Tears and Tidbits: A Look at The Transcendent Career of Ernie Banks

I cried last night. A lot. Over a man I’d never met, but who felt like family just the same.

When I looked at myself in the mirror it was through watery, bloodshot eyes. And it wasn’t because the world had lost a man who hit 512 home runs over 2,538 games with the same team. It wasn’t because he won back-to-back MVPs at a time when Hank Aaron and Willie Mays were in their respective primes.

I cried because I had lost a man who personified my favorite baseball team. Ernie Banks was the Cubs, even for those of us who never got to see him play. That’s because he had a smile that shined brighter than the midday sun under which he played every single one of his games at Wrigley Field.

Because, as David Haugh put it, Ernie Banks was the most positive person in any room he entered. Mind you, this is a man who never played in a single playoff game with the Chicago Cubs, who lost two seasons to military service and who had to battle racism along the way.

Banks was only the 8th black player in MLB history and the first for the Cubs. It’s easy in the mourning to throw out superlatives about a man, but I can honestly say that I’ve never heard one negative word about Ernie Banks. Even the little rumors or softly-spoken derogations are absent from his ledger.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Mr. Cub is that, as transcendent a player as he was, his personality actually overshadowed his career. Almost all of us think first of what a great person he was, to the extent that his on-field greatness is almost glossed over.

And while I’m sure Ernie would be more than happy to let that be the case, I wanted to point out a couple of the more interesting stats I’ve seen since news of his passing broke last night. Actually, let’s start with the scouting report compiled by Cubs scout Hugh Wise. Click to enlarge.


Something that jumped out at me right away was the note in the “Previous pro experience” section, in which Wise wrote: “No – has been with Monarchs.” For those of you who are yet unaware, that refers to the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues.

Consider, if you will, the fact that eight members of the Monarchs, including names like Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige, went on to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. It’s a sad commentary on both baseball and America that those men were not considered equals until much later. But that is a column for another day.

In the report, Banks was accurately described as lithe and angular, with very good proportions and strong arms. Strong arms? The guy was 6’1″ and 180 pounds and mashed 512 homers; his wrists and forearms had to have been stronger than Paul Bunyan’s.

Banks swung his ax handle like a whip, cracking the ball with a power unheard of from a middle infielder, either before or since. In National League history, there are five seasons of 40+ home runs by a shortstop, and there’s only one name next to each of those seasons.

Given the enhanced vision of hindsight, it’s really not fair to say what a prescient and understated appraisal this was, but I’m going to do it anyway. “Outstanding arm and good hitter,” Wise wrote. “No outstanding weaknesses…can play now…recommend we purchase up to $10,000.” Boy, did that man ever live up to his moniker.

But wait a minute: only $10,000? But, Evan, this is 1953 we’re talking about; ten large was a big sum back then. Yeah, you’re right, we need to put things in perspective. So if we do a little calculation using an average annual inflation of 3.62% (772.84% total), we get…$87,284.26.

So, yeah, pretty much what the Cubs and others are looking to spend on Yoan Moncada. Well, that and another $30 million or so. Talk about a good investment. The Cubs turned $10,000 into the greatest player in franchise history. Oh, in case you’re wondering, his salary that first season with Chicago: $2,000.

The diminution of his physical tools necessitated a change in position after 1961, but Banks only carried a negative WAR once (-0.6 in 1971, his final season). Ernie Banks is the only player in MLB history to log 600 games at both shortstop and first base, and he actually played more than 1,000 games at each of those positions. You think Joe Maddon could use a guy like that?

Here are a few other interesting tidbits about Banks’s career, courtesy of CSN Chicago’s walking research department, Christopher Kamka:

  • Only player in MLB history with a multi-homer game against both Warren Spahn and Sandy Koufax
  • Appeared in both games of 318 double-headers; “Let’s play two!” was more than just a saying
  • Played in 16.48% of the games the Cubs have played at Wrigley Field

This may sound strange, but in a way, I’m almost glad I didn’t get to see Banks play. In today’s game, the men play with unadulterated exuberance are labelled as clowns or showboats; Bryce Harper and Yasiel Puig come to mind. I’m not necessarily comparing Ernie Banks to them as players, but I almost wonder if he’d have been as appreciated if he were playing now.

The good thing, however, is that I don’t have to wonder. I can pore over the stats and watch the videos to learn about how great a player he was, but what I’ll always remember most of Ernie Banks is that infectious smile and the way he was able to spread joy to others.

We’ll miss you, Ernie. You were, and always will be, Mr. Cub.

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