Ernie Banks, the beloved Chicago Cubs legend and the team's first African American player, passed away on Friday night.
There's no question the two-time MVP and Hall of Fame shortstop was a great baseball player. But in their memorials, many also note his enduring ebullience and positive perspective as the qualities that made him an inspiring individual.
Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts released a 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. My family and I grieve the loss of such a great and good-hearted man, but we look forward to celebrating Ernie’s life in the days ahead.”
Banks began his baseball career at 19 years old when he signed with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. He donned the Cubs uniform in 1952 after the Chicago franchise bought his contract for $10,000 at the age of 22, and it was the only MLB uniform he ever wore. During his 19-year Cubs career, he hit 512 home runs, garnered 1,636 RBI, and became what NBC Chicago called the “face of the franchise” by embodying the spirit and optimism of the team, in spite of the team’s less than impressive record.
Banks retired after the 1971 season, but he continued to be an integral part of the team as he served as a Cubs coach, instructor, and administrator. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977, the first year he was eligible. Cubs fans embraced his spirit at games, which he regularly attended and often sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” after Harry Caray’s death in 1998.
The Cubs unveiled a statue of Banks in 2008, which is located off the corner of Clark and Addison outside Wrigley Field. His famous catchphrase, “It’s a great day for baseball. Let’s play two!” adorns the statue.
In 2013, President Barack Obama awarded Banks the Presidential Medal of Honor, the highest US civilian honor. "Ernie became known as much for his 512 home runs as for his cheer and his optimism and his eternal faith that someday the Cubs would go all the way," said Obama.
In a statement on Saturday, President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama expressed their condolences to everyone who loved the legend.
"As a Hall-of-Famer, Ernie was an incredible ambassador for baseball, and for the city of Chicago," President Obama said in his statement. "He was beloved by baseball fans everywhere, including Michelle, who, when she was a girl, used to sit with her dad and watch him play on TV. And in 2013, it was my honor to present Ernie with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”
Banks optimism in the midst of the team’s dismal record endeared him to those around him. His “infectious smile and nonstop good humor” resulted in fans voting him “the best player in franchise history,” according to ESPN Chicago.
"He was one of the great crossover baseball players of his day," the Rev. Jesse Jackson said, reported the Associated Press. "His personality was a racial bridge builder. He treated all people with dignity and respect. He never stopped reaching out to bridge the racial chasms."