Ernie Banks arrived on the north side of Chicago in 1953. He carried a quick bat and hit the stuffing out of National League pitching over his 19-year-career with the Cubs.
The lanky shortstop from Dallas, Texas, clubbed 44 homers in 1955 and 43 in 1957. Then, he really got it going. Banks earned back-to-back MVP awards in 1958-59.
The right-handed hitter took home those postseason prizes despite playing on teams that finished a combined 16 games under .500. The Cubs, one of baseball’s early powerhouses, had fallen on hard times. From 1947-59, the team ended up with a losing record in every year but one. (The Cubs finished exactly .500, 77-77, in 1952.)
Not even Banks’ 43 homers could save Chicago in ’57. That year, the Cubs melted down to 62-92, dead last. Banks still finished sixth in the MVP race and made his third All-Star team.
Most shortstops back then focused on defense, hitting singles and running the bases. Banks focused on crushing fastballs and breaking pitches into the seats. He began his pro career in the Negro leagues, just a few years after Jackie Robinson made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 as the game’s first modern-day African-American player.
Fans quickly took to Banks’ ready smile and plentiful line drives. He offered the perfect tonic for the end of another long Midwest winter.
The baseball season usually begins windy, cold and gray in Chicago. Fans shiver in heavy coats, and batters pray for summer air. Banks could hit in a snowstorm. In 1958, he led the league in home runs (47), RBI (129), total bases (379) and slugging percentage (.614). He also batted .313 and scored 119 runs. Like he would do seven times during his career, Banks topped the N.L. in games played (154).
The Cubs muddled through the 1958 campaign. They finished 72-82, 20 games out of first place. Even so, Banks beat out the Giants’ Willie Mays for MVP. (The Giants finished 80-74, good for third place.) Mays slugged 29 homers and drove in 96 runs while batting .347 and stealing 31 bases. (Banks stole four bases.) Banks earned 16 first-place votes to Mays’s three. Hank Aaron (30, 95, .326), playing for the first-place Milwaukee Braves, wound up third on the final ballot.
The Cubs struggled once again in 1959. They ended up in sixth place with a 74-80 won-loss mark, 13 games behind the pennant-winning Los Angeles Dodgers. Banks finished second in the home-run race and led the league with 143 RBI. He hit .304 (10th in the league) and had a slugging percentage of .596 (sixth).
Banks didn’t win any more MVP awards. He finished fourth in 1960 and in the top 20 four other times in his career. The Cubs struggled most seasons, but Banks rarely lost his enthusiasm for baseball. Even during those cold days and through the Cubs’ losing ways, he didn’t lose sight of his famous declaration: “Let’s play two!”