He will always be “Mr. Cub,” the most popular player the Cubs ever had. His sunny personality is legend, as is his refrain on a sunny day: “Let’s play two!” The first black player on the Cubs, Banks came up as a shortstop, where he won consecutive MVP awards, but actually played more games at first base. He is also one of a handful of Hall of Famers never to get into postseason play.
Growing up in Dallas, Banks had to be bribed with nickels and dimes by his father to play catch. Banks, more interested in softball than baseball, was a high school star in both football and basketball, and once ran a 52-second quarter mile. At the age of 17, he signed on to play baseball with a Negro barnstorming team for $15 a game. Cool Papa Bell later signed him for the Kansas City Monarchs. He returned to them after two years in the army, and the Cubs discovered him there at the end of the 1953 season. The 22-year-old went right to the Cubs and hit his first homer on September 20, 1953, off Gerry Staley in St. Louis. He quickly replaced Roy Smalley, Sr., as the regular Cub shortstop in 1954. Starting with his first game in 1953, he played 424 consecutive games until fracturing his hand midway through the 1956 season.
Like his contemporary, Hank Aaron, Banks didn’t look like a power hitter. He was slim, with powerful thighs, and he held his bat high, wiggling it nervously while waiting for the pitch. Like Aaron he got his power from amazingly quick and strong wrists. A teammate of his once remarked that Banks had “wrists right up to his armpits.” An opposing player noted that he often “hits the ball right out of the catcher’s mitt.” In 1955, he switched to a lighter bat, starting a trend. He then went out and smacked 44 HR, the most ever for a shortstop, including three in one day at Wrigley against Pittsburgh and an NL-record five grand slams. His best years were his consecutive MVP years in 1958 and 1959. He hit .313 and .304 respectively — his only full years over .300 — and led the league in RBI both years, with 129 and a career-high 143. He also hit a league-leading and career-high 47 HR in 1958 and added another 45 in 1959.
From 1955 to 1960, Banks hit more homers than anyone in the majors, including Mantle, Mays, and Aaron. At the end of the 1959 season, he was so popular that the Cubs wanted to give him his own day. The modest Banks gratefully declined, saying that he hadn’t been around long enough to be so honored. By 1964, Banks had relented, and the honorary day was held.
At first, Banks’s fielding was erratic. He posted error totals of 34, 22, and 25 early in his career, culminating in a league-leading 32 in 1958. He worked dilligently to cut his errors down to 12 in 1959, then a record for shortstops, and led NL shortstops in fielding in both 1960 (he won a Gold Glove) and 1961. Meanwhile, he kept hitting. In the first 1960 All-Star game he had a two-run homer in a 5-3 NL victory, and he ended the season leading the league in HR for the second time, with 41.
Even though Banks had led the league in fielding the previous two seasons, injuries to his legs had cut down his range, so he accepted a move to first base in 1962. When Leo Durocher took over the team in 1966, he kept bringing up young phenoms to replace Banks, but none did. Banks won the fielding title at his new position in 1969, and led NL first basemen in assists five times. By 1970, his legs had begun to weaken from nagging injuries and arthritis. On May 12, 1970, he hit his 500th homer, the most avidly anticipated event in Wrigley Field history, with the possible exception of the first night game. After Banks’s retirement in 1971, the Cubs hoisted a pinstriped pennant with his number 14 atop the left field foul pole at Wrigley Field. He was the first Cubs player to have his number retired.