Some things to know about Ernie Banks, who died this week at 83:
Banks never played a game with a minor league team — unless you count the Cubs — going directly from the Negro Leagues to Chicago. There are at least 23 players, that the research department (aka Google) can verify, who played at least 10 years in the majors since 1900 and never in the minors: (in order of years played) Mel Ott, Al Kaline, Dave Winfield, Eppa Rixey, Ted Lyons, Tom Zachary, Frankie Frisch, Banks, Bob Feller, Ed Yost, Ed Plank, Danny MacFayden, Jack Coombs, Catfish Hunter, Dick Groat, Ethan Allen, Billy O’Dell, John Antonelli, Sandy Koufax, Jack Barry, Milt Gaston, Carl Scheib and Bob Horner. Eleven are Hall of Famers: Ott, Kaline, Winfield, Rixey, Lyons, Frisch, Banks, Feller, Plank, Hunter and Koufax. One who wasn’t — Groat — was the MVP in 1960 after Banks had won back-to-back in ’58 and ’59.
Banks joined the Cubs in 1953; it was a decade before he played on a team that finished with a winning record, and that by just two games. In his first 14 seasons, 13 full ones, Banks played on one team that had a winning record — the 82-80 1963 Cubs. In Banks’ 19 seasons, excluding ’53 when he joined the team at the end of the season, the Cubs were 238 games below .500, peaking at 289 games under .500 before having winning records in his last five seasons. Maybe he always wanted to play two because he wanted the Cubs to win one.
Those 19 Cubs teams from 1954-71 finished a combined 413.5 games out of first place, or an average of 21.7 per season. Only twice with Banks did the Cubs finish within single digits of first place — in 1969 when they were eight games out with 92 wins, and in 1970 when they were three games closer despite winning eight games less.
Banks’ season-high in steals was nine in 1955, when he ranked 10th in the NL. He stole 50 bases in his career but was caught stealing 53 times.
He led the NL twice in intentional walks, with 20 in 1959 and 28 in 1960 (32nd all-time single-season high). His 198 career intentional walks are 14th-most all-time, and probably would have been more had his teams not been behind so often. Barry Bonds ranks first in career intentional walks with 688, more than twice as many as runner-up Hank Aaron (293).
Banks hit 44 home runs in 1955, five of them grand slams, which ties him with Albert Pujols for most in an NL season. Travis Hafner and Don Mattingly share the major-league record with six. Banks hit only seven other grand slams in his career.
Banks hit three home runs in a game on May 29, 1962, his first game after being beaned by former teammate Moe Drabowsky four days earlier. Banks also doubled, to give him 14 total bases, and three other Cubs homered (Billy Williams, George Altman and Bob Will). The Cubs lost, 11-9, to the Braves.
Banks hit 277 of his 512 home runs as a shortstop, most in NL history.
Banks played more games at first base (1,259) than shortstop (1,125) and was moved off shortstop for good after the 1961 season. But it was because of injury, not inefficiency. He won a Gold Glove in 1960, and it wasn’t undeserved, according to advanced metrics; his defensive WAR was 2.0. But he was even better in 1959, when he played every game, made just 12 errors, had a range factor of 5.18 and a defensive WAR of 3.5 (for comparison purposes, Ozzie Smith had only one season in 19 with a greater defensive WAR). Even in Banks’ last season at short, his defensive WAR was 1.2.
Banks was runner-up for the 1954 NL Rookie of the Year award to Cardinals outfielder Wally Moon, who won because he had a better season, if not a better career. Moon hit .304 with 12 homers, 18 steals, 71 walks and an .806 OPS; Banks hit .275 with 19 homers, six steals, 40 walks, a .753 OPS and 34 errors.
The move from shortstop at age 31 in 1962 significantly decreased Banks’ value. His final WAR was 67.5; he accumulated just 12.8 of that in his final 10 seasons, or 1.3 per season. He averaged 6.7 WAR in his first eight full seasons.
In Banks’ first MVP season in 1958, he batted .314 and led the NL in home runs (47), RBIs (129) and slugging percentage (.614). The Cubs were 72-82 despite hitting 40 more home runs than their opponents (182-142). Banks was one of five Cubs who hit at least 20 home runs: Walt Moryn hit 26, Lee Walls 24, 1951 Giants playoff hero Bobby Thomson hit 21 and Dale Long hit 20. Banks (9.4 WAR) finished 98 points ahead of Willie Mays (.347, 29 homers, 96 RBIs, 31 steals, 1.002 OPS, 10.2 WAR); the pennant-winning Braves had Hank Aaron finish third and Warren Spahn fifth.
