Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Today is the 40th anniversary of Ernie Banks's 500th career home run. Fans who are old enough to have seen Banks play are probably feeling even older as they contemplate this fact. Younger fans might be surprised to learn that Mr. Cub's milestone was achieved before a sea of empty seats. Prior to the mid-1980s, sparse crowds were not unusual at Wrigley Field, especially on weekday afternoons when schools were in session.

     Only Ernie Banks would have called the dreary Tuesday afternoon of May 12, 1970, “a beautiful day for baseball.” It had rained throughout the morning, and there were puddles all over Wrigley Field when the Cubs took on the Atlanta Braves. Most fans assumed that the game had been called off, and only 5,264 diehards turned out.
     They never regretted it. In the second inning, Banks stepped up to the plate against Pat Jarvis. On the count of 1-and-1, he swung and stroked a low line drive into the left-field bleachers for the 500th home run of his illustrious career. “I felt the ball had a real good chance,” Banks said later. “Then when I saw [left fielder] Rico Carty turn and look into the seats, I knew it was in.” The ball ricocheted out of the stands and back to Carty, who tossed it into the Cubs’ bullpen for safekeeping.
     Jack Brickhouse, of course, was calling the game on WGN television. He shouted, “On your feet everybody—this is it!”
     Banks was the ninth player in major-league history to reach 500 homers. The fateful blow also marked his 1,600th run batted in; he was the 12th man to achieve that level. A generation later, either milestone might have held up the game for half an hour, but in Banks’s day there was a minimum of fanfare. Richard Dozer described the scene in the Tribune: “[Banks] doffed his cap as he crossed the plate and shook hands with Rick Ferrari, Andy Frain usher chief who arrived conveniently at the plate with a new supply of baseballs for the umpire. Later, after he’d shaken the hand of every teammate in view, he went out to his first-base position, received another ovation, and got a congratulatory handshake from Carty on his way to the Atlanta dugout.”
     Atlanta’s Hank Aaron also shook Banks’s hand upon reaching first base later in the game. He had preceded Mr. Cub to the 500-homer and 1,600-RBI milestones, and he would eventually reach the unprecedented levels of 755 and 2,297, respectively, in the two categories.
     The Cubs won the game 4-3 in 11 innings. It was strangely fitting that barely 5,000 spectators had witnessed the culmination of Banks’s career—for the melancholy fact is that no other player ever performed as wonderfully for such listless teams and before so many empty seats. That he somehow managed to turn all this into a triumph was his greatest feat.

Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c)2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert

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