“He was the warmest and most sincere person I’ve ever known,” Tom Ricketts, chairman of the Chicago Cubs, says of Ernie Banks, who died Friday evening. Warmth and sincerity are virtues that your family and close friends might admire you for. In the case of Banks, they were raised to such a high pitch that the public recognized them as prodigies on a level with his outstanding career numbers, which earned him a place in the Hall of Fame.
As a shortstop who hit for power — 512 career home runs — Banks was ahead of his time. A knee injury that he incurred during the Korean War recurred about ten years later and forced him to move to first base.
It also forced him out of the lineup when in 1961 he was pursuing the National League record for consecutive games played — 895, set by Stan Musial, with whom, if these things could be quantified, Banks would be tied for the honor of being the nicest man ever to wear a major-league uniform. Or maybe it’s a thousand-way tie, with Gehrig and Mel Ott and then 997 players whose character was off the charts but — life is unfair — are now largely forgotten because either their talent was modest or the ball just didn’t bounce their way. (When Leo Durocher pointed to Ott in the distance and said to a sportswriter that “nice guys finish last,” he meant something like “What an injustice.” That’s not the only interpretation of his remark, of course, but it’s the one that Durocher later maintained, and I choose to believe it.)
Go to Right Field to read Jason Epstein’s succinct overview of Banks’s career accomplishments. He also links to some beautiful remembrances by sportswriters who knew both Banks the great ballplayer and Banks the extraordinarily good man.