Today would have been Ernie Banks 92nd birthday if he
had made it. But he didn’t. He died in a Chicago hospital on January 23, 2014.
When news of his passing came
it was a shock to many Cubs fans. 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
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.
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 played 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 losing 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 were 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.
Jackie Robinson crossed the field to greet Banks at Wrigley Field and gave him some advice.
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
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 the National League Rookie of the Year voting.
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 ballpark
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
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 into 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 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
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
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.
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
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
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 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,
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 foul pole. 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 his 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
The public funeral was at Chicago’s
historic Fourth Presbyterian Church. A memorial
service was broadcast live on WGN-TV and a processional carried
Ernie for the last time past Wrigley Field.