Ernest “Ernie” Banks, all-star professional baseball player, “Mr. Cub,” was born in Dallas, Texas, on January 30, 1931. Though many sources list his birthdate as January 31, the date is listed as January 30 in the Texas Birth Index. He was the son of Eddie and Essie Vee (Durden) Banks. A gifted athlete, he played all sports at Booker T. Washington High School in Dallas and during the summer of his high school years toured with an African-American semi-professional baseball team called the Colts (based in Amarillo). (His father also had played in a league of semi-pro African-American teams.)
Immediately upon completing high school in 1950, Banks began a career in professional baseball, beginning at a high level by playing for the Kansas City Monarchs, the most prominent team in the segregated Negro Leagues. Banks spent two years (1951–53) in the U. S. Army and returned to the Monarchs; the team sold his contract for $10,000 to the Chicago Cubs in 1953. On September 17, 1953, he became the first African American to play in a Cubs uniform, six years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Banks hit .314 in the ten games he played late in the 1953 season and then took over as the Cubs’ regular shortstop in 1954; that year he ranked second in votes for the National League’s Rookie of the Year. A slender, six-foot-one, 180-pound, right-handed hitter, Banks did not present a fearsome presence at the plate, but due to his strong wrists and great timing, he used a light-wieght bat to earn recognition quickly as one of the best hitters in the major leagues.
Baseball is a game of statistics, and by the time his career as a Cub ended in 1971, Banks had compiled many memorable numbers. He played in 2,528 games, went to bat 9,421 times, and had 2,583 hits for a total of 4,706 bases. Most remarkably, he hit 512 home runs. His forty-seven home runs in the 1958 season still stood as the National League’s single-season record for a shortstop at the time of his death (2015). Even in 2019, in the age of steroid-fueled sluggers, he stood twenty-third on the list of players with the most home runs in a career. Banks also excelled as a defensive player and played shortstop from 1953 to 1961 and first base the next ten years. He led the league in fielding percentage three times and won a Gold Glove Award in 1960.
Banks exuded optimism and love of the game, qualities that remained constant in spite of the fact that the Cubs never won a pennant while he played and suffered through eight seasons with at least ninety losses. He became famous for saying: “It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame...so let’s play two!” In 1958 and 1959 he won recognition as the National League’s Most Valuable Player, even though he played on woeful teams, and he was the first back-to-back MVP winner from the National League. He played in eleven All-Star Games. He was voted “Greatest Cub Ever” in a Chicago Sun-Times fan poll in 1969. Following his retirement in 1971, he was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame six years later, only the eighth player to be elected in his first year of eligibility for the honor. The Cubs retired his uniform number (14) in 1982, and a statue of Banks in a batting stance was erected at Chicago’s Wrigley Field in 2008. In 2013 Banks received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In retirement, Banks spent two years as a coach for the Cubs and then did part-time promotional work for the club until 1983. He founded the Ernie Banks Live Above and Beyond Foundation that raised funds for charities. He was active in civic affairs and served on the boards of several entities, including the Chicago Transit Authority, Jackson Park Hospital, Glenwood Home for Boys, Joint Negro Appeal, and the Chicago Rehabilitation Institute.
Banks married four times. His wife Eloyce Johnson, with whom he had three children, preceded him in death. His marriages to Mollye Louise Ector and Marjorie Wardlaw ended in divorce. At age seventy-seven, with his fourth wife Liz Ellzey, he adopted a newborn child.
Ernie Banks died of a heart attack at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago on January 23, 2015, less than two weeks before his eighty-fourth birthday. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle described Banks as “an incredible ambassador for baseball, and for the city of Chicago.” He was buried at the city’s Graceland Cemetery.