Baseball is the perfect game: It slowly awakens from its long winter slumber and begins anew in the spring, the time of rebirth, and continues on through the long and idyllic days of summer. It concludes in the fall when the leaves change and slowly fall off the branches, the air becoming chilly before the bitter cold of winter. If baseball is the perfect game, then Ernie Banks was its perfect player. Banks was beloved by all, not just by fans of the Cubs and not just by fans of baseball, but by those who appreciate everything that is right with humanity. Playing for one of baseball’s most moribund franchises, Banks always wore a smile and treated everyone he encountered with kindness and warmth.
Banks played for 19 years with the Chicago Cubs, but he remained an eminent figure in baseball long after his retirement and his subsequent election to Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1977. He was an ambassador of the sport, but he was also an ambassador of joy, espousing a philosophy of eternal optimism and an appreciation for life itself. Now that Banks has passed away at the age of 83, baseball is left with a void that simply cannot be filled. Banks’ longevity with the Cubs and his affection for the city in which he played is a rarity in this age, and now that Derek Jeter has retired, it seems unlikely that we will see such a perfect union of player and city in baseball for quite some time.
Fortunately for baseball and its fans, Banks has left an enduring legacy that can be appreciated for many generations to come. Forever Mr. Cub, Banks’ legend will remain strong not just in Chicago, but in every city that hosts a baseball team. There is a lot to love about Banks, and what follows are just 10 of the limitless reasons to appreciate the life of Mr. Cub.
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10 His Boundless Optimism
Perhaps the thing that Banks is most known for is his boundless and eternal optimism. He began his playing career in 1953 and played 19 seasons for a Chicago Cubs franchise that never made the playoffs. Everyone from teammates, opponents and even President Barack Obama has noted Banks’ optimism as one of his great qualities, with Banks once saying to a teammate on Opening Day, a day in which it was 32 degrees with snow on the way and Bob Gibson on the mound, “Isn’t this a great day? We’ll keep nice and cool so we don’t get overheated.” He consistently found the bright side or the silver lining, leading to the less-famous nickname he carried: Mr. Sunshine.
9 A Fondness for Every Person
There are so many stories of Banks making time for fans, and he made a point of getting to know every person with whom he came in contact on a more personal level. Banks’ family attorney, Mark Bogen, said Banks “would go right up to people and ask about their families and how they were doing rather than baseball. He wanted to know all about people's lives. Baseball was not the first thing he would talk about. He cared about people." Anyone who ever had the pleasure of meeting Banks could surely attest to that notion, as Banks was one of the most jovial and welcoming athletes to ever play the game of baseball.
8 His Work as Baseball’s Greatest Ambassador
Ernie Banks loved baseball. His enthusiasm for the game and the joy with which he played showed an entire generation just how wonderful a game baseball was to play. He never had to say a word about the game to prove how much he enjoyed playing, but when he spoke of baseball, it was plainly evident and it was impossible for anyone listening to not share in the burning desire to play the game that Banks loved so much. From the time he entered MLB in 1953, Banks served as baseball’s greatest ambassador and inspired many to take up an interest in the game.
7 Unrelenting Joy for Life and Baseball
As much as Banks loved baseball, he loved life and living even more. He appreciated the fact that he was able to make a living playing the game he loved, and he made sure that others knew it. Sportswriter Arthur Daley summed up Banks quite well, saying, “He rejoices merely in living, and baseball is a marvelous extra that makes his existence so much more pleasurable." Everybody in this world should be so lucky to be able to spend time with someone who enjoys life and the living of it as much as Ernie Banks did.
