Photo credits: AP, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Getty Images
Kevin Luchansky writes about Chicago baseball for WARR.
I think Ernie Banks is remembered by the fans of my generation for a lot of great reasons. He is, and always will be, Mr. Cub.
Being remembered as a fine human being, an ambassador for your race and an outstanding role model are all great ways in which to be remembered. Believe it or not, there are things bigger than the game of baseball. But with that in mind it worries me that sometimes we forget — or perhaps not even realize due to not being able to see a player like Banks in his prime — what a world class baseball player Ernie was.
After playing in the Negro Leagues for two seasons, followed by a short military service stint, Ernie Banks went on to play 19 seasons in Major League Baseball, every one of which with a Chicago Cubs uniform on. The power-hitting shortstop had a laundry list of accomplishments, which included 14 trips to the mid-summer classic, two MVP awards (1958 and ’59) and a Gold Glove award in 1960, too. Banks’ most remembered feat, however, was the Dallas, Texas native becoming a member of the 500 home run club prior to retiring in 1971 with 512 homers to his record.
When I look at the short list of names on the 500 Home Run Club list, one thing in particular really stands out to me: there is just one middle-infielder on the list — Ernie. Alex Rodriguez is on the list, sure, but he’s more of a true third baseman and frankly, his 654 total is tainted by alleged performance-enhancing drug use. Every player on the 500 list comes from a traditional power position, while Banks produced at his incredible clip while manning arguably the most demanding defensive position in the game, shortstop.
In four straight seasons, Banks hit 40 or more home runs from 1957-60. Before A-Rod came into The Show, only eight times had a shortstop finished a season with more than 30 home runs. Six of those seasons belonged to Mr. Cub. Think about that for a second, let it sink in.
For a little present context, let’s look at the list of shortstops who have hit 30 or more home runs in the last five seasons. The list is as follows: Troy Tulowitzki, with 30 home runs in 2011. That’s it. Not to take anything away from Tulo, who is a rare breed of shortstop these days, but the Colorado Rockies’ star also plays half his games in one of the best hitters’ parks in the majors.
To make things more interesting, let’s go back to the steroid era. Hanley Ramirez hit 33 dingers in 2008. No longer a shortstop, Ramirez hasn’t eclipsed 30 since. How about Bill Hall, who hit 35 for Milwaukee in 2006! Hall only finished his entire career with 125 in total.
And…here we go! A-Rod hit 47 in 2003. There’s sure to be others that same year that eclipsed 30, right? Nomar Garciaparra finished second among shortstops that season with 27. Miguel Tejada’s name was high on the list for a few seasons, but how sure is anyone at this point that he worked at his prime without the benefit of performance enhancing drugs?
I’m not trying to point my finger at possible steroid abusers — well, except for maybe Rich Aurilia and his 37 dingers in ’01 — but I thought comparing Banks’ numbers to shortstops who played the game when home runs were more plentiful would help fans understand just how impressive Ernie’s game was during a time when that wasn’t the case.
According to Baseball Reference, which takes into account a number of different data points and metrics, Banks and his .500 career slugging percentage rank him as the Number 46th best player of all time. Just two spots ahead of him at No. 44 is another name Cubs fans might remember in Ryne Sandberg. I can only imagine that if destiny had aligned those two to play together that we as Cubs fans would not be referencing curses, goats and World Series droughts anymore and that Banks wouldn’t have to go down as the greatest baseball player to never play in the postseason.
One can dream, right?
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