Zebulon Banks was baseball's first superstar; although that term would not be used for quite some time, Banks checked off all the boxes we today would use to measure superstardom. He was the elite player of his era, which covered the entire 19th century portion of professional baseball history, was well-known throughout the country and set a slew of records that the greats of the future, playing a different style of baseball (and with longer seasons) would eventually surpass. He was born in Des Moines, Iowa on February 19th, 1856, made his debut as a member of the Philadelphia Centennials (today's Keystones) at the age of 20 in 1876 and played until 1898. He earned the nickname "Hawkeye" both for his Iowan-roots and for his discerning eye at the plate, where in his 23 seasons as a player he failed to hit over .300 just three times and finished with a career .328 average.

He retired as baseball's all-time hits king with 3423 (later surpassed by Powell Slocum) and held most other batting records, including runs (1877) and RBIs (1584) which would be his longest enduring records. Often cantankerous, Banks was a prideful player who recognized his standing as the game's premier player and took full advantage of that role, becoming one of the first players to endorse products not directly tied to baseball (a list which included laundry soap and Coca-Cola - which he invested in and which made him wealthy beyond his baseball days). 

As a child, his father moved his family from Des Moines shortly after Zebulon's birth, settling eventually in eastern Pennsylvania where the elder Banks (Edward was his name, though everyone called him Ned) found long-term employment as a land surveyor and also operated a general store in the family's new hometown of Springfield, just outside Philadelphia. Zebulon was the middle of three sons of Ned and Jeannette Banks between Samuel (two years his senior) and Barnabas (one year his junior). Zebulon took after his father, a large and strong man and the younger Banks would eventually stand 6 feet tall and weigh over 220 pounds. As a boy, Zeb and his brothers were often in trouble for not giving their schoolwork much effort (or attendance) and could often be found playing baseball. Ned didn't help much - he liked the game and joined his sons as the centerfielder of the Springfield Ponies, a town team where Zebulon's true talents came to light.

The Centennials' owner, Jefferson Edgerton, had been born in Springfield and though he now lived in Philadelphia, kept tabs on his former hometown. With the Centennials forming as part of the fledgling Century League in late 1875, Edgerton approached the Banks family about Zebulon joining the team. His father initially sought to have his other sons join the team as well, and to his credit Edgerton offered them trial spots with the club as they began training in the spring of 1876. Neither Sam nor Barney would good enough however, and only Zebulon was with the Centennials when they started the first Century League season. 

Banks played every game of the 1876 season (60 games) and hit .364, leading the entire Century League with 59 runs batted in as the Centennials third baseman. Over the next few seasons, he played more first base than third, and first would ultimately become his main position but Banks would always be known more for his hitting than his fielding. Banks was among the larger players in the Century League and strong as an ox - it was said he often would lay his bat out and rely on his strong forearms and wrists to flick the ball - on a line - into the outfield. Whatever his technique may have been, it worked for him. After back-to-back sub-.300 seasons in 1879 and '80, he began a run that would see him top the .300 mark every season until his final campaign in 1898 at age 42. 

Off the field, Banks courted and eventually married a niece of Jefferson Edgerton, Vera Knowles. They were married in 1880 when he was 24 and she was just 17. The marriage produced seven children, but only three daughters survived to adulthood. Those closest to him noted that the deaths of his three sons, all at young ages affected Banks deeply though he never spoke of it.  

In 1882, there were rumors that Chicago Chiefs owner William Whitney had approached his friend Edgerton about acquiring Banks for the Chiefs. Chicago had won the pennant in 1881, and Whitney, as always cognizant of great talent, wanted to add Banks to his club, even offering his own third baseman John Martin. Edgerton, of course, refused and noted after the 1882 season (one in which Martin hit .390) that he had no regrets about holding on to Banks. Edgerton, had in fact, to sweeten the deal for Banks in Philadelphia, made him the field manager for the 1882 season. This played to Banks' oversized ego, and it worked out well for both parties as the Centennials went 61-24 and won the pennant. For the remainder of his time with the Centennials/Keystones, Banks would be the playing manager of the team, winning a second pennant with a 101-38 mark in 1892.

Ironically, though his team mates considered Banks a bit of a prude (he refused to drink alcohol and was ferociously devoted to his wife) and a braggart (he would often remind his team of his own status as the game's best player), they generally liked playing for him - it probably helped that he lived up to his self-styled billing. Though he only won those two pennants, Banks' teams were almost always competitive and only finished out of the first division four times in his 15 year run as Philadelphia skipper.

The years 1886-88 were the best of Banks' career. He hit .341 in '86, .366 in '87 and .363 in '88 - and led the league for the only time that season. He continued to hit over .300 and notched a career-best .373 in the heady-offensive days of 1894 at the age of 38. Even in his last year with the Keystones as a 41-year-old, he hit .342 (though in less than a full season).

In gratitude for his refusal to join the Border Association, Banks had been given stock in the Keystones club in 1885 (the club switched names in 1884) by Edgerton and he owned about 15% of the team by the 1890 season. Fiercely loyal, Banks was openly critical of both the Border Association and, especially, the Peerless League as competitors of the Century League. Though he was approached regularly by both opposing leagues, Banks would not budge. It was therefore disappointing to him when he discovered (and this has never been independently confirmed) that Edgerton was holding back profits from Banks in 1897. The two men nearly came to blows (despite Edgerton being significantly older - and smaller - than Banks) and Banks was traded to the Pittsburgh Miners. Angry, Banks refused to play for Pittsburgh, though he did serve as manager (he referred to himself as "retired" as a player). His retirement was short-lived however as he moved to Brooklyn for the 1898 season and returned as a player in addition to managing the Kings. 

Banks remained as manager of the Kings in 1899 though he was now officially retired and would not play again. He failed to lead Brooklyn to any success and was fired after the 1901 season. He then joined the Boston Minutemen, working as a hitting coach for legendary manager George Theobald, a role he held for the 1902 and 1903 seasons. He then moved to the minors, working for the Knoxville Aces in the Dixie League from 1904 to 1910, the last five of those seasons as manager, and twice winning the Dixie League pennant. He left Knoxville for Memphis in 1911 and managed them until 1916 when he retired from the game for good. His composite record, both major and minor, as a manager was 2085-1939, a .518 winning percentage. 

After leaving Memphis, he returned to Philadelphia and would sometimes be spotted in the owners box at Keystones games, sitting first beside old Jeff Edgerton even as the latter entered his 80s and approached 50 years as a club owner and then beside Edgerton's son Malcolm, when the younger Edgerton took over as owner of the club.