousness to fans and the press endeared him to the whole city. His status as an icon of a losing franchise almost obscured his real accomplishments on the field.
But as an obituary in the New York Times, hardly a Second City boosting cheerleader, pointed out, Banks was, “the greatest power-hitting shortstop of the 20th century and an unconquerable optimist…”
Banks was born on January 31, 1931, in Dallas, Texas, the second oldest of 11 children of a warehouse worker and his wife. His father, Eddie Banks had played semi-pro ball and encouraged his athletically inclined son to take an interest in the game. Ernie was not much interested and at first had to be bribed to play catch with the old man. Part of it was that he had few opportunities to play organized baseball. There was no Little League for Texas Black boys in those days and Booker T. Washington High School did not have a team. Instead he lettered in track, basketball, and football. The closest he could come to baseball was playing softball in summer church leagues, and for a season with the semi-pro Amarillo Colts.
Ernie Banks, second from right, with the 1953 Kansas City Monarchs.
Still after graduating he somehow managed to catch the attention of the Kansas City Monarchs, the most prestigious franchise in the Negro American League. Some accounts give credit to a scout who was friendly with his father, others to legendary player Cool Papa Bell. Maybe it was both. But in 1950 he was signed and playing for the Monarchs.
Bank’s fledgling baseball career was cut short when he was drafted into the Army in 1951. He suffered a knee injury during basic training which would haunt him later in his career. He was attached to the 45th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion at Fort Bliss where he was a sharp enough soldier to be made the unit’s flag bearer. During his months at Bliss he was able to sub occasionally with the Harlem Globetrotters operation, usually appearing in the uniform of the perpetually loosing Washington Generals. After that he was stationed in Germany.
Upon his discharge from active duty, Banks rejoined the Monarchs. His time with the team was his university of baseball. He learned and mastered quickly all of the fundamentals of the game. In no time at all he was a star player. So good that he was attracting attention from Major League scouts who finally ready to stock their teams with Black talent. He finished the 1953 season batting for an impressive .347 average. The Chicago Cubs snatched him up and he would wear the blue pinstripes for the final games of that season.
Despite the opportunity, Banks was loathe to leave the Monarchs which he considered his home. He thought about asking the team not to sell his contract. That is the kind of loyalty that in the end he transferred to the Cubs.
The Cubs, badly in need of talent, put Banks directly into the Big League game without any time in the minors. His debut at Wrigley Field was on September 17, 1953 versus the Brooklyn Dodgers.
An autographed copy of Banks's rookie card.
Before the game Jackie Robinson crossed the field to welcome the Cubs’ first Black player and give him some support and encouragement. Robinson had also played for the Monarchs and was Banks’s idol. Banks later recalled that Robinson told him, “Ernie, I’m glad to see you’re up here so now just listen and learn.” It was advice he took to heart, maybe too much so. “For years, I didn’t talk and learned a lot about people.”
His reticence to speak up on racial tensions and issues on and off the field would later draw accusations of being an Uncle Tom from some. But it was not in his nature to be confrontational and he tried hard to make friends with everybody. Robinson believed his early reticence in responding to abuse on the field when he first broke baseball’s color line earned him the right to speak out and became Civil Rights movement spokesman. Despite their differences over this Banks and Robinson remained close.
In his first full season with the Cubs as shortstop he paired up with the team’s second Black player Gene Baker at second base to form a bang-bang double play combination. The two also roomed together on the road. Banks hit a respectable 19 home runs and had 71 runs batted in. It was good enough to finish second in National League Rookie of the Year voting.
Banks turning a bang-bang double play at short stop.
Banks really took off as a dominant player in 1955, his second full season, after he switched to a lighter weight bat increasing his bat speed. Thanks to strong wrists and a sharp eye for a fast ball, the tall, slender (6’1”, 180 lbs.) shortstop became a genuine power hitter and slugger. That season he slammed 44 round trippers and drove in 117 runs. He earned the first of 14 consecutive All Star Game appearances. His home run total was a single-season record for shortstops and he set a thirty year record of five single-season grand slam home runs.
It was the beginning of a parade of phenomenally successful seasons in which he was a shining star on miserable teams. In 1956 despite missing 19 games with an infection in one hand that took the edge off of his power Banks still hit 28 home runs, had 85 RBIs, and a .297 batting average. In 1957, he bounced back with 43 home runs, 102 RBIs, and a .285 batting average.
