Saturday, January 24, 2015

Ernie Banks, 1931-2015


Ernie Banks once ran for Chicago's city council, the Board of Aldermen. It was in 1962, while he was still one of the best players in baseball. He figured the election was non-partisan, so he wouldn't upset either Democrats or Republicans. And he figured that the South Side would be a good district to run from, since it was mostly black. And he was enormously popular in the city. Who doesn't like Ernie Banks?

White Sox fans didn't like him. They hated everything to do with the Cubs. And the South Side is mostly White Sox fans. He came in 4th in a 5-man field.

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I had hoped to write a post about the FA Cup, the 4th Round of which is underway this weekend. But I'm a baseball fan first, and baseball lost one of its legends yesterday.

Ernest Banks (no middle name) was born on January 31, 1931, in Dallas, Texas. He grew up as a black person in a segregated society, and graduated from the all-black Booker T. Washington High School in Dallas. He lettered in football, basketball and track, but the school didn't have a baseball team. At the same time, a few hundred miles north, in Commerce, Oklahoma, this same problem was happening to future Yankee Legend Mickey Mantle, and both boys had to play on local amateur teams to get noticed.

He was one of the last players to make the jump from the Negro Leagues to the major leagues, playing for the Kansas City Monarchs. This was interrupted by 2 years in the U.S. Army, during the Korean War. He remained stateside, though, seeing no combat.


Ernie was signed by the Chicago Cubs, and became their 1st black player, without ever playing a day in the minor leagues. He made his debut at Wrigley Field on September 17, 1953. The game didn't go well for the Cubs: They got pounded by the Philadelphia Phillies, 16-4. Banks, wearing the Number 14 he would wear throughout his career, played shortstop and batted 7th. He went 0-for-3 against Curt Simmons, but drew a walk and scored a run, for all the good that did the Cubs.

The next season, 1954, he finished 2nd in the National League Rookie of the Year voting, behind Wally Moon of the St. Louis Cardinals -- a black player on a Northern team losing to a white player on a "Southern" team. In 1955, he made the 1st of his 11 NL All-Star teams, and finished 3rd in the NL Most Valuable Player voting, behind Roy Campanella and Duke Snider, both of whom played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Dodgers won the Pennant that year, and Campy was also black, so it can hardly be said that Ernie got robbed that time. (Though it's a bit odd that Campy and the Duke didn't take votes away from each other. It's rare for teammates to finish 1st and 2nd in the MVP voting.)

In 1958 and 1959, Ernie won the NL MVP, despite the Cubs finishing 6th. (Only once before, in either League, had a player on a team that finished in the bottom half of its League won the MVP: Another Cub, Hank Sauer, in 1952.)

Did Ernie deserve those MVPs, in spite of the Cubs' poor finishes? No: It's Most Valuable Player, not Most Outstanding Player. In 1958, Willie Mays of the San Francisco Giants finished 2nd, and Hank Aaron of the Pennant-winning Milwaukee Braves finished 3rd. In 1959, Eddie Mathews of the Braves finished 2nd, Aaron was 3rd, and the aforementioned Wally Moon fiished 4th, making him the highest-finishing player on that year's Pennant winners, the now-Los Angeles Dodgers.

That said, he had truly outstanding seasons. In 1958, he batted .313 (which turned out to be his career high), and he led the NL in games, at-bats, home runs with 47 (a record for a player playing mostly at shortstop, which stood for many years thereafter), runs batted in with 129, total bases and slugging percentage. His OPS+ was 155, meaning he was 55 percent better at producing runs than the average player in the NL. In 1959, he batted .304, hit 45 homers (this time, not good enough to lead the NL), and led the NL with a career-high 143 RBIs. In 1960, he finished 4th in the MVP voting, and again led the NL in homers with 41, and had 117 RBIs. 

That's 133 home runs. In 3 seasons. By a shortstop. In the Eisenhower years. In those days, most shortstops didn't hit 113 homers in their entire career -- even if they played over 10 seasons.

True, Wrigley has close power alleys (368 feet to both left-center and right-center), but the foul poles are the longest in the majors (355 to left, 353 to right). Also true, the wind blows out at Wrigley half the time, making it the best hitter's park in the NL on those days (at least, until Atlanta and Colorado came into the League). But the wind also blows in half the time, making it the best pitcher's park in the NL on those days. So if Ernie got a few cheap home runs, he also hit a lot of long outs.

