Generations of baseball fans, in Chicago and worldwide, have celebrated "Mr. Cub" Ernie Banks as one of the greatest players and living ambassadors ever to grace the world of professional sports.
During his playing days (1953-71) the 14-time All-Star, 2-time MVP kept his beloved Cubbies in the hearts of fans nationwide, if not in most years' NL pennant races. Besides putting up Hall of Fame numbers throughout his 19-year career (512 homers, in 1,636 RBIs, .274 career batting average), Banks was also a naturally gifted infielder who played most of his career as Gold Glove shortshop, before shifting to first base to help the team during his final seasons.
The always humble #14, who was known for saying "What a great day for baseball…Let's play two!" during his playing career in the “Friendly Confines”, says he couldn't have asked for a better team, owners or fans than those he enjoyed on Chicago's north side. "I played my entire career in one city, Chicago, one mayor, Richard J. Daley, one owner, P.K. Wrigley, one park, Wrigley Field, and all my home games under one light, God's light," Banks said at the dedication of his statue at Clark & Addison during Opening Day 2008.
Before re-writing the Cubs’ record books and inking his own unmatched place in Chicago history, Banks had already claimed a unique place in MLB history by becoming only the second player (following Jackie Robinson) to successfully transition from the Negro Leagues to Major League Baseball.
In 1948, a 17-year-old Ernie began his baseball career playing semipro ball with a barnstorming black team for $15 a game. But that didn’t last long, as "Cool Papa" Bell soon signed him to play for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues, a team full of eventual major leaguers managed by icon Buck O'Neil. After two outstanding years with the Monarchs, he leapfrogged the minor league system and jumped directly to the Chicago Cubs.
His momentous ascent to the big leagues, and his dynamic personality and playing style, brought increased media attention including cover stories in JET magazine and many others. Throw in the fact that Cubs games were televised on Chicago’s powerhouse WGN radio and TV, which reached well beyond the Chicago market…and it’s no wonder that Ernie was a huge fan favorite and tremendous influence for generations of Americans – black and white alike. (Banks 500th video)
But, according to Ernie, he was just following the example set by Jackie Robinson, the man and the ball player. “Like most every black person in America, I was genuinely inspired by what Jackie [Robinson] had done by breaking into the majors,” Banks said. “The main thing Jackie told me was to ‘Listen to everything going on around you [in the majors]. So I barely said anything at first…I just listen and learned.” ( Video: Banks talks about Jackie R’s influence)
And, like Jackie R., the man who would come to be known as “Mr. Cub” understood that he was a everyday role model for millions of African Americans who were watching his exploits – on and off the field. “It's a kind of philosophy of my own life, to create the energy enough to keep on going,” Banks said. “I always loved what I was doing, had a passion for it.”
In 1977, Banks was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. An elder statesman for the game of baseball and popular personality everywhere he goes, Banks is often asked questions by younger players and his fans. "People ask me a lot about the values I got from playing for the Cubs for so many years. The value I got out of it was patience," he explained. "A lot of people these days are not very patient. They want things right now. It's a "now" generation. Fame comes and it goes, but I think, with patience and good friendships, you can make the most of everything that comes your way in life."