…than I am, Gunga Din.”–Rudyard Kipling
As with most baseball fans I was saddened by the recent death of Ernie Banks. He was, by all accounts, a better man than a ballplayer and he was one heck of a good ballplayer. I never met him myself, but he’s one of a handful of the true greats that I’d really have liked to know.
But Banks was more than a good man and a good ballplayer, he was also a pioneer. I presume a few of you don’t know that he was the first black player in Chicago Cubs history. He was the first great Major League black shortstop. His hitting was superb (he won 2 MVP awards), his fielding was better than a lot of people would like you to believe, but he wasn’t Ozzie Smith either. He set the pattern for the big, powerful shortstop in the same way that Eddie Matthews set the standard at third base. It took a long time for it to register on the baseball world what Banks had done, but eventually other players like Cal Ripken and Alex Rodriguez followed in his path (although it’s fair to say that Ripken was the true catalyst of the new type of shortstop). Although not power hitters in the way of Banks both Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Jeter are also in the Banks mold.
With his passing we are down to six of the players who originally integrated the 16 original teams of the 1950s: Monte Irvin (Giants), Minnie Minoso (White Sox), Ozzie Virgil, Sr. (Tigers), Pumpsie Green (Red Sox), and both Nino Escalara and Chuck Harmon (who both played for the Reds on the same day). Let’s take a minute here and remember them. Each should have his number retired by his team in the same way and for the same reason that all of Major League Baseball retired Jackie Robinson’s 42. Irvin and Minoso have already received this honor (as have a couple of the deceased players like Banks), but I’d like to see it done by all those teams that were once segregated, without reference to the quality of the player.
It seems like the right thing to do. After all they went through to get to the big leagues and then what they went through upon arrival, it’s the least we can do. And after all they went through they are, at least in a baseball sense, like Gunga Din; better men than most of us.