Ivey: Goodbye and thanks to Mr. Cub
Michael Ivey | Monday, January 26, 2015
The Chicago Cubs are mostly known throughout the sports world for their futility. They haven’t won a World Series championship in 106 years, and have finished near the bottom of the standings in recent years.
Despite all of this, there was always one person you could see with a huge smile on his face at Wrigley Field, no matter what. A former player, he retired from the Cubs in 1971, but was still considered the face of the franchise. His last name and jersey number can be seen hanging from a flag on the left-field foul pole at Wrigley. The Cubs erected a statue of him that stands just outside of the stadium.
This man was Ernie Banks, or, as he was more affectionately known, “Mr. Cub.”
You don’t get to have all these honors and distinctions just by putting on a Cubs uniform. You have to earn them. And that’s exactly what Ernie Banks did. Through hard work and determination, in spite of many discriminating against him because of the color of his skin, he became not only the greatest player to ever put on a Cubs uniform, but one of the greatest baseball players of all time. And he did it all with a smile on his face.
Banks was born on Jan. 31, 1931, in Dallas. The second-oldest of 12 children born to Eddie and Essie Banks, Ernie was not very interested in baseball growing up, and preferred playing sports like football and basketball. His father still bought him a baseball glove and would often bribe him with nickels and dimes to play catch.
Banks attended Booker T. Washington High School and played for the football, basketball and track teams. The school did not have a baseball team, so during the summer he would play for his church’s softball team. His talents were noticed by Bill Blair, a family friend who was a scout for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues.
After graduating from high school in 1950, he played one year for the Monarchs, before being drafted by the Army to serve during the Korean War. After two years, he was discharged and returned to the Monarchs. After a stellar season, he signed a contract with the Cubs in the fall of 1953.
Banks made his MLB debut on Sept. 17, 1953, at the age of 22. He was the first African-American player in Chicago Cubs history. After several successful seasons, Banks won back-to-back National League MVPs in 1958 and 1959, becoming the first player in National League history to achieve that feat. He had 47 home runs and a .313 batting average in 1958, then 45 home runs and .304 batting average in 1959.
In 1969, Banks came his closest to ever playing in the postseason, but the Cubs could not hold on to an eight-and-a-half-game lead in August. The next season, Banks hit his 500th career home run on May 12, 1970, and retired the year after.
Banks finished his career with a .274 batting average, 2,583 hits, 512 home runs and 1,636 RBIs. He was a 14-time All-Star, two-time National League MVP, two-time National League home run champion and two-time National League RBI champion. He won a Gold Glove Award in 1960. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977.
Banks was popular among Cubs players and fans for his warm personality and his bright outlook on life. After games he often could be heard saying, “Let’s play two!” a phrase that became popular with Cubs fans of all ages. He would always interact kindly with Cubs fans, signing many autographs.
After his playing days, he would stay with the Cubs organization as an ambassador. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2013.
On the night of Jan. 23, 2015, Ernie Banks died at his home in Chicago. He was 83 years old. The news hit Cubs fans hard, and memorials soon started appearing near Wrigley Field and beyond.
It’s a shame that Ernie will never be able to witness a Cubs World Series victory in person, but when it does finally happen, I know wherever he is he will see it, and the smile on his face is going to be bigger than the one Cubs fans are so accustomed to seeing from him. Ernie Banks will forever be the face of the Chicago Cubs. Rest in peace Mr. Cub, and thank you for the memories.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.