Die-hard Chicago Cub fans and baseball fans are reflecting upon the incredible career and life of Ernie Banks, forever tied to one team and one town.
Imagine being a kid or young adult, in the late 1950s or 1960s, somewhere in the Midwest. Turning on a transistor radio at night, after you’ve been put to bed, and listening to WGN out of Chicago carrying a Chicago Cubs game from the West Coast.
Broadcaster Jack Brickhouse’s voice is heard announcing that Ernie Banks is stepping up to the plate. It was “Mr. Cub,” the shortstop and first baseman with an infectious smile and positive attitude. Banks could turn a run-of-the-mill season into one worth listening to and watching at Wrigley Field.
Banks, who died on Friday night in Chicago at age 83, became an icon of the Windy City. His numbers, Hall of Fame numbers for sure, are incredible. In a 19-year career – all with the Cubs, Banks played in 2,528 games, amassed 2,583 hits, 512 home runs, and 1,636 RBIs. Banks earned back-to-back Most Valuable Player awards in 1958 and 1959. He was voted into 11 All-Star Games. Banks played 1,259 games at first base, 1,125 at shortstop, 69 at third base, and 46 in the outfield.
His impact, though, goes far beyond numbers and statistics. The “let’s play two” attitude, at a time when the Cubs only played day games (no kids, there were no lights back in the day), would make many modern-era baseball players scratch their heads.
Banks’ playing days ended after the 1971 season. The Cubs retired his No. 14 forever in 1982. Outside Wrigley Field, there is a statue in honor of him.
When news spread about Banks’ death late Friday night, people from all walks of life spoke kindly and fondly of him. It’s almost shocking, in light of today’s sports world, that anyone could evoke such emotion from so many.
Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts said in a statement:
“Words cannot express how important Ernie Banks will always be to the Chicago Cubs, the city of Chicago and Major League Baseball. He was one of the greatest players of all time. He was a pioneer in the major leagues. And more importantly, he was the warmest and most 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.”
New York Times reporter Richard Goldstein called Banks “the greatest power-hitting shortstop of the 20th century and an unconquerable optimist whose sunny disposition never dimmed in 19 seasons with the perennially stumbling Chicago Cubs.”
The Huffington Post has compiled reactions as well as Tweets from notable individuals and Chicago-based media outlets, including Saturday morning’s front page of the Chicago Sun-Times:
— Chicago Sun-Times (@Suntimes) January 24, 2015
Major League Baseball’s official website has posted this wonderful video tribute and remembrances from former teammates and friends in the game. Their story also puts Banks right in the heart of Chicago sports legends. For many, Banks is the heart and always will be.
He was born Ernest Banks on Jan. 31, 1931, in Dallas, Texas and made his major-league debut on Sept. 17, 1953, after spending time with the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues. Prior to joining the Cubs, Banks spent two years serving in the Army and serving his country.
He could hit. God, could he hit. Ernie had incredible wrist speed, which he put to good use after starting to use a lighter bat.
In looking at pictures which flooded across the Internet late Friday night and early Saturday morning, a young Banks is shown in one with a fluid, arms-stretched-out swing during a game at Wrigley. He was probably smacking a pitch out toward Waveland Avenue, punctuated for listeners by Brickhouse’s own “Hey! Hey!” home run call.
A photo shows him at training camp in Arizona from 1970, stretching out to catch a throw at first base in perfect form. Another picture from 1958 has Ernie in front of his mantle at home, where his first MVP award sits proudly in front of him. A youthful Banks, both in body and mind, is shown as a tower of grace. Banks was the first African-American player to break into the Cubs’ roster, following in the footsteps of Jackie Robinson.
After he stopped playing on the field, Banks remained a familiar face within the Cubs organization and Major League Baseball in general. His “let’s play two” mantra was not some self-help pulp. It was real. It was genuine. Banks was enshrined into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977 in Cooperstown, New York. He would have turned 84 on Saturday. But that smile, that seemingly easy-going smile and warmth which never appeared to be false or off-putting.
— Chicago Sun-Times (@Suntimes) January 24, 2015
If anything represented a “let’s play two” mindset, then Ernie Banks’ smile, demeanor and kindness to baseball players, fans and human beings will last as long as memories of seeing him as a force of nature on the field in the Windy City.
Rest in peace.
Cover Photo Credit: Twitter/Chicago Sun Times