Ernie Banks, the greatest power-hitting shortstop of the 20th century and an unconquerable optimist whose sunny disposition never dimmed in 19 seasons with the perennially stumbling Chicago Cubs, died on Friday in Chicago. He was 83.
His death, at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, was announced by Major League Baseball and the Cubs. A lawyer representing the family later said the cause was a heart attack that Banks had on Friday.
President Obama and his wife, Michelle, called Banks “an incredible ambassador for baseball, and for the city of Chicago” in a joint statement.
“It’s a beautiful day, let’s play two” became the mantra of the man known as Mr. Cub, a fixture in what he called the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. The most popular Cub ever in a franchise dating to the 1870s, Banks became as much an institution in Chicago as the first Mayor Daley, Studs Terkel, Michael Jordan and George Halas.
Banks cut a slender figure at the plate in his right-handed stance, at 6 feet 1 and 180 pounds, but he whipped a light bat with powerful wrists, hitting 512 home runs. He was named the most valuable player in the National League in 1958 and 1959, the first to win the award in consecutive years, although the Cubs finished tied for fifth place each time. He was an All-Star in 11 seasons and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1977, his first year of eligibility.
Banks became the Cubs’ first black player on Sept. 17, 1953, six years after Jackie Robinson broke the modern major league color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Like Robinson, he had played for the Kansas City Monarchs, one of the Negro leagues’ best-known ball clubs, and when he joined the Cubs, many major league teams were still all white. He was among the first black stars of the modern game, along with Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe of the Dodgers, Larry Doby with the Cleveland Indians, Hank Aaron with the Milwaukee Braves and Monte Irvin and then Willie Mays with the New York Giants.
Banks received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, from Obama in 2013. “I handed the president a bat that belonged to Jackie Robinson,” he told Sports Illustrated the next year. “The president held the bat in his hands — that was a thrill.”
Apart from Banks’s slugging feats, Obama hailed his “cheer and his optimism and his eternal faith that someday the Cubs would go all the way.”
“And that’s serious belief,” Obama added, to laughter. “That is something that even a White Sox fan like me can respect.”
Long after retiring, Banks recalled the sweltering midsummer’s day in 1969 when he bubbled over in a phrase that became his trademark.
“We were in first place, and all the reporters were already in the locker room when I arrived at Wrigley for a game with the Cardinals,” Banks told The Arizona Daily Star. “I walked in and said: ‘Boy, it’s a beautiful day. Let’s play two.’ They all thought I was crazy.”
Banks was the ninth player in major league history to hit 500 home runs, and when he retired after the 1971 season, his 293 home runs as a shortstop and his 47 homers in 1958 were career and single-season records for that position, marks eclipsed by Alex Rodriguez. He appeared in 2,528 games for the Cubs, a record for regular-season appearances by a player who never reached the postseason, playing at shortstop until the early 1960s, when he switched to first base because of leg problems.
Each spring, Banks predicted a pennant for the Cubs, who had not won a World Series since 1908 or a National League title since 1945. But each October he was back at home, most painfully in 1969, the year the Cubs experienced one of baseball’s most memorable collapses when they were overtaken by the Miracle Mets. Through all the losing seasons, he exuded an unbridled joy.
“Ernie was the eternal optimist,” the former Cubs second baseman Glenn Beckert told Peter Golenbock in “Wrigleyville” (1996). “Everything is fine, a great day. You’d go back to Chicago from the nice weather in Arizona. A lot of times we’d open against St. Louis, and when you did that, Bob Gibson was going to be their pitcher. Gray, overcast, 32 degrees in Wrigley, big crowd, start snowing about the sixth inning, and Ernie says: ‘Isn’t this a great day? We’ll keep nice and cool so we don’t get overheated.’ ”
Banks’s fellow Hall of Famer and longtime teammate Billy Williams told MLB.com on Banks’s death: “He always told Bob Gibson, ‘This guy is going to hit a home run off you today.’ We’d say, ‘Leave Bob Gibson alone.’ ”
Williams said that when he was asked whether Banks was always like that, “I’d say, ‘From the minute he woke up to the minute he went to bed, he’s the same way with a positive attitude and a joy to be around.’ ”
Ernest Banks was born in Dallas on Jan. 31, 1931, one of 12 children of Eddie and Essie Banks. His father, a former semipro player in black leagues in Texas, picked cotton and worked as a janitor in a grocery chain. His mother wanted him to become a minister, like one of his grandfathers.
