December 11, 2013
Get It Now!Hardball Times Annual is now available. It's got 300 pages of articles, commentary and even a crossword puzzle. You can buy the Annual at Amazon, for your Kindle or on our own page (which helps us the most financially). However you buy it, enjoy!
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Thursday, March 21, 2013
30,000 days ago, one of the most famous players of his generation was born: Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks.
Banks had quite the memorable career for himself. Playing at a time when players on second-division teams virtually never won MVP Awards, Banks won two while serving as shortstop for the sad sack Chicago Cubs. Playing at a time when no NL player had ever won back-to-back MVP Awards, Banks did so in 1958-59. And, of course, he broke both traditions at the same time.
It’s fairly easy to see why Banks created such a sensation. Before he reached his prime, no National League shortstop ever had hit 40 homers in a season. Heck, none had ever hit 30, or even 25. Alvin Dark set the standard when he banged out 23 for the Giants in 1953. In 1955, in just his second full season, Banks bonked 44.
Okay, so some AL shortstops had previously hit more than 23 homers in a season before Banks. Even still, there weren’t that many, and only one, Vern Stephens, had ever made it to 30. Now Banks had 44.
Despite missing part of 1956 with injury, he still hit 28 than season. Only Stephens had done that before. Not bad for an injured 25-year-old.
Banks really hit his prime beginning in 1957: 43 homers, then 47, 45, and 41. In 1958 and 1959, he also led the league in RBIs. And he did this while manning the most important defensive position. Heck, he even led the league in fielding percentage in 1959. That helped him win those 1958-59 MVPs.
However, as plenty of THT readers have already noticed, we’re looking solely at the old-school, traditional stats here. That makes sense when explaining the perception of Banks, but ... well, there’s a but. Those old-school stats aren’t as all-important as they once were, and in the modern eye Banks’ big seasons aren’t quite as impressive.
You could call Banks overrated. Wrigley Field is a hitters park, and fielding average is at best a blunt instrument. Also, Banks never was very good at working the count, so his on-base percentage never was all that high. Yeah, you can go that direction.
But even if you do make all those points, Banks was still one of the best players in that era. Let’s look at WAR as our default sabemetric stat. It says he was the second-best player in the 1958 NL (behind only Willie Mays) and the best in 1959. Even when he’s behind Mays, it’s by less than a game, so you can make a nice case for both awards.
With raw numbers as great as his, Banks was a fantastic offense force regardless of park factor. Oh, and by the way, in the late 1950s Wrigley Field was not, in fact, a hitter’s park. It was neutral and if anything leaned a bit toward the pitchers. And WAR agrees with fielding percentage about Banks’ defense, calling him the best-fielding player in the entire NL in 1959.
But all that misses what really makes Banks so special. He wasn’t just a great player but also a great ambassador for the game. He was a sunny, extremely root-for-able player. He took joy in his professional calling. He didn’t just say “Let’s play two!”; he exuded that spirit. No wonder he played in over 700 straight games before a knee injury. In his Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James called Banks the admirable star of the 1950s. It’s hard to find anyone arguing against that.
Regardless of the numbers, Banks is, by all accounts, a wonderful person, and that person entered this world 30,000 days ago.
Aside from that, many other baseball events today celebrate their anniversary or “day-versary.” Here they are, with the better ones in bold if you’d rather just skim.
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