It never had a favorite player; as a child, every Chicago Cub was a hero. But it was no secret who was the best player. Many say one of the best baseball players ever.
In 1958 and 1959, “Mr. Cub” Ernie Banks was the first in National League history voted Most Valuable Player in two consecutive seasons. At that time, it seemed to me that distinction usually went to a player on a championship team. But in both of those seasons, the Cubs did not even have a winning record or even finish in the top half of the standings – tied for fifth place both times.
I was living in Dallas, Tex., and Banks had grown up in that city. But I never expected ever to see him in person, much less meet him in a casual setting. But 12 years later, he and I were both sitting in his sister’s living room.
Today, it seems like most people have high-quality cameras – not so much in the 1960s and ‘70s. I had saved my shekels and purchased a 35mm camera. A friend who coached youth league baseball asked if I would take their team and individual photos, something I did for a few summers.
One summer, that team included an especially talented player. I was surprised to learn that young athlete, Bobby Johnson, was the nephew of the great Ernie Banks. Bobby’s mom asked if I could come over to their house and take a few family pictures when her brother Ernie was back in town for a visit.
So in late 1971, I was sitting in a living room chair while Bobby and Uncle Ernie sat side by side on the sofa.
Banks, at age 40, had just retired from his playing career, which included being a player-coach the last four seasons. Two years previous in a Chicago Sun-Times poll, Cub fans had voted Banks the greatest Cub ever. The previous summer, he had hit his 500th career home run.
Six years later, he would be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1999, he was selected to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team. In 2013, after his community and charitable work in Chicago, Banks was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Banks first played professional baseball, at age 19, in the Negro leagues, then served two-years years in the military before becoming a major leaguer in the fall of 1953 – the first African-American Cub. In 1954, he was National League Rookie of the Year runner-up. Beginning in 1955, Banks was a member of the NL All-Star team for 11 years.
He was the first Cub to win a Gold Glove Award when in 1960, he led all NL shortstops in fielding percentage, double plays, games, putouts and assists. Later as a first baseman, he led the league in putouts five times, assists three times and double plays and fielding percentage once each.
Banks, in 1982, was the first Cub to have his number retired. “Mr. Cub,” was also known as “Mr. Sunshine” for his famous, signature quote – “There’s sunshine, fresh air, and the team’s behind us. Let’s play two.”
Banks’ Hall of Fame plaque read:
CHICAGO NL 1953-1971
HIS 512 CAREER HOMERS, WITH MORE THAN 40 IN A SEASON FIVE TIMES, HAD RECORD FIVE GRAND-SLAMS IN 1955. FIRST TO BE ELECTED N.L. MOST VALUABLE PLAYER TWO SUCCESSIVE YEARS, 1958-59. LED LEAGUE IN HOME RUNS AND RUNS BATTED IN TWICE AND SLUGGING PCT. ONCE. ESTABLISHED RECORDS FOR MOST HOMERS IN A SEASON BY SHORTSTOP (47 in 1958) AND FOR FEWEST ERRORS (12) AND BEST FIELDING AVERAGE (.985) BY A SHORTSTOP IN 1959.
Ernie would not be the only major leaguer in the family. Nephew Bobby was drafted out of high school by the Texas Rangers in 1977 and played in the major leagues from 1981 through 1983.
Banks died in 2015, eight days before his 84th birthday. But Spring Grove High School varsity baseball coach Chris Strinmoen keeps Banks’ fame alive in Lion land with an annual Ernie Banks Outstanding Teammate Award.
Why I was a Chicago Cub fan from early childhood will be the subject of another column.