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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 624

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This is the grave of Ernie Banks.

Born in Dallas in 1931, Banks was a star athlete, the son of a semi-pro baseball player who worked construction and in warehouses to make ends meet. He started playing for the Dallas Black Giants while still in high school. He might have become a minister (in fact, he was later ordained) but his baseball skills won out. Banks was drafted into the Army before being able to get into the major leagues though, in 1951. He served at Fort Bliss and also played with the Harlem Globetrotters when he could. He left the Army in 1953 and played with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues for the rest of their season. But when that ended, the Chicago Cubs signed him and he went straight to the majors for the end of the 53 season, becoming the first black player for that team.

Banks was a phenom. He won the Rookie of the Year award in 1954 and up through 1962 was one of the very best players in the game. By 1955, he had developed awesome power, especially for a shortstop, hitting 44 home runs. He won the MVP in 1958 and 1959, both astounding years when he hit more than 40 home runs, drove in more than 120 runs, and was among the league leaders in slugging percentage, leading in that category in 59. According to Baseball Reference’s WAR statistic, these were the best years of his career, with an amazing 10.2 WAR in 1959 and 9.3 in 1958. He also passed the 8 WAR barrier in 1955 and fell just short of it in 1960. He was in the top 5 for the MVP in both of those seasons as well. In 1956 and 1957, he was merely very, very good. Even though the Cubs were not a good team during most of these years, Banks became their public face, one of the most popular players in the game.

After 1960, Banks’ skills started to diminish fairly rapidly, even though he was only 29 in that year. He had to be moved to first base due to his declining defense and he was not even a good defensive first baseman. His knees were a mess by this time. His bat declined too, but he remained a functional player for a few more years. But by 1963, a 227/292/403 slash line showed this was a shadow of his former self, even if the next couple of years were a little better. He still had pop in his bat and was elected to a few All-Star games in the 1960s, but the rest of his batting skills had declined with age and his average and OBP were not great, even in these years. He played his string out to the end, struggling in 1970 and 1971 to be anything more than a pinch hitter. He retired at the end of the 1971 season.

Ernie Banks was, to say the least, not a player that was willing to challenge the social norms of the time. His career covered much of the civil rights movement, but Banks refused to speak in favor of it. He largely felt himself grateful that he got to play baseball and did not want to upset people. He had a bit of the Clarence Thomas in him, in that he definitely recognized that he faced racism, he just didn’t really see that anyone could do anything about it. He was a staunch Republican both during and after his career, openly endorsing George W. Bush as late as 2004, for instance. He actually ran for alderman in Chicago in 1963, but was rejected by the voters. It would be interesting to go into the details of the race. Banks said it was because he was a baseball player and so people didn’t take him seriously, but I wonder if his actual politics played into it. He was very invested in ideas of black capitalism and self-improvement and became a successful businessman in the years after his retirement.

Banks was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1977 and the Cubs retired his number 14 in 1982, the first number the team had ever retired. In 2013, President Obama granted Banks the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Banks died of a heart attack in 2014, a few days before his 84th birthday.

Ernie Banks is buried in Graceland Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois.

If you would like this series to visit more shortstops, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. According to Baseball Reference, Banks is the 7th greatest shortstop of all time. Arky Vaughn, #6 on the list, is in Eagleville, California, while Luke Appling, #9, is in Cumming, Georgia. Ozzie Smith is #8 and is very much still alive. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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