Chicago Baseball History Feature

Yu Darvish signing in better line with Cubs’ luck for free-agent starters

By George Castle

CBM Historian

Any team takes a big risk with a long-term free-agent pitcher signing.

In the Cubs’ mind, Yu Darvish is a decrease in risk than, say, bringing back Jake Arietta.

With sabermetrics and hyper-analysis overwhelming baseball, the wild spending that used to predominate in free-agent starters is gone. That’s the big reason why the market moved so slowly going into spring training. The realization that pitching has a high mortality rate and being on the hook for three, four years of dead money after an arm has gone south keeps most big-league wallets locked with agents demanding as many as seven years.

Fortunately, fate has been kinder to the Cubs in the majority of their free-agent starter signings — much more so than for their closer acquisitions. So if you use as an omen and portent, Darvish won’t blow up in the face of Theo Epstein, who has one big misjudgment on his Cubs record for free-agent pitchers that has been more than canceled out by Jon Lester’s 2016 performance.

Looking back, we asked Al Yellon, managing editor of the popular blog, to rate all the major free-agent signings of Cubs pitchers in history. Amazingly, Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins was the Cubs’ first such acquisition in his return to Chicago in Dec. 1981 after an eight-season absence, as Dallas Green sought to remake the somnolent franchise from the Wrigley family regime.

Odds are with Yu Darvish in coming through on his free-agent deal with the Cubs.

“I had a lot of firsts with the ballclub,” said Jenkins, who is the only Cub to ever win 20 games six years in a row and led the NL in strikeouts with 273 in 1969. He added one more whiff to his total in 1970 to hold the team’s season strikeout record


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WGN-Radio and 720 signal best possible 2018 home for White Sox

By George Castle

CBM Historian

Better late than never.

For too many years the White Sox radio home has been signal-constricted, on directional-east-at-night AM-1000 whether named WCFL or WMVP, on degraded WLS or at the nadir, the network of low-wattage suburban AM stations (WTAQ La Grange) and an Evanston FM outlet in 1971-72.

Only the team’s varying tenures on AM 670, be it WMAQ or The Score, offered a night-time skywave in all directions. But the announcement of their move to WGN-Radio on 720 AM is the best radio deal the South Siders could have come up with in the 21st century.

To be sure, the 720 frequency is not quite the blowtorch 50,000-watt clear channel of Franklyn MacCormack’s “Meister Brau Showcase,” John Mallow’s “Music Unlimited” or Jack Taylor’s “Music for Squares” of mid-20th century.  A Las Vegas station also operates on 720. The signal is still far better than the after-dark radiation on 890 AM of WLS, the station that kicked the Sox off its airwaves. Only 40 miles north of its Tinley Park, Ill. transmitter, right by Interstate 80, WLS fades just enough to allow its 890 frequency to permit reception of all-news WCBS, at 880 AM, out of New York — formerly impossible in WLS’ “Rock of Chicago” era

Darrin Jackson’s announcing presence will be no stranger to WGN-Radio after his early Cubs career was broadcast on the station.

Better yet, WGN still has a panache from its No. 1-rated heyday, when only the half-hour “It’s Milking Time” farm show with Orion Samuelson and Bill Mason separated MacCormack’s 5:30 a.m. signoff from the 6 a.m. start of Wally Phillips’ all-time popular drive-time show.  WGN may forever be associated with the Cubs, its meal-ticket programming most of the time from 1958 to 2014, when Theo Epstein’s rebuilding program hit hard at ratings and ad cash flow. Many critics laugh at WGN bailing out just before the Cubs surged upward — but all North Siders’ broadcast outlets took a ratings and revenue beating going through 2014. Both Tribune Co. suits in the early 1990s  and later Cubs president Andy MacPhail new the team’s broadcast outlets, under common ownership with the team,  would be hurt by a complete rebuilding program, and opted not to engage in the teardowns.

Radio color man Darrin Jackson returns to the outlet that broadcast his early Cubs career in the 1980s. He’ll surely offer a different sound than Harry Caray doing the middle three innings.

