Baseball mourns the passing over the weekend of Ernie Banks, a week shy of his 84th birthday. The career Cub was famous for never playing a post-season game, but more famous for his Hall of Fame career that began in 1950 with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League. Banks then entered military service, though he somehow found time to “moonlight” with the Harlem Globetrotters! After his discharge, Banks skipped the minors and went straight to the show, debuting in September 1953 as the Cubs’ first black player. That debut was also auspicious for multi-hit games in two of Banks’ first three contests, including his first home run off Gerry Staley of the Cardinals. A week later, Banks would again victimize Staley who had been enjoying an 18-win All-Star campaign. The St. Louis right-hander would soon have company among the many NL hurlers to be burned by Chicago’s young slugger.
After the jump, more on the career of Ernie Banks.
Banks would play every game in 6 of the next 7 seasons, swatting 40 or more home runs in 5 of those campaigns. That power outburst at shortstop was truly revolutionary as no shortstop before Banks had reached 40 home runs even once, and only one (Vern Stephens) had reached even 25 dingers. Even today, only one shortstop (Alex Rodriguez) has exceeded Banks’ five 40 HR seasons and just one more (Rico Petrocelli) has even one such campaign. Similarly, only Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra have exceeded Banks’ five seasons with 300 total bases and just one more shortstop (Miguel Tejada) has matched that feat. Banks complemented his power stroke with over 400 career doubles. His 14 straight seasons (1955-68) with 20 two-baggers (and 16 straight seasons with 19) has been exceeded among shortstops (50% of games played over period) only by Derek Jeter and Honus Wagner.
After a runner-up finish to Wally Moon as the 1954 NL RoY, Banks would reel off 8 straight All-Star selections, all but the last as shortstop. Included were back-to-back MVP seasons in 1958-59, leading Chicago to consecutive 70 win campaigns. As modest as that team accomplishment may seem, it was the first time for a Cubs team in 13 years. Alas, it would be four more years before Chicago had its first winning campaign with Banks, and back-to-back winning seasons wouldn’t come until 1967-68. Despite playing on the losing side in almost 55% of his career games, Banks recorded 7 games with two home runs and a WPA of 0.500 or more, tied with Reggie Smith, Vladimir Guerrero and Hank Aaron, and trailing only Mickey Mantle‘s total of 8 such searchable games.
Banks’ 6-year peak at age 24-29 totaled 47.1 WAR and 32.2 WAA (both Baseball-Reference.com version), one of only 16 position players (and the first shortstop) to exceed 45 WAR and 30 WAA at those ages. Banks and Willie Mays both reached those totals in the 1960 season, the first players to do so since Jimmie Foxx 23 years earlier. Only four players who debuted after Banks retired have matched that feat. Banks also joined Mays and two other contemporaries (Eddie Mathews, Mickey Mantle) in reaching 250 home runs before his age 30 season, something only six other pre-expansion players accomplished. Banks’ 269 home runs through age 29 remains the second highest total for shortstops, trailing only Alex Rodriguez‘s mark of 429.
Starting in the 1962 season, Banks switched from shortstop to first base, serving as the Cubs’ everyday first baseman for 8 years and logging 150 games played in 6 of those seasons. For his career, Banks recorded 1000 games played at both first base and shortstop. Julio Franco, who would finish one game behind Banks’ total of 2528 games played, passed the 500 game mark at first base in his final, age 48 season and is the only other player with 500 games at those two positions. Banks was the first player with 1000 games played at any two infield positions, a feat since equaled only by Rod Carew (1B and 2B) and Alex Rodriguez (SS and 3B). In the 40+ years since Banks retired, only two players have played 1000 games for the Cubs at either of his positions: Shawon Dunston and Mark Grace.
Wrigley field has long been regarded as a friendly park for power hitters, a home field advantage that Banks ably exploited. While his 113 point home vs road OPS advantage is sizable, it is nowhere close to the record territory of a 200+ point advantage that benefited a number of players. Even among Cubs, Banks ranks only third in home OPS differential, behind Ron Santo and Ryne Sandberg. Still, Banks’ 290 home runs at Wrigley trails only Sammy Sosa (293, Wrigley) and Mel Ott (323, Polo Grounds) for most home runs in one ballpark.
Banks’ milestone 500th home run and 400th double came just four weeks apart, early in the 1970 season. In all, Banks tallied 512 round-trippers, more than one-quarter of them hit in double-header games. It was before one such twin-bill early in his career that Banks first uttered what would become his trademark expression. Trying to energize his flagging teammates near the end of another dismal season, Banks bounded into the clubhouse and exclaimed to one and all “It’s a beautiful day — let’s play two!” . Banks was an easy first ballot HOFer in 1977, but undoubtedly his proudest accomplishment was being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, only the ninth ballplayer to be so honored.
Banks’ final home run was hit off Jim McGlothlin of the Reds, a shot that broke Mel Ott‘s NL record for the most home runs by a single franchise player (Mike Schmidt, who would break that record and still holds it today, would make his debut the next season). Earlier that final season, on July 2nd, Banks came up to pinch hit after Cubs catcher J.C. Martin doubled with two out to extend the home 9th. Banks grounded out to end the contest but his appearance made that game the first in major league history with 7 players who had then hit 200 career home runs, as Banks joined Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell of the opposing Pirates, and Cub teammates Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Joe Pepitone and Johnny Callison. Quiz: what game was the first in which 9 players appeared who had then hit 200 career home runs?