Ernie Banks, whose Hall of Fame career with Chicago Cubs earned him the title of “Mr. Cub,” and whose infectious good cheer made him one of the most beloved ambassadors of baseball, died Jan. 23 at a hospital in Chicago. He was 83.
His death was announced by the Cubs, but the cause was not disclosed.
Mr. Banks was the first African American player to take the field for the Cubs when he joined the team in 1953. During his 19-year career, he won two Most Valuable Player awards and became the most prolific slugger that baseball had ever seen at shortstop.
The 47 home runs he hit in 1958 are still the National League single-season record for a shortstop.
The hapless Cubs had a winning record only six times during Mr. Banks’s career and often finished near the bottom of the standings. As a result, he played more games than any other player in history (2,528) without appearing in a postseason game.
Yet, in spite of the constant losing, no one brought more joy to the ballpark than Mr. Banks.
He helped popularize the term “friendly confines” for Chicago’s Wrigley Field, a charming ballpark that for years did not have lights, making the Cubs the only team in baseball to play all their homes games in the afternoon.
Teammates, sportswriters and opposing players alike all memorized Mr. Banks’s signature line: “Welcome to the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. Oh, it’s great to be alive and a Cub on this beautiful sun-kissed afternoon.”
On a hot, humid day in 1969, Mr. Banks arrived at Wrigley Field and saw that his teammates needed a lift.
“I came into the clubhouse and everybody was sitting around,” he recalled to the Houston Chronicle in 1997, “and I said, ‘Beautiful day. Let’s play two.’ And everybody looked at me like I was crazy. There were a couple of writers around who wrote that, and it stayed with me.”
The saying became a central part of Mr. Banks’s legend, an expression of his unbridled enthusiasm for baseball and for life.
“I know nobody’s happy all the time,” a longtime teammate, Hall of Fame outfielder Billy Williams, told the Chicago Tribune in 2005, “but I’ve never seen Ernie have a down day. People ask me if he’s like that all the time. I say, ‘Yeah, that’s just who he is.’ ”
As a player, Mr. Banks was among the greatest in history. At a rangy 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, he had a quick swing, powered by his exceptionally strong wrists.
He twice won the National League home run title, with 47 in 1958 and 41 in 1960. He led the league in runs batted in, in 1958 and 1959. He was an All Star in 11 different seasons. His five grand-slam home runs in 1955 remained a major-league record for more than 30 years.
Even though the Cubs had losing records in 1958 and 1959, Mr. Banks’s play was so dominant that he became the first National League player to win consecutive Most Valuable Player awards. From 1955 to 1960, when such sluggers as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews and Mickey Mantle were in their prime, Mr. Banks hit more home runs than any other player in the game.
In 1962, Mr. Banks switched from shortstop to first base, where he played the rest of his career. The Cubs almost won the National League East in 1969, but the team faded in September and finished in second place, behind the New York Mets.
When he retired in 1971, Mr. Banks had 512 home runs, then the eighth most in history. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977, the first year he was eligible. In 1982, his uniform number, 14, was the first to be retired by the Cubs.
In 2013, Mr. Banks received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House. At the ceremony, he presented President Obama with a baseball bat that had once belonged to Jackie Robinson, who in 1947 became the first African American major-league player in modern history.
Ernest Banks was born Jan. 31, 1931, in Dallas and was one of 12 children. His father was a laborer and janitor who played semiprofessional baseball.
Although he excelled in basketball and track, Mr. Banks didn’t take up baseball until he was well into his teens. In 1950, after playing with teams in Texas, he joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League. Some of his teammates and coaches included such all-time greats as Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell and Buck O’Neil.
Unlike some other athletes of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Robinson and football star Jim Brown, Mr. Banks was not known as an activist in civil rights or social issues.
“I care deeply about my people,” he said in 1969, “but I’m just not one to go about screaming over what I contribute. I’m not black or white. I’m just a human being trying to survive the only way I know how.”
His marriages to Mollye Louise Ector, Eloyce Johnson and Marjorie Wardlaw ended in divorce. Survivors include his fourth wife, Liz Ellzey Banks, whom he married in 1997, and a daughter they adopted in 2008; and three children from his second marriage.
After his baseball career, Mr. Banks coached for the Cubs, worked in insurance and banking, and served on the board of the Chicago Transit Authority. Mostly, though, he was an ebullient emissary for baseball.
A statue of Mr. Banks was unveiled outside Wrigley Field in 2008. Its inscription reads, “Let’s play two.”