For 18 seasons, his face was somewhere inside those wax wrappers, perched below a powdery stick of bubble gum. Ernie Banks baseball cards were as certain in summer as cookouts, cutoffs and car washes. His career began just three years after Joe DiMaggio’s ended and wrapped up a year before Mike Schmidt’s began.
To heck with Honus Wagner. For Cub fans, his card was the holy grail. Some years, he had more than one. An All-Star card more often than not when Topps made them.
A special highlight card.
“Cubs Clubbers” in ’59.
Banks had just turned 23 when Topps put him on his first card in the spring of 1954. He looked even younger. His last appearance on a standard issue card would not come until 1971.
Many more years have passed since then and the sad, inevitable but still shocking news arrived Friday night. Number 14 is no longer with us. Kind and ready with a quip for fans at the many shows he attended as the perpetually grateful autograph guest, they simply don’t make them like Mr. Cub anymore.
Luckily, we have these to remember his career. Here are 14 great Ernie Banks baseball cards that “remind us of all that once was good, and what could be again.” Click the links and you’ll find them for sale and auction.
1. 1954 Topps. The rookie card. He had debuted September 17, 1953 and chatted with Jackie Robinson that day. Many a Cub fan made a pilgrimage to any one of a number of Chicago card shows over the years to get Ernie to sign his rookie card.
2. 1956 Topps. He was still “Ernest Banks” according to the autograph on the front that had been obtained by Topps when he was still a kid. The background shows him crossing the plate after a homer at Wrigley. The image in the foreground is pure confidence. He was just hitting his stride.
3. 1959 Topps Baseball Thrills. “Hustler Banks” had won the 1958 NL MVP and the only card featuring him in a slide was born. He’d win it again this year.
4. 1959 Home Run Derby. This rare, oversized card came out around the time the off-season show was debuting in syndication across the country. It looks like Ernie is ready to tear into a pitch. If you can’t afford several hundred dollars for an original, reprints are cheap.
5. 1963 Jello. Summertime. Ernie Banks. Jello. Not only do they go together but the extensive text on this card references his switch from shortstop to first base the year before.
6. 1963 Bazooka. A beautiful image that was on the back of the big bubble gum boxes in the summer. Just scarce enough to be fun to own. How many of these were carted to Little League fields across America during the final months of the Kennedy years?
7. 1969 Topps. Bittersweet for Cubs fans, this may not have been a new Topps photo (they’d used the same one in ’68) but Ernie’s big smile is contagious. The sky blue colors are perfect for the team and the season that had so much promise but ended like so many others.
8. 1970 Topps. Most cards from his playing days were staged poses or portrait shots. This one shows him with a huge grin, taking a cut in the waning years of his career.
9. 1971 Topps Greatest Moments. This rare card commemorates his five grand slams in 1955, still tied for the National League record. A color portrait and a black and white image of him at the dish. Perfect.
10. 1999 Topps Stadium Relics. Even if you’re not into memorabilia cards, there’s something cool about a card with Ernie Banks’ autograph and a little chunk of Wrigley Field. Both can live forever.
11. 2001 Donruss Notable Nicknames. He was always Mr. Cub and he writes it here. One of the first nickname-themed autograph insert sets, this card has a great photo, too.
12. 2005 Topps Retired Signatures. Sure, it’s a sticker autograph but it also depicts Ernie in his element, signing a baseball for a fan at Wrigley, smiling of course.
13. 2005 Upper Deck Legendary Cuts. Cubs fans had Ernie. Cardinals fans had Stan. Perhaps the two greatest baseball ambassadors of the post-War era, on opposite sides of a bitter rivalry in the 1950s and early 60s, yet beloved by fans of the other team—and the rest of us—for all-time. Numbered to only 15.
14. 2010 Topps #590 Short Print Variation. Just about every baseball card ever made of Ernie Banks shows him holding a bat or simply posing. This one has him flying over second base, trying to turn a double play some time before 1962. It’s a great reminder that he was more than 512 homers and “Let’s Play Two!” Ernie Banks could flat out play anywhere.
And so he will.
Share your Ernie Banks memories on our Facebook page.