The Sox and WLS were an ill-fit, anyway. Parent Cumulus Broadcasting’s bankruptcy put the rights deal out of its misery. The station’s legendary background was Top 40, incompatible with baseball. That yielded to all-talk in 1989 without a big news or sports base. WLS did not hold the rights to a major Chicago sports team since the 1930s. Listeners were not attuned, so to speak, for sports on the (less) Big 890.

The Sox on WGN, AM-720? Far stranger things have taken place as the internet, in which consumers expect free content — often un-vetted — anytime, anywhere, on any device small and smaller, has roiled all forms of media. Programming, formats and familiar, big-name personalities and managements have been coldly sacked. Strange bedfellows have popped up.

Even with right-wing Sinclair Broadcasting closing in to assume ownership of all Tribune Broadcasting properties, WGN still has the format base to boost the Sox. News-talk programming without a political bent can feature Sox personalities and coverage outside the play-by-play. The station will feature a year-round Sox show. Cross promotion and piggybacking is possible with Blackhawks and Northwestern play-by-play.

Sox announcer Bob Elson was a WGN mainstay in radio’s early days, and in 1940 summoned Jack Brickouse from Peoria to work at the station.

The Sox are part of WGN’s ancient history anyway. The station carried games in Bob Elson’s prime from 1927 to 1943, when commitments to the Mutual Broadcasting System’s afternoon bloc of children’s programs prompted WGN to drop play-by-play. The Sox moved to WJJD, with Jack Brickhouse filling in for an Elson absent due to World War II. Elson returned as Sox broadcasts first were aired on a combination of smaller stations, then for a long tenure on WCFL and its nighttime directional signal that could not be heard in DeKalb. Meanwhile, the Cubs went to WIND for a 14-run before returning to WGN for its memorable run.

Other Chicago teams have called WGN home. The Bears have had two different runs on the station. The Bulls’ first radio outlet in 1966 featured home games only with the familiar team of Vince Lloyd and Lou Boudreau at the mic. Hawks home games aired in the late 1960s, with a young Rich King producing, signing on for the second period at around 8:15 p.m. due to owner Arthur Wirtz’s paranoia about too much free exposure of the Chicago Stadium contests. College teams have cast their fortunes going back decades with WGN.

All kinds of new media have fractured the landscape. No one can predict what sports broadcasting will look like in the early 2020s, when the Cubs were projected to dip into a cash cow from their own TV network. Whoa, not so fast. Through the seeming chaos, baseball teams always make sure they still have a big-time, legacy AM radio outlet if possible. See the case of the St. Louis Cardinals, who partially owned a lower-wattage AM station before returning the broadcasts to their rightful home on KMOX, AM 1120, bigger proportionally in its market than WGN ever was in Chicago.

The concept will require some getting used to. But anyone other than the most media-disseminated Millennial knows his/her way to 720 on the AM dial. Any port in a storm — yet the Sox have safe harbor at WGN.




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Peter Bourjos must untangle outfield logjam to make Chicago Cubs

You can root as hard as possible for outfielder Peter Bourjos, possessing firm Chicago roots coursing through his veins, to make the Cubs in spring training.

Problem is, you can’t wish away the logjam of competition in front of him. And the likelihood of Bourjos continuing his wandering ways after being cast out of Angels (Los Angeles type) paradise remains.

A year after the White Sox seemed poised to bring Bourjos back to his family’s roots as at least a backup center fielder, the personable speedster signed a minor-league deal with the Cubs. At first glance, you’d figure Bourjos is a commodity the Cubs don’t have in abundance — a swift man on the basepaths who can come in for defense in the late innings.

Peter Bourjos has another, albeit iffy, chance to play in his family’s hometown.

Check the latter. The Cubs already have an under-utilized gifted gloveman in center in Albert Almora, patiently waiting his turn to claim a regular’s job while Joe Maddon experiments with others in the outfield.

Here’s Bourjos’ dilemma: the Cubs already need to thin the herd a bit in the outfield. Maddon is already five deep there.

