Chicago Baseball History Feature

Divergent personalities Smith, Baines now linked by HOF induction

Divergent personalities Smith, Baines now linked by HOF induction

By George Castle

CBM Historian

Lee Arthur Smith and Harold Baines cannot be more unlike as personalities.

To say Big Lee is raucous, riotous and ribald is putting it mildly. Stick around the man-mountain of a Giants roving minor-league pitching coach even a few minutes, and you’re likely to be doubled over in laughter. If Smith keeps the discourse to a hard-R rating, he’s keeping it clean by his standards. Good ol’ country hardball was his ticket to the majors. Despite his numerous big-league travels, he still identifies as a Cub and desires to be enshrined as a Cub.

Baines?  He’s known to everyone as Harold, we almost forget his last name. Baines used one or two words where a sentence might have been appropriate. Chicago radio talk-meister Les Grobstein once rated Harold practically his worst interview, and not because of any Dave Kingman-style hostility. He just didn’t fill up sound bites for mic jockeys.  And, like Big Lee, Harold put on a slew of uniforms, yet is as loyal a White Sox figure as they come with his number retired and statue in the outfield.

New Hall-of-Famer Baines always a fan favorite shows off his 2005 ring

Smith and Baines are now bound forever by pending induction into the Hall of Fame. Despite their contrasting personal styles, their links did not begin with the uncommon dual voting-in Dec. 9 by the Today’s Game Era Committee, the latest incarnation of the Hall of Fame Veteran’s Committee. That panel went many long years without choosing anyone while frustrating Ron Santo, only opening the door with a guilty conscience posthumously for Santo. To wave in two at one time is an old-school CBS-Radio net-alert bulletin.

Smith and Baines were both recruited from off-the-main-road small towns by fellow Hall of Famers. Buck O’Neil found Big Lee in tiny Castor, La., making him the No. 2 Cubs draft choice in 1975. Bill Veeck himself discovered Baines in Easton, Md., on the state’s quaint Eastern Shore where Baseball’s Barnum had established his getaway home. Harold was picked No. 1 by the Sox in the 1977 draft.

Break-ins on tail-ending teams in ‘80

Both players broke into the majors in the same season with little ballyhoo on tail-ending teams that reached or surpassed the 90-loss mark.

Baines arrived first, on April 10, 1980, for young manager Tony La Russa’s 70-90 Sox. Smith pitched as soon as the last-month callups arrived, in the fifth inning on Sept. 1, 1980 at Wrigley Field. He must have shaken his head in worry looking back at his outfield of three first baseman – Bill Buckner in left, Scot Thompson in center and Larry Biittner in right – for  rookie skipper Joey Amalfitano’s 64-98 Cubs. Despite the brush with 100 defeats and slapdash play, the ’80 Cubs used only 12 pitchers overall, so Big Lee had plenty of September-October work, appearing in 18 games.

Baines and Smith should have been voted in by writers. But neither was considered a superstar or impact player at their position. Critics suggested they were members of the “Hall of the Very Good” rather than the elite ranking in Cooperstown.

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White Sox Rebuild Year Two…But Questions Remain

CBM Editor’s Note

One third of the White Sox season has past and now in year two of the “Sox Rebuild” the team has the worst record in baseball with a 16-35 mark and is ten and half games out of first place.

Attendance at G-Rate Field is down. After 26 dates the White Sox have only drawn 415,654 fans or 15,987 per game, down from 20,244 a game a year ago. The Sox are trying to offer value with their 4 pack family offer ticket packages, that includes seats, hot dogs, and drink for around $50 in contrast to the Cubs that continue to raise their ticket prices, making attending a baseball game a once or twice a year event rather than a regular source of entertainment.

However, some long time Sox fans are starting to question whether this rebuild strategy will succeed with attendance now the third lowest in baseball in a city that is the number three market in America.  Further hurting matters is that the Sox media coverage has been poor compared to the Cubs with no regular beat reporter covering the team at the Chicago Tribune, who are using a Cubs “College of Coaches” approach to cover them due to financial budget cuts.

To give a fan perspective on the “State of the Sox Rebuild”, the CBM welcomes guest editorialist Mark Liptak, who has contributed to our site in the past and who for 11 years was associated with White Sox Interactive for his thoughts.

White Sox Rebuild….But the Questions Remain

By Mark Liptak

For every franchise there comes a moment of truth. A period when decisions made or not made can reverberate for years or even decades. For the Chicago White Sox that time came after another disastrous season, 2016. The Sox lost 84 games after a 23-10 start. It marked their fourth straight losing season and seventh out of ten dating back to 2007.

