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PLAYING TWO PLUS TWO FOR ERNIE BANKS
PLAYING TWO PLUS TWO FOR ERNIE BANKS
Art George-Special to BASN
There are three statues for three players outside of Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs: Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, and Ron Santo, whose careers overlapped mostly in the 1960s but who never themselves took the field in a World Series. The statue of Banks was the first installation. As the Cubs return to the World Series for the first time in 71 years, consider how Ernie Banks earned that statue.
For Chicago fans, and others, he was the greatest player who ever lived. Someone who is not a Cubs fan, or a hardcore baseball fan, might not understand. He was “Mr. Cub” and “Mr. Sunshine,” dedicated to the Cubs and in love with the game of baseball, his optimism never dampened, never complaining. “Let’s play two,” was his motto, hoping that every day could bring a double-header just to play more baseball.
Banks was a Chicago legend, the best player on very bad teams, a local hero for Chicago despite playing for a consistently losing team that in some years dropped more than 100 games, likely a better player even than history remembers him. Individually he outperformed Willie Mays and Hank Aaron in some of their glory years, although they went on to greater stardom with better teams. He died in January 2015 at age 83, just 21 months before his team would finally make it into the Fall Classic.
THE GOOD IN THE BAD
The Cubs were so bad, with some great players but many more not-so-great, that among his other records Banks leads the major leagues for most games played without a postseason appearance (2,528), as his career was enclosed within the seven decades by which the Cubs had not been in a World Series, until now. But he was so good that he was the first player from a losing team to win the National League MVP Award, in 1958, edging Mays and Aaron.
The Cubs had gone 72-82 and finished fifth. Banks hit .313 with 47 homers and 129 RBIs. Mays had started what would be seven consecutive seasons of hitting better than .300; Aaron was in the World Series that year with the Milwaukee Braves.
The next year, even as the Cubs had another dismal year and finished fifth again, Banks repeated as MVP, the first player National League player to win it back-to-back. Banks hit .304 with 45 homers and a league-leading 143 RBIs.
He led the NL in homers again in 1960 with 41, his fourth straight season with 40 or more. His 248 homers from 1955 to 1960 were the most in the majors, topping even Aaron and Mays. Although both Aaron and Mays would hit more than 150 total homers in their careers than Banks.
Banks was the first Black player on the Cubs, joining the team in September 1953, when the team finished 40 games out of first place. In 1954, he was runner-up for Rookie of the Year; the next year he was an All-Star, and would repeat as an All-Star for ten more seasons. He hit 512 homers in 19 seasons with the Cubs. He had five seasons where he hit 40 or more home runs; he was the first player to have five grand slams in a single season.
In that era, Cubs games (as well as the White Sox, Bulls, and Blackhawks) were broadcast on WGN radio and television, and for many fans of Chicago sports throughout the Midwest, that was all the electronic media there was. Banks remained largely unknown to fans on either coast who had allegiances to their own teams and players, but in the Midwest he was “Mr. Cub.”
Banks appeared to be on track to be one of the greatest players of all time, but after 1960 his production fell off, as he suffered from knee and wrist problems, and his numbers did not keep pace with Mays and Aaron. He still played for another eleven seasons, retiring after 1971 at age 40.
Until the last two years of his career he played in the majority of Cubs games, and was known for bringing his “let’s play” attitude to games even as the Cubs fielded bad teams and losing records. In three of those seasons he had more than 100 RBIs. He compiled his numbers even as opponents tried to pitch around him to reach weaker members of his teams. That he was a Hall of Famer was unquestioned; he was elected to Cooperstown in 1977 in his first year of eligibility.
Mays remembered Banks’ joy of playing baseball. Even when opposing pitchers would throw at him, Mays recalled, Banks would get up laughing. To Banks, baseball was fun. He said that the only way to prove you’re a good sport is to lose; the Cubs would give him plenty of opportunity to test that maxim.
THE HEARTBREAK OF 1969
Despite his cheerful demeanor, he was not unaffected by never having been in a World Series. “Sometimes I’m at a Hall of Fame reunion,” he told journalist Ron Rapoport, “and I’ll look around and see I’m the only one in the room who never played in a World Series.” He had to resign himself that he had done the best he could and it wasn’t meant to be.
