It’s a sad, sad day in baseball as one of the game’s greatest ambassadors and most beloved figures has died. Ernie Banks was 83 years-old.
Mr. Cub was one of the most famous figures the game has ever known. A Hall of Fame shortstop and first baseman. The face of a franchise for multiple generations. A franchise known more for its futility than its success, but it was a futility which never lessened or besmirched the legacy of its greatest player, even as he set the record for most career games played without a playoff appearance. But that was on them, not him. He was good enough to be the best player on any number of World Series winning teams, but circumstance and bad fortune made it so that Banks’ legacy is one of singular optimism more than anything else. A man known more for his desire to “play two” on a warm summer day than anything that ever happened in October.
Not that his on-the-field exploits were anything less than fantastic.
He was signed to his first professional contract by the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues at the age of 19. There he learned the game from legends, including Cool Papa Bell, who signed him, and Buck O’Neil, who was his manager. After an introduction to the game and then a stint in the army, he hit .347 for the Monarchs in 1952, catching the eyes of the Chicago Cubs. When he was offered a contract, he didn’t want to leave Kansas City, citing loyalty to his teammates and his club. He did leave, of course — who wouldn’t — and then embarked on a Hall of Fame major league career.
Banks was the Cubs’ first black player and was runner up to Wally Moon for the Rookie of the Year Award in 1954. The following year he hit 44 home runs, setting the record for homers by a shortstop. He was the NL MVP in 1958 and 1959, leading the league in home runs and slugging in 1958 and leading the league in RBIs in both seasons. He’d win another home run crown in 1960 and led the NL in games played in 1954, 1955 and 1957-60. He won a Gold Glove in 1960 as well.
For his career he hit 512 home runs in his 19 major league seasons, all in Chicago, and posted a career line of .274/.330/.500. He was a big-hitting shortstop in an age where shortstops were not expected to hit. His bat was so good that, when he could no longer handle the position due to knee problems which dated back to his days in the army, that bat played just fine at first base. Indeed, he ended up playing more games at first in his career than he did at short.
After his playing days were over he served as, perhaps, the best ambassador the game has known. Certainly the best ambassador the Cubs have known. No one who has ever met or interacted with him has ever shared a negative story about the man. In 2013 he was a Presidential Medal of Freedom winner. His stature was such, however, that the honor was more likely the president’s for having met him to give it to him than Banks’ for receiving it.
Baseball lost one of its best today. But one who will never be forgotten.