 

2nd baseman Yoán Manuel Moncada was the big prize in the Chris Sale deal

It was then when General Manager Rick Hahn was finally able to convince owner Jerry Reinsdorf and Vice President Kenny Williams that the “go for it” or “stars and scrubs” approach simply wasn’t working. That unless the franchise was willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to lure the top free agents the only way to change the fortunes of the organization was with a total rebuild or “tanking” in popular parlance to get the needed young talent to give the franchise a shot for sustained success.To get Reinsdorf and Williams to give that approval after years of trying to win another title was very hard in Hahn’s own words.

 

 

But the path was decided upon and out the door over the next 18 months went players like Chris Sale, Adam Eaton, Jose Quintana, Melky Cabrera, Zach Duke, Dan Jennings, Tommy Kahnle, David Robertson, Tyler Clippard, Todd Frazier and Anthony Swarzak. In return the Sox got arguably the greatest collection of young, unproven, cost-controlled talent in baseball. It was hailed across the national media landscape as a job well done by Hahn. Most Sox fans and even some of the more caustic members of the mainstream media in Chicago approved of it.

 

Given the successes of teams like the Astros, Royals,  and Cubs in recent years the general feeling was that with a little bit of luck, the Sox had a very good chance to completely turn around their fortunes. But… (you knew there had to be a “but” in there)

Not every Sox fan approved of the decision. Going around the various Sox web sites you still see a segment of the fan base that wondered why a major market franchise was acting like the Kansas City Royals, San Diego Padres or the Cincinnati Reds.

They and others, including again, some in the media brought up valid, uncomfortable points that in their mind didn’t guarantee the Sox anything given their history.

Those generally break down into five areas, which we’ll examine. Then I’ll give you my take on the situation.

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Almora gets rating as most gifted defensively among post-war Cubs center fielders

Albert Almora, Jr.: Silky. smooth. Gliding. Graceful.

Throw any superlative out there. All apply to Albert Almora, Jr.’s defensive skills in center field.

Almora Jr.’s glovework at his position is the best I’ve witnessed in five decades watching the Cubs.

Albert Almora, Jr.

Better than Brock Davis turning on a final burst of speed to make up for a slow jump, finally engaging in a sprawling, diving catch in Wrigley Field.

Better than “Tarzan” Joe Wallis playing shallow, then going back…back…back…back and hopefully not running out of room before he hits the ivy and unforgiving bricks behind the foliage.

Better than Gentleman Jim Hickman, his spirit willing but the legs a bit too heavy, trying to flag down a Jay Alou triple picking up speed on the artificial turf in the right-center gap in the Astrodome.

A stereotype used to be floated that one did not needed a truly great defensive center fielder in cozy Wrigley Field. Oh, yes you did. You need a good one anywhere, including old Thillens Stadium. Someone athletically gifted. Definitely a take-charge, smart guy. And someone who craves mastering the position rather than marking time or having doubts because the Cubs needed another bat in the lineup, sacrificing some defense in the process.

Almora’s arrival was welcomed. Now if he can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt he can hit tough righties, he’ll be a lock for years to come, and one of the best in baseball.

He doesn’t look like he’s laboring when he makes a sensational catch, such as the moment the other week when he almost effortlessly drifted back and in one motion leaped to steal a Tyler Flowers homer over the fence in Atlanta. That’s the standard you see from Almora, Jr., and the standard he expects from himself.

Almora, Jr. legitimately talks a great game. He is pleasant and welcoming. The other day he spoke on sports-talk radio of his love of deep-sea fishing in his native Miami, prompted by his father’s gig as a commercial fisherman. He was an easy conversationalist when we checked him out as a 19-year-old Class A player at Kane County in 2013, just a year after he ranked as the first No. 1 draft pick of the Theo Epstein regime. His words then apply to his striving now to lock down the regular’s job in center.

“I want to be a player known as going hard every day,” summed up Almora then. “You can’t have four hits every day. It ’s a sport of failure. But you can control how you play and your actions, and that’s what I want to be known for.”

A great defensive center fielder should be a true ball hawk. He should not be straining every last bit of sinew to race to meet the ball in the gap, above the wall or sinking in front of him. Willie Mays and Curt Flood had that extra sixth-sense. I believe Almora, Jr. is cut from the same cloth — take off in stride the moment the ball is hit, and smoothly arrive at its descent point.

The position requires more than just raw speed. I mention the 1970-71 vintage Davis above.  An original Houston Astro, Davis got some renown as a four-month Cubs regular in ’71 making those diving catches and exciting Jack Brickhouse on the call. But I believe if he had Almora Jr.’s gifts, Davis would have lasted a lot longer in the majors. Fastest man on the Cubs? Davis was 0-for-6 stealing bases in ’71.

