In 1955, Ernie Banks became the first shortstop in the history of Major League Baseball to hit 40 home runs in a single season. He then proceeded to do it four more times before anyone else accomplished the same feat. In 1959, he had one of the greatest seasons for a shortstop in history: he lead all shortstops in Total Zone defense and Fielding %, was second in all of baseball (not just shortstops) in Home Runs, and lead all of baseball with a sizeable 9.7 fWAR.
While I’m sure Mr. Banks had his off days, every photo and story we have of him promotes an image of an infinitely happy, universally loved ballplayer. Think of a jolly Derek Jeter without the blemish of Yankees-hate. He was chosen to 11 All-Star games and won two MVP awards. He was very much a baseball Legend.
When we take the broader look, some of Banks’ numbers don’t quite stack up to guys like Cal Ripken or ARod. Honus Wagner was of course incredibly dominant back in his day too. But it doesn’t seem quite right to directly compare Wagner, who played in the segregated Deadball Era, or ARod, who played through the Steroid Era, to Banks, who played in the liveball era but in a time when most players were still lanky-skinny, especially shortstops. Someone like Ripken or Ozzie Smith might be a fairer comparison, and Ripken probably falls ahead of him as a complete player.
Yet if we look at Banks through the eyes of a certain generation, i.e. those who watched baseball from 1950-1980, we can see his greatness. Over that 30 year span, no shortstop hit more homers, had more fWAR, or had a better balance between power hitting and good-to-excellent fielding. Banks also had 3 of the best 4 single-season fWAR scores during that time. For many (most?) that lived through those years, he was the greatest shortstop they ever saw.
An unfortunate thing happened to Banks in 1961. Because of a knee injury, Leo Durocher moved Banks from Shortstop to Left Field and then to First Base, where he remained for the rest of his career. Banks was only 30 years old at the time, but the drop-off in his performance was nearly immediate. Over the previous 5 seasons, he had a .937 OPS. In 1961 it dropped to .852; in 1962 to .809, and then it never crossed .800 again. Over 1125 games at Shortstop in the 1950’s, he compiled a 62 Total Zone rating. In 1259 games at First Base from 1961 on, he compiled just 2.
We have to acknowledge that he peaked during his prototypical peak years, and declined in his 30’s. That’s normal. But the onset was fast, and it began in his age 30 and 31 seasons. Who knows what might have happened had he been able to play at shortstop for another 5 years? Maybe he would have finished ahead of Mickey Mantle in career homers…