Ernie Banks was so much more than a baseball player. I know, that sounds cliché. We hear it all the time when one of our sports heroes dies. But with Ernie, it is indisputably true.
Yes, he was inarguably an incredible baseball player – the greatest ever to wear the uniform of the Chicago Cubs, a franchise with a legacy dating back 139 years, to the earliest days of professional baseball.
Tall and skinny, he didn’t look like a typical power hitter. But he used his quick wrists to generate magnificent power to become the first Cub to hit 500 home runs and the ninth in major league history. “I’m different from those that swing hard,” Banks explained in 1955. “Can’t follow the pitch if I try to slug. I whip the bat with my wrists, with a snap. This way I can wait longer to swing.”
Beyond the power numbers, he was as durable and consistent as they come. He appeared in 2,528 games for the Cubs, a record for regular-season appearances by a player who never reached the postseason, playing at shortstop until the early 1960s, when he switched to first base because of leg problems. He had a lifetime .500 slugging percentage, and 2,583 hits.
His legacy as one of the all-time greats is well-cemented. He was an 11-time All-Star, the first player to ever win back-to-back most valuable player awards (1958 and 1959), a first ballot inductee to the Hall of Fame in 1977, and elected to baseball’s all-century team in 1999.
But Banks was so much more than all those numbers and honors.
He was a pioneer.
When Banks made his major league debut at Wrigley Field on September 17, 1953, at age 22, he became the first Cubs black player and one of the first ten blacks to play in the majors. Though he rarely spoke of the difficulties he surely encountered or his place in history as one of the early pioneers in breaking baseball’s color barrier, he gave a glimpse of how he handled his role in an interview with website AARP.com. “I tried to get along with people who did not normally associate with blacks – and didn’t know anything about blacks,” he said. “I let them know there’s good and bad in every ethnic group.”
He was a throwback.
Rarely if ever today do you see a professional athlete play a career of any length with the same team. So when you look at Banks’ statistical MLB career, it is almost disconcerting when you see nothing but “CHC” from top to bottom, for a stretch of 16 seasons. He was the definition of old school. He was a Cub and nothing but a Cub. Loyalty came before money. “I’ve never worked a day in my life,” he once said.
He was the eternal optimist.
Banks was of course best known for his maxim: “It’s a beautiful day for a ball game. Let’s play two.” That he maintained such enduring hope despite playing for a team with a legacy of losing like no other is all the more impressive. He is perhaps the greatest baseball player to have never played in a single postseason game. He played a decade before the Cubs even posted a record above .500.
You would not want to bet the bank on Banks as a prognosticator. When he predicted, “The Cubs are due in ’62,” they finished 59-103. And when he said they “will come alive in ’65,” they did no better than 72-90. Even when it looked like he might be right when he forecast, “The Cubs will shine in ’69,” and the team held onto first place for 155 days only to collapse in mid-September when they lost 17 out of 25 games. That allowed the surging “Miracle” New York Mets to overtake them and turned the ’69 Cubs into what author John Kuenster called “the most celebrated second-place team in the history of baseball.”
He was an ambassador for the Cubs and for baseball.
Even when there were problems in his personal life, he never showed it in public. He always wore an easy, friendly smile. In public, he was always Mr. Cub. If the Cubs staged a special ceremony or event, he dutifully served. So when it was announced that he was unable to be present for the annual Cubs Convention just a week before he died, many longtime Cubs fans and pundits remarked that they could not remember the last time he had not been in attendance.
His ambassadorship extended to a national level. In November of 2013, President Obama, a fellow Chicagoan but also a well-known fan of the Chicago White Sox, presented Mr. Cub with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest honor for a civilian. It was only the ninth time that the honor had been bestowed upon a baseball player. Obama called him an “ambassador or baseball, and for the city of Chicago.” During a pregame ceremony at Wrigley in August of that year to celebrate his latest and greatest honor, Banks remarked on the award and what it meant to him. “Is this a great country or what?” he said. “[The award] just means life is just wonderful, [that] when you do things and try to help people and share things, it really comes back to you. … It’s almost like the Nobel Peace Prize to me.”
Most of all, he was a fan.
What made Banks Mr. Cub was that we saw him as one of us. I never met him but it felt like I had. I’m sure that is true of many Cubs fans. He had a magnetic charm. Always upbeat. Always rooting for his Cubs. “Happiness is going eyeball-to-eyeball with those Cub fans,” he said in 1977. “That’s really what I appreciated most about playing in Wrigley Field.” Those words out of a player’s mouth today would probably ring as hollow, as if he was reading them straight out of the playbook. Not so with Banks. They felt real because they were real. Possibly because he’s the one that wrote that playbook.
Trivial Pursuit – Little known facts about Mr. Cub
- Actor, comedian and Cubs fan Bill Murray named his son Homer Banks Murray in tribute to Mr. Cub.
- In 2008, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder released the song “All The Way” after Banks had asked him to write a song about the Cubs as a birthday gift.
- Banks was an ordained minister and he presided at the wedding of former Cubs pitcher Sean Marshall.
- Banks ran for alderman in Chicago in 1962. He lost the election.
- An ex-wife sold Bank’s 500th home run ball, which she’d received as part of their divorce settlement.
Photo: / The White House