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End game of Ron Kittle and his Harley Pooch a triumph, not a tragedy

Ron Kittle the 1983 American League  Rookie of the Year. Ron Kittle the strongman who belted rooftop homers at old Comiskey Park. Ron Kittle the ultimate self-deprecating White Sox ambassador.

All now pale thanks to social media and his own ongoing diary for Ron Kittle, the devoted “parent” to his beloved “Harley Pooch” soft-coated wheaten terrier.  Anything that preceded him in his rise to the Sox from Wirt High School in Gary, Ind. now must take a back seat to the story of the eternal boy and his dog.

Harley Pooch and devoted dad Ron Kittle at their favorite ballpark.

The scores of followers of Kittle’s Facebook site got to love the furry Harley, not Kittle’s foil in any way, but the star of the show. By the time Kittle’s better half appeared in most of his posts, he was slowed from an old injury in which he jumped up for joy one day and landed awkwardly on his back. But as winter grimly hung on in April, Harley Pooch’s health began to fail. His back legs were paralyzed, he lost his appetite and was incontinent.

Any veteran dog parent is initially in denial and tries veterinary intervention. Yet in the back of one’s mind the outcome looms. The process to end a pet’s life never gets easier, and one feels like a jerk even though it’s the right thing to do. So one Monday Kittle relayed the sad news on Facebook he had to terminate Harley’s suffering, though only after some two-way chatting as only a boy and his dog could do.

Kittle said he had his “talk” with Harley. In turn, he surely tapped into the “aura” — not proven by science quite yet — that perceptive pet owners know exists involving humans and dogs. After all, aren’t dogs employed to sniff out cancer and warn of coming epileptic seizures? Taken further, just because dogs can’t speak human language does not mean they can’t communicate clearly. Kittle got the message from Harley it was all right to let him go.

Before and after the tough call, Kittle got the word that Harley had an impact on everyone who interacted with Kittle. He was the people’s dog.

“I got well over 5,000 comments and messages,” said Kittle. “I got back to everybody.”

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Wood’s 20-K masterpiece tense to cover as baseball scribe

They talk about a buzz in the ballpark the day Kerry Wood threw a 20-K masterpiece to earn baseball immorality 20 years ago.

Yet even though Jerome Holtzman proscribed “no cheering in the pressbox,” a complementary buzz also enveloped the Wrigley Field pressbox on May 6, 1998 as Kerry Wood effortlessly mowed down a powerful Houston Astros lineup.

Kerry Wood always kept a level head about himself after his 20-K game, turning down invitations to appear on “The Tonight Show.”

With Wood and mound opponent Shane Reynolds breezing through the batting orders with a blizzard of strikeouts, this was going to be an on-time dinnertime for writers working a day game.

My vantage point was the third row of the pressbox, in my fifth season covering the Cubs for the Times of Northwest Indiana daily newspaper. Through much of that time, I had monitored strikeout wunderkind Wood’s progress with a countdown to his big-league debut.

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The return of ’69 Bleacher Bum leader Ron Grousl — close but no cigar yet

Sometimes you chase a baseball figure from history, but he’s like Richard Kimble, The Fugitive. You don’t quite catch him.

I wrote a Cubs alumni column for 17 years, 1992-2009, in the team’s VineLine magazine. I usually got my guy, with the exceptions of Adolfo Phillips, Ellis Burton and Brock Davis.

Close, but no Ron Grousl in this photo in his old haunts in the left-field bleachers. Grousl 1969 running mate/bugler Mike Murphy is in front, while Bleacher Bums and ’69 Cubs mixed in the back row: (from left) Rich Nye, Don Flynn, Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins, Randy Anderson and John Brickward.

What was it about center fielders who don’t compare with Albert Almora, Jr., that proved so elusive? Phillips, Burton and Davis all were not back in baseball for an accessible interview, and settled into the woodwork of everyday life in the pre-internet age, when trackdowns were a bit harder. I even corralled the nomadic, enigmatic Don Young at a 1969 Cubs reunion at McCormick Place in 1992. Famed for being elusive in his own right, Young said he had recently worked construction on the new Denver airport.

So why should it be so hard to nail Ron Grousl, Wrigley Field’s court jester as chief Left Field Bleacher Bum of 1969? Well, because Grousl, so much in the headlines in that era decided to take the J.D. Salinger route a few years later. He wanted to be left alone and almost nobody who participated in his guerilla theater above the ivy (and before the bleacher basket) knew where Grousl was.

