By Ishan Sen
Ernest “Ernie” Banks, adorably referred to as “Mr. Cub,” was the first African American professional baseball player for the Chicago Cubs and the first African American manager in Major League Baseball (MLB). He is considered by some as one of the greatest players in the history of the game.
Banks was born in Dallas, Texas, on January 31, 1931, as the second of twelve children. Noticing his lack of interest in baseball, his father Eddie bought him a baseball glove for less than three dollars and prompted him with nickels and dimes to play catch. However, Banks excelled in basketball, football, and track, since his school did not have a baseball team.
He signed for the Amarillo Colts at age 17 before grabbing the attention of some scouts for the Kansas City Monarchs. He signed for the Monarchs in the Negro American League in 1950, but was soon drafted into the U.S. Army for the Korean War. He was discharged two years later and returned home in 1953 to join the Monarchs for the rest of the season.
The Chicago Cubs signed him in late 1953, marking his major league debut on September 17 at the age of 22. During his first game for the Cubs, a visit from Jackie Robinson, who had broken the major league color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers six years previously, influenced Banks’ life in more ways than one, as he later admitted publicly.
Playing shortstop and first base from 1953 to 1971, Banks registered himself as one of the most decorated figures in the annals of the Chicago Cubs. He became the first man to win consecutive National League Most Valuable Player awards (1958-59), earned the first Golden Glove award for the Cubs in 1960 and was voted an All Star 14 times (1955-62, 1965, 1967, 1969). He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977, his first year of eligibility.
Known for his famous catchphrase, “Let’s play two,” Banks averaged .274 batting with 512 home runs, 2583 hits and 1636 runs batted in. He retired as a player in 1971, but took up managing responsibilities for the Cubs after the departure of Whitey Lockman.
Banks’ number 14 became the first number to be retired by the Chicago Cubs in 1982. He was further honored by the organization with his statue in front of the entrance to Wrigley Field on March 31, 2008. He was elected as a member of the Major League Baseball All Century Team in 1999, and was conferred the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his contribution to sports in 2013.
Banks breathed his last on January 23, 2015 – barely a week before his 84th birthday.