Mr. Cub

A Tribute to Ernie Banks

What can you say about Ernie Banks that hasnt already been said the player who means so much to this team he was named after it?The first African American to appear in a game as a Cub, the first to actually manage in a game as a Cub(though for only one game), 512 home runs, 2 MVP awards, 11 All Star appearances, starring at 2 different positions, finally earning election to the HOF. Along with a famously sunny personality and the pithy little poems that went along with it(the Cubs will be fine in '69!) Mr. Cub is one of the most beloved figures not only in Cubs history, but also in Chicago sports in general, with perhaps only the late Ron Santo matching Banks in fans affection. Though there was a period in the late 90s when Sammy Sosa seemed to eclipse Banks, today Ernie is still a living Cubs icon. 

Born in Dallas, Texas, Banks had a relatively happy childhood but wasnt really interested in baseball as a kid. Incredibly his father had to bribe him to play catch and Banks didnt really take to the game  until high school. But once he started playing he seemed like a natural. He had a classic swing, with the power coming from his wrists. In 1953 Banks signed with the Kansas City Monarchs in the waning years of the Negro Leagues. Only a few months into the season, he would be signed by the Chicago Cubs.

In 1953 there were 2 teams that didnt have an African American on their big league roster, the Cubs and the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox showed a regular pattern of racism as there were several attempts by players to work out for them, but never received an offer from the BoSox, so it wasnt suprising, but the Cubs situation was more complicated. Phil Wrigley supposedly was very sympathetic to African Americans and reportedly was generous to those in his employ. Yet questions remain as to why it took them 6 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line for them to bring a black man to the majors. They did sign Gene Baker in 1950, but by 1953 was still toiling in the minors. Wrigleys excuse was that he didnt want to expose him to the hostility that many blacks playing in the South for other organizations were facing. Yet that always seemed like a cop out to me, because the player would have to face it sooner or later and by denying them the opportunity was like saying that the player didnt have a strong enough character. In any case, when the Cubs brought up Ernie, they needed a black to room with him so they finally called up Baker. It would be an advantageous pairing, as Baker would become a mentor and good friend to Banks as well as double play partner. It was thought that Baker would get to be the first of the 2 to play, but an injury to Baker allowed Banks to be the first African American to play for the Chicago Cubs on September 17, 1953. He would go hitless in 3 at bats. Then on Sept. 2o, Ernie hit his first homer off Gerry Staley of the Cardinals and 2 days later Banks and Baker played together for the first time, achieving another first by becoming the first all black DP combination in ML history. Following a decent season in 1954, Banks began setting himself apart when he hit 5 grand slam homers in 1955, it was an incredible achievement when you consider that few players hit 5 GS in a career, let alone a season. He would hit 44 for the year. After a somewhat down year of ONLY 28, Banks began to hit his stride with 43 in 1957, but then came the crowning achievement of his career. Not 1, but 2 MVP awards in a row, joining rarefied air, especially when you consider that he was playing for mediocre 5th place teams! Banks also had 2 consecutive game streaks over 400 games, the first of 424 from the start of his career then another one of 717 that lasted from 1956 to 1961. He would establish himself as the beloved "Mr. Cub" during this period. Of course, it was during this period that the team was at its worst. Few superstar players had to endure more losing than Banks and the College of Coaches didnt help. It was during this time that Ernie developed some issues that eventually led to him being moved to first base. He had some knee problems in 1961 that saw him moved to left field, then one game at 1st base. Banks would be moved to 1st permanently in 1962. Then he struggled in 1963 and it was revealed that he was suffering from mumps. In 1964 he was given a Day and saw his numbers rebound somewhat. Banks had a solid year in 1965 with 28 homers and 106 RBIs, but would find an adversary when the Cubs hired Leo Durocher as manager following the season. Although Leo would be what the team needed early on, his efforts to get rid of Banks did not endear himself to Banks. Every year Leo would bring in a young player to play first with the hopes of driving Ernie into retirement. And every year it would fail. But with the team gradually improving, age would become an issue more and more. In 1967 when the team was suddenly in contention, Banks has a respectable 95 RBIs to go with 23 Homers. Then in 1968 Banks hit 32, the most he had hit since 1962. But the clock was ticking on Ernies great career. Still there was one great year left and a few more classic moments.