Many armchair GMs wanted Kyle Schwarber traded for pitching in the off-season. Such a move was never likely to take place. Schwarber’s left-handed power bat is too appealing to just deal away. In a season where Schwarber had to fight for five months to push his average above the .200 Mendoza Line, he still slugged 30 homers. The only other home-grown Cub to accomplish that feat since Billy Williams was catcher Rick Wilkins, a one-hit wonder in 1993.  Realizing the pressure was on, Schwarber worked like a madman in the off-season to shed excess weight and come in semi-svelte, better to have more mobility in left field since his catching days appear over.

If Maddon wants to spell Schwarber against lefty pitchers, he has switch hitters Ben Zobrist and Ian Happ to play left. Zobrist, pride of downstate Eureka, Ill., will have to outright retire to not get at least some playing time from old Tampa Bay patron Maddon. But the manager also knows Zobrist’s second-base opportunities are also diminished due to Javy Baez’s emergence as an elite defensive infielder.

Almora has more than earned the majority of starts in center, even if he is still weaker against right-handed pitchers. Maddon can always slide over Happ for starts against the tougher right-handers, but Almora is deserving to prove his worth against those pitchers, too. Jason Heyward is yet another center-field option.

Heyward’s overblown contract — Theo Epstein is a fallible man, after all — ensures him the majority of starts in right. Again, Zobrist and Happ can be used for right-handed switch-offs if Heyward continues his offensive flame-out and needs to sit against southpaws.

The outfield gets even more crowded if Maddon follows Cubs legend Randy Hundley’s advice and gives Willson Contreras, a potential big run producer, a break from catching with a few left-field starts against southpaws.

The only way Bourjos breaks through this logjam is through injury or slump. A surprise 24-homer producer in 2017 who forced his way into center-field duty, Happ is not beyond being demoted to Triple-A if he has a cold spring. Schwarber accepted a short demotion with class in mid-season in 2017.

Early projections have Bourjos competing with infielder Tommy La Stella for an extra spot. But La Stella has a built-in advantage batting lefty — crucial for pinch-hitting duty — while being able to play second and third. Multiple-position versatility is a near-must with Maddon. Bourjos can play all outfield positions, but they seem covered. Although not as swift as Bourjos, La Stella still can pinch-run.

I’m allowed a bit of personal advocacy. I went to a community college with Bourjos’ father, Chris Bourjos, a longtime pro scout who once had a cup of coffee as an outfielder with the San Francisco Giants. Peter was born in suburban Chicago before the old man got tired of winters and moved to Scottsdale. Smart man, if you can tolerate 110 to 120 in the summer.

Bourjos earned a slew of web gems with impossible catchs and home-run thefts in center for the Angels. But then a gentleman named Mike Trout arrived. Torii Hunter was still locked into big money in Anaheim, so Bourjos became the odd-man-out. He went to the St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies before seemingly landing with the White Sox last spring.

But he ended up traded to Tampa Bay before Opening Day. The Sox went with rookie Jacob May in center out of the gate. He did not last long. Charlie Tillson, a north suburban product, would have taken over, but got hurt. Adam Engel could catch anything in center, but had Schwarber-style problems at the plate. Bourjos would have been a short-term hole-plugger for the rebuilding Sox and would have come home. But fate always seems to have only Plan B or C for Bourjos.

Sounds like Plan C with the Cubs. So that’s why I’m breaking Jerome Holtzman’s admonition of “no cheering in the pressbox” with another Holtzman-ism, “a doff of the chapeau” for Bourjos.


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The two faces (and hairstyles) of Oscar Gamble with Cubs, White Sox

Ballyhooed top prospect promoted prematurely vs. rent-a-free-agent.

Close-cropped hair in a conservative organization vs. baseball’s most luxuriant Afro playing for original rebel Bill Veeck.

Perceived speed demon center fielder vs. locked-in designated hitter.

Oscar Gamble belts home run for ’77 South Side Hit Men Sox team. Leo Bauby collection

Over a span of eight years, Oscar Gamble dramatically changed how he was presented to the public as a raw rookie Cub and veteran White Sox. The 18th player from the fabled 1969 Cubs and surprisingly the second middle-of-the-lineup staple (after Jim Spencer) of the equally storied 1977 South Side Hit Men to pass away, Gamble made news for the final time the other day with his death at 68.

