Banks, Ernest ("Ernie")

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BANKS, Ernest ("Ernie")

(b. 31 January 1931 in Dallas, Texas), Hall of Fame shortstop; first baseman, power hitter, and flawless fielder; and the most popular baseball player ever to play for the Chicago Cubs.

Banks was born to poor but devoted African-American parents in Dallas. His father, Eddie Banks, picked cotton, worked for the Works Project Administration, and stocked for the Texas Wholesale Grocery Corporation. His mother, Essie Banks, was a domestic worker. Banks hoped his father would help him get a job with the grocery wholesaler, but Eddie told him to aim higher.

Eddie pitched and caught for two semiprofessional baseball teams, and Banks and his brother enjoyed being bat-boys for them. Banks excelled in high school basketball, football, and track, but he didn't play varsity baseball. In 1948, the summer before his junior year, a scout for the Detroit Colts, a semipro team from Texas, spotted Banks playing for a church softball team. After agreeing to his mother's condition—that her son's education wouldn't be compromised by playing baseball—Banks and a friend tried out in Amarillo, Texas. After hitting a home run in his first game, Banks was instructed to pass his cap among the fans, who rewarded him with about $6. During his second season with the Colts, Banks met the legendary "Cool Papa" Bell of the Negro Leagues' Kansas City Monarchs.

Before Banks completed high school, Bell persuaded Dizzy Dismukes to sign him with the Monarchs, promising him $300 per month. After a successful season, Banks, at age nineteen, toured with Jackie Robinson's Major League All-Stars in the fall of 1950. There he was mentored by future Hall of Famers Roy Campanella, Larry Doby, and Robinson. Banks spoke of his debt to each of these men, who helped integrate Negro League players with the all-white Major League Baseball teams.

Banks served in the U.S. Army from 1951 to 1953, but before shipping overseas he played basketball briefly for the Harlem Globetrotters. Coach Abe Saperstein told Banks to sit beside him on the bench and learn the Globetrotters' routines, but Banks didn't know how to respond. He had never before sat next to a white person.

After serving in Germany, where a softball mishap caused his knee to lock up (an injury that prefigured knee problems that would plague his career), Banks rejoined the Monarchs. In 1953 Monarchs manager Buck O'Neil accompanied twenty-two-year-old shortstop and pitcher Bill Dickey to meet Chicago Cub officials at Wrigley Field. The Cubs planned to call up shortstop Gene Baker from their Los Angeles minor league affiliate as their first African-American player, but Baker was injured. So they offered Banks a contract at $800 per month. Because the Negro Leagues weren't affiliated with Major League Baseball, players had to be released by their Negro League team before signing with any major league organization. O'Neil, who was aware that integration would mean the end of the Negro Leagues, actively sought to place his best players in good major or minor league situations. He later joined the Cubs as a scout, and Banks never forgot his debt to "a role model, a father, a mentor, a teacher, a sensei, a hero, a gentleman, a man. Who do you think I got my let's-play-two attitude from?"

After joining the Cubs, Phillies outfielder Richie Ash-burn told Banks that he was played as a "punch-and-judy" hitter in his first season, so Banks learned to accelerate his wrists through the swing and quickly developed one of the smoothest right-handed power strokes the game has ever seen. In 1955 he set a record for shortstops by hitting forty-four home runs, five of which came with the bases loaded, then broke it with forty-seven in 1958. This record stood until 23 September 2001, when Alex Rodriguez of the Texas Rangers hit his forty-eighth. Banks called Rodriguez to congratulate him, saying, "I'm just so proud of you. I wish you were my son."

Between 1955 and 1960 Banks hit more homers than any other major leaguer—including Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Roger Maris, and Hank Aaron. Before his career ended, he surpassed the threshold of 500 career home runs (512), with five seasons at 40 or more, and played eight seasons with more than 100 runs batted in.

After the 1958 season, Banks's life changed dramatically. Arriving at a meeting to discuss a business matter, he was smitten by the receptionist, a Texas native named Eloyce Johnson. Before the end of the year, they had eloped, and the following fall their family expanded by twin sons.

His fielding was almost as impressive as his batting. In 1959 Banks set a National League shortstop record of .985. He led National League shortstops in fielding percentage in three of his eight seasons at that position. In 1958 and again in 1959 he was named the National League's Most Valuable Player, an honor usually reserved for stars of contending teams. The Cubs had finished in fifth place both years.

In addition to being steady in the field and dangerous with the bat, Banks was durable in a position noted for causing injury. He set a league record by playing shortstop in 424 consecutive games from the day he joined the Cubs, then after being sidelined for 15 days, began another string of 717 straight games before a knee injury sent him to the bench. Banks moved to left field for 23 games starting in 1961, when his arthritic knees prevented his returning to shortstop. He then moved to first base for the rest of his career, leading the league in fielding with a .997 percentage (four errors in 1,506 chances) in 1969, the year Cubs fans voted him the best player in franchise history.

Banks's fondest memory as a Cub exemplifies his team spirit. On 2 July 1967 the Cubs took sole possession of first place for the first time in his career. It was his proudest moment, although he was sidelined by an injury resulting from a collision the previous day. The team finished second in 1969 and 1970. It was as close to the World Series as Banks ever came. When his knees gave out in 1971 and forced him to retire from the game, Banks held franchise records in games played, base hits, total bases, runs batted in, and home runs. The most popular Cub ever, he was the first member of the team to have his number retired and the eighth player elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. A Chicago city councilman proposed in 1967 that a five-story statue of Banks be erected instead of Pablo Picasso's abstract piece. Although Mayor Richard Daley accepted the Picasso sculpture, he considered Banks "a veritable incarnation of the Chicago spirit."

Since his retirement, Banks has brought his optimism and versatility to many commercial and philanthropic projects. He served on the Chicago Transit Authority Board of Directors and held positions in commercial banking and corporate insurance. His charitable interests have included the World Children's Baseball Fair, the Children's Miracle Network, the Children's Hospital Los Angeles, and the Ernie Banks International Live Above and Beyond Foundation. In 1997, Banks married again, to the former Liz Ellzey of Chicago. The best man at the Barbados wedding was home run king Hank Aaron.

Banks was one of the finest baseball players of his time and a model of the citizen-athlete. In an era when pitchers intentionally threw the ball to hit black batters, Banks viewed the antagonism in a positive way: "I just thought it was part of the game. I felt they were basically paying me a compliment because they thought I was a threat to win the game." The late umpire Tom Gorman recalled that "in 1957 Banks was knocked down four times by four different pitchers.… And each time he was knocked down, [he] hit [the] next pitch out of the park."

Banks's love for the game, its players, fans, coaches, and even sportswriters, resonate in his comment about the only thing wrong with doubleheaders: "You don't get to play three games."

Banks's 1971 autobiography is titled Mr. Cub. For information about Banks's relationship with Jackie Robinson, see Jules Tygiel, Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy (1983). For general comments about Banks and the Cubs, see Mitchell LeBlanc, ed., Baseball: Professional Sports Team Histories (1994). Steve Wulf comments on the early years, and Banks's relationship with Monarchs manager Buck O'Neil, in "The Guiding Light," Sports Illustrated (19 Sept. 1994). Information on Banks's later years, including his charity efforts, is in Thomas Bonk, "He Says You're Never Too Old to Play Two …A Hall of Famer on the Charity Circuit," Los Angeles Times (31 Jan. 1992).

David Dougherty