Ernie Banks (1931-2015)
Ernie Banks missed his 84th birthday by a week. He was born January 31, 1931, and died yesterday, January 23, 2015, on my father’s 83rd birthday.
Has Banks’ legacy been reduced to three words? “Let’s play two!” he’d say, and mean it. Maybe it was 10 words: “It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame: Let’s play two!” Those aren’t bad words to be remembered by. Most Americans want to be cool but engaged is better. Enthusiasm is more fun.
He was at the end of his career when I first began watching baseball, and in the other league from my Minnesota Twins, but I knew he was the last guy to hit 500 homeruns before Harmon Killebrew did. Banks was ninth in baseball history (in May 1970), Killebrew 10th (August 1971). Banks would stop at 512.
He never went to the World Series; playing for no other team than the Cubs will do that to you. He was probably the greatest player never to make the World Series until this latest round of great, bereft players: Rod Carew (Twins, Angels); Ken Griffey Jr. (Mariners, Reds). My guys.
I’ve spent part of the day looking over Banks’ lifetimes stats at BaseballReference.com. He remained thin and lanky to the end but apparently was never fast. He got caught stealing (53 times) more than he stole (50). His lifetime batting average wasn’t great (.274), nor his lifetime OBP (.330). His lifetime slugging percentage didn’t quite topple from its lofty perch (.500).
If he was a revelation at shortstop, a power-hitting, Gold-Glove MVP, he was a mediocre first basemen during the second half of his career. Here’s his line at short: .292/.355/.562 with 264 homers. And at first: .259/.307/.447 with 207 homers. Joe Posnanski’s written about this before—in a piece in which he declared Banks the 55th greatest player of all time.
How many times did he live up to the quote and play two? Someone must know. In his last season, 1971, the Cubs played the usual number of doubleheaders but Mr. Cub always sat out one of the games. Too old anymore to play two. His last real doubleheader was on July 4, 1970, just before the All-Star break, against Roberto Clemente’s Pirates. Banks went 1-4 and 1-5. The Cubs lost the first, won the second.
His last game in the Majors? Sept. 26, 1971, a Sunday. Banks batted fourth. In the 1st inning, two quick outs followed a leadoff single; then Banks singled and Ron Santo followed with a single to plate a run; Banks went to second. After a walk loaded the bases, Don Kessinger grounded out, stranding Banks at third. In the 3rd, Banks drew a walk around several outs, and would never get on base again. Grounder in the sixth, infield popup in the eighth. Cubs lost 5-1 to the hapless Phillies. The Cubs played another series in Montreal but Banks didn’t. He ended his career in the friendly confines.
In 1977, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame with 83% of the vote. Besides the inaugural Hall of Famers (Ruth, Cobb, Mathewson, Johnson, Wagner), and the special cases (Gehrig, Clemente), Banks was just the eighth man in baseball history to be elected to the Hall on the first ballot. Last year, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Pres. Obama—just the ninth baseball player to receive that honor.
Here’s the first reference to Banks in the New York Times. It’s from Sept. 1953:
Here’s the last.