Remembering Ernie Banks

Ernie Banks, “Mr. Cub,” died on Friday. He was 83.

Banks is probably best remembered for his sunny disposition. “Let’s play two” was his famous saying.

In on-the-field terms, Banks should be remembered for his remarkable play from 1957-1960, especially the middle two years. In 1958, playing shortstop, Banks hit 47 home runs and drove in 129 runs. The next season, he hit 45 homers and knocked in 143.

Banks led the league in RBI both seasons, and in home runs in 1958. (In ’59, Eddie Mathews edged him out by one homer, but Mathews hit that home run during a tie-breaker playoff series against the Dodgers). Banks didn’t have the opportunity to participate in a playoff. His Cubs finished 5th out of 8 teams that year, a successful season by that franchise’s standards.

During this two-year period, in which Banks was named National League MVP both seasons, the most home runs hit by any other National League shortstop was 17 (by Daryl Spencer and Don Zimmer in 1958). The most RBI by another NL shortstop was 74 (by Spencer in 1958).

Banks’ offensive wins above replacement player (WAR) was an astounding 8.6 in 1958 and 7.8 in 1959. To put these numbers into perspective, Cal Ripken had WAR of 9.1 during his MVP season of 1991, but otherwise never exceeded 7.6.

Banks’ production was nearly as good in 1957 and 1960 (WARs of 7.4 and 6.9). His RBI totals (102 and 117) weren’t as impressive, but this is probably due in part to the fact that the Cubs were horrible in both of these years (62 wins in ’57 and 60 in ’60). In any event, his total of 219 for these two years is only 5 fewer than Ripken’s combined best two-yeartotal (in 1985 and 1991).

Banks was also a good defensive shortstop. He won the Gold Glove in 1960 and still an above average fielding shortstop when, at the beginning of the 1962 season, the Cubs moved him to first base. The move, as I understand it, was due to Banks’ knee problems.

Banks was average at best as a defensive first baseman. Moreover, with his offensive production beginning to decline, and now playing a position occupied mostly by sluggers, Banks no longer stood out offensively.

However, he continued to turn out productive seasons, driving in more than 100 runs in three of his first-base years and twice hitting more than 30 home runs.

One of Banks 100+ RBI years was 1969, the first time in his career he was involved in a serious pennant race. Unfortunately, the New York Mets overtook the Cubs that summer.

The 1969 season was basically it for Mr. Cub (now age 38). He hung on for two more years as a part time player and then retired.

Bleacher Report lists Banks among the ten best players never to win a World Series. Half of the players on its list at least played in a Series. Banks never did.

Banks’ rank among all-time shortstops is controversial because he played fewer than half of his games at that position. Personally, I rate him among the top ten because he played more than 1,000 games at shortstop and played them at a top-5 level.

Finally, let’s not minimize what Banks, the man, meant to Chicago. He was the first black to play for the Cubs. He played with the Cubs for 19 years, most of them as the face of the franchise, and never played for anyone else.

Most importantly, Banks never had a bad word to say about the Cubs (no matter how terrible they were) or, for that matter, about anyone. The fans loved him for this, but some players and writers held it against him.

His teammate Jim Brosnan, author and hipster, was convinced that Banks was, at least to some degree, phony. No one, Brosnan was sure, could endure the indignities of being both a Cub and a black man in the late 1950s without being at least a little bit resentful. And Brosnan wasn’t alone in believing that Banks should have said more about civil rights.

Brosnan and sportswriter Jerome Holtzman believed there was a different Ernie Banks behind the “mask.” But their only evidence is their conviction that, in effect, Banks was too good to be true.

As far as I know, the mask, if there was one, never dropped. The real Ernie Banks, therefore, was probably the one who was too good for cynics to deem true.