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Daily WGN Cubs-Sox baseball telecasts in 1948 spurred TV’s growth

Too bad a WGN engineer did not set up a kinescope — a film made directly off an internal feed of a TV broadcast — in 1948 to preserve even a snippet of  “Good Ol’ Channel 9’s” first season of WGN-TV baseball telecasts that have continued uninterrupted into the present day.

Such a highlight would have been the topper on WGN’s impromptu April 16 special marking the 70th anniversary of the station’s first ballgame, a Cubs-Sox pre-season affair at Wrigley Field. Executive producer Bob Vorwald and crew did a yeoman’s job putting the two-hour show together in a few hours after the vintage highlights were originally scheduled to be scattered through The Leadoff Man and the Cubs-Cardinals game, both postponed by frigid weather.

Vince Lloyd (left) and Jack Brickhouse were staples of WGN’s Cubs telecasts when the station still competed for baseball viewers against WBKB-TV in 1951.

The elongated version of video highlights and a film (not an actual kinescope) off a TV monitor of Stan Musial’s 3,000th hit in 1958 caused my own postponement of other programming, such a DVR of James Comey’s ABC interview. That’s how precious Jack Brickhouse’s 1969 play-by-play of the entire Henry Aaron at-bat concluding Ken Holtzman’s strikeout-free no-hitter and Ron Santo’s heel clicking: “C’mon, Nijinsky, let’s have it…that’s it. Hah. There you go Ronnie…weeee!”

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In 48th year as Cubs season ticket holder, Haddon soldiers on through Wrigley Field future shock

No matter what unusual sights she witnessed or good people she encountered, Carol Haddon made her seat right next to the Cubs dugout appointment viewing, as she has done from three different locations at Wrigley Field since 1971.

A honor on the field would not be as impactful as an invitation to sit with Wrigley Field’s 75-year-old Grand Lady on Thursday, April 12, to take in the unique atmosphere of the 104-year old ballpark from her front row and (off-) center vantage points.

Carol Haddon in her new seat next to the enlarged Cubs dugout on April 12, 2018.

But as we met during a 70-degree noontime, we both could see we’re not in 1971 anymore. Or 1969, when now-Glencoe, Ill. resident Haddon zipped down from Skokie via the Yellow and Red Lines and got choice game-by-game seats from a friendly box office. So friendly, in fact, that on cold days she’d be welcomed into the office for a “hot toddy.”

And we seem a century removed from Haddon and mother Ruth Stern journeying all the way from the Chatham neighborhood on the far South Side via bus and Jackson Park L in the mid-1950s to see the Cubs and their matinee idols on Ladies Day. An afternoon at Clark and Addison, even in those losing years, seemed so stress-free compared to dad Rudolf Stern’s childhood in Dusseldorf, Germany. He had gotten out just in time prior to the onset of the Holocaust.

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45,777 jammed Wrigley Field for Cubs’ 1978 home opener like few other first games

I wish time travel worked in real life to go back to a favorite Cubs home opener.

I’d beam back to 1978 Omaha and invite the teen-age Tom Ricketts to cut high school and fly to Chicago for one day to attend a Cubs home opener.

Tom Ricketts (right) would have had a different perspective on the mob scene at Wrigley Field had he been old enough to attend SRO games played by (from left) Fergie Jenkins, Randy Hundley and Rich Nye — and the record-busting 1978 home opener.

Ricketts would understand the Cubs’ fan mentality even better, get at its roots, than on his 21st century daily excursions all around Wrigley Field to chat with paying (a lot) customers dressed in team garb, enjoying their once- or twice-annual outing as if it were a rock concert.

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White Sox hit hardest in media-coverage cuts

Where is Bill Veeck when you need him to complain about media-coverage cuts?

If the longtime Baseball Barnum was alive and still ran the White Sox, he’d be pounding his peg leg on his desk, dialing up Chicago Tribune editors with his cigarette dangling from his mouth and would rant and rave—sans any cuss words– far unlike his more genteel Hinsdale upbringing.

Bill Veeck was the type who’d be screaming bloody murder if the largest newspaper in town did not cover the Sox.

Although Veeck grew up in the Cubs organization, for which his father William, Sr. served as all-powerful President, he created a lot of noise in his two tours heading up the Sox ownership group. One loud tactic was measuring newspaper column inches of Cubs and Sox coverage to show the former team had a huge advantage.

What would Veeck think now that the Chicago Tribune, overstaffed back in his time, laid off Chris Kuc, its Sox beat writer, leaving the team temporarily uncovered near the end of spring training?

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