For two franchises just eight miles apart but stereotyped as being light years distant in so many other ways, the Cubs and Sox have shared almost too many players to list here. Gamble is on that last, and impressive compared to most others. His even 200 homers, including a team-leading 31 for the ’77 Sox, prove some of the initial overheated evaluations as a teen-age Cub were correct. Gamble was yet another talented player snared by the keen scouting eye of the legendary Cubs scout and Negro League icon Buck O’Neil.


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Good guy Jim Thome punches express ticket to Hall of Fame

A patient man at the plate, Jim Thome did not have to wait one extra second to gain entrance into the Hall of Fame.

Move over, Leo Durocher. Nice guys do finish first. And on his first year of eligibility, Thome finished third when voting totals were  announced Jan. 24 after Chipper Jones and Vladimir Guerrero to garner nearly 90 percent of the vote. All-time closer Trevor Hoffman slipped in as the fourth 2018 inductee.

Thome was  baseball fan who mimicked childhood idol Dave Kingman’s swing long before he slugged the first of 612 career homers. But after already touring Cooperstown with father Chuck Thome, he’ll enjoy sports’ greatest museum in his next visit as a fan as much as a fresh inductee.

“There were so many, many things,” he said in a teleconference about the Hall’s top attractions. “Walking through the front doors gives you chills enough. Going into the basement and putting on the white gloves and touching Babe Ruth’s items…and Lou Gehrig’s. The Hall of Fame is so magical. It’s the greatest place there is. One day doesn’t do it justice. You need to spend two or three to truly understand the great things in their place. It’s truly special.”

Jim Thome (right) and fellow former Sox Mike Huff at the Bulls/Sox Academy in Lisle, Ill. in 2013

Character should count for a lion’s share of an inductee’s votes. Thome is the pride of Peoria, who grew up as a Cubs fan in the central Illinois city and starred for the White Sox from 2006 to 2009. He had baseball good-citizen status in gobs.



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Randy Hundley advocates enough rest for energetic Willson Contreras

Randy Hundley knows exactly how Willson Contreras feels on the field.

Both Hundley, one of the most popular Cubs catchers in history, and up-and-coming catcher Contreras were both energy guys. They’d like to be in the center of things. In Hundley’s case, probably too much so. He tried to offer the 1969-vintage Cubs too much of a good thing by catching in 151 games, a year after he set the big-league ironman record behind the plate with 160 games.

Hundley catching doubleheaders was like Jack Brickhouse yelling “Hey Hey!” It was second nature in summer. Over the Labor Day weekend — Friday through Monday — in 1967, the Cubs played a barbaric four consecutive doubleheaders. Ernie Banks got his “let’s play two” wish by starting all eight games at 36. Hundley caught seven of the eight games while appearing in the eighth contest via a double switch.

Now he is older and wiser as a veteran of multiple knee injuries that probably had a connection with his self-imposed overwork. Hundley, handsome and youthful-looking as a 75-year-old great grandfather, firmly advocates Contreras — whose offensive potential is too valuable for the Cubs to squander — take regular breaks from catching, either on the bench or in left field.

Randy Hundley (center) is always a fountain of knowledge about catching. He did it again in a recent reunion of 1969 Cubs personalities. From left, WGN sports editor Jack Rosenberg, Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins, lefty pitcher Rich Nye and Cubs media relations director Chuck Shriver.

“I see him as being a 25-homer guy, maybe 30, if he can stay healthy,” said Hundley, who no doubt will cross paths with Contreras at the Cubs Convention and spring training. “But I can tell you right now, it’s going to be difficult as long as he stays behind the plate. They could play him in the outfield (against some lefties). I’d say anytime he can play in the outfield, I would certainly do it.


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Veecks’ Hinsdale home preserved from the wrecking ball by history-loving family

The main Veeck home (foreground) and the coach house that contained Bill Veeck's first apartment stand on an attractive corner lot in Hinsdale.

The main Veeck family home (foreground) and the coach house that contained Bill Veeck’s first apartment stand on an attractive corner lot in Hinsdale.

