Ernie Banks, one of baseball’s most ebullient and optimistic ambassadors, died Friday, his wife, Liz, confirmed. He was 83.
Known worldwide as “Mr. Cub,” Banks became the Chicago Cubs' first African American player on Sept. 17, 1953, and went on to become an 11-time all-star and two-time National League most valuable player (1958-59). His boundless enthusiasm -- with his catchphrase “Let’s play two!” -- and optimism personified what it meant to be a Cubs fan.
Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts released the following statement Friday night:
“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. He was a pioneer in the major leagues. And more importantly, he was the warmest and most sincere person I’ve ever known.
President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama expressed their condolences Saturday morning.
"Michelle and I send our condolences to the family of Ernie Banks, and to every Chicagoan and baseball fan who loved him. 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."
Mayor Rahm Emanuel also released a statement in praise of Banks:
"Ernie Banks was more than a baseball player. He was one of Chicago’s greatest ambassadors,” Emanuel said. “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."
Banks, who hit 512 home runs and had 1,636 RBIs, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977.
When first notified that he would be receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Banks said: “It means everything to me. It means life is just wonderful. When you do things to try to help people and share things, it really comes back to you. I try to do that. I love the players, love Wrigley Field, love all the players.
"This award means a lot to me. It’s almost like the Nobel Peace Prize to me.”
In 1950, Banks began playing for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. After serving two years in the military, he joined the Cubs.
Banks’ best overall season was 1959 when he led the NL with 143 RBIs and hit 43 home runs. Defensively, he led all shortstops with a .985 fielding percentage. In 1960 he won a Gold Glove.
He hit more than 40 homers five times, including 47 in 1958. In 1955 he hit a record five grand slams. Banks played his entire career with the Cubs and is considered one of the greatest players of all time not to play in the postseason.
Banks played more games at first base (1,259) than he did at shortstop (1,125), but he is remembered more for his most productive earlier seasons at shortstop.
“It was just a pleasure playing with Ernie. I can't say it was a pleasure playing against him,” said former Cubs pitcher Milt Pappas, who also pitched for the Orioles, Reds and Braves during his 17-year career. “He was so genuine. He was just a great ambassador for the game.”
A statue of Banks’ likeness was unveiled outside Wrigley Field at the start of the 2008 baseball season.
“When I am not here, this will be here,” Banks joked after the ceremony as he pointed to the sculpture.
“I wanted to finish my career with one team, in one city, one mayor, one park, one owner. I did that,” Banks said then. “The Wrigleys owned the team. We played all of our home games at Wrigley Field during the daytime. So my career was very unique and I am proud of it.
“I have been involved in the city of Chicago and with Little Leagues all around the city and suburbs. It was a fun and enjoyable time both on the field and off the field. Now I meet a lot of people who used to come out to Wrigley Field when they were kids and they are older now. They still remember those days.”
Banks was born in Dallas on Jan. 31, 1931. His father had just a third-grade education and his mother a sixth-grade education.
“But they were very wise,” Banks would say.
Fred Mitchell writes for the Chicago Tribune.