Ernest “Ernie” Banks (1931-2015)

Ernie Banks, 1969
Fair use image

Ernest “Ernie” Banks was the first African American baseball player for the Chicago (Illinois) Cubs and the first African American manager in Major League Baseball (MLB). Banks earned the nickname “Mr. Cub” while playing shortstop and first base from 1953-1971 for the team.

Ernest Banks was born on January 31, 1931, in Dallas, Texas. Ernie’s father bribed him to play baseball at a young age, but in high school, he was a standout in basketball, football and track. When Banks was 17, he signed a contract with the Amarillo Colts, an all-black barnstorming (exhibition) team for $15 per game, and then in 1950, he signed with the Kansas City (Missouri) Monarchs in the Negro American League.  He spent two years serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War and then returned back to the Negro leagues in 1953. After a season with the Kansas City Monarchs, he signed a contract with the Chicago Cubs, becoming the first African American player for the Cubs. Banks debuted in the major leagues with the Cubs on September 17, 1953, wearing the number 14.

Through 19 seasons with the Cubs, Banks became one of the most decorated players in the team’s history.  He was voted an All-Star 14 times (1955-1962, 1965, 1967, 1969), National League MVP two times (1958, 1959), and earned 1 Gold Glove award (1960). His career statistics were a .274 batting average, 512 home runs, 2,583 hits, and 1,636 runs batted in. Banks was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977 on the first ballot.  He loved baseball so much that he developed a catchphrase, always saying, “Let’s play two!” referring to always wanting to play another game of baseball.

Banks retired as a player on December 1, 1971, but was signed on as a coach for the Cubs. On May 8, 1973, Banks technically became the first African American MLB manager when Cubs’ manager Whitey Lockman was ejected from the game. Banks filled in as the manager and won the game 3-2 in 12 innings.

In 1982, Banks’ number 14 was retired by the Chicago Cubs, the first number retired by the organization.  The Cubs also honored Banks by placing his statue in front of the entrance to Wrigley Field on March 31, 2008. In 2013, President Barack Obama awarded Banks the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a White House Ceremony.  Ernie Banks died in Chicago on January 23, 2015, eight days shy of his 84th birthday.  He is survived by his wife and daughter.