Written by George Castle, CBM Historian, and Dr. David J. Fletcher, CBM President
All photos courtesy of Dr. David J. Fletcher

The white frame Colonial-style house with an attendant garage-coach house, breathing easy on a corner lot on tony Hinsdale, seems modest by the mansion-size housing in every direction.

But the two structures stand tall, above everything else in the neighborhood, with their historical value.

Chicago’s baseball timeline coursed through this home in the first four decades of the 20th century. The structures, saved from the wrecking ball recently, were the home of two generations of baseball Veecks – dynamic Cubs President William L. Veeck, Sr. and his active, tousled-haired son Bill, later the Baseball Barnum and two-time White Sox owner.


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Coaches’ purge a first for a Cubs’ post-postseason

Joe Maddon obviously had the deciding vote in the departures of three key coaches.

Joe Maddon obviously had the deciding vote in the departures of three key coaches.

The new championship era provides a platform for some unprecedented Cubbie Occurrences, of the type Sweet Lou Piniella, coiner of the latter phrase, never envisioned.

Latest is the cashiering of three of Joe Maddon’s four top coaches in the wake of a 92-victory, NLCS-worthy season.

Never in the often-tortured postseason Cubs history have the hitting, pitching and third-base coaches been given the gate in the immediate aftermath of October baseball.

Field staffs are usually swept out with manager’s firings, as the coaches are typically tied in with the skipper, moving from team to team. Similar hiring/firing patterns are seen in sports media jobs.

Rare is the coach who spans five different managers, as former Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild did in a nine-season run under Don Baylor, Bruce Kimm, Dusty Baker, Piniella and Mike Quade. Rothschild was privately uncomfortable when Baker imported Dick Pole, his favorite pitching guru, in 2003 to work under Rothschild. Interestingly, Pole was Cubs pitching coach when Greg Maddux first became a big winner in 1988-89.


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Jim Landis one of Chicago’s all-time center fielders for Sox

Written by Mark Liptak, CBM Contributor

Jim Landis (left) and pitcher Billy Pierce were mainstays of the "Go-Go" Sox.

Jim Landis (left) and pitcher Billy Pierce were mainstays of the “Go-Go” Sox.

The Chicago Baseball Museum is honoring the life and career of Jim Landis, one of Chicago’s greatest all-time center fielders during his service with the White Sox in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Landis died recently at 83. But his personality comes alive via his remembrances of the 1959 World Series on its 35th anniversary on the Diamond Gems radio show. A segment of that show can be accessed by clicking here…

In addition, CBM contributor Mark Liptak, one of the top Sox historians, interviewed Landis at-length in 2003. His narrative follows:


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Glamour envelops Herman Sitrick, but John McDonough’s personal tribute the best honors

Herman Sitrick (second from left) is honored during the National Anthem, sung by Jim Cornelison (right), before the Blackhawks season opener Oct. 5. A retired Air Force lieutenant general (to Sitrick's left) also participated as old Army corporal Sitrick was remembered for his astounding Battle of the Bulge heroics (Photo courtesy Chicago Blackhawks).

Herman Sitrick (second from left) is honored during the National Anthem, sung by Jim Cornelison (right), before the Blackhawks season opener Oct. 5. A retired Air Force lieutenant general (to Sitrick’s left) also participated as old Army corporal Sitrick was remembered for his astounding Battle of the Bulge heroics (Photo courtesy Chicago Blackhawks).

After Jim Cornelison delivered the last note of the National Anthem and the last gesture toward the flag, after the last 90-decibel fans’ roar abated, John McDonough provided the best tribute to Herman Sitrick humanly possible to an intimate gathering in a United Center suite.

Blackhawks president McDonough, of course, was behind the largest public ceremony to date honoring stunning World War II hero Sitrick, 92, his old partner in successfully promoting the Chicago Cubs through what McDonough recalled were numerous seasons of 85 to 97 losses. Former Cubs chief adman Sitrick’s story of singlehandedly capturing 21 German prisoners during the Battle of the Bulge on the cusp of 1945 had earned him Opening Night serviceman’s honors before the Hawks’ record-breaking season opener.


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