Why are we forgetting Ernie Banks’ power?

Maybe it’s just me, but it sure seemed like something was missing in many of the testimonials to Ernie Banks, upon his passing last weekend. But I probably shouldn’t have been surprised, because it seemed that something was missing from the testimonials before his passing.

See, it seems that in the 1980s and ’90s and beyond, a lot of people forgot just how revelatory Banks’s POWER was, when he exploded upon the National League in the 1950s. Here are just a few examples I found…

First, from the the esteemed Jeff Passan:

Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra and Alex Rodriguez, the story went, would forever change the position. Jeter reinforced what Cal Ripken Jr. had proven: shortstop didn’t have a height cutoff. And Garciaparra, though not as tall, was bigger than Jeter and brought an element of batsmanship to the position unseen since, what, Arky Vaughan? And then there was A-Rod: the archetype, the T-1000, as if molded from liquid metal and shaped to play short at a caliber no one could fathom.

Next, the esteemed Motown Sports Revival:

The offensive revolution at the shortstop position—seemingly sparked by Cal Ripken Jr.—that was looking like a certainty in the late 90s didn’t really happen the way I envisioned it. Nomar Garciaparra missed enough games to account for close to three seasons. A-Rod moved to third base. Jeter is a singles hitter. Miguel Tejada has been the only permanent shortstop to emerge from that time period that could be classified as a legitimate power-hitting player. It looked like those guys were just the first wave of what was going to be a new trend at the position. The only problem is that nobody came after them.

… and finally (but not exclusively) the esteemed Associated Press:

For nearly all of baseball history, shortstop has been occupied by little guys with names like Pee Wee, Pesky and Ozzie — quick-footed, sure-handed and not much of a threat with a bat in their hands.

–snip–

There had been exceptions — Ripken in Baltimore, Barry Larkin in Cincinnati, but many thought Rodriguez, Jeter, Tejada and Garciaparra represented a sea change, paving the way for bigger, stronger hitters to take over one of the most important spots on the diamond. Those four combined to hit 133 homers and drive in 468 runs that season.

When I read passages like this – and I’ve read a great number of them since the peak of Cal Ripken’s glorious career – I always wonder the same thing: What the hell happened to Ernie Banks?

If you’ll indulge me, a brief history lesson (and maybe a less-brief one afterward) …

In 1955, just his second full season, Ernie Banks hit 44 home runs and started every single Cubs game, all 154 of them, at shortstop. That was 60 years ago!

And he was hardly finished. From 1955 through ’60, he averaged 41 homers and 152 games per season; again, all of them as a shortstop. Without checking, I’m 99.3 percent sure that no professional shortstop in history matched Banks’ six-year total of 248 home runs until Alex Rodriguez hit 281 from 1998 through 2003.

Wanna guess who hit more home runs than Ernie Banks over those six seasons? Trick question. Nobody hit more. Only four other guys hit even 200: Mickey Mantle, Eddie Mathews, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron.

Don’t get me wrong! I’m not suggesting that Ernie Banks begat Cal Ripken, who begat Alex Rodriguez, who begat the next power-hitting shortstop (because, True Believers, there certainly will be one).

We humans are really good at identifying patterns! So good, in fact, that we routinely identify patterns where they don’t actually exist. Was Cal Ripken revolutionary? Hardly. Ripken, a power-hitting shortstop who also played tremendous defense – at least in his prime – was preceded 80 years earlier by Honus Wagner, who could do everything Ripken could do, plus run like the dickens.

There was a dry spell after Wagner, but Joe Cronin showed some big-time power in the early ‘30s (which was largely masked by his home ballpark, a nearly impossible place to hit home runs). From 1948 through ’50, Red Sox shortstop Vern “Buster” Stephens averaged 33 homers and 147 RBI per season. Granted, he was helped quite a bit by Fenway Park. But he was a strong fellow with big-time power. So was Arky Vaughan, before him.

After Banks, and before Ripken? Well, Rico Petrocelli hit 40 home runs in 1969. Petrocelli’s power did fade, and he did shift to third base a couple of years later. My point is there’s not a straight line running from Ripken to Rodriguez, or even from Banks to Ripken. Rather, there are a bunch of squiggly lines. But you can hardly make any sort of graph without Ernie Banks’ tremendous run, and yet somehow those graphs keep getting made.

Well, it stops right here. Banks was a wonderful ambassador for baseball and for the Cubs, and “Let’s play two!” will live forever. But that doesn’t mean we have to forget that Ernie Banks was, for six years, one of the three or four Greatest Players on Earth. So let’s remember, for at least six minutes.