"Ernie Banks ... was unimpressive in the field ..."

Hall of Fame shortstop/first baseman Ernie Banks made his Chicago Cubs debut on this date in 1953 at Wrigley Field. It was a historic appearance: the future "Mr. Cub" was the team's first African-American player to play for the Cubs, who were the eighth team in Major League Baseball to integrate with black players. By comparison, the crosstown White Sox were sixth, introducing Minnie Minoso and Sam Hairston in 1951. Banks was one of three rookies to make their debut on May 17, 1953. Pitcher Don Elston and outfielder Bob Talbot joined Ernie that day. A Chicago Tribune photographer captured the three before the game in the Wrigley Field locker room:

Elston, who would have a decent 11-year career, mostly on the North Side, got hammered in his debut, as the Cubs lost to the Phils 16-4:

The historic nature of Ernie's debut was totally lost on Ed Prell, the veteran Tribune sportswriter covering the event. Instead, he was dismissive of the 22-year-old shortstop who would eventually become the most popular Cub in the team's history. Prell instead gushed over Talbot, an old rookie at 25:

But Ernie would have the last laugh. Talbot would be out of the league by the next year. Banks would revolutionize the game as a prototypical power hitting shortstop and the leading home run hitter in the majors between 1955 and 1960, with his 248 homers during that time besting Mickey Mantle, Eddie Matthews, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.

His rise to fame in Chicago was swift. He was first mentioned in the Tribune by future columnist (and local TV talk show host) Robert Cromie, who raved about Banks' play at the annual East-West Negro League All-Star Game at Comiskey Park on Aug. 17, 1953:

His next mention in the newspaper was on Sept. 15, 1953, a mere two days before his major league debut, when he was signed by the Cubs, along with Gene Baker, who would end up making his major league debut on Sept. 20, 1953 as the team's second African-American player.

Ernie had an auspicious first batting practice at Wrigley that day:

In later years, Ernie would become much more honest and candid about his early experiences as one of the Cubs' first black players.

This candid side of Ernie has been wonderfully chronicled by Ron Rapoport, whose biography about Banks is a must-read.

I also encountered it when I produced two Tribune videos in 2014 which featured Ernie, during the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field.

His take on teammate Sam Jones' no-hitter at Wrigley in 1955 is fascinating, as he closes the piece by getting a sly dig in at his early Cubs' teammates for their racism:

Ernie's melancholy side, perfectly captured by Rapoport, was also noticeable during our interview about his career. Before we started recording, Ernie seemed despondent when I talked about his major league accomplishments: 512 career home runs, over 2,500 hits, 14 All-Star appearances, two-time MVP and one Gold Glove.

"I've done nothing," he'd say with conviction. During the video, he talked about how fleeting fame and success really is:

Ernie died nine months after these videos were produced. And while Ernie the man was complex, Banks the athlete was a true pioneer, both socially and on the baseball field.


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