Banks played softball (there was no baseball team) at Booker T. Washington High School in Dallas as well as football, and he competed in track and field. During his high school summers, he toured with a black semipro baseball team, the Colts, based in Amarillo, Tex.
After graduating from high school in 1950, Banks played one season for the Monarchs, then spent two years in the Army, returned to the Monarchs, and was sold to the Cubs in September 1953 for $10,000.
Another black player, Gene Baker, a slick-fielding shortstop, was called up by the Cubs at the same time after spending four seasons with their Los Angeles team in the Pacific Coast League. Banks became the first black player in a Cubs lineup because Baker was injured.
In his major league debut, Banks was 0 for 3 with an error against the Phillies in a 16-4 loss. But three days later, he hit his first major league homer, at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, off the Cardinals’ Gerry Staley.
Banks became the Cubs’ regular shortstop in 1954, with Baker installed at second base. He hit 19 home runs that season, then emerged as a star in 1955.
Banks had been using a 34-ounce bat, but toward the end of the 1954 season he switched to a 31-ounce model. That helped him handle outside pitches and enabled him to whip the bat, taking advantage of his strong wrists, which he had developed playing handball.
“Everybody believed you had to have a big piece of lumber and then muscle the ball over the fence,” Banks told The Austin American-Statesman in 1994. “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.”
At a time of civil rights struggles in America, Banks ventured few thoughts beyond the baseball world. In his autobiography, “Mr. Cub,” written with Jim Enright (1971), he commented on the perception that as a celebrity, he should have spoken out.
“Some people feel that because you are black you will never be treated fairly, and that you should voice your opinions, be militant about them,” he wrote. “I don’t feel this way. You can’t convince a fool against his will.”
He added, “I don’t think it’s up to black athletes to get involved in political or racial issues.”
Banks set a major league record for grand slam home runs in a season when he hit five in 1955, and he hit more than 40 home runs five times. He led the National League in home runs and in runs batted in twice. He had 2,583 hits, drove in 1,636 runs and had a career batting average of .274.
He set single-season records for fewest errors (12) and best fielding average by a shortstop (.985) in 1959 and he won a Gold Glove award in 1960, his last full season at shortstop.
Banks was a player-coach in the late 1960s with the Cubs, and after his playing career ended, he spent two years as a full-time coach for the team. He later did part-time promotional work for the Cubs. When the team dropped him from that role in June 1983, saying he had missed some scheduled appearances, there was consternation in the Chicago press. “Cubs Snub Mr. Cub,” one headline read.
But the Cubs had Banks back as an honorary member of their 1984 divisional champions when they played the San Diego Padres in the league championship series — and lost.
Banks also served as a corporate spokesman and founded the Ernie Banks Live Above and Beyond Foundation, which raised money for charities.
He was the first player to have his jersey number retired by the Cubs, and his No. 14 flies from the left-field foul pole at Wrigley Field on game days. A statue depicting Banks in his batting stance was unveiled outside the ballpark in 2008. “Let’s Play Two” is inscribed on its base.
Banks was married four times. He and his fourth wife, Liz, who is among his survivors, adopted a newborn girl, Alyna, when he was 77; he had twin sons, Joey and Jerry, and a daughter, Jan, with his second wife, Eloyce. His first three marriages ended in divorce. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
When Banks was elected to the Hall of Fame in January 1977, he talked about his outlook on life:
“I guess my critics say: He must be crazy. Nothing can be that beautiful. But when you think that there are so many people around the world who have nothing, you realize how lucky you are to be making a living in the big leagues. There’s an unbelievable, indescribable love for baseball in Wrigley Field.”