"Mr. Cub" Ernie Banks, the Hall of Fame slugger and two-time MVP who never lost his boundless enthusiasm for baseball despite years of playing on losing Chicago Cubs teams, died Friday night. He was 83.
The Cubs announced Banks' death but did not provide a cause.
"Words cannot express how important Ernie Banks will always be to the Chicago Cubs, the city of Chicago and Major League Baseball. He was one of the greatest players of all time," Tom Ricketts, chairman of the Cubs, said in a statement released by the team. "He was a pioneer in the major leagues. And more importantly, he was the warmest and most sincere person I've ever known.
"Approachable, ever optimistic and kind hearted, Ernie Banks is and always will be Mr. Cub. My family and I grieve the loss of such a great and good-hearted man, but we look forward to celebrating Ernie's life in the days ahead."
Banks hit 512 home runs during his 19-year career and was fond of saying, "It's a great day for baseball. Let's play two!'' That finish to his famous catchphrase adorns his statue outside Wrigley Field.
The Cubs paid tribute to Banks on the Wrigley marquee Friday night:
Although he played in 14 All-Star Games from 1953 to '71, Banks never reached the postseason, and the Cubs finished below .500 in all but six of his seasons. Still, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977, the first year he was eligible, and selected to baseball's all-century team in 1999.
Banks' infectious smile and nonstop good humor despite his team's dismal record endeared him to Chicago fans, who voted him the best player in franchise history.
One famous admirer, "Saturday Night Live" star Bill Murray, named his son Homer Banks Murray. Former major league outfielder Dale Murphy, in a tweet Friday night, said: "Did a card show w Ernie Banks. He drove the promoter crazy! Spent time/talked with every person. After an hour had signed maybe 15."
Banks' No. 14 was the first number retired by the Cubs, and it hangs from the left-field foul pole at Wrigley Field.
"I'd like to get to the last game of the World Series at Wrigley Field and hit three homers," he once said. "That was what I always wanted to do."
News of Banks' death quickly spread throughout the sports world Friday night, with major league teams, former greats and current players taking to social media to express their condolences.
Mr Cub. What you have done for the game of baseball the city of Chicago and everyone you have ever touched will never be forgotten. RIP— Anthony Rizzo (@ARizzo44) January 24, 2015
I'm so sorry to hear the passing of Mr. Ernie Banks!!! What a Special Man!! Always put a smile on my face when seeing him!! #GodBlessYou— Frank Thomas (@TheBigHurt_35) January 24, 2015
Added Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a statement: "Ernie Banks was more than a baseball player. He was one of Chicago's greatest ambassadors. He loved this city as much as he loved -- and lived for -- the game of baseball. This year, during every Cubs game, you can bet that No. 14 will be watching over his team. And if we're lucky, it'll be a beautiful day for not just one ballgame, but two."
In 2013, Banks was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- by a noted Chicago White Sox fan, President Barack Obama. The award is one of the nation's highest civilian honors.
Obama and his wife Michelle issued a statement on Banks' death, saying he "was beloved by baseball fans everywhere."
"Michelle and I send our condolences to the family of Ernie Banks, and to every Chicagoan and baseball fan who loved him," Obama said in the statement.
"Ernie came up through the Negro Leagues, making $7 a day. He became the first African-American to play for the Chicago Cubs, and the first number the team retired. Along the way, he became known as much for his 512 home runs and back-to-back National League MVPs as for his cheer, his optimism, and his love of the game. As a Hall-of-Famer, Ernie was an incredible ambassador for baseball, and for the city of Chicago. He was beloved by baseball fans everywhere, including Michelle, who, when she was a girl, used to sit with her dad and watch him play on TV. And in 2013, it was my honor to present Ernie with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
"Somewhere, the sun is shining, the air is fresh, his team's behind him, and Mr. Class - "Mr. Cub" - is ready to play two."
MLBPA executive director Tony Clark also released a statement Saturday.
"The baseball playing fraternity has lost one of its true gems," Clark said. "Ernie Banks, an MVP on and off the field, was among the pioneers whose talent and passion for the game helped pave the way for future generations of minority baseball players. Ernie's enthusiasm and spirit for life and baseball were unmatched. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Ernie's family, friends and legions of fans and admirers around the world."
Banks was playing for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues when the Cubs discovered him in 1953 and purchased his contract for $10,000. He made his major league debut at shortstop on Sept. 17 that year, and three days later he hit his first home run.
Tall and thin, Banks didn't look like a typical power hitter. He looked even less so as he stood at the plate, holding his bat high and wiggling it as he waited for pitches. But he had strong wrists and a smooth, quick stroke, and he made hitting balls out of the park look effortless.
When he switched to a lighter bat before the 1955 season, his power quickly became apparent. He hit 44 homers that season, including three against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Aug. 4.
His five grand slams that year established a major league record that stood for more than 30 years before Don Mattingly hit six in 1987. Banks' best season came in 1958, when he hit .313 with 47 homers and 129 RBIs. Although the Cubs went 72-82 and finished sixth in the National League, Banks edged Willie Mays and Hank Aaron for his first MVP award.
He was the first player from a losing team to win the NL MVP. Banks won the MVP again in 1959, becoming the first NL player to win it in consecutive years, even though the Cubs had another dismal year. Banks hit .304 with 45 homers and a league-leading 143 RBIs.
He led the NL in homers again in 1960 with 41, his fourth straight season with 40 or more. His 248 homers from 1955 to '60 were the most in the majors, topping even Aaron and Mays. Although Banks didn't break the 40-homer barrier again after 1960, he topped the 100-RBI mark three more times, including 1969, his last full season.
Then 38, he hit .253 with 23 home runs and 106 RBIs, and was named an All-Star for an 11th time. On May 12, 1970, he hit his 500th home run, becoming only the eighth player at the time to reach the plateau.
Banks retired after the 1971 season.
He remains the Cubs' leader in games played (2,528), at-bats (9,421), plate appearances (10,395) and extra-base hits (1,009). He is second in home runs (512), hits (2,583) and RBIs (1,636).
Known mostly for his power at the plate, Banks was a solid fielder, too. He is best known as a shortstop, where he won a Gold Glove in 1960, but he switched to first base in 1962. He played 1,259 games at first and 1,125 games at shortstop.
Born and raised in Dallas, Banks would be bribed to play catch by his father, who always wanted him to be a baseball player. Banks grew to love the game and was a standout in high school, along with participating in football, basketball and track and field. He joined a barnstorming Negro Leagues team at 17 and was spotted by Cool Papa Bell, who signed him to the Monarchs in 1950. Banks played one season before going into the Army. He returned to Kansas City after he was discharged, playing one more season before joining the Cubs.
Banks would have turned 84 on Jan. 31.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.