Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 25, 2015

A Champion Without Championships

Sports fans everywhere celebrate winners, and understandably so. No matter the game, the ultimate purpose of every contest is to emerge triumphant. At the professional level, champions are showered with riches and adulation. But simply counting the number of titles won can also be a lazy fan’s way of measuring greatness. In sports, as in life, winning can be defined in multiple ways.

Ernie Banks passed away last Friday, just a week shy of his 84th birthday. Banks became a baseball player without benefit of playing in school, because his high school in Dallas didn’t field a team. Instead he played fast-pitch softball in a local church league and eventually joined the Amarillo Colts, a semipro baseball team. As a 19-year old he was signed by the Kansas City Monarchs, for whom he played parts of two seasons sandwiched around a stint in the Army. In 1953 the Chicago Cubs signed Banks away from the fading Negro League franchise. When he stepped onto the diamond at Wrigley Field in September, 1953, he became the first African-American to wear a Cubs uniform.

Banks never donned any other team’s jersey, spending his entire 19-year career with the Cubs, first as their shortstop and later as the franchise’s first baseman. At a time when shortstops were valued primarily for their fielding ability, Banks redefined the position. He was the first great power hitter to also man that infield spot. As such he was the first shortstop to slug more than 250 career home runs, finishing with 293 at the position. Five times he hit more than 40 homers in a season, a record for National League shortstops. Four of those seasons came in a row, from 1957 through 1960. By way of comparison, neither Hank Aaron nor Willie Mays ever strung together three consecutive forty-plus homer seasons.

After spending part of the 1961 season as an outfielder Banks moved to first base in 1962. He put another 215 balls into the seats over the remainder of his career, becoming one of just a handful of major leaguers to hit 200 or more homers while playing each of two different positions. He feared no pitcher, and was the only player to have multi-homer games against both Warren Spahn and Sandy Koufax.

He was an 11-time All Star, including 8 seasons in a row beginning in 1955. Banks won back-to-back National League MVP Awards in 1958 and 1959. In ’58 his 47 home runs, 129 RBIs, and .614 slugging percentage all topped the league. One year later he drove in 14 more runs while blasting just 2 fewer homers. But Banks was not just a slugger. In 1959 he set single-season records for shortstops with the fewest errors and best fielding percentage, 12 and .985 respectively. The following season he was honored with the Gold Glove Award for his position.

Enormously popular with fans, Banks was nicknamed “Mr. Cub” and voted the best player in franchise history. Decades after his retirement, he still holds team records for games played, at-bats, extra base hits, and total bases. He ranks second in home runs, RBIs, and hits. A first ballot Hall of Famer in 1977, he was the first member of the Cubs to have his number retired by the team.

Beyond his statistics Banks was known and admired far beyond the ivy-covered walls of Wrigley Field for both the infectious enthusiasm for the Great Game and the unbridled optimism about his team’s chances that he brought to the ballpark seemingly every game of every season. Fans everywhere identify him with the catchphrase that he uttered to reporters upon arriving at Wrigley on a steamy midsummer’s day in 1969, with his team in first place. Approaching the waiting scribes Banks said, “Boy, it’s a beautiful day. Let’s play two!”

Banks carried that optimism into retirement, where he served as a team ambassador, became the first African-American owner of a Ford automobile dealership, and did important charitable work. Last year President Obama honored Banks with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Yet all that enthusiasm could not change the fate of the lovable losers on Chicago’s north side. The Cubs had a losing record and finished deep in the National League standings each of Banks’s first ten seasons. In his two MVP years Chicago finished 20 games back of Milwaukee in 1958 and 13 games adrift of Los Angeles in 1959. The Cubs team that was in first place when Banks coined his trademark expression in the summer of 1969 would go on to win 92 games, the only 90-win season for the team during his career. But that left them 8 games behind the Miracle Mets. The team record that Banks holds for games played, 2,528, is also the major league record for the most games played in a career without ever reaching the postseason.

So there are probably fans out there, those with short Internet-age attention spans who lazily equate greatness with championship rings, who might wonder at the outpouring around the Great Game that followed news of Banks’ passing. For there were no titles won at Wrigley Field while he played; nor for that matter for decades before or since. But in the grace and the greatness of Ernie Banks’ career, and certainly in the sheer joy that he exuded at being able to play a game for a living, there is certain proof that ultimately winning can be about more than just the final score.

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Responses

  1. I didn’t bother writing about the passing of Ernie Banks because I knew you’d do it better. I was right.
    Very nice work,
    Bill

    • You are way too generous Bill! Thanks so much,

      Mike


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