Also in 1960, in the preseason, he appeared on the TV show Home Run Derby, essentially a home-run hitting contest between star sluggers of the time. To take advantage of good weather, the series was filmed in Los Angeles, at the ballpark that used to be the home of the Cubs' top farm team, the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. (In 1961, an American League expansion team would take the name, and play their 1st season, but only that season, in that park.) Cubs owner William Wrigley Jr. had built the stadium in 1925, designing it to look like Cubs Park in Chicago, complete with close power alleys and ivy on the outfield walls. He named it Wrigley Field -- then, the next season, renamed Cubs Park Wrigley Field. So there was a Wrigley Field in Los Angeles before there was one in Chicago, even though the Chicago park was 9 years older.

You would think that, playing in a replica of the Wrigley Field he knew (minus the big green scoreboard in not-quite-straightaway center field), with no wind blowing in, Ernie would have done well on the show. Not really: He lost his first appearance to Mantle, then returned a few weeks later, dethroned Gil Hodges of the Dodgers as show champion, and then lost his first title defense to Jackie Jensen of the Boston Red Sox.

With Ernie's passing, only 6 of the 19 players who appeared on Home Run Derby are still alive: Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Al Kaline, Rocky Colavito and Bob Cerv.

The Gold Gloves were not instituted until 1957, and Ernie won only 1, in 1960. But by 1961, his knee was bothering him to the point where, in those pre-designated hitter days (not that the NL has ever had it anyway), he was moved to left field, and then to 1st base. In 1962, for the first time, he played more games at 1st base than at any other position. Indeed, he played more games at 1st, 1,259, than he did at short, 1,125. Still, when people consider their all-time teams, they usually list Ernie as a shortstop.

Only twice did Ernie bat .300 or higher, although he just missed on 2 other occasions. He had 7 30-homer seasons and 5 40-homer seasons. He had 8 100+ RBI seasons, his first at age 24, and his last at 38.

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And, along the way, in a city that had known Mike “King” Kelly, Frank Chance, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Eddie Collins, Hack Wilson, Luke Appling, Phi Cavarretta, Hank Sauer and Luis Aparicio in baseball; and Red Grange, Bronko Nagurski, Sid Luckman, Marshall “Biggie” Goldberg, Pat Harder, Mike Ditka, Gale Sayers, Dick Butkus, George Mikan, Johnny Gottselig, Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, he became the most popular athlete in Chicago history. Maybe Michael Jordan has since surpassed him, but Walter Payton didn’t, and Patrick Kane never will.

He became known as Mr. Cub, and even his teammate, 3rd baseman Ron Santo, who became a Cub broadcaster and called himself the world’s biggest Cub fan, did not dispute this. Ernie was bright and sunny and optimistic, loved playing at Wrigley, which had no lights until 1988, and developed the tagline, “It’s a beautiful day for baseball. Let’s play two!”

All this while the Civil Rights Movement was going on, and Chicago was mired in poverty, while Mayor Richard J. Daley was not only not seen as being particularly friendly toward black people, but made no secret of the fact that, as a native South Sider, he was a White Sox fan, and seemed to have no use for the Cubs. Had the Cubs asked the City of Chicago for help in building a new ballpark, Daley would almost certainly have turned them down, despite his love of construction projects. What the era’s more militant blacks – inside baseball and out – thought of Ernie, I don’t know.

In his post-retirement memoir, Mr. Cub, Ernie wrote:

My philosophy about race relations is that I'm the man and I'll set my own patterns in life. I don't rely on anyone else's opinions. I look at a man as a human being; I don't care about his color. Some people feel that because you are black you will never be treated fairly, and that you should voice your opinions, be militant about them. I don't feel this way. You can't convince a fool against his will... If a man doesn't like me because I'm black, that's fine. I'll just go elsewhere, but I'm not going to let him change my life.

But I know of no one who ever publicly slated Ernie for not taking a stronger stand on civil rights, or who ever publicly called him an “Uncle Tom.” He did, however, do a lot of shilling for the ballclub, appearing in commercials on WGN-Channel 9, for the team’s sponsors, and for the team itself, including singing the fight song that had been written by the team’s broadcasters: “Hey hey, holy mackerel, no doubt about it, the Cubs are on their way!” (Jack Brickhouse’s tagline was, “Hey hey!” and Vince Lloyd’s was “Holy mackerel!”) 

In another commercial for the team’s broadcasts, he sang, “My Kind of Town,” and mentioned, listed among the things that “Chicago is,” the Wrigley Building, the headquarters of the chewing gum company owned by William’s son and successor as boss of the company and the Cubs, Phillip K. Wrigley. (To be fair, that building is in the real lyrics.) If anyone ever thought that Ernie was selling out, they never made it known during his playing days.

