What makes someone beloved? Is that even something we can answer? I found myself asking this question about shortstop and first baseman Ernie Banks. “Mr. Cub,” as he was dubbed by Chicago newspaper writer Jim Enright, became Banks’ go-to nickname during his time with the Chicago Cubs . He played his entire nineteen-year career in the Major League with the Cubs and stayed with them as a coach and ambassador after he retired from playing in 1971. Ernie Banks is the one player who “thoroughly and completely identified with the Cubs…[and] represented the franchise with class and enthusiasm” . Despite his career as a player having ended nearly 50 years ago, Chicagoans of all ages seem to know and love Ernie Banks for what he represents as a person and baseball player.
Teammates and non-teammates alike do not hesitate to express their appreciation for Banks. For that reason, on March 31, 2008, opening day for the Chicago Cubs’ baseball season, a statue was unveiled right outside the Clark street entrance to Wrigley Field of Ernie Banks. At the unveiling of his statue, other famous and well-respected baseball players including Hank Aaron, Billy Williams, and Ron Santo spoke to highlight the spirit Ernie Banks embodied that made him the perfect ballplayer . If you know Ernie Banks, you know his most-quoted phrase, “Let’s play two.” His love for the game and the Cubs, his incredible skill, and his positive energy are what drew people to him, even those who didn’t grow up watching him play. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Banks noted after being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, “Barack Obama gave it to me; he’d never seen me play!” . But having a statue outside Wrigley Field showing him waiting for a pitch and engraved with his nickname, favorite phrase, and career accomplishments is a way for his legacy to live on and communicate to passersby who he was, what he did, and what he means to so many people.
With all the love Banks receives from fans past and present, one would think he grew up living and breathing Chicago and baseball. However, he grew up in Dallas, Texas and played football and basketball for his high school teams and softball on the community team. It was on the community softball team where Banks was recognized for his potential to play baseball as a career. In 1948, Bill Blair noticed seventeen-year-old Banks and recruited him for the Negro Baseball League. Blair was a pitcher and outfielder in the Negro League in the late 1940s and at the time he saw Banks playing, he was scouting for new players in Amarillo, Texas.
The Negro Leagues was a product of the racial segregation that characterized America after the Civil War. According to Edward White, “[n]o stated policy or written rule existed that barred blacks from participating in Organized Baseball. It was nonetheless apparent that no blacks could participate” . By 1903, segregated baseball leagues for whites and Blacks were firmly established. This did not change until 1947 when Jackie Robinson was signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers, making him the first person to break the color barrier. However, it took another twelve years for every team in the Major League to include Black players in their lineups, with the Boston Red Sox being the last team to sign a black player in 1959 .
Ernie Banks, who had played in the Negro League for the Kansas City Monarchs, broke the color barrier for the Chicago Cubs, as he was the first Black player they signed in 1953. He would go on to have an incredible career of hitting 512 home runs, hitting five grand slams in a single season (1955), setting a Major League record as a shortstop that same season by hitting forty-four homeruns in a season—then breaking his own record with forty-seven homeruns in 1958—and being the first National League player to be named MVP two years in a row (1958 and 1959) . Banks accomplished all this without ever playing in a post-season game. Ernie’s nineteen years with the Cubs was during their 37-year losing streak that kept them from making it to the post-season. During Banks’ residency from 1953-1971, the Cubs hadn’t competed in the post-season since they lost to the Detroit Tigers in 1945 for the World Series, and it would still be another twelve years after Banks retired that the Cubs would make it to the League Championship Series, where they would lose to the San Diego Padres in 1984.
Perhaps that is what makes it even more remarkable that Ernie Banks is so beloved by Chicagoans despite their losing record throughout Banks’ career as a Chicago Cub. Being known and loved for his enthusiasm for a game and a team that could not seem to have a winning season for the entirety of his career is a remarkable quality and a testament to Banks’ character. Honoring Banks and his legacy with his statue outside the main entrance of the “friendly confines” of Wrigley Field is a show of respect and appreciation of his positive devotion to the Cubs franchise throughout his life .
The outpouring of love for Ernie online and in print is undeniable. YouTube clips about Ernie or interviews with him always come with comments from viewers describing a memory of watching Ernie play, an interaction they had with him, or what he meant to them and their family. In books and articles about him, the authors always share the impact Banks had on their lives. A couple who both love the Cubs and live in Lakeview, even decided to name their dog after Ernie Banks and devote an Instagram page to @Erniethe_doodle.
Statues are built for a reason. The person embodied in the statue made an impact in some way and is therefore thought to be deserving of such immortalization to remind current and future generations of their accomplishments and worthiness of being remembered. With all the controversy and politicization surrounding other statues and monuments to long dead influencers of history, it is hard to imagine Ernie Banks’ statue could ever follow in those footsteps. His goodness has been recognized for over sixty years now, and his statue will continue to remind Chicago baseball fans what it means to love the game.
Melissa Newman, Loyola University Chicago
 Freedman, Lew. Ernie Banks: the Life and Career of “Mr. Cub.” (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2019), 11.
 Freedman, 3.
 “Cubs Legend Banks Honored With Statue Outside Wrigley Field”. 2008. ESPN.Com. https://www.espn.com/mlb/news/story?id=3322443.
 Chicago Tribune. “Mr. Cub.” 2014. YouTube video, 4:07. April 3, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mQL-F61pg78.
 White, G. Edward. “The Negro Leagues” in Creating the National Pastime: Baseball Transforms Itself, 1903-1953. Pp.128. Princeton University Press, https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt13x0sm0.9.
 Rapoport, Ron. Let’s Play Two: the Legend of “Mr. Cub,” the Life of Ernie Banks. (New York: Hachette Books, 2019), 71.
 “Banks, Ernest (Ernie).” Oxford African American Studies Center. 1 Dec. 2006; Accessed 22 Nov. 2020. https://oxfordaasc-com.dom.idm.oclc.org/view/10.1093/acref/9780195301731.001.0001/acref-9780195301731-e-40156.
 Banks coined the now famous title that refers to Wrigley Field as “the Friendly Confines” after the Cubs were on the road for a while: “He was noting how good it felt to be home again for the Cubs’ next games.” Freedman, 4.
List of Images (in order of appearance):
Greenberg, Steve. 2020. “Touch ’em all, Ernie Banks: It’s the 50-year anniversary of home run No. 500 for Mr. Cub.” Chicago Sun-Times. https://chicago.suntimes.com/cubs/2020/5/12/21255604/cubs-ernie-banks-500-home-run-mr-cub.
“Ernie Banks Statue.” Photographs taken by Erik Newman, November 14, 2020.
Davie, Ryan and Sarah (@erniethe_doodle). “Just chilling with my namesake, Ernie Banks. I wonder if one day they will put a statue of me next to his…” Instagram. April 25, 2017. https://www.instagram.com/p/BTUDSIYBCmy/
Davie, Ryan and Sarah (@erniethe_doodle). “Smile! It’s Friday! #itsthefreakinweekend” Instagram. November 2, 2018. https://www.instagram.com/p/BprjaDmlgNP/
Davie, Ryan and Sarah (@erniethe_doodle). “Happy Opening Day!!! So excited for baseball to be back in Wrigley Field! Let’s go Cubbies!!” Instagram. April 9, 2018. https://www.instagram.com/p/BhWWN8JjA2Q/