Saturday, January 24, 2015

RIP, Ernie Banks

Ernie Banks in 1970, the year he hit
his 500th home run.
Ernie Banks, who died Friday, was a different kind of shortstop. He hit home runs.

There had been plenty of star shortstops before Banks, but -- with the exception of Honus Wagner, who was unique in many ways -- their offense was singles and speed. (Even Wagner, about as powerful a slugger as played in the deadball era, maxed out at 10 home runs in a season.)

Then, in the mid 50s, came Banks:

  • 44 home runs in 1955
  • 43 in 1957
  • 47 in 1958
  • 45 in 1959
  • 41 in 1960

No shortstop had hit 40 homers in a season before Banks. Until Alex Rodriguez came along, only one other shortstop -- Rico Petrocelli in 1969 -- hit 40. And Banks was doing it pretty much every year.

He didn't last at shortstop much beyond that stretch of 40 home run seasons. His knees became troublesome, he moved to first base, and the 40-something home run seasons became 20-something home run seasons. He did collect a Gold Glove as a shortstop, but the quality of his defense there is open to question, and he played more games in his career at first base than at short.

Still, one can overlook a few defensive failings in a shortstop who hits 40 dingers. He won back-to-back MVPs in 1958 and '59, even as the Cubs finished last both years.

Wrigley Field helped, beyond doubt. Banks hit 512 home runs in his illustrious career, 290 of them at home. He probably hit more 370-foot homers than anybody else in history.

But lots of men have had Wrigley as their home park over the years, and darn few hit 290 homers there.

Banks is remembered today for the relentless cheerfulness he projected, for the "Let's play two!" line with which he greeted every day, for his status as "Mr. Cub." He should be remembered as a racial pioneer -- the fans in Wrigley even today are often not hospitable to black players, even on the home team, as LaTroy Hawkins and Jacque Jones can attest. And he should be remembered as well for the uniqueness of his play.

A shortstop who hits home runs? It's a bit unusual now. It was unheard of until Ernie Banks showed up.

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