6 His Status as One of the Game’s All-Time Best Players
Banks was not much for bragging about his accomplishments, but they are many. Though he was a member of perennially losing Cubs teams, Banks was able to earn back-to-back MVP awards in 1958 and 1959. This accomplishment is even more impressive when considering the era in which he played, as his competition in the MVP voting included some of the game’s all-time greatest players, including Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews and Stan Musial, just to name a few. Banks was the first true power-hitting shortstop in baseball, and before 1955, no shortstop had ever hit 40 home runs in a season, a feat Banks would accomplish in five of the next six seasons from 1955 to 1960. Over his Hall of Fame career, Banks slashed .274/.330/.500 with 512 home runs and 1,636 RBI, and was named to 14 All-Star teams in 19 seasons.
5 Complete and Honest Humility
Ernie Banks was a man of many qualities, and one of the more impressive qualities was his humility. Banks was never one to self-promote, choosing to speak highly of others first and giving credit to anyone – or anything – before himself. In his Hall of Fame election speech, Banks credited his power to his light bat, which weighed just 31 ounces, saying, “I was standing by the batting cage at the old Polo Grounds one day and picked up a 31-ounce bat Monte Irvin had acquired. I told Monte, ‘This feels good!’ and he said I ought to use one like it. The next day, I experimented with it in batting practice, and the ball was really jumping off the bat. I weighed only 160 pounds, but I could get terrific bat speed swinging that light wood. I hit five grand slam homers and a total of 44 homers. Pitchers kept telling me, ‘Ernie, you really can pull those outside pitches — how do you do it?’ Other hitters saw what was happening and began to switch to lighter bats. The light bat was my livelihood. It made me a hitter.”
4 A Crossover Icon
Ernie Banks’ popularity extends far beyond the realm of baseball, and he remained a pop-culture icon outside of baseball over 40 years after he had retired from baseball. Never was this more evident than when Eddie Vedder, the front man for Pearl Jam, brought Banks out on stage during a concert at Wrigley Field. Banks sang along while Vedder sang “Someday We’ll Go All the Way,” a song Vedder, a native of Illinois, wrote about the Cubs. After his introduction, Banks welcomed the crowd by saying, “I’m so happy to see all of you here at my house,” drawing cheers and applause from the audience, before going on to say that Wrigley Field is “the most beautiful place in my life.”
3 The Stories He Will Leave Behind
There are many great Ernie Banks stories, and Banks was always happy to share a kind word with anyone who would listen. Teammates have relayed many times over the years how Banks always maintained his sunny disposition regardless of the situation. When the weather was bad, Banks found a way to turn it to a positive, and no matter how poor the outlook was for the Cubs in any particular year, Banks believed that the team was destined to win the pennant, and before each season he would compose a rhyme in support of his belief, including “the Cubs are due in ’62,” “will come alive in ’65,” “will be heavenly in ’67-ly,” “will shine in ’69,” and, finally, “will glow in 7-0.”
2 His Affection for Handball
Banks grew up in Dallas, Texas, and spent a great deal of his youth playing softball and handball. He played softball because there was no baseball team at Booker T. Washington High School, and credited a great deal of his power to the strength of his wrists, which he developed while playing handball. At 6’1” and 180 pounds, Banks was hardly the prototypical power hitter and made use of those strong wrists -- along with the light bat he used -- to generate his power. Speaking on the subject, Banks once said, “Everybody believed you had to have a big piece of lumber and then muscle the ball over the fence. But by the time I, and Hank Aaron, another guy who did it with his wrists, were through, there were a lot of guys ordering light bats and playing handball.”
1 The Game’s Greatest Saying: “Let’s Play Two!”
No matter how poorly the Chicago Cubs fared, Ernie Banks used his signature phrase to remind those around him how fortunate they were to be playing a game for a living, to be out in the sunshine of Wrigley Field playing a beautiful sport in a beautiful place. “Let’s play two,” will forever be associated with an undying love for the game of baseball, in much the same way that Ernie Banks’ life will. Speaking at his Hall of Fame election in 1977, Banks uttered his famous phrase methodically while standing on the podium and surrounded by the verdant scenery of Cooperstown, saying, “There’s sunshine, fresh air, and the team’s behind us. Let’s play two.”
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