In honor of the opening week of another Major League Baseball season, when every team is still 0-0 and hopes are high, we remember the great player from Texas, Ernie Banks. Banks would be among a very short list of the all time best athletes from Dallas, along with such players as Bobby Layne and Doak Walker.
(Image credit: sabr.org)
Ernie Banks was born in Dallas on January 31, 1931, ironically the same year as Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. His full name was Ernest Banks, with no middle name.
When asked if he hadn’t been a great baseball player, what he would have done, he told a newspaper reporter, “I’d like to have been a lawyer. But what would I have been? A bread salesman, probably. Or working for a soft drink company, loading trucks, in Dallas. I can’t think of anything [else] that would have got me out of Dallas and being poor. Timing is everything in life. I was fortunate with the timing.” And indeed, so were we.
His father Eddie was a warehouse loader for a grocery chain and his mother worked for a time cleaning banks. Banks recalled that Eddie bought him his first baseball glove, a “finger mitt” that cost $2.98. Ernie graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in 1950. Scouts from the Negro leagues were watching him. Banks played with the semi-pro Dallas Black Giants, and then the Amarillo Colts until he was signed by “Cool Papa” Bell who had seen him play in Pampa. Banks began playing for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro leagues. It was one of the best teams in the leagues. “Elston Howard and Hank Aaron came off that team,” he said. Ernie then did a two year hitch in the United States Army. Following his return to civilian life, the Monarchs conveyed his contract to the Chicago Cubs in 1953.
When Ernie stepped on the field for the Cubs in September of that year, it would mark the first time an African-American player had played for the Cubs. Ernie went on to play nineteen seasons with the club. He was fixture with the Cubs and endeared himself to the players and fans alike because of his durability, his dependability, his excellent all around skills at the game, his leadership and his always-affable attitude.
In his 2,528 games played and 10,395 plate appearances, Banks had 9,421 at bats, he drove in 1,305 runs, accumulated 2,385 hits, scored 512 home runs (23rd all time), 1,636 runs batted in (32nd all time) and maintained a lifetime batting average of .275. He was considered a very good defensive player at first base and short stop, leading the league in fielding percentage three times. He won a Gold Glove award in 1960, a year in which he led the league in fielding percentage, double plays, games played, put-outs and assists. Banks was named Most Valuable Player in 1958 and 1959. He played in nearly every Cubs game between 1954 and 1960. He was an eleven time All-Star. Banks has long been known as the “Greatest Cub” and was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977, the first year he was eligible.
Ernie Banks was a rare individual. He was a clubhouse leader and never lost his love for the game, despite playing on less than stellar Cub squads for almost all of his career. The Cubs never won a division championship or made the playoffs. Yet, Banks was as important to his club as players like Brooks Robinson, Carl Yastrzemski, Al Kaline, Stan Musial, George Brett, Cal Ripkin Jr, Roberto Clemente, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Pee Wee Reese, Johnny Bench and other players were to their teams. Likewise, he is as important to the fabric of Chicago athletics as Walter Payton, Michael Jordan, Papa Bear George Halas, Bill Veeck and Dick Butkus.
Banks lived and breathed Cubs baseball and at the time of his death, some forty-four years after his retirement, his club records still stood for games played, hits and extra base hits, intentional walks, sacrifice flies and runs batted in since 1900.
Former Cubs manager Dallas Green said of Banks, “Ernie makes you proud to be part of the game.” The beloved Cub passed away on January 23, 2015 at the age of 83 after suffering a heart attack. He was a lifetime ambassador for baseball and included in his off the field honors was the award of a Presidential Medal of Freedom. It is hard to imagine that there will ever be another player who is anything like Ernie Banks.
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