From the moment he stepped on the field for the first time in 1953 right up through last season when he would drop by the ballpark with that big smile and little-kid enthusiasm, Ernie Banks enjoyed a love affair with Wrigley Field and its fans unlike any other in baseball.
He was Mr. Cub and no other player in franchise history — or in the club’s future — will ever be adored in the same way.
“There’s sunshine, fresh air, and the team’s behind us,” Banks said during his Hall of Fame induction speech in 1977. “Let’s play two!”
It was Banks’ famous rallying call and it made you want to come out to Wrigley Field no matter how much the Cubs were struggling. In a fan poll staged by the Chicago Sun-Times during that glorious and frustrating 1969 season, Banks was voted the “Greatest Cub Ever” and there has never been one argument about it since.
Banks died Friday in Chicago, according to Mark Bogen, who represents the Banks family. Banks’ wife, Liz, will hold a news conference at noon Sunday. He would have been 84 next Saturday.
Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts released the following statement:
“Words cannot express how important Ernie Banks will always be to the Chicago Cubs, the city of Chicago and Major League Baseball. He was one of the greatest players of all time. He was a pioneer in the major leagues. And more importantly, he was the warmest and most sincere person I’ve ever known. Approachable, ever optimistic and kind hearted, Ernie Banks is and always will be Mr. Cub. My family and I grieve the loss of such a great and good-hearted man, but we look forward to celebrating Ernie’s life in the days ahead.”
The baseball world lost one of its biggest boosters.
“I just remember Ernie was never in a bad mood,” former Cubs manager Dusty Baker said in 2013.
In November of that year, President Obama summoned Banks to the White House and presented Mr. Cub with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest honor for a civilian. Banks was beaming more than usual during a ceremony that August at Wrigley Field honoring him.
“Is this a great country or what?” Banks said before a pregame ceremony at Wrigley to celebrate his latest honor. “[The award] just means life is just wonderful, [that] when you do things and try to help people and share things, it really comes back to you. … It’s almost like the Nobel Peace Prize to me.”
— Chicago Sun-Times (@Suntimes) January 24, 2015
Banks, a former star in the Negro Leagues, came to the Cubs after being signed by former scout Buck O’Neil. Banks became the first black player in Cubs history and made a quick impression, hitting .314 with a double, triple, two home runs and 6 RBI in 10 games during a brief stint in 1953. The next season, the baseball world took notice. Banks started all 154 games at shortstop in 1954 and finished second in Rookie of the Year voting.
“He was a great pioneer for African-American players in Chicago, a two-time MVP, accomplished what he did in that era, going from playing shortstop at a high level to first base,” former Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said. “He and Billy [Williams] led the trail for a lot of African-American players after them.
“He loved the Cubs. When we all got there, he embraced us. He was so happy when we started winning. And he always went out of his way to make you think things were going to keep getting better and better. His attitude is what the game is all about.”
In 1955, Banks hit 44 home runs, setting a major-league record for shortstops. When his career ended in 1971, he had 512 home runs, 2,583 hits, 1,636 RBI and 14 All-Star selections. But he never made one trip to the postseason.
He was born in Dallas in 1931, one of 11 children, but Chicago will always be known as his home.
“It always felt like he was the face of the organization. Wow, it’s so sad,” former Cubs infielder Darwin Barney said Friday night. “He was a leader in the clubhouse even though he was 40, 50 years removed from the clubhouse. But when he was around it was a different presence in the clubhouse. He meant so much to the organization.
“There’s not that many guys that played when he did and were still around to talk about it. I think everyone was lucky to have him around, and he’s going to be missed.”
Leo Durocher, the Hall of Famer and former Cubs manager, was famous for stressing that “Nice guys finish last.” But Durocher, who managed Banks from 1966-71, made one exception to that rule.
Banks is one nice guy who finished first,” Durocher once said.
Gov. Bruce Rauner issued this statement:
“Ernie Banks was a trail blazer who helped break down barriers, a veteran who served his country with honor, a respected community leader and the greatest Chicago Cub of all time. While we mourn him here, there’s no doubt that up in heaven, ‘Mr. Cub’ is lacing up his cleats and asking Saint Peter if they can ‘play two.’ Ernie Banks’ passion for baseball and for life showed us what true joy looks like and captured our hearts. He inspired us all.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel released this statement:
“Ernie Banks was more than a baseball player. He was one of Chicago’s greatest ambassadors. He loved this city as much as he loved — and lived for — the game of baseball. This year, during every Cubs game, you can bet that No.14 will be watching over his team. And if we’re lucky, it’ll be a beautiful day for not just one ballgame, but two. My deepest sympathy to his wife, Liz, family, and friends.”
Current Cubs broadcaster Len Kasper, who often spotted Banks at Wrigley Field in recent years, tweeted: “My heart is hurting. Ernie Banks was true gentleman. Loved him as friend and admired him as HOF player and ambassador for MLB and Cubs. Mr Cub RIP.”
Former Cub Todd Hollandsworth said Banks taught him a valuable lesson at a young age.
“I first met him in the Dominican when I was 20,” Hollandsworth said. “He taught me to let the game go and start over the next day. Each day was unto itself. `You can’t change yesterday,’ he told me.
“I don’t think I could fully understand what he was teaching me at the time. Still haven’t. His passion and love for baseball is only comparable to the way my sons see it. Pure. Every day, every moment.
“I lost a friend today.”
The Cubs erected a statue honoring Banks near the corner of Clark and Addison and unveiled Wrigley Field’s new landmark at the start of the 2008 season. The statue has become a must-see stopping spot for camera-toting tourists, and Banks was overwhelmed with pride.
“When I am not here,” he joked after the ceremony, “this will be here.”
Contributing: Gordon Wittenmyer