Ernie Banks Leaves A Powerful Legacy
Ernie Banks, one of the brightest personalities in Major League Baseball history, passed away Saturday, January 26 at the age of 83 from a heart attack.
Best known for his sunny optimism and the catch phrase “Let’s play two,” the Chicago Cubs icon is hardly remembered outside of Chicago for his graceful glove at short and powerful bat in the middle of the lineup. Playing for abysmal teams most of his career, Banks won consecutive National League Most Valuable Player awards in 1958 and ’59. In both seasons, the Cubs finished sixth in the eight-team league.
Most remembered for playing short, Banks spent longer manning first base. Making the transition from shortstop to the outfield before parking at first, Banks never played short again after the 1961 season, spending his last 11 years on the right side of the infield. However, as a shortstop, Banks clobbered over 40 home runs a season four straight years, from 1957 through 1960 and hit over .300 in both his MVP seasons. Strong power from shortstops was unheard of and remained uncommon until Cal Ripken and Alex Rodriguez came of age.
The peak of Banks’ offensive prowess came in 1959.
In the third year of a four-season run where he did not miss a game, Banks popped 45 home runs and drove in a career-high of 145. Often playing in front of crowds under 5,000 at Wrigley Field, Banks gave those that paid to watch quite a show. His best game of the year, however, came late in the season in St. Louis against the Cardinals.
On a Monday night in late-September, the sixth-placed Cubs were playing out the string against the seventh-placed Redbirds in front of 4000 at old Sportsman’s Park. Facing rookie pitcher Tom Hughes, making his second and last major league start, Banks tripled into left field, scoring the tying right off on a groundout to second by right fielder Walt Moran. The Cubs would chase Hughes from the game that inning scoring six off Hughes. With Ernie Broligio pitching for the Cards to start the third, Banks smashed a home run into the left field bleachers to give the Cubs a 7-1 lead. (Broglio and Banks would be teammates eventually in 1964 when Chicago shipped Lou Brock south for the pitcher.)
Banks had another crack at Broglio in the fourth. Now ahead 8-1 with one out and first baseman Jim Marshall on first, Banks chased Broglio out of the game with a single to center. The Cubs would score two more in the inning and carry a commanding 10-1 lead to the bottom of the fourth. Banks would draw walks in the fifth and seventh to reach base five straight times. On his sixth plate appearance of the night in the ninth, leading 11-3, Banks had a third crack at hitting for the cycle. Facing Dean Stone with one out, Banks singled to center. Although he fell a double short of the cycle, Banks would score the Cubs 12th and last run of the night, capping off a performance from the ages.
Going four-for-four at the plate with two walks, Banks scored a season-high three runs, helped turn two double plays, committed an error and vaulted his batting average over .300. Mind you, this was the Cubs 150th game of the year in the middle of a lost generation of baseball.
Although not every game would go this well, Banks played hard and excelled at this level for a team he knew had zero chance of reaching the playoffs for the majority of his career. In fact, the first season the Cubs posted a winning record while Banks was on the team was 1967. At 36 and in his 14th full season, he returned to his first All-Star Game in two years and would draw MVP considerations that year and the next two.
In the ill-fated 1969 campaign, Banks would crack 100 RBI for the eighth and last time. He legged out two triples and made his 14th All-Star squad.
The prevailing memories we share of Banks is that forever-sunny outlook on life and the sport. Remembering Banks as an iconic person is one great legacy to share with the future, however it would be wrong not to see him as one of the impactful players of all-time. He was an offensive and defensive machine. More importantly, he will be always known as “Mr. Cub.”