-Ryan Cole, SportsTownChicago.com
Let’s Play Two! Those were the words, spoken quite often by none other than Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks himself. Ernest “Ernie” Banks was born on January 31, 1931. He was born and raised in Dallas, Texas. His baseball career began when he entered the Negro Leagues in 1950. He was a member of the Kansas City Monarchs during his time in the league. Ernie served in the U.S. Military for two years and returned to the Monarchs after that before he started his major league career in September of 1953. Ernie played his entire career with the Chicago Cubs during his 19 seasons. During this time, he made his first of 14 All-Star appearances in 1955. He was also named National League MVP in back to back years 1958 and 59. He also received his first and only Golden Glove Award as a shortstop in 1960. After his time at shortstop, he switched to left field during the 1961 season, but that wasn’t his final position change. He ended up being put at first base to finish that season.
From 1967 to 1971, Ernie did something you don’t see now a days. He was not only a player for the Cubs, but he was also a coach. In 1970, he hit his 500th Home Run. Then in 1972, he joined the Cubs coaching staff after he retired as a player. Eric found himself very active in the City of Chicago. During and after his time with the Cubs. He was the founder of a charitable organization, while also becoming the first black Ford Motor Company dealer in the US. In the Summer of 1977, Mr. Cub himself, was inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. Then in 1999, he was named to the MLB All-Century team. In 2013, Ernie was awarded the Presidental Medal of Freedom for his contribution to sports.
Growing up, Ernie was one of twelve kids. He was the second oldest. His father who worked construction and who was a warehouse loader for a grocery chain, also played baseball for black Semi-Pro teams in Texas. When Banks was a child, he liked swimming, basketball and football. He enjoyed these three sports actually more than Baseball. His father had to buy him a glove for less than three dollars and bribed him with nickels and dimes, just so he would play catch. Ernie’s mother on on the other hand, would encourage him to become a minister like one of his grandfathers. He graduated from High School in 1950. While in High School, he played Basketball, Football and Track. Since the school didn’t have baseball, Ernie fast pitch softball for a church team during the summer. He also played semi-pro baseball for the Amarillo Colts.
Ernie’s history professor Timothy Gilfoyle wrote that Banks was discovered by Bill Blair, who was a family friend who scouted for the Monarchs. There are other sources, claiming that he was noticed by Cool Papa Bell of the Monarchs. During his time in the Army, Ernie served in Germany during the Korean War. He served as a flag bearer in the 45th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion at Fort Bliss. While there, he played part time for the very entertaining Harlem Globetrotters. I’ve actually had the pleasure of watching the Globetrotters play. It would have been something if Ernie was on the team when I did.
In 1953, he was discharged from the Army and he finished that season with the Monarchs and hit to the tune of a .347 batting average. Ernie said later, that playing for the Monarch’s was like his schooling, his world, his whole entire life. He actually didn’t even want to leave the team and his teammates when he was sold to the Cubs. Mr. Cub signed with the Cubbies during the Fall of 1953. He made his major league debut at the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field on September 17th at the young age of 22. Ernie was actually one of a handful of former negro players who joined the majors without ever playing a single game of Minor League ball. He was also the first black player in Chicago Cubs history. During the first game he played, he was visited by Jackie Robinson which influenced his quiet presence in the game. Jckie told Banks, “Ernie, I’m glad to see you’re up here so now just listen and learn. For years, I didn’t talk and learned alot about different people.”
In 1954, his official Rookie season, him and second baseman, Gene Baker, who was actually the second Cubs black player, formed the first All-Black Double Play Duo in Major League History. That season Ernie finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting behind Wally Moon. The following season though, was a huge second season for Ernie. He had a batting average of .295 to go along with an amazing 44 Home Runs and 117 RBI’s. He ended up making his first of 14 All-Star appearances that year and his Home Run total ended up being a single-season record amongst shortstops. In Grand fashion also that year, he broke a 30-year record, hitting five Grand Slams in a single season. That year he finished third in MVP voting. In 1958 and 1959 though, he became the first National League player to win back to back MVP awards. On December 1, 1971, Ernie retired as a player and just assisted as a coach. Banks ended up finishing his career with 512 Home Runs, 277 of them coming as a shortstop. That was a record at the time of his retirement. Mr Cub got his nickname as well as Mr. Sunshine due to his personality, popularity as well as his positive attitude.
He was known for his catchphrase, “It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame...Let’s Play Two!” Ernie was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1977, collecting votes on 321 of the 383 allotted ballots. His number 14 Jersey was retired in 1982.
As you can see, just from everything I’ve researched about Ernie, he was quite the influence on not only the game of baseball, but his friends and family, teammates and fans of the game of baseball as well. Ernie’s long road to get to where he did as a player and person, was quite impressive. His charisma as a player and person and his leadership in the clubhouse on both the Monarchs and then the Cubs did not go unnoticed and was extraordinary. His teammates all loved and respected him.
Just the other day though on January 23rd, 2015, eight days before his birthday, Ernie lost his life. It’s been a sad week for his family and friends, but also the fans of the Cubs and of baseball. His funeral and his burial was held on his birthday. I had the privilege of watching his funeral and the way everyone spoke about Ernie, you know how much of an impact he had on everyone. Ernie, you will be missed, we love you! #14 R.I.P.