WC watched Ernie Banks play his last game. September 25, 1971, the Cubs hopelessly mired in the bottom half of the National League East, the 40-year old Banks was playing with the bad knees that had forced him from shortstop to first base to sometime substitute, but there was still utter, child-like joy in every move he made on the field. He hit a double and scored, as WC recalls, helping the Cubs beat the Phillies. There was a radio interview of Banks along the first base line after the games. Mr. Cub was asked what he thought of the game; Banks smiled and said it was such a nice day they should have played two.
While WC was in Chicago, he saw Banks a couple of times after retirement, visiting the crowd at Wrigley. He was an immensely loved, popular figure. He always had time to sign a program, to talk about the Cubs, or to pose for a photo. It’s hard for anyone outside of Chicago to understand how beloved he really was.
Banks was born in Dallas, Texas. He played in the Negro Leagues for the Kansas City Monarchs before and after service in World War II. The Cubs signed him in 1953, the first Black player on the team. By 1958, he was the Cubs’ offense. The Cincinnatti Reds Manager famously said that without Banks the Cubs would have finished in Albuquerque. That year, he won the National League Most Valuable Player award, beating Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, even though his team finished with a losing record. He won the MVP again in 1959, even though the Cubs were still awful.
Banks has a long string of awards and honors. His was the first uniform number the Cubs retired; he was selected for the Baseball Hall of Fame his first year, he still holds team records and National League records, 44 years after retiring. The Cubs have been blessed with a lot of great players, but Banks was indisputably the greatest.
Since retirement, he has been the Cubs’ ambassador, for that matter, Chicago’s ambassador, to the world. More, he was exactly the kind of hero we want all of our sports heroes to be. Bill Bryson wrote of Ernie Banks, “He was the nicest human being I have ever met. It was like being friends with God.
At this Hall of Fame induction in 1977, Banks said, “There’s sunshine, fresh air and the team’s behind us. Let’s play two!”
A superb ballplayer, a wonderful human being and every Cubs fan’s hero. WC can only say, “Hey Ernie, let’s play two!”
R.I.P. Ernest Banks.