Banks slamming one home at Wrigley Field.
Then there were the back to back Most Valuable Player (MVP) Awards—a first in National League history—in ’58 and ’59. He hit over .300 each year, led the League in RBIs both years, and knocked 47 homers the first year and 45 the next. In 1960 he led the League with 41 homers, earned a Gold Glove at short stop and for the sixth time in his seven year full season career led the league in most games played.
Banks was not only the star, but a consistent work horse on terrible teams. The Cubs currently have a reputation for a fanatical fan base and the ability to fill the seats of Wrigley Field no matter how miserable the teams on the field. But it was not always so. In the early ‘50’s years of bad teams had slashed attendance. The North Side ball park frequently resembled a ghost town. Banks gave fans something to plunk down money to see. As Ernie got hot, the fans began to come back. Not only that, he helped them bond with the team, especially with children for whom he always seemed to have time. Banks was building a fan base for the team that would become multi-generational.
Cubs owner P. K. Wrigley was meddlesome, eccentric, and most of all cheap. Despite Bank’s value to the team, he was paid remarkably modestly. He was paid only $27,000 for the ’58 season. That did jump to $45,000 the next year and after that it rose by small increments annual so that by the time he retire in 1971 he was making $50,000. While those were comfortable salaries in the days before big time agents and skyrocketing pay, they lagged far behind Banks’ peers in the top rung of baseball talent by as much as 50%.
Yet the star slugger never publicly complained out of loyalty to the team and because he enjoyed an unusually close personal relationship with Wrigley. The two often had lunch together and in the off season Wrigley entertained Banks and his wife at his California estate.
As if to make up for the low pay he was handing out, the chewing gum heir advised Banks on investments and encouraged him to get involved in the business world. Banks credited the advice for encouraging him to take classes in bank management and to enter in a variety of partnership deals in enterprises that included a car dealership. Some of the investments worked out. Some didn’t. But Banks did make money. And he discovered he was a personal asset to companies who wanted to polish their images and raise their public profiles. If he never became the great executive he yearned to be, he did become a hugely successful public relations asset and company spokesperson.
In 1961 Wrigley made the oddest decision of his ownership. Instead of hiring a new manager he put the team in the charge of his famous College of Coaches—management by a committee of 12 coaches who rotated between them who to be field skipper on game day. The system worked just about as well as you would expect.
That spring the constant shifting from left to right, a necessary at shortstop, aggravated Banks’ old Army knee injury. The College decided to rest him at short and put him in left field, a position he was totally unfamiliar and uncomfortable with. “Only a duck out of water could have shared my loneliness in left field,” he later said. But with the help of center fielder Richie Ashburn he quickly adapted and made only one error in 23 games out in the cow pasture.
The College then moved him to first base, the position he would keep the rest of his career. By May 1963 he was good enough at his new position to set a record for most put-outs in a game by a first baseman.
But Bank’s power began to taper off, as did his speed on the base paths. In ’62 he had been beaned by Moe Drabowsky and was carried off the field unconscious with a concussion. He missed three days and bounced back with a three homer game. But there were lingering effects. The following year he was weakened by the mumps, a very dangerous illness in adult men, and finished the season with 18 home runs, 64 RBIs, and a .227 batting average. But when he hit, it was timely hitting and the team posted its first winning season since his arrival.
The next year, however the team was back in the toilet. Banks was settling into homer production in the high 20’s and still good RBI numbers. On September 2, 1965 Ernie thrilled fans by smacking his 400th career homer.
Things were not all peaches and cream between banks and manager Leo Durocher who had a history of making racist statement, once wanted to bench Banks during a slump but said he couldn't because "There would be rioting in the streets."
The next year, 1965, Leo Durocher arrived from Los Angeles as solo manager with a mandate to turn the bottom dwelling, money hemorrhaging team around. Things did not go well. Banks was having the worst season of his career. He hit only 15 homers and his slowing on the base paths caused him to misjudge leads. The Cubs finished the season with a dismal 59-103 record.
