RIP, Mr. Cub.
Though I was a Yankee fan as a child, my mother was a Cub fan and we made annual visits to her mother in Chicago that usually included games at Wrigley Field, where Ernie Banks was probably more beloved than any baseball player anywhere.
I think my first five or six major league ballgames were all at Wrigley, all cheering on Ernie and the Cubs. If he wasn’t my favorite non-Yankee in my youth, he was in the top five or six (maybe with Maury Wills, Luis Aparicio, Bob Gibson, Roberto Clemente and Sandy Koufax).
So everything I say here is with deep fondness for Ernie Banks and with absolute agreement that he belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
But the truth is, Ernie was on the decline by the time I started watching him in the 1960s. If we got to a game in 1961 (I think our first game was in 1962, but I could be wrong), we might have seen him play shortstop. He played 104 games at shortstop in ’61 but moved to first base by 1962.
Banks makes an interesting contrast to Roger Maris, one of my Yankee heroes of that era, and to Don Mattingly, a Yankee of another era. Neither of them has made it into the Hall of Fame. Banks rightfully entered Cooperstown on the first ballot with 84 percent of the vote.
But the difference wasn’t that Banks soared higher in baseball greatness. His prime was remarkably similar to the primes of Maris and Mattingly. He didn’t make it to Cooperstown on those six years that he was one of the very best players in baseball, winning back-to-back Most Valuable Player Awards when Hank Aaron and Willie Mays were also in their primes. He made it to Cooperstown by following that sensational prime with a decade as a pretty good first baseman. Maris and Mattingly had great years that compared to Banks’ prime, but Hall of Fame voters reward longevity, and neither Maris nor Mattingly could match Banks’ stretch as a pretty good player.
Each had a really awesome stretch (six years for Banks and Mattingly, five for Maris) when he was one of the best hitters in baseball, and each had a significant decline after that stretch, age 29 for Banks, 28 for Mattingly and 27 for Maris.
Let’s compare the primes of these three players:
Banks certainly had the most consistent home run production during his prime, belting 40 or more homers in five out of six seasons, and leading the league with 47 homers in 1958 and 41 in 1960. In that spectacular six-year run, he hit 248 homers.
Maris, of course, way surpassed Banks for peak homer performance with his record 61-homer season in 1961. That was his only season with more than 40 homers, though he had 39 in 1960. In his five-year prime, he hit 177 homers, an average of six fewer homers a year than Banks.
Mattingly was nowhere near the home run hitter that Maris or Banks were, peaking at 35 homers in 1985 and having two other 30-homer seasons. With only 160 homers, he was nowhere near Banks or Maris for prime homer performance.
For homers, Banks had a clear but slight prime advantage over Maris and a big advantage over Mattingly. Banks played all his prime years in the “friendly confines” of Wrigley Field. But Maris moved to Yankee Stadium and its “short porch” in right field in 1960, two years into this prime stretch that we’re examining.
Runs batted in
Banks topped 100 RBI five of the six years of his prime, leading the league with 129 in 1958 and 143 in 1959.
Mattingly also topped 100 five of his six prime years, leading the league with 145 in 1985. Banks had just a few more RBI for his prime, 693 to 684.
Maris had three seasons with 100 or more RBI and led the league with 112 in 1960 and 141 in 1962, a similar peak to Banks, but not as sustained.
Banks topped .300 twice in his prime, .313 in 1958 and .304 in 1959. Maris never hit .300. Mattingly hit better than .300 throughout his prime, leading the league with .343 in 1984 and hitting .352 in 1986 (but losing the batting crown to Wade Boggs).
Mattingly had a huge advantage here, hitting .325 for his prime, compared to .294 for Banks and .263 for Maris.
Mattingly topped 200 hits three times. Banks peaked at 193 in 1959, Maris at 159 in 1961.
Maris had the best single-season run total, with 132 in 1961, but that was his only 100-run season. Mattingly scored 117 runs in 1986 and 107 in 1985. Banks scored 119 in 1958 and 113 in 1957.
Maris had as many walks in his five-year prime as Banks had in his six years, 354. Banks topped out at 71 walks in 1960, while Maris had 94 walks in 1961. Mattingly had 293 walks in his prime, with a peak of 56 in 1985.