For the first 13 years of Ernie Banks' career he saw a lot of losing baseball. In fact, until 1967 the Cubs had finished .500 only twice in his career. But then in 1966 the Cubs hired Leo Durocher as manager and Leo, in concert with GM John Holland remade the team and although they finished in last place in 1966, the pieces were in place for the Cubs to make their move, which they did the next season, finishing in 3rd place. The next season saw the team slip a bit but as 1969 began with the league split into 2 divisions, the Cubs seemed poised for greatness. Yet, even as Durocher was guiding the young team into contention he also spent a lot of time trying to undermine the most beloved veteran on the team. Its been thought that Durocher was jealous of Ernie, but what did he expect? The guys nickname was Mr.Cub! Its been rumored that Leo attempted to acquire veteran Giant 1stBaseman Orlando Cepeda, which would make Mr.Cub expendable. But from what I understand, Giants owner Horace Stoneham was aware of this and out of his friendship with Phil Wrigley, rejected the trade offer and ended up sending Cepeda to the Cardinals which would produce an MVP award and World Series ring for the Baby Bull(Cepedas nickname). So Leo would resort to bringing in rookie 1st base prospects each year, none of whom could beat out Ernie. Banks continued to stymie Durocher by resurging in 1968. By 1969 the knees were starting to get the best of Mr.Cub, but he still managed to put together a solid year and would play a big role in the exciting season. On Opening Day reasserted his place as an icon when he hit a key home run that appeared to win the game. That the lead wouldnt last and Willie Smith would win the game with a walk-off homer isnt Banks fault, indeed it just adds to his legend. I became a Cubs fan in 1969 and Mr. Cub certainly played a role in that. Even though I didnt know a lot on that day, I knew Ernie Banks was special and I was aware of what that game meant. Yet, even as it appeared the Cubs might win, years later I learned that even the happy go lucky, positive, "lets play two", optimist was a realist in private. Late in the season when it appeared that the Cubs might actually win it, Banks told teammate Ken Holtzman that he didnt think they would win it. And this was when they still had a healthy lead. It was probaly the most sobering thing that Ernie Banks has ever said. But maybe he could see all the stuff going on around him, the team getting tons of outside endorsements, making records, enjoying the perks of being on a 1st place team. Perhaps he could see the team spreading itself thin. and so it went. From an 8 and a half game lead on Aug. 8 to a full blown collapse. The Mets would overtake the Cubs and end up winning the World Series. For Ernie Banks, it would mark the last season as a regular player, hitting 23 homers and 106 RBIs. The next season he would battle knee problems, but in May he reached a major milestone when he hit his 500th HR, making him the first Cub player to achieve that number. 

 Milestones, achievements and beyond

Banks would appear in only 79 games as the Cubs acquired Joe Pepitone who would get a lot of playing time at 1st base. Banks would hit 12 homers for a team that just missed out on the division title again. Then came 1971, which would be Ernies swan song as a player. I would enjoy the pleasure of seeing Mr. Cubs 511th homer(I distinctly remember the number because I knew he was one away from tying Mel Ott. July 21, an exciting game, bottom of the 6th inning the Cubs were leading 8-5. Banks came up to pinch hit against Tug McGraw. Everyone is standing, its hard to really get a good look, but when he hit the first pitch you knew it was gone. It was an incredible moment and one I was proud to be part of it. A little more than a month later, on Aug.24 Ernie Banks hit his 512th and final home run of his amazing career. On Sept. 26 Banks appeared in his final major league game. Following the season he would join the team as a coach. On May 8, 1973 following the ejection of manager Whitey Lockman, Ernie Banks would became the first African American to manage a game as a Cub(his mentor Gene Baker was the first African American to manage a game in MLB history in 1963). Banks would leave the coaching job  a few years later, then in 1977 would reach the HOF as the first African American to enter the Hall as a Cub.

In the years since, Banks continues to be an ambassador for the Cubs and for baseball in general. Although there was a period in the 60s when some people accused Banks of being an Uncle Tom because he didnt speak out more aggressively on racial issues, many people have accepted that Mr.Cubs optimistic, positive outlook has done just as much good. Ive had reason to question his sincerity myself, but from everything Ive read and heard about him in recent years Im convinced that he comes by his sunny disposition naturally. In 1983 he was honored by the Cubs when they retired his No.14. Then a few years ago he was the first Cubs player honored with a statue which stands in front of Wrigley Field.

I hope you have enjoyed my tribute to Mr.Cub. I want to thank Phil Rogers and his excellent book Mr.Cub and the 69 Cubs(I know Ive criticized it but I still think its a great read). I also want to thank some of the other sources that Ive acknowledged else where on this website. And for those of you interested in stats, here are Ernies career numbers:

As always Im interested in knowing what you think. If there is player that you think is worthy of a special page, feel free to email

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