Durocher, who spent his evenings night clubbing, let the press who covered his colorful escapades know that he was dissatisfied with Banks who he considered washed up. In his memoirs Durocher complained that he wanted to bench Banks but could not because, “there would be rioting in the streets.” Since his past was checkered with racist comments and altercations, there was speculation, particularly in the Black owned Daily Defender that Durocher’s animosity was racially motivated.
Banks denied it and soldiered on. In his memoirs he wrote sympathetically of Durocher claiming he wished he had a manager like that early in his career and maintaining that he learned a lot from him. Despite the tense relations, Banks stayed at first base and his numbers came back up. In 1967 Durocher even named him a player/coach. He hit 23 home runs, and drove in 95 runs that year. The next year his home run numbers were back up to 32 and he was awarded the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award for playing ability and personal character. And the Cubs were finally building a decent team around him.
The following year the famous ’69 Cubs made their legendary run for the National League pennant leading through much of August until a long losing streak and a hot New York Mets ended their run. It was the team with the most eventual Hall of Famers of any that never made it to post season play including Banks, his longtime best friend Billy Williams, pitchers Ferguson Jenkins and Ken Holtzman, and Third Baseman Ron Santo. Banks chipped in 23 home runs, 106 RBIs, and a batting average of .253 to the effort. It was also the last year of Ernie’s 14 year run as an All Star.
Banks hit his 500th round tripper before a home crowd at Wrigley on May 12, 1970. But his career was winding down. After the 1971 season he announced his retirement in December. He remained on as a coach for three more seasons and then had turns as a scout and in the team front office. Durocher was fired midway through the next season.
Banks’s life-time stats speak for themselves—512 home runs, 277 of them as a shortstop, a career record at the time of his retirement; 2,583 hits; 1,636 RBIs; and a .274 batting average. In addition he held the Major League record for most games played without a postseason appearance—2,528. His Cub records include games played; at-bats, 9,421; extra-base hits, 1,009; and total bases, 4,706.
In his post playing days Banks divided his time between the Cubs and his business affairs. He became a partner at the first Black owned Ford Dealership in the U.S. He worked in banking, insurance, and was an executive at a moving company. His investments paid off and he was worth an estimated $4 million when he retired.
But the Cubs were always closest to his heart. In 1984 when the Tribune Company bought the team from the Wrigley family, Banks had a desk in the Front Office and a title as a Vice President for Corporate Sales. The new management unceremoniously dumped him, which was the most disappointing, even heartbreaking moment in his life. When fan reaction was uniform outrage, the company charged that Banks had missed some important Sales meetings and anonymously leaked comments to the press likening him to “your crazy uncle at Thanksgiving.” That went over worse. Within a couple of years the team kissed and made up. Although Banks was never again given a front office job, he was employed as a team ambassador.
Bank's Baseball Hall of Fame plaque.
After retirement honors just kept piling up. In 1977 he was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. In 1982 the Cubs retired his number 14, the first player so honored, and flew a flag with the number from the left field fowl poll. It was five years before another player was so honored. In 1999 he was named to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team and the Society for American Baseball Research listed him 27th on a list of the 100 greatest baseball players. In 2008 Banks became the first Cub player to be honored with a statue outside Wrigley Field.
In 2009 Banks was named a Library of Congress Living Legend, an award in recognition of those “who have made significant contributions to America’s diverse cultural, scientific and social heritage.” On August 8, 2014 President Barack Obama draped the Presidential Medal of Freedom around Banks’ neck in a ceremony that also honored former President Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and 13 others. Characteristically, Banks responded with a generous gesture that surprised and touched everyone. He presented the President with a bat given to him by Jackie Robinson, Obama’s treasured boyhood hero. Experts speculated that a bat of that provenance—Robinson, Banks, to Obama—instantly became probably the most valuable piece of baseball memorabilia in history.
All of these awards and honors paled against the love and affection felt for Mr. Cub by former teammates and fans alike. When word of his death spread, fans flocked to Wrigley Field which was blocked by chain link fence for reconstruction, leaving flowers, candles, baseball cards, and other tributes in heaps and piles against the fence. The Cubs had Bank’s statue, which had been removed during construction for repainting and restoration, moved to Daily Plaza where more came to pay their respects.
Posing with Mr. Cub at Wrigley Field.
The public funeral was at Chicago’s history Fourth Presbyterian Church. A memorial service was broadcast live on WGN-TV and a processional carried Ernie for the last time past Wrigley Field.