Ernie Banks was a true pioneer. Ernie helped paved the way for many African-American players in the Chicago Cubs organization. He also transformed the game. His quick swing through the batting zone allowed him to generate a lot of power. Before him, shortstop was seen as a defensive position filled with light hitting players. After Ernie’s career ended in the early 1970s, it would another ten years before another “power hitting shortstop” came along in Cal Ripken and more than ten years after that when Alex Rodriguez came along.
Born into poverty in Dallas, Texas in 1931, Ernie Banks was one of 12 children in his family.
“I enjoyed growing up in Dallas. Everything was within walking distance: the school I went to, the YMCA, my friends in the neighborhood, the park I played baseball on. Everybody knew everybody and kept everybody in line.”
Sports soon became his life. He was a three sport athlete at Booker T. Washington High School in Dallas. He played football, basketball, and track at the school. He never played baseball in high school.
However, sports did not make Ernie who he was. He was deeply religious and that side of him came directly from his mother’s influence. For a poor person, Banks said, “Your word is your bond. Things like that kind of stuck in my mind. I mean what I say, and I say what I mean.” And it was playing on his church softball team that his athletic skills were discovered first by Kansas City Monarchs Scout Bill Blair. Banks would begin his baseball career in 1950 with the Amarillo Colts. He did not play for them long as Cool Papa Bell and Buck O’Neil swayed Ernie to the Kansas City Monarchs later that same year. He wound up being drafted and serving in Germany during the Korean War.
Upon his release in 1953, Ernie returned to the Monarchs. Later that fall, his contract was sold to the Chicago Cubs. He would be the first African-American to play for the team.
The shock of moving to a segregated city like Chicago was not lost on Banks. He said the following of the differences:
“You’ve got a lot of players from the South and very few blacks. It was not as multicultured as I had anticipated. They had a few players from Puerto Rico and from Latin American countries, but most of the players were from the South and West.”
Banks lived on the south side of town throughout most of the 50s before moving to the West Chesterfield neighborhood in the late 50s.
When Ernie stepped onto the field in 1953, there were only 20 other African-Americans on 7 other teams. But more than that, Ernie represented a new kind of player with Henry Aaron and Willie Mays – all three were players who combined speed with power. They revolutionized the game. And for Ernie, he revolutionized the shortstop position.
As a Cub, slugger Ralph Kiner took a liking to Ernie from the start. The two would often talk hitting and Ernie credits Kiner with helping Ernie to refine his own swing with quick wrists in order to see the ball deep in to the zone and to just react. Ernie Banks hit 40 home runs in a season in four consecutive years from 1957-1960. The 6’1” 185 lb. shortstop won two NL MVP awards in 1958 and 1959. One person quipped that without Ernie, the last placed Cubs “would have finished in Albuquerque.”
Everywhere Ernie went as a ballplayer, his race followed him. Ernie spoke eloquently of the dichotomy of his being an African-American pioneer in baseball:
“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 am black, that’s fine. I’ll just go elsewhere, but I’m not going to let him change my life […] As black athletes, if we speak on various issues, or wear our hair in certain ways, we are considered militant, in opposition to The Establishment, which put us in a position of being opposed to what gives us our livelihood. If we don’t speak up about racial issues, political matters, or the organization itself, we are called Uncle Toms.”
He knew he could not please everybody. So, Ernie was just himself.
In 1962, injuries began to take their toll on Ernie. He moved from shortstop to third base to left field before finally settling on a new position. For the last 9 years of his career he played first base.
Ernie never played in the post season. For 19 years he tried, for 19 years he never made it, but it was not for a lack of trying. The closest “Mr. Cub” came to the post season was in the legendary 1969 season where the Cubs blew a 10 game lead to the Mets in August and September. Along with the Ron Santo and Billy Williams, the trio endeared themselves to Cub fans everywhere.
As a pioneer of the position, Ernie was also a pioneer because of his attitude. His most well known saying is, “Let’s Play Two!” meaning to play a double-header. Throughout Chicago, Ernie’s positive mental attitude never wavered throughout his life. As great of baseball player as he was, he was even more of a gentleman. Everyone he met, he felt it was his duty to say something nice to them, to encourage them.
Playing baseball during a time of segregation did not leave Ernie bitter. He stayed at different hotels, rode different buses, lived in a different part of town, but it not did deter him from having positive attitude toward other human beings. Ernie said,
“There are certain things that you have to fight for, not by looting or burning, but by letting society know that you will demand your rights and will use every legal means to get them. I don’t agree with the guys that say in order to find pride in your blackness you have to hate everything that is white. That’s just plain wrong. We shouldn’t hate anybody. If you want to get a good job, or get into business, you’ve got to live with other people including the white ones.”
Ernie was an 11 time All-Star who played in 13 All Star games (some years they played two All-Star games a year) who finished with 512 Home Runs. His 500th home run turned into the one of the great calls in baseball television history.
In 1977, Ernie made into the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot.
After his playing career ended, Ernie continued to be the face of the Cubs. He gave often to charities in the Chicago area and was a face in the community. He appeared at many baseball card conventions, Cub games, and Cubs Conventions. He became a mentor to many Cub players over the years including the current team.
The last time I saw him in person was at the Chicago Cubs Convention in 2014. When I heard he was not going to be attending the Convention of a week ago, I wondered about his health. I hoped that everything was alright. He passed away yesterday at age 83.
Most people will remember him for his infectious attitude and how he had a kind word for everyone. That he did do. However, the mark he left on the game is just as important as the mark he left off the field in transforming the game in the 1950s and 1960s. For every person that he ever touched with his smile and attitude, he touched just as many with his play. He made it possible for a power hitter to play shortstop. Ernie made it possible for Robin Yount, Cal Ripken, and Derek Jeter to transform shortstop from a defensive position into an offensive one. And he made it possible for an African-American player to be the face of a franchise in Chicago.
In 2013, Ernie was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama. It is the highest award a citizen can earn in this country.
Ernie Block Quotes
Timothy J. Gilfoyle. “From Wrigley Field to Outer Space: Interviews with Ernie Banks and Mae Jemison.” Chicago History Magazine. Winter, 1988-89.
Lew Freedman (2007). African-American Pioneers. Greenwood Press: Westport Connecticut.