I had been talking with my wife and the two student teachers living with us on Friday evening, and as the discussion died down I returned to my computer and noticed a red "Breaking News" message on my phone. Figuring it was something urgent like a movie star had been caught drunk driving or a deflated basketball had been used in a game, I casually looked and saw that Ernie Banks had passed away at the age of 83. I spent the next hour on Twitter seeing no shortage of people as saddened as I was, talking and sharing memories. All of our heroes have to go at some point, but it doesn't make it any easier.
I can't claim to have fond memories of watching Banks play, since I didn't start watching the Cubs until 1970 after a friend told me their games were on TV. The lineup was seared in my mind: Banks at first, Glenn Beckert at second, Don Kessinger at short, Ron Santo at third, Randy Hundley occasionally catching, Billy Williams and Johnny Callison in the outfield, with Fergie Jenkins, Milt Pappas and Ken Holtzman the mainstay pitchers. A kid could do worse that start with a team like that.
For those who require some analytic meat, this shows where Banks ranks among shortstops all-time using FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (he played more games at first but won his two MVPs playing short), and there's no argument he revolutionized the position. Prior to him, shortstop was viewed as strictly a good-field-maybe-hit position, but he turned it into something in which more could be expected and added a power element rarely seen before. In this modern age of a ho-hum attitude toward high career home run totals, it needs to be remembered he was only the seventh player to hit over 500 home runs in a career.
A good player, to be sure, but no guarantees of stardom. He's the Cubs career leader in games, at-bats, hits and RBIs, none of which is particularly important. He led the team in goodwill almost from the day he stepped on the field in 1953 until his retirement in 1971, even on a team that was a combined 1371-1633 (.456) during his career. It couldn't have been easy, but he did it with class and dignity.
There's an unfortunate list that Ernie will likely top for all-time, the most games played without reaching the postseason. He only played three seasons in which there was a playoff series, and while the Cubs were decent in those years, other teams were better. I never saw him play in his prime, but I did see him in his last year when we took the train from Rock Island into Chicago and I went to my first game in Wrigley and saw that the field I'd seen on TV was even more beautiful than it appeared on the screen. I don't remember much about the game, but that wasn't the point — I was seeing my boyhood heroes up close and personal.
This quote is in the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract entry on Banks:
Maybe it's sacrilege, but I believe Banks was a con artist . . . No one smiles all the time naturally unless they're putting it on and putting you on. Every day of our lives isn't a good one. John Roseboro, Glory Days with the
I can't answer to that. It certainly couldn't have been easy for him, playing in the early days of integration when there was still plenty of racism throughout the league, but he clearly made the choice to be grateful for what he had instead of being bitter over what he didn't. Every time he was on the radio he was a joy to listen to, telling stories and relating anecdotes. There's a reason why almost every Cubs fan takes a picture next to his statue outside of Wrigley.
Winning and losing are very important, but it's how that's accomplished that is even more important and often neglected in this jaded age. I don't decry the modern game and never want to go backwards, but when we lose icons like Ernie Banks, it's natural to look back nostalgically. While I fight the urge to turn history into hagiography, it's difficult to overstate just what a gentleman Banks was. He wasn't even my favorite Cub (thanks for the autographed picture, Billy Williams!), but it was impossible to not be absorbed by his infectious charm. Rest in peace, Ernie Banks, and thanks for the memories — they won't be forgotten any time soon.
Scott Lindholm is a lifelong Cubs fan who lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.