No. 55: Ernie Banks
Buck O’Neil told a million great stories about Ernie Banks, his protege, but my favorite comes from a doubleheader in Houston on August 18, 1962. By this point, Ernie Banks was an already icon … and had already played his best baseball.
That was the first year Banks had moved from shortstop to first base after the knee injury — and the truth is that Ernie Banks was never a great player after the injury and position move. e was 31 after he made the move, his body was beaten down. He did have some moments — heck, he hit 214 more home runs (pushing his career total above 500). But he never hit higher than .276, only once walked 50 times, never scored 90 runs and never quite played first base defense to even a draw.
But … he was Ernie Banks. In eight extraordinary years as a shortstop, he had already secured his place as a legend. Before him, no shortstop had ever hit 40 home runs in a season — Vern Stephens was closest with 39 in 1949. Ernie Banks hit 40 five times, including four seasons in a row. He drove in 100-plus RBIs five seasons in a row, tying Joe Cronin for the most by a shortstop. He led the league in homers twice, RBIs twice, slugging once, intentional walks twice. This sort of thing didn’t happen with shortstops. It was like he had invented a new kind of baseball player.
And he had invented this new player with a joyfulness and delight that make him perhaps the most irresistible player in baseball history. How could you not love Ernie Banks? How deep would your cynicism and disgust with life have to run to miss out on the wonder of Mr. Cub? Mr. Sunshine? He would take the dugout steps two at a time, and he would have this huge smile on his face every game, and he would famously say “It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame … let’s play two!”
Buck used to say that when Ernie Banks first joined the Monarchs he was a quiet type. His first sports love had been swimming. There’s a persistent story that Banks has sometimes acknowledged that it was Cool Papa Bell who spotted him first playing softball and recommended him to O’Neil. Anyway, Banks flashed talent right away but he would sit quietly on the team bus and hardly every say a word. “I was learning,” Banks says, and he says nobody in those days taught him more than Buck did. It wasn’t on-the-field stuff that Buck taught though. It was something more existential.
“I already loved baseball,” Ernie Banks says. “But Buck showed me how to express that love.”
Buck and others facilitated Banks signing with the Cubs (he actually didn’t want to go at first). And Banks, you probably know, never played one game in the minor leagues. He went right from the Monarchs (where he had hit .347) to the Cubs where in 10 games he hit .314 with two homers. The next year, he was the Cubs starting shortstop. The year after that he became the first shortstop to hit 40 homers in a season
And he expressed that joy for baseball in everything he did — in the way he walked, the way he talked, the way he played every single game, the way he made it feel like he was exactly where he wanted to be — no place on earth would be better.
“Maybe it’s sacrilege but I believe Banks was a con artist,” John Roseboro said. “No one smiles all the time, naturally, unless they’re putting you on and putting you on. Every day of our lives isn’t a good one.”
Only it was for Ernie Banks. Every day was a good day. His mother had wanted him to be a minister. His father wanted him to be a baseball player. In a way, he was both. The ballpark was his pulpit. The crowds were his congregation. Ernie Banks was the first black player to sign with the Chicago Cubs, and like all pioneers he dealt with the pressures and fury that raged all around him. He dealt with it all in his way, not with speeches or sermons or shouts of anger but by being Ernie Banks, by hitting long home runs and playing terrific shortstop and never missing a game and expressing his joy for baseball and life as boldly as anyone who ever played this wonderful game.
His 1958 and 1959 MVP seasons are probably the greatest back-to-back seasons for a shortstop since Honus Wagner more than 100 years ago.
In 1958, hit .313/.366/.614 with 47 homers, 119 runs, 129 RBIs and a league-leading 379 total bases. By Defensive WAR, he was also a brilliant defensive shortstop.
In 1959, he hit .304/.374/.596 with 45 homers,143 RBIs, and his 3.5 Defensive WAR was the best for any shortstop in 15 years.
There does need to be context added — there are few, perhaps zero, legendary baseball seasons that were not influenced by context. Banks played his home games at Wrigley Field, and while the overall park effects were neutral and perhaps even leaning slightly toward pitchers (that surprised me too), Banks had pretty extreme home-road splits, particularly in 1958.
1958 home: .340/.393/.700 with 30 homers.
1958 road: .287/.339/.533 with 17 homers.
1959 home: .321/.390/.631 with 24 homers.
1959 home: .288/.359/.563 with 21 homers.
I think Banks’ love of Chicago and the park, his comfort level there, probably had as much to do with the split as the park itself (as I say, it was a neutral park then). His defense was certainly good but perhaps not quite as good as his Defensive WAR suggests — the Cubs had an extreme ground ball pitching staff, for one thing.
But those are still extraordinary seasons by any measurement, and they were bookended by only slightly less extraordinary ones. He had a 43-homer season in ’57. He hit a league-leading 41 home runs in 1960 when he also won his first and only Gold Glove.
So, he was iconic by 1962 when the Cubs went to play a doubleheader in Houston. Houston was the Colt 45s then (it was their first season) and they were playing at old Colt Stadium — from what I can tell, there could be a whole book written about the three years when the Houston Colt 45s played at old Colt Stadium. The mosquitoes there were apparently so large and feisty that outfielders used to wear towels under the hats — like arab sheiks, Buck used to say — just so those mosquitoes wouldn’t get their necks.
“Those mosquitoes were so big,” Buck told me, “we used to say that everybody should move in groups because otherwise a mosquito might carry one us back to the nest.”
It was an absurdly hot day, scorching — 92 degrees according to the official box score but Buck always swore it was at least 110 degrees. It was exactly NOT the right day to play two, but the doubleheader was scheduled. Banks came to the ballpark smiling, like always, and he went through his routine. He took the dugout steps two at a time. He looked up into the sky, felt the heat attack him in waves and he said his mantra: “It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame. Let’s play two!”
He struck out three times in the first game.
And then he fainted before the second game.
And then he recovered enough to pinch hit in the ninth inning with the scored tied 5-5. Don McMahon struck him out.
“Beautiful day, Ernie?” Buck asked him in the clubhouse after the doubleheader and he had this mischievous smile on his face. Banks was crumpled by his locker and he was so exhausted and drained by the heat that he could barely look up. But then he too smiled.
“They’re all beautiful days, Buck,” he said. “Just that some days are more beautiful than others.”