Let’s Read Two: Ernie Banks, Redux

Courtesy of Joe Distelheim.

It is 1969, and in the midst of the best and worst season of the second half of the past century for the Chicago Cubs, Mark Kram of Sports Illustrated is among the national media throng that has come to report on the team and its iconic front man.

“Banks is particularly animated during batting practice,” Kram wrote. “The area around the cage is Banks’s stage, where he performs like some aging vaudevillian.”

The quote appears on page 147 of Doug Wilson’s excellent new biography of Ernie Banks, titled Let’s Play Two. It also appears on page 291 of Ron Rapoport’s more excellent new biography of Banks, titled Let’s Play Two.

Ah, yes. Ernie Banks was the first of the big, power-hitting shortstops, the first black man to play for the Cubs, the only man to go from the Negro Leagues to the majors to the Hall of Fame without a day in the minors, a first-ballot Hall of Famer. For all that, his sunny “Let’s play two” enthusiasm is the enduring image of this ground-breaking ballplayer.

Fifty years after Banks was the best storyline on a team that had four future Hall of Fame players and was managed by another, two-thirds of a century after he broke in, Wilson and Rapoport are following the countless writers who have tried to answer the essential question about Ernie Banks:

Was he for real?

The Cubs franchise is 143 years old, but you need just the 19 seasons that span Banks’ career to understand the team in capsule. On September 17, 1953, the day this skinny, quiet 22-year-old made the Cubs the eighth major league team to integrate, Wrigley Field drew 2,793 to watch the seventh-place home nine lose 16-4 to the Phillies. By the time he was through, the Cubs had a cult following and were drawing 1.6 million fans a year even after seasons of oh-so-close disappointment. And Banks was the gregarious, irrepressibly sunny face of the franchise.

Banks grew up in life’s second division, a son of the working poor in segregated Dallas, one of a dozen children. He went to all-black schools and experienced the indignities of travel through the South with his Negro League teammates. By the time he got to Chicago, six years after Jackie Robinson broke the major league color barrier, the novelty of black players was largely gone. But, as Rapaport puts it, in the early 1950s Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley “took over the most segregated large city in the United States and saw to it that it remained that way.”

The Cubs played on the North Side–the white side of town. That made it convenient for their players to live close to work and among their fans. The South Side, home of the White Sox’s Comiskey Park and Chicago’s first black star ballplayer, Minnie Minoso, was becoming increasingly black, neighborhood by neighborhood.

With little apparent fuss, Banks and his wife came to understand they would be comfortable on the South Side.

I, a white kid who lived on the South Side, had somehow already begun a lifetime love affair with the Cubs. (Don’t do the math, please.) We lived in an all-white, middle-class area called Chatham. Then, the first black people moved into the neighborhood (singer Mahalia Jackson bought a home a block from ours). Seemingly overnight, nearly every house in the neighborhood was for sale.

The Bankses’ first house was in Chatham. Their second was, too, down the street from where we’d lived, 12 miles of city traffic (or a train and an El ride) from Wrigley Field.

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The books have the same structure, largely chronological. Banks’ growing-up years are narrated by people who knew him. They recount his time playing with the Kansas City Monarchs in the waning years of the Negro Leagues, barnstorming with Robinson and other early black major leaguers, playing Army baseball, finding himself a Cub largely more by circumstance than design.

Increasingly more voluble, he put a happy face on the ugly Cubs teams of his first decade, none of which played even .500 ball. (“The Cubs are gonna shine in ’59!”)

The team’s woes weren’t his fault. He was a remarkable player. He won two MVP awards with second-division teams. Early on, he broke the major league record for home runs by a shortstop, and he topped 40 homers five times. He broke the record for grand slams in a season. He wound up with 512 home runs, the ninth member of the 500-homer club. In 1955, at the age of 24, he hit 44 homers and drove in 117 runs with a slash line of .295/.345/.596 good for 7.8 WAR. He was a Gold Glove winner as a shortstop, a 14-time All-Star.

Beyond the numbers, he was a delight to watch at the plate. Early on, he discovered the advantages of a light bat. Even on tiny screens and with the limited camera angles of the day, we Cubs fans watching on WGN would see his fingers moving on the bat like a piano player’s, followed by a whip-like swing powered by strong wrists. His classic home run left the park in a huge hurry; his usual launch angle was line drive. And he was a smooth shortstop, not one to make the acrobatic plays of crosstown counterpart Luis Aparicio, but a sure-handed one who became a sure-handed first baseman the second half of his career.

And he soon became an off-the-field personality, defined by cheeriness and generosity. He appeared at all manner of civic functions, often without being paid. He spoke to anyone who spoke to him. He signed autographs for anyone who asked, in the days before he and other former players could make good money for writing their name. He was the headliner of a baseball troupe that visited American soldiers in remote Vietnam outposts at the height of the war there, traveling by combat helicopter.

Both books enumerate his skills and his accomplishments, but they also dig hard to try to portray Banks, the complicated man. Wilson, a SABR member, is the author of several other baseball biographies. Like Rapoport, he interviews many people who knew Banks throughout his life, including family, friends, and former teammates. His work, meticulously footnoted and sourced, tends to the scholarly. He is writing history, but clearly after the fact.

