There is something about Ernie Banks’ joyous and jinxed and wonderful career that people sometimes miss: Ernie Banks was the first black player ever to play for the Chicago Cubs or, in the words of newspaper accounts of the day he was, “the first Negro to appear in a Bruin uniform.”
At that time in the National League, just about every black player played in New York, either for the Giants or Dodgers. There were no black players on the Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati or St. Louis teams. Or Chicago. It was September 1953, and Chicago Cubs owner Phil Wrigley was so distraught about his team’s awfulness that he told the press he would happily sell the team, “if the right buyer came along.” Attendance at Wrigley Field was down a quarter of a million, the Cubs were 40 or so games out of first place, they had blundered into acquiring slugger Ralph Kiner just as his career was going over the cliff. Hopelessness hovered over the Chicago Cubs like a rain cloud.
Enter Ernie Banks. In the past, teams like the St. Louis Browns had brought in black players into exactly this kind of baseball morass, brought them more for publicity than baseball. The Cubs called up two black players that day in 1953, the other a 28-year-old second baseman named Gene Baker, who would go on to a fine career. Banks, though, got into a game first. In his first at-bat, he flied out to center off of Phillies star pitcher Curt Simmons. That day, Banks would go zero-for-three with a walk. He also made an error. The Phillies beat the Cubs 16-4. A Cubs career had begun.
The point about Banks being the first in Chicago is that, in many ways, he was a new kind of pioneer. Jackie Robinson earned respect because of the soulful and vehement way he played baseball; he would not be ignored or denied. Larry Doby was a quiet and proud man who played superb baseball even as fury rained around him. Roy Campanella, Monte Irvin, Don Newcombe, Minnie Minoso, Satchel Paige, later the young Willie Mays and Henry Aaron and Frank Robinson and Roberto Clemente – all these players and many others added warp threads to baseball’s tapestry, they changed the game of baseball into something faster and richer and more alive, and along the way they also played their roles in how America wanted to see itself.
But Ernie Banks? The first word was love. From the start, even in those turbulent times, even though he was the first, even though Chicago was finding its way in a changing America, people in Chicago did not see the color of his skin. From the start, Chicago loved Ernie Banks.
Well, if you want to be technical, it wasn’t precisely from the start; it took seven whole games for people to fall in love. Banks had three hits in his second game, homered in his third, and after a week in big leagues he was hitting .320 with a double, triple and homer; he had also played terrific shortstop. “Ernie Banks seems to have solved the Chicago Cubs’ weakness at shortstop,” was the lead to an Associated Press story that went around the country. Already, Cubs fans were buzzing.
Ernie Banks played with an energy and enthusiasm that broke through all the negative emotions, melted away cynicism and pessimism and racism and, in the words of another Chicago icon Ferris Bueller, all other isms. He had learned to express his joy for the game while playing for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues; he was shy then, unsure, and he would sit silently on the bus as it bumped from town to town. “Be alive, man!” his manager Buck O’Neil would shout at him. “You gotta love this game to play it!”
He did love the game, love it as deeply as anyone who ever played, and that flowed from him when he played for the Chicago Cubs. Joe Mantegna, the actor, would remember as a kid just watching the way Ernie Banks went out to his shortstop position at Wrigley Field. Every answer was in jog from the dugout to that spot between second and third. Ernie Banks ran to shortstop the way a child runs to a parent at the end of summer camp. He could not wait to get out there, could not wait to dig his cleats into the dirt and make his first throw across the infield to first base, could not wait for the game to begin.
It’s a beautiful day
Let’s play two
There’s Ernie Banks perfect little poem, baseball’s perfect little poem, with all of the hope and joy and optimism that the game can provide when it’s just right.
In Banks’ third year, he became the first shortstop to ever hit forty home runs in a season. Then, from 1957-1960, he would hit do it four years in a row. He would always call himself a natural hitter; indeed it often seemed that God had taught him how to hit. He stood upright (later in life, he would hunch over slightly as age took its toll) and his bat pointed straight up to the sky; he looked like a statue. When the pitch began, though, he would become animated, like a movie coming out of pause, and in an instant, his hands would go back while his body moved forward, and then he would uncoil those powerful wrists and bat would lunge at the baseball almost in desperation.