Yankee Hall of Famer Goose Gossage included Banks among the great players who never got a chance to play in the World Series. “I heard him say once that he’ll always have an open feeling in his heart because of not playing in a World Series.”
Banks told ESPN writer Tim Kurkjian that not having been in a Series “has always left me with an empty feeling inside. I loved the game so much. To not ever play in the World Series, let alone win it, still hurts. It’s the ultimate achievement for a player. I really thought we were going to get there in 1969.”
That was the year of the “Black Cat Curse,” which along with the “Billy Goat Curse” were said to have kept the Cubs out of post-season play. A black cat had wandered past the Cubs dugout as they played the Mets in Shea Stadium. In 1945, the last year the Cubs were in a Series, a fan put a curse on the team when he was prohibited from bringing his pet goat into Wrigley.
An unlucky 13 years ago a fan named Steve Bartman in outfield seat Aisle 4, Row 8, Seat 113 reached for a foul ball and deflected it away from Chicago left fielder Moises Alou. The Cubs were leading 3–0 in the eighth inning of the sixth game of the NLCS Championship Series, and held a series lead of three games to two. They were five outs away from the World Series. If Alou had caught the ball, it would have been the second out in the inning and the Cubs would have been just four outs from their first National League pennant since 1945. Instead, the Cubs fell apart, giving up eight runs and losing 8–3. They were eliminated in the seventh game the next day. The “Bartman incident” was more bad luck.
In 1969, the Cubs had been leading their division by nine games in mid-August. But then the Cubs collapsed, falling into losing streaks as the “Miracle Mets” pulled off winning streaks. The Cubs went into September with a first place record of 84-52, and the Mets in second place at 77-55. By September 11, 1969, the Mets had pulled ahead, then finished eight games ahead of the Cubs, and went on to win the Series. It was an unbelievable triumph for the Mets, who never before had finished better than second to last. For the Cubs, it was devastating.
SMILING PAST THE BLAME
Cubs manager Leo Durocher tried to hang the collapse on Banks, claiming that he was required to play Banks to placate fans, despite Banks’ age and declining performance. Banks had played in all but seven games that season, had been an All-Star, batted only .253 on the season, but had 23 home runs and 106 RBIs. Banks hit only .186 for that September while Chicago went 7-17, entering the month up by 5 and then ending the season down by 8. But the team had four other players who went to the All-Star Game that year, and future Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins had led the National League in strikeouts, so others could have shared the load.
Another view is that Durocher had worn out his starters, playing the same lineup without rest through an entire season of day games in Chicago, the only kind of home games the Cubs knew, as the stadium did not install lights until 1988. He was said to have abused and divided his clubhouse. Feuds erupted within the squad. The team had collapsed as a whole, overworked and overstressed, and Durocher had not been able to reverse the tailspin.
Banks, “Mr. Sunshine,” told writer Rapoport that the only time he became truly angry was when Durocher intimated that he was at fault for the Cubs’ 1969 meltdown. Not until both men had retired, was the bitterness healed. “Leo attended a reunion of the 1969 team many years later,” Ernie said, “and stood up and said, ‘The one thing I regret about that year is the way I treated Ernie.’ That made me feel good.”
In the 1960s, Banks had faced some criticism for not being more of an activist on racial matters. Hall of Famer and former Cub Monte Irvin recalled that Banks had explained that his contribution was in showing up to play good baseball: “Give the kids somebody to look up to, so the fans come to the ballpark pleased.”
Banks is remembered as a people person, always taking the time to talk to fans, about their lives, their jobs, their donut shops even. Forbes magazine recalled one baseball memorabilia show where Banks spent more time talking to fans than selling signatures. He was considered one of the nicest men to have ever played the game.
At Bank’s funeral service, former Yankee manager Joe Torre said that Ernie Banks was living proof that you don’t have to wear a championship ring on your finger to be a pillar of baseball and champion of life. That statue outside of Wrigley Field makes the same declaration.