On this day in 1970, Chicago Cubs slugger Ernie Banks hits the 500th home run of his career. “Mr. Cub” was known for his engaging personality and love of the game, traits on display even as the dismal Cubs suffered through losing season after losing season.
The Chicago White Stockings, as the Cubs were originally known, were a charter member of the National League, founded in 1876. They played their first game on April 25 and won, thanks to a shutout thrown by Arthur Goodwill Spalding, later the founder of Spalding Sporting Goods. Four months later, Spalding led the White Stockings to the first-ever National League pennant title.
In the early years of the franchise, the nicknames “Orphans” and “Colts” were used as often as White Stockings. They were first called the “Cubs,” a reference to their burgeoning young talent, in 1902 and officially adopted the name five years later. In 1906, the team’s 116 wins set a big league record. Though they lost the 1906 World Series to their cross-town rivals the White Sox, they won the next two, overcoming the great Ty Cobb and his Detroit Tigers in 1908.
The Cubs’ early success had evaporated by the time Ernie Banks joined the team in 1953. They had a losing record every year from 1946 to 1952, during which time they finished in last place three times. Despite Banks’ contributions, the Cubs went 64-90 in 1954. In 1955, Banks played brilliantly, manning shortstop and hitting 44 homers with five grand slams (a single-season record that stood for 20 years), but the Cubs still finished the season at 72-81. Overall, only five of Banks’ 19 seasons with the Cubs were winning efforts. These included 1969, when in late August, the team found itself in first place by nine-and-a-half games over the “Amazin’” New York Mets. The Mets rallied in September, and the Cubs collapsed, losing 10 of their final 11 games and missing the playoffs yet again.
Banks was named the team’s most valuable player twice, in 1958 and 1959, and led the National League in RBIs twice and home runs twice, finishing with 512 home runs for his career. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1977. Despite a long and impressive career, Banks never got a chance to play in the post-season.
The Cubs last won the World Series in 1908, and last won the National League pennant in 1945, a season the majority of major league stars missed because they were fighting in World War II.