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Banks, Erniefree

(31 Jan. 1931–23 Jan. 2015)
  • Bruce J. Evensen

Banks, Ernie (31 Jan. 1931–23 Jan. 2015), baseball player, was the second of twelve children born to Eddie and Essie Banks in Dallas, Texas. Banks grew up in a shotgun house lit by kerosene lamps. His father made ten dollars a week with the Works Progress Administration, and Ernie picked cotton at two dollars a hundredweight. He played softball at Booker T. Washington High School. At seventeen, he barnstormed with the Amarillo-based Detroit Colts and passed his hat for nickels and dimes for every homer he’d hit. At six feet one inch and 180 pounds, Banks hit for power and imitated the short, quick stroke of future major leaguer Hank Thompson. After graduating in 1950, Banks was signed by Negro League legend James “Cool Papa” Bell to a contract with the Kansas City Monarchs for seven dollars a day.

Banks returned to the Monarchs in 1953 after two years in the army and hit .347. It won him a Major League contract with the Chicago Cubs. On 17 September 1953, Banks became the first African American player in the team’s eighty-three-year history. Banks hit .314 in ten games, establishing himself as the club’s every day, power-hitting shortstop. He married Mollye Louise Ector that same year. The nineteen home runs he hit in 1954, his first full season in Major League Baseball, remained the rookie record for National League shortstops for fifty-three years. The 424 consecutive games he played at the start of his career stayed a league record until 2005.

Banks smashed 44 home runs in 1955, had 117 runs batted in, and led the league in fielding. These were levels no other National League shortstop had ever reached. He pounded 47 homers and 129 RBIs in 1958 and 45 home runs and 147 RBIs in 1959, becoming the first player in league history to win the most valuable player award in back-to-back seasons. In 1959, he also divorced his first wife and married public relations specialist Eloyce Johnson. The couple had twin sons Joey and Jerry, born in 1960, and a daughter, Jan, born in 1964.

Between 1955 and 1960, Banks hit more home runs than Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Mickey Mantle, all of whom were in their prime. His salary of $50,000, however, from tight-fisted team owner Phil Wrigley, was only half what they were making. The Cubs had losing seasons in thirteen of the first fourteen seasons Banks was on the ballclub. As Cubs historian George Will noted “even in a team game, a player can achieve greatness with precious little support from his teammates” (Will, p. 114).

The Cubs played televised day ball in Wrigley Field, and legions of young fans learned to imitate the Banks stance in the batter’s box, right elbow cocked and fingers gently stroking the thin handle of the bat, when the pitcher went into his windup. The flick of Ernie’s wrists and the crack of his thirty-one-ounce bat often signaled a line drive over the ivy-covered left field wall, the ball bounding down the narrow streets of Wrigleyville, where kids chased after their trophy. The Cubs were a fifth place team, but their fans boasted Banks was the league’s best player.

During his nineteen years as a Cub, Banks established himself as the greatest player in team history. His sunny disposition channeled fan optimism each year, and he came to be called “Mr. Cub” for his famous assertion, “let’s play two,” when there was only one game on the schedule. Banks said he loved playing in “the friendly confines” of beautiful Wrigley Field; Cub critics charged the field was only friendly to opposing teams who generally won there. Each spring, however, he led Cub fans to renewed hope.

“The Cubs are gonna shine in sixty-nine,” Banks said when spring training opened in 1969. And for 156 days, the Cubs under veteran manager Leo Durocher were in first place, paced by young stars Ron Santo, Billy Williams, and Fergie Jenkins, and Banks, now their veteran first baseman. At thirty-eight, he hit 23 home runs and had 106 RBIs, while again leading the league in fielding. It looked like the Cubs might win their division and perhaps even reach their first World Series since 1908, but a September swoon saw them painfully fall into second behind New York’s miracle Mets.

On 12 May 1970, Banks became the ninth player in major league history to hit 500 home runs. He retired after an injury-shortened 1971 season, finishing with 512 home runs and 1,636 runs batted in. He played in 2,528 career games but not one in the post-season. That too was a record. It was his greatest disappointment as a big league ballplayer.

In retirement, Banks became one of baseball’s beloved elder statesmen. He believed baseball helped break racial barriers. “In athletics you are judged on what you can do,” he observed. “The only race we have in baseball is the run to beat the throw.” His upbringing and team sports taught him “to look at a man as a human being. I don’t care about his color” (Banks & Enright, pp. 84, 86).

Banks coached the Cubs for two years and did promotional work for the team that kept him the face of the franchise. He became a successful Chicago-area businessman, heavily involved in charity work. The fourteen-time All Star was inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1977 in his first year of eligibility. On 22 August 1982, Banks became the first Cub to have his number retired, when number 14 was raised up Wrigley Field’s left field foul pole. The following year he married Marjorie Marie Wardlaw, having divorced his wife Eloyce two years earlier. Wardlaw worked with Major League Baseball to improve race relations. They divorced in 1997, the same year the sixty-six-year-old Banks married thirty-one-year-old Elizabeth Ellzey. The couple adopted a newborn girl, Alyna Olivia, in 2008.

In 1999, he was named to baseball’s All-Century Team. A statue of Banks in his iconic upright batting stance was unveiled outside Wrigley Field on 31 March 2008. Its inscription reads, “Let’s Play Two.” Banks received the Presidential Medal of Freedom on 20 November 2013. He was never too big for the fans of the game and played ball for the joy of it; as Tom Verducci put it in Sports Illustrated, “He was a man of and for the people, not some baseball god visiting from Olympus.” His unexpected death from a heart attack at the age of eighty-three stirred municipal mourning for a favorite son loved for the loyalty he showed the city, their fans, and the great game that crowned their summers.

Bibliography

Banks wrote an autobiography with sportswriter Jim Enright titled “Mr. Cub” (1971) and the foreword to Bob Vorwald’s What It Means to Be a Cub (2010). See also, Jim Langford, The Game Is Never Over (1980); Jerome Holtzman and George Vass, The Chicago Cubs Encyclopedia (1997); Doug Feldmann, Miracle Collapse: The 1969 Chicago Cubs (2006); Glenn Stout and Richard A. Johnson, The Cubs: The Complete Story of Chicago Cubs Baseball (2007); Phil Rogers, Ernie Banks: Mr. Cub and the Summer of ’69 (2011); George F. Will, A Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at One Hundred (2014); and Ron Rapoport, “The Last Years of Ernie Banks,” Chicago Magazine (Oct. 2015). Significant obituaries appeared on 23 Jan. 2015 in New York Times and on 24 Jan. 2015 in Chicago Tribune, Sports Illustrated, Washington Post, Chicago Sun-Times, and The Daily Herald.