The Chicago Cubs were playing a doubleheader against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The date doesn't matter; it could have been any time from 1953 to 1971. Ernie Banks, the always ebullient, always energetic slugger who famously told us, "Let's play two," popped his head out of the Cubs dugout, looked first at the bright blue sky and then at the big crowd, and said, "Let's play three!"
That was Ernie Banks. One game in a day wasn't enough, and when there were two, he wanted three. No one, but no one, loved playing the game more than Ernie Banks. And not many played it better, especially as a young man when he changed, at least for a few years, the way baseball looked at the position of shortstop. He is a Hall of Famer, one of only 26 players who have hit at least 500 home runs (he finished his 19-year career with 512). And he is, in every way, on and off the field, Mr. Cub.
"As I traveled around in baseball then and now, people would ask me, 'Is Ernie really like that? Is he really that happy all the time?'" said Billy Williams, a Hall of Fame outfielder and teammate of Banks from 1959 to 1972. "I always say, 'That was Ernie. He was that way every day.' He's the most positive guy I ever met. He loved playing the game. Maybe it came from playing in the Negro Leagues, where they had so much fun with the game. I just know that Ernie loved being at the ballpark. He was as genuine as they get."
And as good as they get. In 1958-59, Banks became the first player in National League history to win the MVP in consecutive years. He made a case to win it again in 1960, when he hit 41 home runs and won a Gold Glove at shortstop, leading the league in putouts, assists, double plays and fielding percentage. In the period from 1955 to 1960, Banks' power output included seasons of 47, 45, 44, 43 and 41 home runs -- missing the 40-HR mark only once, when he hit 28 in 1956. As late as 1989, before Alex Rodriguez showed up, a shortstop had hit 30 home runs in a season only eight times; Banks had six of those eight seasons, including the top five. Nearly 20 years after he retired in 1971, and nearly 30 years after he played his last game at shortstop in 1961, Banks still had 80 more home runs than any other shortstop in history. Over a nine-year period at shortstop, he averaged .290 with 37 homers and 106 RBIs for every 150 games, a stunning rate for a position that had been played primarily by defensive specialists.
"Ernie was incredible," said Williams. "He was the first real big guy to play shortstop. Major League Baseball had never seen anyone like that, providing power at that position. He was a better defensive shortstop than people thought. If you hit it to Ernie, he would catch it because he had such great hands. He didn't have a real strong arm, but he always got the ball to first base on time. He was a very accurate thrower. When he moved over to first, he used those magnificent hands over there to catch just about every ball thrown his way."
Banks played in 717 consecutive games, all at shortstop, until a knee injury in 1961 forced him to move to first base at age 30. He never played another game at shortstop. He wasn't as productive at first base, in part because of that knee injury; he averaged .258 with 24 home runs and 89 RBIs for every 150 games at first base.
"He wasn't the same, but he was still plenty good," said former Cubs third baseman Ron Santo, a teammate of Banks from 1960 to 1971. "We always felt good with Ernie at the plate when we needed a hit."
It was impossible not to feel good around Ernie Banks.
"He had all these sayings, and they all rhymed," Williams said. "Every year, he had a new one at the start of the season. You know, 'It's going to be heavenly in '70.' He used to ask me, 'Do you have change for three cents?' It took me about five years to figure that one out. He used to say, 'It will be cold. It will be hot. It will be weather, whether or not.' It took me about five years to figure that one out, also. He used to walk by you with his hand out, then you'd go to shake his hand, and he'd pretend like he was blind and just walk past you. If you were on the team and you weren't married, he was always trying to get you married. He'd ask, 'Why aren't you married?' He was my roommate for six months, but we also traveled to the ballpark together almost every day. He could talk about anything. He read a little, but he was always abreast of what was going on in the world. He was a great conversationalist, even about things other than baseball."
Banks never played in a World Series, something that he once told me "has always left me with an empty feeling inside. I loved the game so much. To not ever play in the World Series, let alone win it, still hurts. It's the ultimate achievement for a player. I really thought we were going to get there in 1969." The Cubs collapsed down the stretch that season, but in May of the following year, Banks hit his 500th home run. Fittingly, it came at Wrigley Field.
"He hit his 500th off Pat Jarvis of the Braves," Williams said. "Jarvis was a sheriff in Georgia in the offseason. We used to joke that the next time Ernie went to Atlanta, Jarvis was going to arrest him. Ernie loved that. He laughed and laughed. No one laughed like Ernie."