Right Field

R.I.P., Mr. Cub

Hall of Famer and almost certainly the most beloved Cub of all time, Ernie Banks, has died. He was 83.

When Banks left the Negro American League to join the Cubs in mid September 1953, the 22-year-old became the franchise’s first African-American player. The transition was seamless, however. Banks was the club’s starting shortstop for its final ten games of the ‘53 season and never looked back. Eventually, he would move to first base but never wore another team’s uniform.

Over a 19-year career, he clobbered 512 home runs and posted a .274/.330/.500 slash line. Arguably his most prolific season at bat came in 1958, when he hit 47 long balls and posted a whopping .413 wOBA, which helped him accumulate 8.7 fWAR.

Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated reminds us what we will remember the most about Mr. Cub:

Line up the greatest all-time marriages between a city and an athlete and if you look closely enough you will find many of them strained beneath the surface, even just a bit, by the star’s ego, distance, moodiness, entitlement, or some such flaw of personality that exists on the slip side to physical genius. None of the great such love affairs were purer than the one between Chicago and Banks. You need not have qualified your devotion to him. He was a man of and for the people, not some baseball god visiting from Olympus. How fitting that Banks played his entire home career in daylight and endorsed cookies made by a company called Sunshine. The guy was a walking dose of vitamin D.

“Welcome to the friendly confines of Wrigley Field,” Banks would gush during batting practice. “Oh, oh, it’s great to be alive and a Cub on this beautiful sun-kissed afternoon.”

And then he might add, in his signature pronouncement, “Let’s play two!” The phrase became and remains embedded not just in baseball culture but also in Americana. It’s how an American defines the boundless optimism, the joy of the moment at hand.

The full, amazing wattage of Banks’ spirit is not that he said it all . . . the . . . time, but that he meant it all the time.

And yet, Banks never played a single postseason game, thanks to being stuck on some mediocre or lousy teams. Verducci’s colleague, Rich Cohen, interviewed Banks last July and asked about the year when Ernie and his teammates finally seemed to be headed to the playoffs, until that moment when the gods changed their minds:

[H]ere I sing the ballad of ’69, that terrible summer of the Manson murders, as well as the Cubs and their stunning collapse before the surging Mets. At this point it had been 24 years since the Cubs had played in a World Series. A drought, but not epic. In other words, here was a chance for the Cubs to win and for their fans to live normal lives. It’s as if, in ’69, two roads diverged, and the Cubs took the one less traveled by: the losing road, where misery begets misery and wearing a Cubs hat is a way of letting people know you are holier, for your kingdom is not of this world.

Many theories have been proposed to explain the disaster of ’69. Some say it was all those Wrigley Field day games, which left players too much time for late-night carousing. Others say the Mets were simply better. When I asked Banks, he mentioned a single game, a single moment, that infected everything. I highlight this because, after years of reading about the Cubs, it came as genuine news. “They say one apple can spoil the whole barrel, and I saw that,” Banks said. “Before going to New York to play the big series against the Mets, I went to different players on our team and told them, ‘We’re going to New York, and when the game is over, there’s going to be more media than you’ve ever seen in the clubhouse, so watch what you say.’ So we got to New York, and lose the first game. Don Young dropped a fly ball, and that was it. We came into the locker room. I was next to [Ron] Santo, and he just went crazy [blaming Young]. Young was so upset, he ran out. Pete [Reiser] had to bring him back. I had never seen something so hurtful.” It ended up in the papers, and, according to Banks, the team fell apart. It was factions in the locker room, players at cross-purposes­ after that.

Every Cubs fan knows the rest: “We lose the games; they send out the black cat.”

It’s a famous picture: Santo on deck at Shea, bat on his shoulder, the cat slinking across his path. I’ve seen it but never knew the cat was sent out intentionally. I assumed it just emerged from the depths. “Some of our guys did feel it was done intentionally,” said Banks. “Especially [manager Leo] Durocher, who was a superstitious man.”

More here and here.

Jason Epstein is the president of Southfive Strategies, LLC. He was a public-relations consultant for the Turkish embassy in Washington from 2002 to 2007.

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