The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Baseball’s Best of the Worst: Ernie Banks

1966 Ernie Banks Front

Image by cthoyes via Flickr

The following is a guest post written by Graham Womack of Baseball Past and Present.  Graham’s blog is well worth a look, if you haven’t already visited it.

At first glance, the 1959 Chicago Cubs look something like an expansion team. A fifth place club that finished 74-80, Chicago did so with virtually no big names, mostly a conglomerate of over-the-hill veterans like Al Dark and Dale Long and young players who hadn’t accomplished much yet such as Moe Drabowsky and Tony Taylor. Exactly one name stands out, and it was like this at Wrigley Field most of the 1950s. That player is Ernie Banks.

The first ballot Hall of Famer, who turned 80 on January 31, did his best work as a young shortstop and lone wolf in Chicago. By the time some All Star assistance arrived in the early 1960s in the form of Billy Williams and Ron Santo, Banks was on the down slope of his career, mostly confined to first base and struggling to keep his OPS+ above 100 and provide starter-caliber WAR. His wonderful spirit of “Let’s play two!” and a less sophisticated understanding in those days of player value may have kept Banks a starter in his waning years. Today, he’d have a harder time sticking around to get 512 home runs.

At least in his early years, though, Banks was something special, with a career trajectory similar perhaps to Nomar Garciaparra. For the better part of a decade after Banks debuted in 1953, there were two certainties on the North Side of Chicago: The Cubs would finish under .500 and in the second division, and Banks would be an All Star and in the hunt for the National League Most Valuable Player award.

Banks was the first great black player for the Cubs and, at least in early seasons, perhaps the greatest power-hitting shortstop in baseball history aside from Honus Wagner (who led the National League in slugging six times and would have hit several hundred more home runs playing at any time since the Deadball Era.)

In many ways, 1959 was Banks’ finest season. That year, he became the first shortstop in N.L. history to win back-to-back MVP awards.  It’s worth noting Banks also posted career highs in WAR with 10.0 and RBI with 143, to go with 45 home runs, a .304 batting average, and an OPS+ of 155.

Though Banks played another 12 years, 1959 was the last year he hit above .300 and the second-to-last year he offered All Star-level WAR (5.0 or better) or any hopes of winning MVP. While 1960 looked like more of the same from Banks with a league-leading 41 home runs, fourth place in MVP voting, and even a Gold Glove to boot, it really was the beginning of a long decline. The high RBI totals Banks in his final seasons are less a reflection of his skill than that the Cubs were finally improving.

Chicago became a winning team in the late 1960s and eventually a playoff contender. But interestingly, as the Cubs were rising, their franchise icon was falling. One can only wonder how much better Banks’ stats would be if his career had began even a decade later.

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4 thoughts on “Baseball’s Best of the Worst: Ernie Banks

  1. Ernie Banks was the guy you could always count on. Loved to watch him play. I have the same baseball card that accompanies this article. Great piece of work!

  2. Bill, Thanks to you and Graham Womack for this guest post. I love the history of baseball. I enjoyed knowing a bit more about Ernie Banks. He is so revered in Chicago, but as the years go by, people forget what an impact player he was during his time.
    It saddens me that many of today’s players are more caught up in “the next big contract” and very few pay attention to the stories of those who paved the way.

    Keep the history coming.

    • Jacqueline, Thanks for checking in. It’s been fun working with Graham on this project. Glad you have enjoyed it. And I agree with you that money has simply become too much of a feature of today’s game. I guess that’s why we enjoy reading about baseball history so much. Thanks again, Bill

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