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!”
By Glen Sparks
Ernie Banks, baseball’s greatest optimist and one of its most prolific sluggers, died Friday in Chicago at the age of 83.
The Cubs infielder belted 512 home runs (tied with Eddie Mathews for 22nd all-time) during his Hall of Fame career. He may be most famous, though, for his big smile and his cheerful call of “Let’s play two!” No one liked a doubleheader quite like Banks did. No one wanted to keep playing, to keep hitting, to keep fielding like he did. Banks wanted to keep going. And, it wasn’t a put-on.
“From the minute he woke up to the minute he went to bed, he’s the same person with a positive attitude and a joy to be around,” Cubs teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Billy Williams once said about Banks.
Born in Dallas on Jan. 31, 1931, Banks graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in 1950. He lettered in basketball, football and track. Booker T. didn’t offer baseball. Instead, Banks competed on a fast-pitch softball team during the summer and played semi-pro baseball.
Following a tour in the Army, Banks signed with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. The Cubs inked him to a deal in 1953, and Banks skipped the minors. He hit .314 in just 35 at-bats in ’53 and finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting the following year.
Banks ripped more than 40 home runs in a season five times in his career (in 1955 and four straight years, 1957-60) and topped 30 homers three other times. He made 11 All-Star teams and was voted National League MVP in 1958 and ’59, years he finished with 9.4 and 10.2 WARs, respectively.
In his 19-year career, Banks hit .274 with a .330 on-base percentage. He drove in 1,636 runs and collected 2,583 hits. His lifetime OPS was .830 with an OPS+ of 122.
Banks, as mentioned, was famously optimistic although he never played in a postseason game. He came closest in 1969. The Cubs, under Manager Leo Durocher, held onto first place for 155 games but lost 17 of 25 games in September. The Miracle Mets of ’69 charged ahead and won the N.L. East by a comfortable eight games.
By that point in his career, Banks was a first baseman. He hit 23 home runs and drove in 106 runs in ’69, but he batted just .253 with an on-base percentage of .309. He had an OPS+ of just 92, and it was his last full season. Banks played part-time in 1970 and ’71 before retiring. The writers voted him into the Hall of Fame In 1977, in his first year of eligibility.
During his induction speech at Cooperstown, N.Y., Banks—to no one’s surprise, assuredly—said, “We’ve got the setting, sunshine, fresh air, the team behind us. So, let’s play two.”
After retiring, Banks did some work as a car salesman, a coach, an investment professional and more. He lived in Los Angeles for several years. This native Texan was a Chicago guy more than anything, of course. Eventually, he left L.A. and spent the last part of his life in a Windy City apartment, a hero in his adopted hometown.
President Obama awarded Banks a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, just four years after the greatest Cub of all was named a Library of Congress Living Legend, given for making “significant contributions to America’s diverse cultural, scientific and social heritage.” In 1999, the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) had named him the 27th best baseball player of all-time. The Cubs put up an Ernie Banks statue outside of Wrigley Field.
Banks taught us about the importance of keeping on the sunny side of life. He taught us the value of optimism and that losing with class has its own reward. Williams hopes that even as we mourn Banks’ death, we also celebrate his life.
“I know nobody’s happy all the time,” Williams said. “But I’ve never seen Ernie have a down day.”