Ernie Banks, AKA Mr. Cub, passed away last night on the cusp of his 84th birthday. He was a great ballplayer, and the kind of man who was rare at the time and almost non-existent today.
Banks was my first childhood sports idol, growing up as I did in a bleed blue Cubs household. His greatest years-and they were great-were centered on the year of my birth, so I didn’t see him at his prime. In 1958-1960, he lead the league in RBIs twice, home runs twice, and in one of those years (1958) led in both. He won back-to-back MVPs in ’58 and ’59. This was a remarkable achievement for two reasons. First, other all time greats, including Mays, Aaron, and Frank Robinson were active and in their primes, so the competition was intense. Second, the Cubs were horrible. It’s rare for a player on a last place team to win an MVP. He did it twice.
Although Banks was known for his hitting, he was also a Gold Glove winning shortstop with a good arm and decent range. He was truly a rare player, manning the most difficult defensive position while hitting for power. A Rod without the steroids (Ernie was rail thin, but man, those wrists and hands).
By the time I was cognizant of baseball, Banks had moved to first base because he had lost range at shortstop. He had become a complementary player, with Ron Santo and Billy Williams playing the leading roles on the team. He still hit for power, but didn’t put up the monster numbers like he did in the 50s.
I got Ernie’s autograph twice. The most memorable time was opening day, April 8, 1969. Along with many other kids, I leaned over the dugout with a comic book, believe it or not (because my mother was too cheap to buy a program!), and Ernie signed it. (Mom did buy me a Frosty Malt, though.) This was memorialized in a photo on the front page of the Tribune the next day.
Although Banks was a great between the lines, what made him exceptional was his carried himself outside them. Despite playing on horrible teams, and suffering through a crushing disappointment when the best team he played for, the ’69 club, collapsed in September, he was always ebullient. “Let’s play two!” “It’s a beautiful day for baseball!” Even when Leo Durocher treated him badly in the clubhouse, he didn’t let it show. He didn’t blast Durocher. He didn’t try to undermine Durocher. He didn’t demand a trade. He always had a smile and a kind word for everyone.
I defy you to name a single star player today that has Ernie’s attitude.
So farewell, Mr. Cub. A player such as you will likely not be seen again soon, if ever.