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What was also not known during most of his playing days was a Pennant race. The Cubs not only didn’t win a Pennant for most of Ernie’s career, they hadn’t even seriously contended for one. As songwriter Steve Goodman, a Cub fan, would later write in “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request”:

You know, the law of averages says
anything will happen that can.
But the last time the Cubs won
a National League Pennant
was the year we dropped the bomb on Japan.

That was 1945. And they hadn’t won the World Series since 1908. When Roosevelt was President. Theodore, not Franklin.

But in the late 1960s, under Leo Durocher, who had managed both the Dodgers and their arch-rivals, the Giants, to Pennants, the Cubs steadily got better. In 1969, with divisional play underway for the first time, they won 11 of their first 12 games, and led the NL Eastern Division most of the way. As early as June 15, the Cubs were in 1st place by 9 games. On the 4th of July, by 7½. After sweeping a doubleheader on July 20, they went into the All-Star Break up by 5. Men were walking on the Moon, and the Cubs were in 1st place by 5 games. Anything seemed possible.

On August 16, the Saturday of Woodstock, the Cubs were 9 games ahead of the surprising 2nd-place Mets, with 42 games to go. Nobody really used the term “Magic Number” in those days, but the Cubs’ Magic Number to clinch the Division was 34. Groovy, man! Far out! Like, wow!

And Ernie’s optimism was on full display: “They play the World Series in the daytime, don’t they? This is it: We’re going to the World Series!”

The Cubs were 75-44. (One game had been called due to darkness while tied, and would have to be replayed.) If they had just gone .500 the rest of the way, 21-21, they would have had 96 wins, and nobody could have expected the Mets to surpass them.

As late as September 3, they were up by 5 with 24 to go. Magic Number: 20. If they had gone just 1 game over .500, 13-12, they would have had 97 wins, and most people would have figured they'd be in the clear.

In 1969, approaching his 38th birthday, Ernie Banks batted just .253, but hit 23 homers with 106 RBIs. Certainly, it wasn’t his fault that this Cubs team, which included eventual Hall-of-Famers himself, Santo, left fielder Billy Williams, pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, and manager Durocher, didn’t win the Division.

On September 8, they went into a 2-game series in New York up by 2½ games. Magic Number: Still 20. Going 1 game over .500, 11-10, would have given them 95 wins. They lost both games, the 5th and 6th games of an 8-game losing streak. And while the streak stopped there, their "September Swoon" didn't. The Swoon, combine with the Mets' "Miracle," reached its climax on September 24, with the Mets clinching the Division.

And, still, the Cubs kept losing, and the Mets kept winning. The last 2 games of the season had the Cubs playing the Mets at Wrigley, and should have meant something. Instead, the Mets won Game 161, and the Cubs won Game 162. The Cubs finished 8 games behind the Mets, a 17-game swing in 45 days. The Cubs won 92 games, as many as the Red Sox had won 2 years earlier in their "Impossible Dream" Pennant season -- but also as many as the Phillies had won in 1964, when they had their "Phillie Phlop," and missed the Pennant by 1 game. 

On May 12, 1970, Ernie Banks took Pat Jarvis of the Atlanta Braves deep, and Brickhouse said, "That's it! That's it! Hey hey!" It was the 500th home run of Ernie's career. He was only the 10th player to reach the milestone, after Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron and Harmon Killebrew. Only Ott, Mays, Mathews and Aaron had preceded him among NL batters; only Foxx, Mays, Aaron and Killebrew had preceded him among righthanded hitters. (Mantle was a switch-hitter, but hit far more lefty than righty.)

What people tend to forget is that the Cubs actually got closer to the NL East title in 1970 than in 1969: 6 games, as opposed to 8. Why is this forgotten? Because there was no dramatic event, such as the September Swoon, the Tommie Agee play at the plate (he was out, but the umpire called him safe), or the Black Cat Game; and because Pittsburgh doesn’t have a major media machine, while New York does. So does Chicago, and so do some other cities: The ’65 Dodgers, ’67 Red Sox (who lost the World Series), ’68 Detroit Tigers, ’69 Mets and Cubs get remembered; the ’65 Twins, ’66 and ’70 Baltimore Orioles, ’67 and ’68 St. Louis Cardinals, and ’71 Pirates, not so much.

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Ernie Banks retired after the 1971 season, with a lifetime batting average of .274, a 122 OPS+, 2,583 hits, and 512 home runs -- 277 of them at shortstop, then a record. The record now belongs to Cal Ripken of the Orioles -- Alex Rodriguez had not surpassed Cal by the time he made the switch from shortstop to 3rd base.

