This has nothing to do with the Indians or Cleveland, and so there's a reasonable argument it doesn't make much sense to post it here at Let's Go Tribe, but when I learned of Banks' passing, I felt like writing a bit about him. If nothing else, we're all baseball fans.
Ernie Banks passed away last night in Chicago at the age of 83. Banks was arguably the greatest player in Cubs history. In the decades since his retirement he became the face of the franchise, as famous for his enthusiasm (both for baseball and for life) as for his 512 home runs or back-to-back National League MVP Awards. Banks had a catch phrase of sorts, "It's a beautiful day for a ballgame... Let's play two!" I imagine it's the first thing many people think of when they think of the man.
Banks was born in Dallas and was a fine athlete from a young age, but baseball was not his passion. He preferred basketball, football, track, and swimming. His father, a semi-pro ballplayer himself, had to bribe young Ernie just to play catch. Banks was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1951, at the age of 20. He served for two years, then rejoined the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League, the team he'd played for briefly prior to his military duty. He hit .347 for them in 1953 and was sold to the Chicago Cubs. When he debuted for them on September 17 of that year, he became the first African-American player in franchise history.
Banks was never outspoken about race during his career, preferring to focus on baseball, which he had gradually grown to love as much as his father had hoped he would. In a memoir published around the time he retired, Banks wrote:
I look at a man as a human being; I don't care about his color. Some people feel that because you are black you will never be treated fairly, and that you should voice your opinions, be militant about them. I don't feel this way. You can't convince a fool against his will... If a man doesn't like me because I'm black, that's fine. I'll just go elsewhere, but I'm not going to let him change my life.
In 1955 Banks played in the first of 14 All-Star Games he would eventually appear in (in 11 different seasons, as two separated games were played from 1959 to 1962), and that was his breakout season. From then through 1960, only Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays were better ballplayers than Banks. Ernie led MLB with 248 home runs during those years, while also playing plus defense at shortstop.
A knee injury in 1961 led the Banks being moved from shortstop to first base. His offense began to decline as well, though he continued to be an above-average hitter for another decade. In 1970 Banks became only the 9th player ever to hit 500 home runs. He retired at the end of the 1971 season and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977, his first year on the ballot.
Because I grew up here, and because he remained so involved with the Cubs for all his life after retiring as a player, Banks was among the first greats from an earlier era whom I was aware of. The last time I saw him in person was at a Pearl Jam concert at Wrigley Field a year and a half ago. There was a lengthy rainstorm that interrupted the show for nearly three hours, and it was midnight by the time the band retook the stage. At that time Eddie Vedder brought Banks out onto the stage and then performed a song called "All the Way," which Vedder had written at Banks' request a few years earlier:
Banks lived almost 84 years, which is a pretty good run. He seems to have enjoyed almost all of that time, which is more than can be said for most. For those reasons, his death does not strike me as tragic, but it's a sad day all the same for my city and for baseball.
Rest in peace, Ernie Banks.