Banks broke barriers with unwavering kindness
Mr. Cub possessed ideal personality to help tackle integration in baseball
Ernie Banks passed away late Friday. He, however, will live forever in the memories of baseball players, officials and fans.
Banks arrived at Wrigley Field back in September of 1953, allowing the Cubs to become the ninth of the 16 Major League teams to integrate. More than 61 years later, he is still the face of one of the game's storied franchises.
"He became an icon in Chicago," said former Cubs manager Don Baylor. "He and [the late] Buck O'Neil were so much alike. They both broke in in the Negro Leagues. What always struck you was how appreciative they were of getting to make a living in baseball.
"I don't know if either one of them ever had a bad day. They were always so positive."
Baylor, however, knows better. He never had to walk in Banks' shoes, but he came close.
While Banks helped integrate baseball, in the early 1960s Baylor volunteered to be one of three kids in his Austin, Texas, junior high school to integrate public schools in Texas. He was the first African American to play football and baseball at Stephen F. Austin High School and the first African American offered a football scholarship by the late Darrell Royal, longtime coach of the Texas Longhorns.
"There are challenges, and Ernie was so strong they never got in his way," said Baylor. "I don't think young people really understand what he had to deal with."
The Negro League players all loved the game. That's why they played it. It wasn't easy, however.
"I remember Ernie and Buck talking about there were days they'd play three games in a day," Baylor said. "They'd play a doubleheader in Washington and then a single game in Baltimore. They didn't get paid anything extra. They didn't care. They just wanted to play the game. They loved the game, and they loved life.
"They couldn't go into certain hotels and restaurants. They rode on the back of buses. But they could play baseball."
O'Neil never did make it to the big leagues as a player, but the Cubs eventually made him the first African American big league coach.
Banks made it to the big leagues, and he made it big enough that he was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977, his first year of eligibility.
How big? Big enough that he was the third of the players who came from the Negro Leagues to eventually land a spot in Cooperstown for accomplishments in the Major Leagues. His selection came after Jackie Robinson (1962) and Monte Irvin ('73).
"I don't think young players really understand what he had to deal with," said Baylor. "I'm not just talking about on the field, where the Cubs played all those day games, and he was such a big shortstop. I'm talking about dealing with the country's culture at that time."
Life wasn't easy, not even in Chicago, where initially the public did not open its arms to the men who broke baseball's racial barrier. Banks arrived at Wrigley Field six years, four months and 28 days after Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers to become the first African American to play in the big leagues.
Banks was durable and impactful. He appeared in 2,528 games, the most of any player in history to never appear in a postseason, and he averaged 150 games per year during his 16 prime seasons. He hit 512 career home runs -- five times having 40 or more in a season, and he drove in 1,636 runs, 100 or more in eight different seasons.
Banks won the National League MVP Award in back-to-back seasons (1958-59), two of seven total MVP awards that went to a player on a losing team. He was a 14-time All-Star.
Even that, however, wasn't good enough for his own manager, Leo Durocher.
"Ernie would talk about how difficult it was for him to play for Leo, but his mom taught him to kill with kindness," said Baylor. "That's what he would do with Leo.
"Nothing was going to take the joy of the game away from Ernie. Everybody knew he loved the game. He wasn't just saying, 'Let's play two,' he was meaning it, and it permeated throughout the Cubs' Minor League system. You had to love the game because Ernie did."
It was all part of why Banks became so beloved by baseball fans, not just on Chicago's North Side, but everywhere the game is played.