From the moment he stepped on the field for the first time in 1953 right up through last season, when he would drop by the ballpark with that big smile and little-kid enthusiasm, Ernie Banks enjoyed a love affair with Wrigley Field and its fans unlike any other in baseball.
He was Mr. Cub, and no other player in franchise history — or in the club’s future — will ever be adored in the same way.
“There’s sunshine, fresh air, and the team’s behind us,” Banks said during his Hall of Fame induction speed in 1977. “Let’s play two!”
Banks, one of baseball’s most ebullient and optimistic ambassadors, died Friday, his wife, Liz, confirmed. He was 83.
In 1950, Banks began playing for the Negro Leagues’ Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. Like fellow Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige, Banks jumped from the Monarchs to the big leagues.
“We knew Ernie was a good prospect,” Buck O’Neil, Banks’ manager with the Monarchs, said once in an interview. “But we didn’t know he would develop that fast.”
After serving two years in the military, Banks joined the Cubs on Sept. 17, 1953, as the team’s first black player. He went on to become an 11-time All-Star and the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1958 and 1959.
Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts released the following statement Friday night:
“Words cannot express how important Ernie Banks will always be to the Chicago Cubs, the city of Chicago and Major League Baseball. He was one of the greatest players of all time. He was a pioneer in the major leagues. And and more importantly, he was the warmest and most sincere person I’ve ever known. Approachable, ever optimistic and kind hearted, Ernie Banks is and always will be Mr. Cub.
The Cubs erected a statue honoring Banks near the corner of Clark and Addison and unveiled Wrigley Field’s new landmark at the start of the 2008 season. The statue has become a must-have stopping spot for camera-toting tourists, and Banks was overwhelmed with pride.
“When I am not here,” he joked after the ceremony, “this will be here.”