Greatest Moments: No. 5, Mr. Cub's 500th Homer

By Chris Rewers on Thursday, February 10, 2011

(Editor's Note: Twenty-sixth in a series recalling the 30 greatest moments in Cubs history.)

Radio talk show host Dennis Prager often tells his listeners that "happy people make the world better" so therefore "we have a moral obligation to act as happy as possible."

Ernie Banks - who turned 80 on Jan. 31 - played on some awful Cubs teams for much of his career, endured some nagging injuries, at least one death threat, and many of the difficulties that no doubt were presented to him as one of a group of pioneering black major league players. But throughout his career and since his retirement, Mr. Cub has continued to smile.

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Ernie Banks, who turned 80 on Jan. 31, was a wonderful ballplayer and continues to be a tremendous ambassador for baseball and the Cubs.

My favorite Banks anecdote was told by Joe Pepitone, a teammate of Banks in 1970-71 in Peter Golenbock's Wrigleyville (St. Martin's Press, 1996). Pepitone was well known for his poor nocturnal habits throughout his baseball career.

"There were mornings when I'd come dragging into the clubhouse, hung over, still half asleep." Pepitone said. "Ernie would be sitting there and he'd burst into a loud announcer's voice, 'Here comes Pepi! What's happening, man? Oh, look at those eyes! Open those eyes, Pepi, and see what a beautiful day it is to play baseball in beautiful, ivy-covered Wrigley Field. It's a great day to win two, Pepi! And we're gonna win two with you, Pepi! Two for the Cubs! We're gonna win two because we love baseball, don't we Pepi? Now isn't this a great day to win two for the Cubs, Pepi?'

" 'Ernie,' I'd say, 'it's a great day for two more hours' fucking sleep.' "

" 'Oh, Pepi's got his eyes open! He is ready.' "

I had the pleasure of meeting Banks, along with my father and brother, at the old Harry Caray's Tavern on Sheffield a couple of years ago and he couldn't have been nicer. He signed some autographs and posed for a picture. He asked my dad what he did for a living and when Dad told Ernie that he was a retired Chicago police officer, Mr. Cub seemed just as interested in my dad's profession as we were in his.

What a guy! What a thrill it was to talk to him!

"I view people as if they have a sign on their chest which says, 'Make me happy,' and I got happy by making them happy," Banks told Rick Talley in The Cubs of '69 (Contemporary Books, 1989). "I always view people as feeling worthless, not having self-esteem, and I try to focus attention off myself and on to them to make them feel important."

Banks joined the Cubs late in the 1953 season and treated Cubs fans to excellence over the next 18 seasons. Mr. Cub was the first player to win back-to-back MVP awards, in 1958-59. He twice led the National League in homers , with 47 in 1958 and 41 in 1960, and hit 40 or more homers in five seasons. In 1955, he hit five grand slams.

When Banks retired after the 1971 season, he was the franchise all-time leader in games played (2,528), home runs (512), extra-base hits (1,009),and total bases (4,706). He was second in hits (2,583), RBI (1,636), and doubles (407).

Like contemporaries Henry Aaron and Willie Mays, Banks produced prodigious power numbers in spite of a less-than imposing physique. He stood 6-foot-1 and weighed 180 pounds. The secret to Banks' success were his powerful wrists. And he did it without performance-enhancing substances.

On a damp and dreary Tuesday afternoon, a crowd of just 5,264 turned out at Wrigley Field to watch the Cubs host the Atlanta Braves on May 12, 1970. They were rewarded with witnessing the crowning achievement of Banks' Hall of Fame career.

The typical Banks home run was not the long, majestic type that sluggers like Dave Kingman, Sammy Sosa, and Mark McGwire often hit. A typical Banks home run was a blistering line drive into Wrigley Field's left-field bleachers.

"Ernie would hit one and it would land in the bleachers before you could turn your head to watch it," my 90-year-old grandfather often times recalls.

So it was fitting that No. 500 for Mr. Cub was a blistering line drive into the left-field bleachers. It came in his first plate appearance that afternoon in the top of the second inning on a curveball from Atlanta starter Pat Jarvis. In addition to it being a milestone homer, Banks also had driven in his 1,600th run.

"That's it, that's it! Hey, hey!" exclaimed Jack Brickhouse as Banks made his way around the bases. He tipped his cap after crossing the plate and was greeted by many of his smiling teammates on the top steps of a happy Cubs dugout.

The Cubs trailed late but a Banks sacrifice fly in the seventh cut their deficit to 3-2. Billy Williams led off the bottom of the ninth with a game-tying homer as he launched a Hoyt Wilhelm knuckler into the right-field bleachers. A Ron Santo RBI single off Bob Priddy in the 11th gave the North Siders a 4-3 victory.

Banks was visited by his 74-year-old father in the Cubs clubhouse after the game.

"What do you think, Dad?" Banks said. "Isn't this a great life?"

Ernie's dad smiled and nodded.

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The beloved Ernie Banks (from left) with Ronald F. Rewers, the author, and Ronald P. Rewers at the old Harry Caray's Tavern on Sheffield on Aug. 31, 2009.

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