October 1, 2020

How Ernie Banks Revolutionized the Position of Shortstop

February 20, 2019 by · 4 Comments 

*And where did those home runs come from?

One of the unfortunate byproducts of Ernie Banks’ Mr. Cub image being so great is that sometimes it obscures exactly how good of a player he was in his prime, before bad knees forced a move to first base. The present generation may not realize how he single-handedly revolutionized the position of shortstop.

Before Ernie joined the Chicago Cubs in September of 1953, shortstops were valued for their fielding and intrinsic virtues, but little was expected of them offensively. They were almost uniformly quick, feisty, pesky little guys with names like Scooter or Pee Wee (some were even named Pesky). They were respected leaders on the field and on offense might draw a walk for you, steal second base or slap a ball to right on a hit and run. Anything more was a bonus. If their team happened to win a pennant while they were hitting .267 with 6 homers and 63 RBIs (as Marty Marion did in 1944) or .324 with 7 homers and 66 RBIs (as Phil Rizzuto did in 1950), they walked away with an MVP trophy.

And then Ernie Banks started hitting. He had a solid rookie season in 1954 with 19 home runs and 79 RBIs–well above what was normally expected for a shortstop. The next year, he loosened up and the position was never viewed the same.

Ernie hit 44 home runs (including a major league record 5 grand slams) in 1955–a year in which he would not turn 24 until December. The previous National League record for home runs by a shortstop was 23–Ernie had that by the first week of July.

He proceeded to top 40 home runs in 5 of the next 6 seasons (a wrist injury in 1956 cost him 15 games and his power over the last two months).

Ernie was no slouch as a fielder. He didn’t have the range of Aparicio, Reese or Wills, but he had sure hands and rarely threw a ball away. In 1959 he set a record for fewest errors in a season by a shortstop, with 12 and in 1960 he won a Gold Glove. These were nice accomplishments, but his value as a slugger in the middle of the infield would forever be unsurpassed.

Manny Machado, with his 37 home runs, generated a lot of talk last season of what an asset he was when installed into the lineup at shortstop because of his offense. Many modern writers mistakenly note that Cal Ripken is the prototype of the modern offensive-minded, slugging shortstop. While Ripken, at 6-4 and 200+ pounds, towered over Ernie’s 6-1, 180 pounds (if he had 10 pounds of sweat in his flannel uniform), Ripken never hit more than 34 home runs in a season, even as he played half his career in a decade in which 66 home runs in a season wouldn’t even win you a title.

In fact, until the steroid era, the top five slots for home runs by a Major League shortstop were all held by one man: Ernie Banks. And only one other player has ever topped Ernie’s slugging numbers for a shortstop and that player is a documented serial steroid-abuser.

Only one other shortstop has ever hit 40 home runs in a season (Rico Petrocelli, 1969). Ernie remains as the most potent non-steroid-aided offensive force ever to take the field at shortstop in the major leagues.

But Where Did the Home Runs Come From?

Until the past few decades, amid the weight training, launch angles, walk/strike out/home run mentality and other factors, it was relatively difficult for any man to consistently hit major league pitches over the fence. While most players could hit home runs, only a few on each team did so with any regularity, say at a clip of 30 or more a year, and only a handful in each league did so for as much as a decade.

The men who were able to hit those home runs were all very impressive physical specimens. While muscles are certainly not the only requirement–extraordinary reflexes, eyesight and practice were also required–there was little doubt as to the source of the home runs of behemoths like Gehrig and Foxx.

The newer generation of power hitters in the 1950s, with Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Frank Robinson, used overall athleticism and bat speed rather than raw brute strength.
But, again, seeing these guys up close–looking at the menacing layers of muscles, the guns, the brawny forearms, the six-packs–leaves little doubt that you would never want to throw a mediocre-fastball in the same zip code as these mashers.

In modern times, we had the confluence of talent and science to help provide even more home runs:

And then there was Ernie Banks.

Granted, Ernie towered over traditional 1950s shortstops like Pee Wee Reese by several inches. But check out this next picture:

This was taken in Vietnam in 1968. Ernie, 37 years old and coming off a season in which he was third in the National League in home runs, is the one in the middle. The other two were 19-year-old GIs. Without the Cubs hat and familiar face, it would be difficult to predict from their builds which one of these guys was closing in on the top ten in all-time home runs. Look at Ernie’s chest. He doesn’t seem to have pectoral muscles–his chest is as flat as his stomach. Other than abnormally large hands, Ernie may have been the least imposing man to ever hit 500 home runs in a Major League career.

But consider the six years from 1955 to 1960:
Banks:      248 home runs,     693 RBIs
Mantle:     236                        589
Mathews:  236                        605
Mays:        214                        611
Aaron:       206                        674

Ernie was clearly the top slugger in the game over that period.

The source of Ernie’s power, given his unimpressive physical attributes, sparked spirited debate during the last half of the 1950s. No one came up with a good answer. Ernie himself, along with most so-called experts, always gave credit to his wrists. But beyond basic anatomical facts (the wrist is composed of skin, bones and tendons–the muscles are in the forearms) that seems much too simplistic of an answer.

Most likely, the answer lies in the combination of many things–abnormally acute vision, a perfect weight shift, an abundance of fast-twitch muscle fibers and the carefully-honed ability to pull most pitches into his power field. It was a natural phenomenon like the Grand Canyon or Niagra Falls; beautiful to behold but impossible to recreate in the lab or on a field.

But few could do it better with less.

Doug Wilson is the author of five baseball biographies, including the newly-released Let’s Play Two: The Life and Times of Ernie Banks. http://dougwilsonbaseball.blogspot.com/


4 Responses to “How Ernie Banks Revolutionized the Position of Shortstop”
  1. Cliff Blau says:

    I think Banks is usually credited with popularizing bats with ultra-thin handles.

  2. Doug Wilson says:

    You’re right Cliff. Before the 1955 season he borrowed a bat from Monte Irvin that weighed 32 ounces. It had a thin handle and he noticed he could whip it and pull almost any pitch with it. After his 44-homer season that year alot of people noticed and it marked the transition from sluggers swinging huge hunks of lumber to guys using lighter bats with more bat speed.

  3. Garry Harris says:

    Ten years before Ernie Banks, Vern Stephens was the 1st power hitting SS. What’s lost is that both were excellent defenders with outstanding range at SS. However, both changed positions at age 30; Stephens injured his knee, marking the end of his career.

  4. Tony Cowen says:

    I too always think of Vern Stephens when reading of Banks being the “first” power hitting SS. Don’t get me wrong – #1 I’m a Cubs fan, #2 Ernie raised the bar a lot – but it is too easy(and misleading) to refer to him as the first. Also going back to the early 20th century, Wagner and Dahlen were close to leading their leagues in OPS many times.

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