“Michelle and I send our condolences to the family of Ernie Banks, and to every Chicagoan and baseball fan who loved him.
“Ernie came up through the Negro Leagues, making $7 a day. He became the first African American to play for the Chicago Cubs, and the first number the team retired. Along the way, he became known as much for his 512 home runs and back-to-back National League MVPs as for his cheer, his optimism, and his love of the game. As a Hall-of-Famer, Ernie was an incredible ambassador for baseball, and for the city of Chicago. He was beloved by baseball fans everywhere, including Michelle, who, when she was a girl, used to sit with her dad and watch him play on TV. And in 2013, it was my honor to present Ernie with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“Somewhere, the sun is shining, the air is fresh, his team’s behind him, and Mr. Class, Mr. Cub, is ready to play two”– President Barack Obama, January 24, 2015.
The first African American to play for the Chicago Cubs, the most beloved player ever for one of the world’s most beloved teams, Ernie Banks passed away after a heart attack on the evening of January 23, 2015, at the age of 83.
Banks played his entire career for the Cubs, and in one capacity or another had not missed an opening day at Wrigley Field since 1954. In fact, he came up in September 1953 and was a fixture through the end of the 1971 season. His love of the game, and the reverence others hold for him, will live forever in the hearts of Cubs fans and baseball fans in general.
He toiled 19 years for the lovable losers, his team never finishing higher than fifth until his final five seasons. While everyone remembers the Amazin’ Mets triumph in the 1969 World Series, Cubs fans will tell you it could have been them and should have been them. The Cubs were in first place into September, ultimately blowing a 13 ½ game lead to New York. A black cat streaking through the on-deck circle and around the field during a crucial game in New York seemed to seal the Cubs’ fate, or curse it. It was the closest Banks ever got in his record 2,528 games played without a postseason appearance to the postseason.
But his spirit never wavered. His most famous quotation, the one etched in stone in the base of his statue, which forever sits outside Wrigley Field (“It’s a great day for a ball game; let’s play two!”) will forever echo with Cubs fans everywhere.
Ernie Banks batted .274 with 2,583 hits including 512 home runs. He drove in 1,636 runs with an OPS of .830. He was the first in National League history to win back-to-back MVP awards in 1958-59 and still holds the NL mark with five grand slam home runs in one season. He hit 12 in his career. His greatest seasons were from 1955-62 where he averaged 39 home runs per season. From ’55-’60 he hit more than his contemporaries including the true home run king Henry Aaron, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle.
But it was how he touched lives that will be Banks most enduring gift. His enthusiasm for life and unsinkable spirit should inspire us all. On Sunday night, April 5, when the Cubs host the Cardinals on their biggest opening night in years, there will be a large hole—one that will never be filled.