In Banks’ second MVP season in 1959, he batted .304, hit 45 homers and drove in an NL-best 143 runs, slugging .596. The Cubs improved by two games to 74-80, and had eight players hit more than 10 home runs: Banks, Long (14), Moryn (14), Sammy Taylor (12), George Altman (12), Thomson (11), Jim Marshall (11) and Earl Averill (10). Banks finished with 232 points in the MVP voting, nipping two Braves (Eddie Matthews, 189 and Aaron, 174); one pennant-winning Dodger (Wally Moon, 161) and one Giants pitcher, Sam Jones (130).
Banks received MVP votes in 11 of his 16 full-time seasons. He was shut out only in 1961 and 1963-66.
The 1961 Cubs had four Hall of Fame position players: Banks, who hit 29 homers and slugged .507, Billy Williams and Ron Santo, who hit 25 and 23 homers at ages 23 and 21 respectively, and Richie Ashburn, whose .257 average at age 34 was the worst of his career (his on-base percentage of .373 was buttressed by 55 walks in 307 at-bats. None of them was the Cubs’ best offensive player. That was Altman, who hit 27 homers and slugged .560. It didn’t help. The Cubs lost 90 games and finished seventh.
The best team Banks played on was in 1969, when the Cubs won 92 games but only nine of 27 after Sept. 1, finishing eight games behind the Mets. Banks was 12th in the MVP voting for his 23 home runs and 106 RBIs, but he hit .253, and had just a .725 OPS and subpar 92 OPS+. He had 15 MVP points despite a -0.7 WAR.
Of Banks’ home runs, he hit more off Hall of Famer Robin Roberts (15) than any other pitcher. Lew Burdette (12), Bob Friend (10), Bob Purkey (9) and Chris Short (9) round out his top five. He hit seven homers each off Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, six off Warren Spahn.
Banks’ milestone home runs were thrown by: Gerry Staley (1 and 2 in 1953); Roberts (100 in 1957); Carl Willey (200 in 1959); Turk Farrell (300 in 1962); Curt Simmons (400 in 1965); Pat Jarvis (500 in 1970) and Jim McGlothlin (512 in 1971).
Banks’ famous warmth wasn’t reciprocated by his last manager Leo Durocher, who took over in 1966. In fairness, Banks’ knees and play had already started to deteriorate, though he did hit 32 homers, third-most in the NL, in 1968’s Year of the Pitcher. “(Banks) was a great player in his time,” Durocher wrote in his 1975 book Nice Guys Finish Last. “Unfortunately, his time wasn’t my time. Even more unfortunately, there was not a thing I could do about it. He couldn’t run, he couldn’t field; toward the end, he couldn’t even hit. There are some players who instinctively do the right thing on the base paths. Ernie had an unfailing instinct for doing the wrong thing. But I had to play him. Had to play the man or there would have been a revolution in the street.
Ernie Banks hit 512 home runs and drove in 1,636 runs in his career; when he retired Banks was tied for ninth in career home runs with Eddie Matthews. Today he is tied for 22nd, and just 46 ahead of David Ortiz. Banks had 1,636 RBIs, which puts him 29th all-time; he was 13th when he retired. Albert Pujols, only 33 behind, will drop him to 30th this year and David Ortiz, who is 103 behind, might make him 31st.
“… As a player, by the time I got there, there was nothing wrong with Ernie that two new knees wouldn’t have cured. He’d come up with men on the bases and if he hit a ground ball they could walk through the double play. To do me any good he’d have to hit 70 home runs and knock in 200 runs. In the field he was very good at one thing. I never saw anybody who could dig a thrown ball out of the dirt any better. But that was where it ended. If the ball wasn’t hit right at him, forget it. He’d wave at it. Two feet away from him — whoops — right under his glove. But did anybody in Chicago ever write that Mr. Cub couldn’t get off a dime? Never. Criticizing Ernie Banks didn’t sell papers; the best it’s going to get you is a ton of abuse.”
Durocher did slip in a graph of praise about Banks, even if it might have been easier to get a fastball by Banks in his prime: “In all fairness, I want to say this about him. He did love to play; that part of the Ernie Banks legend is true. As badly as he was hurting, in the four years before his kness gave out completely he didn’t miss more than a handful of games. He was always a great man to have in the clubhouse. Always full of life. Always ready to kid or be kidded. Never a troublemaker in any sense of the word. He knew I wanted to get rid of him and it didn’t affect our personal relationship a bit.”
Banks was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. He is one of nine baseball players to have been awarded one. The others were Moe Berg, Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Buck O’Neil and Stan Musial. Berg’s was accepted only after his death.
sources: baseball-reference, sabr.org, baseballalmanac.com, Nice Guys Finish Last by Leo Durocher with Ed Linn