Ernie Banks, one of baseball’s most ebullient and optimistic ambassadors, died Friday, his wife, Liz, confirmed.
Known worldwide as “Mr. Cub,” Banks became the Cubs’ first African-American player on Sept. 17, 1953, and went on to become an 11-time All-Star and two-time National League Most Valuable Player (1958, ’59). His boundless enthusiasm and optimism personified what it meant to be a Cubs fan.
Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts released the following statement Friday night:
“Words cannot express how important Ernie Banks will always be to the Chicago Cubs, the city of Chicago and Major League Baseball. He was one of the greatest players of all time. He was a pioneer in the major leagues. And more importantly, he was the warmest and most sincere person I’ve ever known. Approachable, ever optimistic and kind-hearted, Ernie Banks is and always will be Mr. Cub. My family and I grieve the loss of such a great and good-hearted man, but we look forward to celebrating Ernie’s life in the days ahead.”
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel also released a statement in praise of Banks.
“Ernie Banks was more than a baseball player. He was one of Chicago’s greatest ambassadors,” Emanuel said. “He loved this city as much as he loved – and lived for – the game of baseball. This year during every Cubs game, you can bet that No.14 will be watching over his team. And if we’re lucky, it’ll be a beautiful day for not just one ballgame, but two.”
Banks, who hit 512 home runs and had 1,636 RBIs, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977.
Renowned for his sunny disposition, Banks, 83, loved the game and often proclaimed: “Let’s play two!” even when the Cubs struggled to climb out of the National League basement. On Nov. 20, 2013, Banks was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom during ceremonies at the White House in recognition of his goodwill.
When first notified that he would be receiving the award, Banks said: “It means everything to me. It means life is just wonderful. When you do things to try to help people and share things, it really comes back to you. I try to do that. I love the players, love Wrigley Field, love all the players. This award means a lot to me. It’s almost like the Nobel Peace Prize to me.”
In 1950, Banks began playing for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro leagues. After serving two years in the military, he joined the Cubs.
Banks’ best overall season was 1959 when he led the N.L. with 143 RBIs and hit 43 home runs. Defensively, he led all shortstops with a .985 fielding percentage. In 1960 he won a Gold Glove at shortstop. He hit more than 40 homers five times, including 47 in 1958. In 1955 he hit a record five grand slams. Banks played his entire career with the Cubs and is considered one of the greatest players of all time not to play in the postseason.
Banks played more games at first base (1,259) than he did at shortstop (1,125), but he is remembered more for his productive younger seasons at shortstop.
“It was just a pleasure playing with Ernie. I can’t say it was a pleasure playing against him,” said former Cubs pitcher Milt Pappas, who also pitched for the Orioles, Reds and Braves. “He was so genuine. He was just a great ambassador for the game.”
A statue of Banks’ likeness was unveiled near the corner of Clark and Addison outside of Wrigley Field at the start of the 2008 baseball season.
“When I am not here, this will be here,” Banks joked after the ceremony as he pointed to the sculpture. “I wanted to finish my career with one team, in one city, one mayor, one park, one owner. I did that.”
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