For many Cubs fans, the death of Ernie Banks on Friday, at the age of 83, will be a time for reflection about what he meant, both on and off the field. And no greater symbol of the franchise within our living memories can ever be considered.
The face of what we all know as the Cubs franchise, at least in the 19th century when it was called the White Stockings, was Cap Anson. He was baseball’s first superstar player, but for all of his greatness on the field, he also ushered in the segregation of the game with an ugly incident involving George Stovey in the summer of 1887. It took baseball a half-century and more to get out from under Anson’s shameful behavior.
Many Cubs fans may not know this, but Ernie Banks was the first African-American player to wear a Cubs uniform. He first appeared in the majors in September of 1953, at a time when many fans probably still shared Cap Anson’s views. He became a star player, and a two-time MVP, during the 1950s, and was the leader of the team throughout the 1960s as well. Nobody else will ever have the moniker of “Mr. Cub,” the way that Ernie Banks did.
It warms my heart to know that an African American player is now universally regarded as the face of the Cubs franchise. I hope that Cap Anson, wherever he is today, writhes and convulses at all of the love and respect that Ernie Banks received from Cubs fans. It proves to me that good really does conquer evil.
Ernie Banks never won–and never even played for–a World Series title with the Cubs. He never got to see one in his retirement either, and that’s something that all Cubs fans can feel some remorse about.
But in another sense, Ernie Banks paved the way for Billy Williams and Gary Matthews and Andre Dawson and many more African American Cubs players, right up to Dexter Fowler and Edwin Jackson on this year’s team. Ernie Banks was the anti-Anson, and I will forever remember him as such.