These Men Changed Baseball: Ernie Banks

Unlike the A’s Bob Trice, the Chicago Cubs integrated with one of the greatest players in baseball history.  The Cubs were in one of their standard down spells, a team that had shown no promise since making the World Series in 1945.  They were about to make one of their rare good decisions of the era because they had just begun a relationship with a Negro League manager they would hire in 1955.  That manager was Buck O’Neil of the Kansas City Monarchs.

In 1950, the Monarchs had signed a shortstop from Dallas by the name of Ernie Banks. The Negro Leagues were in the process of collapsing. The last Negro League World Series was played in 1948, followed soon thereafter by the collapse of the Negro National League. The Negro American League survived for another 3 seasons as little more than another minor league. Given the slow progress of integration, teams like the Kansas City Monarchs were still able to attract occasional top talent, most notably Banks. Banks was scouted by future Hall of Famer Cool Papa Bell and joined the team in 1950. He then spent two years in the military before rejoining the Monarchs in 1953. In 1953, the Cubs signed Banks directly as a 22-year-old top prospect and brought him directly to the majors. On September 17th, Banks became the first African-American to play for the Chicago Cubs, replacing previous Cubs shortstop Roy Smalley, Sr. (father of the immortal Roy Smalley Jr.) Banks went 0 for 3 with a walk in his first game, but he would soon get it all figured out. For the season, Banks played in 10 games, hitting .314 with 2 home runs in 39 plate appearances. He would just get better.

In 1954, Banks would come in second in Rookie of the Year balloting, losing easily to Wally Moon of the Cardinals. Banks peaked from 1958-60, winning consecutive MVP’s in 1958 and 1959 and leading the league in home runs in 1958 and 1960. He led the league in RBIs in 1958 and 1959, along with slugging percentage and total bases in 1958. He won a Gold Glove in 1960 in his last year as a full-time shortstop. By 1961 his knees had given out, and the bus moved him to first base where he would play the most games for his career (1,259 at first to 1,125 at short). He would finish his career with 512 home runs and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1977 with 83.8% of the vote. (Consider that: More than 16% of Hall of Fame voters did not consider Banks worthy of Hall of Fame induction.)

Banks is unusual in the list of integrators for several reasons. He does not really lose any major league time to segregation. (Apparently, there is some question as to his birth year. He could have been 6 years older than he claimed, which would change this paragraph dramatically.) The two years prior to his debut, he was in the military because of the Korean War. His biggest obstacle, from a playing standpoint, was knee problems that kept him from being probably the second best shortstop in major league history. He still faced racism, though, as a white scout for the White Sox refused to consider him for their opening at short. This led to his signing with the Cubs. (The White Sox found their own Hall of Fame shortstop in 1956 with Luis Aparicio. Given the White Sox integrated with Cuban-born Minnie Minoso, it appears they were much more comfortable moving into Latin America than into the African-American community.) Despite these barriers, Banks is easily one of the best players ever to play the game. Given his sunny personality, it is easy to forget the challenges he must have overcome. Nevertheless, we should remember Banks not just for his on-field greatness but also for his off-field historical significance.

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