“He’s been hotter than the weather, and in the Midwest, that’s torrid.”
Les Biederman of the Pittsburgh Press, discussing Ernie Banks who during the final four games of a five-game series between the Cubs and Pirates went 11-for-19 with five home runs and 13 RBIs.1
Ernie Banks, in his second full season with the Chicago Cubs, hit three home runs into the daylight at Wrigley Field, the final one being a two-run eighth-inning blast that settled the issue, on August 4, 1955, as the Cubs defeated the Pirates 11-10 in front of an announced crowd of 3,486.
The eighth-place Pirates (40-70) and fifth-place Cubs (52-58) were aided by the outward breeze, hitting eight home runs between them in a game that saw three lead changes and went down to the final play – Banks fielding a Dick Groat grounder and initiating a double play. The Cubs claimed their third win in the five-game series against their second-division rivals in a game that saw each team get 15 hits.
The starting pitchers were veteran Howie Pollet (3-3) for the Cubs and 32-year-old rookie Lino Donoso (2-6) for the Pirates. Donoso was the first person of color to pitch for the Pirates, having made his first appearance of the season on June 18. The visiting Pirates took the early lead with a pair of runs off Pollet. After singles by Eddie O’Brien and Gene Freese to start the game, rookie Roberto Clemente singled home O’Brien. Freese subsequently scored on a sacrifice fly off the bat of catcher Jack Shepard. The Cubs got those runs back when Banks hit his first homer of the day. It was a two-run shot off Donoso that also scored Gene Baker, who had reached on a fielder’s choice.
The Bucs mounted another rally in the second inning, but came away without scoring. With one out and runners on first (Groat) and second (Johnny O’Brien), the Pirates were victimized by a play that was emblematic of their sorrowful season. Eddie O’Brien (Johnny’s twin brother) singled to right field. Johnny O’Brien chose to stop at third base, but the hustling Groat went from first to third. Johnny O’Brien belatedly dashed for home and became the inning’s second out. Pollet, covering home, applied the tag as O’Brien slid into home plate. Freese grounded out to end the inning.
The Cubs took the lead as Eddie Miksis led off the bottom of the second with a solo home run, and added a pair in the third inning in a rally keyed by Banks’s single to right field. On the Banks single, Jim King, who had walked, was able to score when Clemente misplayed the ball. Banks advanced to third on the play. With Banks standing on third, Pirates manager Fred Haney changed pitchers, bringing in Max Surkont. Ransom Jackson greeted Surkont with a single, scoring Banks and giving the Cubs a three-run lead. In the bottom of the fourth inning, the Cubs extended their lead to 9-2 with four runs. Singles by Pollet, Dee Fondy, and King brought in one run and players were on first and second when Banks came to the plate. Ernie hit his second homer of the day, a three-run blast off Surkont, and the Cubs led by seven.
With Pollet having calmed down after yielding the two first-inning runs and surviving the second-inning threat, the Pirates faced the dim prospect of coming back from a seven-run deficit. Their comeback began with five runs in the fifth inning. With one out, Clemente tripled2 and Frank Thomas singled him home. Dale Long homered to cut the lead to 9-5 and after Johnny O’Brien reached on an infield single that traveled but a few feet in front of home plate, Cubs manager Stan Hack removed Pollet from the game. His replacement, Dave Hillman, proved ineffective, yielding a two-run homer to Groat. Although Hillman emerged from the inning with no further damage, the Bucs were back in the game.
The much-traveled pitcher Dick Littlefield entered the game in the fifth inning for Pittsburgh and put the lid on the Cubs’ attack. The Pirates were his fifth major-league team; he would go on to play for four more. He was also included in the trade between the Giants and Dodgers involving Jackie Robinson – a trade that did not happen because Robinson chose to retire. The Pirates resumed their assault in the sixth inning. Freese led off the inning with a double and, with one out, came home on Thomas’s home run that tied the game and sent Hillman to the showers. Bill Tremel replaced Hillman and there was no further damage in the sixth inning.
The Pirates took the lead in the top of the eighth inning on a homer by Freese, but the lead was short-lived. In the bottom of the eighth inning, the Cubs got to Littlefield. King walked and Banks hit his third homer of the day, as he banged Littlefield’s first pitch into the center-field bleachers, putting the Cubs in front to stay. After Banks’s homer, Jackson singled but was eliminated when Hank Sauer hit into a double play. Littlefield, however, had trouble recording the final out and after singles by Miksis and Harry Chiti put runners on first and third, manager Fred Haney called on reliever Roy Face to replace Littlefield and record the final out of the eighth inning.
In the ninth inning, needing a run to tie, the Pirates mounted a rally. Toby Atwell looped a double down the left field line, and Jim Davis replaced Tremel on the mound for Chicago. Atwell went to third on a wild pitch by the knuckleballer but was unable to advance further. Davis struck out Long for the first out and walked Johnny O’Brien. With runners on first and third, Groat, looking for his fourth hit of the day, grounded into the game-ending double play.
Tremel, the beneficiary of Banks’s third homer, was credited with the win, his second of the season, and Davis, who recorded the last two outs, was awarded the save. The loss went to Littlefield and brought his record to 4-10.
The Pirates’ record for the season fell to 40-71 and they would not escape the cellar in 1955, finishing with a record of 60-94. Nevertheless, they had the core of a contender with Clemente, Groat, and Face. In 1960, they would win the World Series, with these three playing prominent roles.
The three homers by Banks tied him for the league lead with Duke Snider of the Dodgers. Banks’s seven RBIs raised his season’s total to 87, and set a record for RBIs by a Cubs shortstop, breaking the record of 85 previously held by Roy Smalley. Banks, who had already set the record for homers by a National League shortstop, was gunning for the major-league mark set by Vern Stephens of Boston.
Banks wound up the 1955 season third in the National League with 44 homers, setting a record for shortstops that would last only three seasons. He hit 47 in 1958, when he won the first of his two consecutive MVP Awards. His major-league record has since been eclipsed by Alex Rodriguez (57 in 2002). Banks still hold the National League record.
The Cubs, despite the presence of Banks, would not be a serious factor in the National League pennant race for some time. In 1955, they finished in sixth place with a 72-81 record. Finally, under Leo Durocher in 1967, Ernie was on a team that finished above .500. In his last season as a regular, 1969, the Cubs were in first place as late as September 9, but finished second despite 106 RBIs by Banks. The 14-time All-Star retired after the 1971 season and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977.
This article appears in “Wrigley Field: The Friendly Confines at Clark and Addison” (SABR, 2019), edited by Gregory H. Wolf. To read more stories from this book online, click here.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com, the author used:
Dailey, James (Associated Press). “Skinny Ernie Banks Ties for Major Home Run Lead,” Mount Vernon (Illinois) Register-News, August 5, 1955: 8.
Hernon, Jack. “Banks’ Three Home Runs Blast Bucs, 11-10,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, August 5, 1955: 16
Vaughn, Irving. “Banks Hits Nos. 34, 35, 36!” Chicago Tribune, August 5, 1955: 3-1.
1 Les Biederman, “Banks’ Homers Spoil Rally by Pirates,” Pittsburgh Press, August 5, 1955: 20.
2 United Press, “Banks Three Homers Lift Cubs Over Pirates, 11-10,” Boston Globe, August 5, 1955: 4. According to this article, as well as the Irving article in the Chicago Tribune, Clemente tripled in the fifth inning and Freese doubled in the sixth inning. Baseball-Reference shows only the box score of the game and Retrosheet inaccurately shows the Freese double in the fifth inning and the Clemente triple in the sixth.