From 1967 to 1971, he was officially a player-coach, making him one of the earliest black coaches in the major leagues. He remained on the Cub coaching staff for a few years. On May 8, 1973, the Cubs were playing the San Diego Padres, and manager Whitey Lockman was thrown out of the game in the 11th inning. Lockman put Ernie in charge for the rest of the game -- technically, if not officially, making him the 1st black manager in the history of Major League Baseball.

"I picked Joe Pepitone to face a left-handed pitcher," he said. "He’s a left-handed hitter, and he got the hit to win the game. “Then I brought in Bill Bonham, a right-handed pitcher who didn’t do very well during the season and most of the pitching coaches didn’t like him and I did. He came in and saved the game.

The 3-2 win in 12 innings was treated like any other win. Nobody seemed to notice the significance, and on October 3, 1974, a year and a half after Ernie's fill-in, Frank Robinson was named manager of the Cleveland Indians, making him the official 1st black manager in MLB.

He was the 1st Cub to get his uniform number retired, 14. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1977, his 1st year on the ballot. In 1990, he threw out the ceremonial first ball before the All-Star Game at Wrigley Field.

He worked for an insurance company, and invested wisely. He and a former Air Force officer named Bob Nelson became the first black owners of a Ford dealership. He married 4 times; with his 2nd wife, he had 2 sons and a daughter; with his 4th, he adopted a daughter. 

In 1999, The Sporting News listed him at Number 38 on their list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players, the highest-ranking Cub, and only Shoeless Joe Jackson and Eddie Collins ranked ahead of him among players who'd played a significant part of their careers in Chicago. That same year, he, Ripken, and Pittsburgh Pirates legend Honus Wagner were chosen for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team -- Ernie and Cal by fan balloting, and Honus by a special committee to include players the fans might have missed. (Honus last played in 1917, so there were few people alive who'd seen him play, whereas Ernie was iconic to the Baby Boom generation and Cal was still active.)

In 2002, the Yankees honored Reggie Jackson with a Plaque in Yankee Stadium's Monument Park. He requested that the Yankees invite 3 fellow members of the 500 Home Run Club, each of whom had played in the Negro Leagues: Banks, Mays and Aaron. I was there that day, and it was a nice surprised to see them, even though they had nothing to do with the Yankees. (I had previously seen each of them -- including Reggie -- at induction ceremonies at the Baseball Hall of Fame.)

In 2008, a statue of Ernie was dedicated outside Wrigley. In 2013, President Barack Obama -- a Chicago resident, but a White Sox fan -- awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. All the while, he remained the Cubs' greatest ambassador.


Ernie died yesterday, a few days short of his 84th birthday. As of this writing, the cause has not yet been disclosed -- the websites of the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, WGN and MLB.com don't yet list it -- but I hadn't heard that he was ill.

All that optimism was no pose: With Ernie, what you saw was what you got, and what you got was the real thing. As Cubs owner Tom Ricketts said, "He was the warmest and more sincere person I've ever known. Approachable, ever optimistic and kind-hearted, Ernie Banks is, and always will be, Mr. Cub. My family and I grieve the loss of such a great and good-hearted man, but we look forward to celebrating Ernie's life in the days ahead."

1 comment:

Tom said...

I was born in Chicago in 1951. I grew up idolizing Ernie Banks for his love of the game of baseball. We lived in the suburbs and never got to Wrigley Field to watch a game. We saw all of our games on WGN.

We moved to Phoenix in late 1960. The Cubs had Spring Training in Mesa. So, in the spring of 1961, my father took us to a game against the Milwaukee Braves. Ernie hit the longest home run ever hit at Rendezvous Park (at that time). Later in the game, Hank Aaron hit one even further. Ernie's record didn't last long. Later in the game, Ernie was in the batting cage. At that time, the batting cages were accessible to the public. We watched him hit and I can remember the crack of the bat when he hit one. When he came out, my father asked him if he would pose for a picture with my brother, sister and me. Ernie put his arms around us and we all were grinning.

Ten years later, I took that picture to another Cubs Spring Training game to get Ernie to autograph it. In the background of the picture were just fans milling around. No indication of who the Cubs had played that day. When I handed the picture to Ernie to sign, he looked at it hard and said, "We played the Braves that day and Hank beat my home run record. I guess I'll have to hit one farther today." Ten years and over 1,500 games later, and he still remembered those three smiling children!

Ernie was a hell of a man and I will miss him greatly. Rest in peace, Mr. Cub! And, you can now play two with the angels in heaven.