Interestingly, Banks led the league in intentional walks in 1959 (20) and 1960 (28), while Maris (hitting in front of Mickey Mantle) famously had no intentional passes in his 61-homer 1961 season. So Maris had significantly more discipline at the plate.
Banks’ relative lack of plate discipline shows up in career on-base percentages: Though Banks had a higher batting average than Maris, .274 to .263, Maris had a higher on-base percentage, .345 to .330. Mattingly, with a much higher career batting average, .307, blew them both away with on-base percentage, .358. In their primes, Maris and Banks had similar peak OBP, .374 for Banks in 1959 and .372 for Maris in 1961. But Mattingly again was easily the best, with three seasons better than either of the others’ peak, including .394 in 1986.
Maris averaged 70 strikeouts per season for his prime, compared to 75 for Banks. Mattingly was one of the toughest great hitters ever to strike out, averaging just 34 K’s per season in his prime.
Mattingly led the league with 15 sac flies in 1985 and twice had 10 in a season. Banks reached 10 only once, in 1962, after his prime. In fact, Mattingly had as many sac flies, 96, in his 14-year career as Banks had in his 19-year career. Maris’ best sac-fly total was seven in 1961.
Beyond his two times leading the league each in homers, RBI and intentional walks, Banks led the league once each in slugging (.614), total bases (379) and at-bats (617), all in 1959. He also led the league in games played six times, 1954-55 and ’57-60.
In addition to leading the league in homers in 1961 and RBI in 1960-61, Maris led the league in runs (132) and total bases (366) in 1961 and slugging (.581) in 1960.
Mattingly led his league in batting in 1984 and RBI in 1985, in hits in 1984 (207) and 1986 (238), in doubles in 1984 (44), ’85 (48) and ’86 (53), in total bases (370) and sacrifice flies (15) in ’85 and in at-bats (742), slugging (.573), OPS (.967), OPS+ (161) and total bases (388) in ’86.
Maris led the league in various achievements in two seasons, while Banks and Mattingly each had three consecutive seasons leading the league in important stats, 1958-60 for Banks and 1984-86 for Mattingly. But Mattingly had more titles in more different categories.
Banks and Maris were back-to-back MVPs, Banks in 1958-59 and Maris in 1960-61. Mattingly was MVP in 1985 and was second with an even better year in 1986, topped by Roger Clemens in a rare year (anti-Yankee bias surfacing there) when MVP voters favored a pitcher over a dominant hitter.
Banks and Maris each won one Gold Glove. Mattingly won nine.
Summarizing their primes
Mattingly clearly had at least a comparable prime to Banks. He had a bigger advantage in batting average, hits, strikeouts and sacrifice flies than Banks’ average in homers and walks. They were almost dead even in RBI. Mattingly led the league more times in more stats. Banks got one more MVP, but Mattingly had way more Gold Gloves. I’d say advantage Mattingly, but it’s a slight one.
Maris is clearly comparable, but didn’t have quite the prime of either Banks or Mattingly. His 1961 was better than either of their best years (though Banks in ’58 and Mattingly in ’86 were close).
Banks may be the best player never to play in the post-season. Of course, playoffs started late in his career, and his 1969 Cubs collapsed to make way for the Miracle Mets.
Mattingly also never made it to the World Series. The 1994 strike robbed him of his first shot at post-season play. He finally made the playoffs in his final season, 1995. He went out in style, hitting .417 with a homer and 6 RBI against the Mariners. But the Yankees lost the series.
Maris played for seven league champions and three world champions. He hit only .217 in World Series play, but had 6 homers, 18 RBI and 26 runs scored. His .385 average, with 10 hits, a homer and 7 RBI, certainly helped the 1967 Cardinals to their World Series win. But he was hitless in 5 at-bats when the 1963 Dodgers swept the Yankees.
Because of the anti-Yankee bias of Hall of Fame voters, post-season play and championships count for nothing in Hall of Fame selection, unlike the heavy role they play in football and basketball Hall of Fame voting. But for whatever they count, Maris’ prime contributed to two World Series titles for the Yankees and another league championship. And he played in four more World Series, including a championship, after his prime.
Banks was one of the most charming players in baseball history and certainly benefited from his personality when it came to Hall of Fame voting, though he didn’t need it.
By contrast, Maris was surly to sports writers during his chase of Babe Ruth’s home run record, and the sports writers, who control the keys to Cooperstown, never forgave him.
