Saturday, January 24, 2015

Ernie's Banking on Two

The perpetually sunny Ernie Banks passed to a world where it's always a great day to play two on January 23. The temperature was in the thirties and mostly overcast in Chicago. That would have been just fine for Mr. Banks if it were opening day at Wrigley Field, a season of hope beckoning ahead. But no matter how it ended--and for the Cubs in Mr. Cub's time at Wrigley, it never ended with the team playing any games beyond the regular-season schedule--it was all beautiful to Ernie Banks.

Ernie's Banking on Two

Most, if not all,of us Boomers born after Ernie Banks broke into the major leagues in September 1953, remember him as the Cubs' first baseman. And in fact, he started more often at first base--1,126 games, mostly from 1962 to the end of his career in 1971--than at shortstop, where he started in 1,121 games. But it was at shortstop that Ernie Banks built his Hall of Fame resume, although the 214 home runs he hit after moving to first base to give him 512 on his career didn't hurt.

The first thing to remember about Ernie Banks is that he was one of integration's trailblazers. His rookie season of 1954 was the same year Hank Aaron broke in with the Milwaukee Braves. That was also the year Willie Mays really took off; the Say Hey Kid's rookie year may have been 1951, but let us not forget the start of his career was interrupted in 1952 when he was drafted for two years during the Korean War. Banks finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting, and Aaron fourth, to the Cardinals' Wally Moon.

At the time Banks became the Cubs' regular shortstop in 1954, shortstop was a position looking for new major league star power. The Yankees' Phil Rizzuto was no longer playing regularly, and the Dodgers' Pee Wee Reese was in his mid-thirties and nearing the end of the road. Although he played shortstop for only eight years before shifting over to first base because his range in the middle infield had been compromised by assorted leg ailments, Ernie Banks was the best all-around shortstop to play the game from when he broke in until the late-1970s and early-1980s when Robin Yount, Ozzie Smith and Cal Ripken made the grade,

In part because he began losing range relative to other shortstops of his time--including Roy McMillan, Luis Aparicio and Johnny Logan--Banks is generally not considered to have been especially good at the position. Bill James in his 2002 book on win shares gives him a "C" for defense, compared to McMillan's "A-", Logan's "B+" and Aparicio's "B". In 1959, however, Banks set a record by making only 12 errors at shortstop while also playing every game on the schedule. Quite likely benefiting from that performance, Banks won his first and only Gold Glove award the following year.

He may not have been a defensive wizard, but Ernie Banks was an offensive force at the position. Taking into account his offense, Banks was the best all-around shortstop the major leagues had seen since Honus Wagner, although a strong argument can also be made for Arky Vaughan (who hit only 98 career home runs but was a very dangerous hitter and much better defensively than Banks).

Ernie Banks is an anomaly among shortstops in historical context because he hit with unprecedented power for the premier defensive position on the diamond. Certainly in the era he played, and well beyond, "good-field / no-hit" was the description of a typical shortstop. This did not mean they were offensive zeros, rather that most shortstops hit at the top or the bottom of the order and were not counted on to be major run producers.

The only shortstop prior to Banks who was a persistent power threat was Vern Stephens, who had back-to-back years in 1949 and 1950 when he led the majors in RBIs (although he had to settle for a tie both years). By the time he retired in 1955, Stephens held the career record for home runs by a shortstop with 214, but he had only two 30-home run seasons in his career and never hit more than 39.

Banks did Stephens far better by hitting 40 home runs five times in six years between 1955 and 1960. He led the major leagues with 47 in 1958 and 41 in 1960. He led majors in RBIs in 1958 with 129 and again in 1959 with 143. In 1958 and 1959, Banks won back-to-back MVP awards despite playing for a team that finished well out of the money, in sixth place with a losing record each time. And it wasn't even close; Banks far outpaced Mays in votes in 1958 and had double the number of first place votes than runner-up Eddie Mathews in 1959.

As it happened, the first home run Banks hit in the 1960 season broke Stephens' record. When Ernie shifted over to first base in 1962, he had hit 282 as a shortstop. That record stood until 1993 when Cal Ripken passed Banks on his way to 353 home runs by a shortstop--still the record. If Banks as the paradigm of a power-hitting shortstop anticipated the future Ripken, so too did he prefigure Alex Rodriguez, who eclipsed Banks in 2002 and hit 345 home runs as a shortstop before going to the Yankees and becoming a third baseman.

Ernie Banks said in his Hall of Fame acceptance speech in 1977, thirty-two years since the last time the Cubs had been to the World Series, "There's an indescribable love for baseball in Wrigley Field."

Perhaps the moves Theo Epstein has made this winter to bolster the Cubs, particularly signing free agent ace Jon Lester, bringing back free agent pitcher Jason Hammel and trading for center fielder Dexter Fowler, will reward that love in 2015 with a post-season appearance ... preferably by winning the division ... and then the pennant ... and ultimately--yes!--the World Series.

That would surely please Ernie Banks--a World Series game in blustery conditions in frigid late October in Chicago, the flag with his retired # 14 on the left field pole at Wrigley reminding long-enduring Cubs fans: hey, it's a beautiful day for baseball. Do they play two in the World Series?

The following is a link to the New York Times obituary on Ernie Banks:

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