Although he didn’t quite make it to the Chicago Cubs’ World Series run, his enthusiasm and love for the game penetrated the hearts of all who experienced it.
It’s hard, to sum up just how much Ernie Banks loved the Chicago Cubs. To call him a fan, or for that matter, even a legend falls utterly short.
You’re looking at a man who smacked 500 home runs, won back-to-back MVP awards in 1958 and 1959 and made 11 All-Star teams. He boasts a .830 career OPS and drove in more than 100 runs on eight different occasions. And he did all this in a Chicago Cubs uniform.
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Banks’ energy and smile were both contagious – and it showed in everything he did. “You must try to generate happiness within yourself,” he once said. “If you aren’t happy in one place, chances are you won’t be happy anyplace.”
If there were one place Banks, who passed away just over two years ago, was at peace, it was on the ball diamond. The sheer jubilation he would have felt when Chicago won it all a few months ago. Tears would have been shed and hugs exchanged.
He, alongside legends such as Ron Santo and Billy Williams, carried the promise of younger fans, desperate for a Chicago Cubs’ World Series. When Banks’ passed away, for many, it felt like a family member had passed.
Happy Birthday, legend
But today, on what would have been his 86th birthday, isn’t a day to look back at a sad day but to remember what he meant to fans everywhere. His contributions to the organization and the community itself were staggering – and no doubt played a role in his Hall of Fame selection in 1977.
Not only is Banks widely remembered as the best player to ever put on a Cubs’ uniform, but he played a crucial role in the team’s breaking the color barrier back in 1953 when the team purchased his contract from the Kansas City Monarchs.
In his debut on September 17 of that year, he went 0-for-3 in a forgettable performance. That was quickly erased, though, by the 1954 season – his true rookie campaign.
‘Mr. Cub’ was not only a stellar offensive threat but as durable as they come. Starting in ’54, he appeared in at least 150 games in six of seven straight campaigns. The first of those netted him a second-place finish in the Rookie of the Year voting.
Banks hit .275/.326/.427 with 19 home runs and 79 runs batted in for Chicago, but what always catches my eye is his patience. That year, he struck out just 50 times in 650 plate appearances, while drawing 40 base-on-balls.
In fact, he struck out more than 100 times just one time during a 19-year career spanning over 2,500 games. With hitters whiffing in excess of 200 times annually in today’s game, the art of making contact like Banks did now seems a forgotten art.
Perhaps his best season, though, came in his first MVP season in 1958. That year, he clubbed 47 homers and drove in 129 runs, both marks leading the league, along with a robust .614 slugging percentage. He followed that campaign up with a 143-RBI year in ’59 en route to three-straight seasons of 40-plus long-balls.
Playing on the North Side through his age-40 season, Banks became the face of the franchise. No one’s heart broke more than his in those years where the Chicago Cubs disappointed, likely none worse than the ’69 club.
Through his nearly two decades in the big leagues, the lovable, laughing man known as Mr. Cub never appeared in a postseason game, let alone the World Series. His 2,528 games rank as the most ever in Major League history without a playoff appearance.
Despite this, however, Ernie Banks never let off the gas – in life or on the diamond. He pushed through the aches and pains of a big league season, always, it seemed, trying to will the Chicago Cubs to success. And that is what so many of us remember most about him.
“Work,” he once said. “I’ve never worked a day in my life. I always loved what I was doing, had a passion for it.”