Almost a week after the passing of legendary Chicago Cub Ernie Banks, Chicago natives are still filling the streets to see his statue, people are still telling stories and Banks has graced the cover of Sports Illustrated during Super Bowl week.
I never saw Ernie Banks play a single game. I never looked up a single video on YouTube of an old swing. But I don’t have to–and neither does anyone else–to know the impact Ernie Banks made on baseball, Chicago and the people lucky enough to come across him.
This story could end with just the numbers, as they say enough. A first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, Banks hit 512 home runs, was a 14-time All-Star, a two-time MVP, a Gold Glove winner and a member of baseball’s All-Century team.
That’s a good story, but Banks’ story is a great one.
It starts with the attitude that allowed him to put a smile on every day just like he did his uniform. And he was smiling while playing for a team that never made the postseason. Not only did the Cubs not make the playoffs with Banks, but they hardly won. Just six times in Banks’ career did the Cubs finish above .500.
Don’t blame Banks.
In 1958, Banks’ first MVP season, he registered more than 100 total bases than anyone else on the team and 20 more homers than anyone else on the team. Mickey Mantle had Yogi Berra. Who did Banks have?
And never once did Banks waver from positivity.
Who would want to “play two” with Moe and Larry protecting you in the batting order?
Mind you, Banks did this at shortstop. A shortstop has never showed the power of Banks until Alex Rodriguez, and well, you know how that story goes.
Ernie Banks is on a regional cover of Sports Illustrated this week and it's a beautiful image: pic.twitter.com/TyCKCXlgfy
— Richard Deitsch (@richarddeitsch) January 28, 2015
But numbers are just numbers sometimes, especially when it comes to Banks. Sammy Sosa put up numbers. Better ones than Banks. He hit more homers (609) than Banks in total and with the Cubs (545). Sosa wasn’t the fielder Banks was, but was every bit the bat, and then some.
For someone growing up in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, it’s almost impossible to ignore the impact Sosa had on the Cubs and on baseball in general. To me, he isn’t Mr. Cub. But to me, he’s the best Chicago baseball player I’ve seen in my lifetime.
But every time I argue Sosa over Banks with someone older than 50 I get quickly shut down. The bat speed, they say. The glove. Sammy was one dimensional. All fair arguments. That’s where generational differences come in.
But there’s nothing generational about the fact that fans talked positive about Banks when he started playing for the Cubs in 1953 and never stopped until his death. Even 44 years after Banks retired, there was nothing but positive things being said about Banks at every opportunity.
It’s the stories of autograph signings when he frequently said “yes” and rarely said “no”. It’s being positive in a very negative situation with the Cubs. It’s the unmistakable respect that he garners when he walks into a room.
Sammy Sosa doesn’t get that, Barry Bonds doesn’t get that. Mickey Mantle didn’t get that in the same era. Not many people do.
But here we are, still talking about Banks. In this time of up-to-the-minute news, it’s hard for anything to hold our attention for longer than a day. But clearly Banks impacted enough people in a positive way that we’re still talking about it, and come baseball season it will only increase.
Was Banks a better baseball player than Sosa? I don’t know, and I think it’s a debate that can be won either way.
But when talking about Ernie Banks, it sounds like that’s not what’s important.