The result had its own peculiar look. With some baseball players – Mike Schmidt and Ken Griffey Jr. and Miguel Cabrera among them – the ball seems to jump off their bats at impact, like a gymnast jumping off the vault. You hear that expression a lot: The ball just jumps off his bat. It did not seem that way with Ernie Banks. With Banks, it looked like he was catching the ball with his bat and then heaving it back with all his might.
That natural swing cracked 512 home runs; Banks was the first middle infielder to do so. That natural swing drove in 1,636 RBIs, which at the time of his retirement in 1971 place him 12th on the list. Banks’s career was really divided into two; for the first half he was an anomaly, a brilliant defensive shortstop with titanic power. The game had never a player quite like him before. He won a Gold Glove and probably should have won a couple more. He was a two-time MVP who led the league in homers and RBIs twice. That combination was almost beyond imagination, like a punter who also leads the league in rushing.
“After he hits a home run,” his manager Phil Cavarretta once said, “he comes back to the bench looking like he did something wrong.
As a shortstop, he hit .290 and slugged .550 and was intentionally walked more than Aaron, Mays, Williams or Mantle. He was feared and beloved.
Then in his 30s, he became something else, a first baseman with some power but, much more than that, an icon. The Cubs were always terrible with Banks at shortstop. They had a losing record every year and never once finished even in the top half of the league. In the years he won those MVP awards, the aged Alvin Dark hit in front of him and the equally creaky Moose Moryn hit behind. Hopeless. It was during this time that Phil Wrigley had a professional spellbinder travel with the team to put curses on opponents. Later, Wrigley had the team rotate managers throughout the season. The best years of Ernie Banks’ career were consumed by all that losing.
Later, though, with Banks at first base, the Cubs finally put together a contender; Banks found himself joined in the lineup by Ron Santo and Billy Williams and Glenn Beckert and various other gems. People rooted for Banks to finally win. In one of sports great ironies, the team hired manager Leo Durocher – famous for saying “Nice Guys Finish Last” – to get the nicest guy in baseball the pennant and World Series shot his career so richly deserved.
Of course, it wasn’t to be. The 1969 Cubs couldn’t keep pace with the Miracle Mets
The 1970 Cubs were in first place until mid-June, but couldn’t sustain it. This was as close as Ernie Banks would get to the World Series. It simply wasn’t his destiny to win. It was his destiny to show a city and a nation how to lose. It’s a beautiful day. Let’s play two.
Ernie Banks hit his 500th home run in May of 1970, a day he often called “a lazy, hazy day of summer.” In a way, it was his whole career in miniature. There were only 5,264 people at Wrigley Field that day, and when Banks hit the home run off Atlanta’s Pat Jarvis, the ball did not look like it was going out. Announcer Jack Brickhouse did not seem to realize the ball would be a home run until after it dropped over the Wrigley Field ivy in left. “That’s it! That’s it!” Brickhouse shouted, almost in surprise. “Hey hey! He did it!”
But I think of another day as Ernie Banks career in miniature, one I’ve written about before, one Buck O’Neil would often talk about. The Cubs played on a hot day in Houston before the Astrodome was even built. The game was at old Colt Stadium with its dried out grass and sun-baked infield and mosquitoes the size of Chryslers. It is unnecessary to call any day at Colt Stadium a hot day, they were all hot, but this one was particularly sizzling and sure enough the Cubs were playing a doubleheader.
“It’s a beautiful day,” Banks said, like he always said. “Let’s play two.”
Instead he struck out three times in the first game and then fainted from heat exhaustion before the second game even began.
Buck O’Neil was coaching the Cubs then, and after the game he asked Banks if he still thought it was a beautiful day for a doubleheader. Banks slowly and painfully looked up and smiled. He was irresistible, the most irresistible player of them all. He Mr. Cub, Mr. Sunshine, the first black man to play for the Chicago Cubs and, at the same time, the hero of every North side Chicago kid white or black or any shade between, who dreamed about being a ballplayer.
“There’s all beautiful days Buck,” Ernie Banks said. “It’s just that some days are more beautiful than others.”
Friday was one of those days less beautiful. The world lost Ernie Banks. The feeling afterward was mixed, one of great sadness of course because he is gone, and one of great happiness because there ever was an Ernie Banks. Saturday, no doubt, they were playing a doubleheader in heaven.