One big difference: Rapoport was a newspaper writer and columnist in Chicago for 20 years. His understanding of the city and its relationship to the Cubs lets him add much depth and detail. (His book is almost twice the length.) His background also shows in his portrayal of all those Cubs years of what he terms “bad luck and bad judgment.” Most crucially, he knew Banks and was at one point well into working with him on an as-told-to book.

More than Wilson, he weaves Banks into the story of the Cubs of that era. The futility of the losing years has been well-chronicled as an example of mismanagement: Owner P.K. Wrigley’s indifference to the product on the field. The churning of managers, culminating in the much-derided “college of coaches.” And the hiring of egotistical manager Leo Durocher, a walking controversy who attributed the Cubs’ problems to … Ernie Banks.

That’s where the richest part of the tale begins. By Durocher’s arrival, after the 1965 season, the eighth-place Cubs were beginning to show some life, accumulating some genuinely talented young players for the first time in anyone’s memory. Still, cheerful, optimistic Banks, the hero of a generation of North Side fans, remained Mr. Cub in the eyes of the public.

Quickly, though, the new manager made it clear there would be only one Mr. Cub, and that would be Mr. Durocher. He publicly derided Banks as too old and too slow, benched him, set up one would-be first baseman after another as the hero’s successor. (In his own autobiography, Durocher devoted several pages to his resentment of Banks’ special status.)

The succeeding years saw Banks take the abuse with his usual aplomb, never criticizing–and the Cubs getting actually good. Suddenly, they were Chicago’s darlings. Wrigley Field’s rowdy “Bleacher Bums” became a national story. It was the year “Let’s play two” became a catchphrase. (Banks first coined it some years before; no one, including him, could pin down its origin.) Halfway through the 1969 season, the Cubs had five All-Stars. By mid-August they had a nine-game lead in the National League East.

By the end of the season, they were eight games behind the “Miracle Mets.” The collapse was variously blamed on fatigue, an obscure outfielder’s blunders in one midseason game, hot-headed third baseman Ron Santo, a black cat and–oh, yeah–the Mets’ 23-7 September. In almost everyone’s mind, though, the main villain was Durocher.

The tale of what the fates brought those Cubs and those Mets has been many times told, and at book length; Rapoport does it nicely in a few chapters. Count on seeing, hearing, and reading much more about those teams and that pennant race in this 50th anniversary year.

It had been Ernie Banks’ last, best chance to appear in a postseason game.

Banks retired after a sad 1971, a season he spent mostly benched with gimpy knees, ineffective when he did play. He still had more than half his life to lead, but no good idea of what to do with it.

The phrase Rapoport used to describe the Cubs’ history– “bad luck and bad judgment” –applied to the post-playing life of Ernie Banks. In his playing days, he was the guy who couldn’t say no. Friendly to all, always accommodating, he exasperated Cubs public relations people by double-booking appearances or forgetting about them.

He was a Cubs coach for a short while, did PR for the team, showed up for old-timers days and team functions. He served on civic boards. He tried a car dealership, insurance, banking, broadcasting … but never got deeply enough into any of these to make it a second career. It turned out he was always Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub.

In his retirement, and in his private life, he expanded on his reputation for promises unfilled. Exhibit A was his four failed marriages, which cost him, among other things, memorabilia that with better care and timing could have made him financially comfortable. His MVP trophies went to one-ex-wife, his 500th home run ball to another. At the end, his estate, consisting mostly of what memorabilia was left, went to the woman who’d been his companion and caretaker in his last years, leaving out his children and estranged wife.

He died in 2015, just short of his 84th birthday, of multiple, age-related causes.

The summing-up of these accounts brings us back to the matter of whether the Ernie Banks he presented to the public, the press, and other players was the real man. Did he really believe life and baseball were so good that the sun shone on the cloudiest days?

Wilson and Rapoport work hard on that question. We conclude that the answer is yes. Or maybe no.

For every friend, teammate, relative, ex-wife or employer they interviewed who suggested his cheery personality was a façade, many more told of his acts of generosity, his caring for people, his ability to look on the bright side. Banks himself was not one to answer. The part of his makeup all agreed on was his ability to deflect conversations. A question about what Ernie Banks thought invariably became a discussion about the questioner. In his playing days, he spouted enthusiasm and good will toward all. An anecdote from Rapoport:

“Wasn’t there someone he disliked? a reporter asked him. Banks thought a moment and said. ‘Oh, maybe Mao Tse-Tung.’”

There’s little contradictory evidence in these biographies.

References and Resources

  • Baseball-Reference.com
  • Leo Durocher and Ed Linn, Nice Guys Finish Last. University of Chicago Press, 1975.
  • Ron Rapoport, Let’s Play Two, The Legend of Mr. Cub, The Life of Ernie Banks. Hachette Books, 2019.
  • Doug Wilson, Let’s Play Two, The Life and Times of Ernie Banks. Rowman and Littlefield, 2019.


Joe Distelheim is a retired newspaper editor whose career included stints as sports editor of The Charlotte Observer and Detroit Free Press. He co-authored Cubs: From Tinker to Banks to Sandberg to Today.
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Jim

Hell, you’re as old as I am. Yes, I can still do the math. That math, anyway. Nice job.