Mattingly was well-liked, like Banks given a nickname, Donnie Baseball, that reflected his fondness among players and the media.
After the prime
All three of the players had significant declines after the primes we have just examined.
In the last 12 years of Banks’ career, he was seldom more than an average first baseman. He topped 100 RBI three times (never with more than 106). He topped 30 homers twice, despite playing in a homer-friendly park. He never hit .300 or scored 100 runs or led the league in anything. He made five more All-Star teams, but that was more on reputation than current performance.
Banks was the National League’s best shortstop of the 1950s. But he was in the middle of the pack of National League’s first basemen in the 1960s. Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey and Bill White all were better than Banks most years of the decade. Dick Allen, Lee May, Felipe Alou and Donn Clendenon had seasons when they were better than Banks. (If you’re wondering, Willie Stargell didn’t move full-time to first base until after Banks retired.)
You wouldn’t possibly look at Banks’ stats for the 1960s, the whole decade, and think those were the achievements of a Hall of Famer, though he played 130 or more games every year. (He was a part-time player his last two seasons, 1970 and ’71.)
But Hall of Fame voters love longevity. By playing a lot in the 1960s, Banks was able to pass the magic 500-homer mark in 1970, which assured Hall of Fame election until steroid use cheapened the mark decades later. Banks’s decade as a pretty good player pushed his hits total past 2,500, his RBI past 1,600 and his runs past 1,300. He was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
But Maris and Mattingly each had a serious injury that caused a more severe decline after their similar primes to Banks. Maris played 130 games in only one season (1964) after his prime. He had only a couple seasons with more than 20 homers. He played only six mediocre seasons after his prime and didn’t approach career totals we associate with the Hall of Fame.
Mattingly didn’t decline as sharply as Maris. He played in more than 130 games three seasons after his prime, topping 150 games in 1991 and 1992. But a back injury severely curtailed his production. He never topped 20 homers after his prime and only made it into the teens twice. His RBI peak after his prime was 86 (in ’92 and ’93). He only hit .300 once (.304 in ’94). He never reached 200 hits again, his post-prime peak at 184 in ’92 (still better than all but one season in Banks’ career).
Mattingly never made an All-Star team after his prime. Like Banks, he had slipped from elite to middling. But, while Banks was middling for a full decade, full-time every season, Mattingly was middling for only six seasons, two of them notably curtailed by injuries.
Mattingly retired in 1995 with comparable career averages to Banks: way better at batting average (.307 to .274), clearly better at on-base percentage (.358 to .300), clearly behind in slugging (.500 to .471) and dead-even at OPS (.830). But Banks’ extra years as a middling player pushed all his career totals higher than Mattingly’s. While Banks had hung on long enough to reach the 500-homer mark, Mattingly was way short of any magic threshold. Once on pace to break Pete Rose’s hit record, he retired at just 2,153 hits.
Cubs vs. Yankees
Another interesting contrast in Hall of Fame voting is to look at the Yankees and Cubs of the 1960s.
The Yankees won five league championships and two World Series in the 1960s, and they have three players from that decade in the Hall of Fame: Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra, who was past his prime.
The Cubs finished tenth, ninth, eighth twice, seventh three times (twice in an eight-team league), third twice and second in the Eastern Division in 1969 (still third-best record in their league). They were 133 games under .500 for the decade.
And they had four Hall of Famers: Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo and Ferguson Jenkins (plus Lou Brock, though he made it to Cooperstown based on his play for the St. Louis Cardinals after the Cubs foolishly traded him away for Ernie Broglio).
I’m not saying any of the Cubs don’t belong in the Hall of Fame. They do. But Santo’s case for Cooperstown is not as strong as Maris’. And Williams wasn’t notably better than the Yankees’ Bernie Williams (and, if you count post-season play, Bernie soars past Billy). Jenkins had a comparable career to Tommy John, except for that surgery thing that made John far more famous than Jenkins.
Hall of Fame voting has smiled much more kindly on the Cubs than on the Yankees.
Farewell to Ernie
Beyond my usual Hall of Fame points, I was glad to see lots of love for Ernie Banks last night on social media and in professional media. He was a sure-thing Hall of Famer. He was always a favorite of mine, and I treasure the memories of those early visits to Wrigley Field.
Source note: All statistics cited here come from Baseball-Reference.com.