Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
March 1, 2007
BASEBALL: Let's Play To...46?
Bleed Cubbie Blue has a lengthy and interesting profile of Ernie Banks, rated #1 on the site's list of the 100 greatest Cubs of all time. Via Geoff Young at Knuckle Curve. This part is very intriguing:
Ernest Banks was born in Dallas on January 31, 1931. Or maybe he wasn't -- in the last few years, some unconfirmed research has indicated that he might have been born on that date in 1925. Ernie's mother is still living, aged 95, and perhaps the birth date was altered in order to save her the embarrassment of people knowing she had given birth at age 19.
If Banks actually was six years older than believed, that changes the story of his baseball career considerably. Banks was signed by Buck O'Neill of the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues in 1949, was in the Army in 1951-52, and became a major league regular in 1954. If you believe his current birthdate, he was 18 when he started playing pro ball, 21 when he got out of the Army and 23 when he became the Cubs' everyday shortstop, so neither the slow pace of integration nor his military service really cost him much of his productive years in the majors. O'Neill said he didn't really showcase his power until he returned from the military. Then again, once he had a full season to adjust to major league pitching he became a monster, smacking 44 homers at age 24 in 1955 and probably being the best player in a talent-rich National League between 1955 and 1960. But in 1961, at age 30, he moved to first base due to knee injuries and spent a long coda as a league-average hitter at first base. Thus, Banks is recalled as a guy with a long career but a short prime (more on that here in my Hall of Fame middle infielders column).
But replay that story for a Banks born in 1925, and you have a man who was already 22 when Jackie Robinson broke the color line, 24 when he was discovered by O'Neill, 26 when he got out of the Army and 29 when he finally got a regular major league job. That's a guy who lost a lot of productive years, and could well have hit 600+ home runs if not for the artificial barriers of segregation and mandatory military service. It's also a guy who was 36 already when he moved to first base, plenty old enough to be getting out of the middle infield, and was 44 when he had his last 100 RBI season in 1969 (it also means Leo Durocher sent a 44-year-old man out there to play 155 games in a tight pennant race, which would explain still further why Banks, who had 15 homers and 79 RBI at the All-Star Break, batted .233/.391/.281 with 8 HR and 27 RBI in the second half that season, including .208/.333/.245 in September - come to think of it, that was a bad idea even if Banks really was 38).
Anyway, it's an intriguing question about a guy whose career really hasn't had a lot of detailed examination. But there's a lot more interesting stuff in the profile besides the age issue. Read the whole thing.