Chicago Baseball History News

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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Where’s Players Association to mitigate dangerous cold-weather playing conditions?

Even top baseball management realizes major leaguers needed a playing conditions advocate.

Some 15 years ago I approached then-Cubs president Andy MacPhail in the Wrigley Field pressbox cafeteria after researching the four consecutive doubleheaders his team played Friday through Monday over the Labor Day weekend at home in 1967.

Manager Leo Durocher, quickly morphing into a slave driver, started Don Kessinger, Glenn Beckert, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, 36-year-old Ernie Banks and Adolfo Phillips in all eight games. Catcher Randy Hundley started seven of the eight contests, and came into the eighth late for backup Johnny Stephenson via a double-switch.

Barbaric, right?

“That’s why you needed the Players Association,” MacPhail said of the country’s now-most powerful union, in 1967 getting acquainted with new executive director Marvin Miller, whom I rated in a book the fourth-most impactful “game changer” in baseball history.

From left, Players Association chief Tony Clark, Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend and Commissioner Rob Manfred before the Fort Bragg Game in 2016. Clark needs to reach across the table to Manfred to establish a baseline of safe playing conditions.

So, that’s why I wonder where Miller successor many-times-removed Tony Clark was when teams played in, again, barbaric conditions over the past two weeks in the extended winter of April 2018?

Worst of all was the now-infamous Saturday, April 14, literally slipshod Cubs’ 14-10 victory over the Braves at Wrigley Field, coming back from an early 10-2 deficit. The conditions were quasi-Arctic, so cold, wet and miserable baseballs were literally squiring out of players’ hands. The risk of serious injury was greatly heightened. Football fans in December at most northern stadiums sat through better conditions.

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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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A look back at the late Joe McConnell’s White Sox broadcasting career

By Mark Litpak

Contributor to CBM

Joe McConnell, a truly underrated White Sox radio announcer spanning the Bill Veeck and Jerry Reinsdorf ownership groups from 1980 to 1984, died at 79 on April 8.

McConnell’s time with the Sox overlapped his eight-year stint (1977-84) as the Bears’ chief radio announcer. Timing is everything – McConnell left the year before Super Bowl XX.

Like Jack Brickhouse, Joe McConnell broadcast the Bears and Chicago baseball at the same time.

He worked alongside two of the best loved Sox announcers in history, Harry Caray and Jimmy Piersall. In that time he saw a young manager and future Hall of Famer, Tony LaRussa get his first taste of success. He saw new Sox ownership in Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn take over for Veeck. He saw the formation of a team that had three straight winning seasons, capped off by the 1983 Western Division champion “Winnin’ Ugly” White Sox.

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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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Cubs in fine shape, but October a crapshoot; Sox place holders await phenoms

The 2018 MLB season is about to start and all the pundits come out with their predictions. Here are my thoughts for the new season. It’s hard to pick against the Cubs to win the National League Central.

And how many years have any of us had that experience of knowing the Cubs were odds-on favorites? It’s still unchartered territory and takes getting used to.

The days of having to contort mentally, if not physically, into finding a way to justify a prognostication of a Cubs division title are still too close for comfort. And maybe in the baseball, by far the most unpredictable sport of all, it’s best to never be comfortable in forecasting.

But at this juncture, the Cubs would have to fritter away an NL Central title, while the White Sox are still in a place-holding juncture for expected waves of prime prospects to build a contender in future seasons.

Even an average power and RBI output from Jason Heyward would be welcome after two mediocre seasons at the plate.

Both outcomes are satisfactory to their respective fan bases. And when has that ever been the mindset going into a new season?

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Michael Kopech born too late to get the rush act like former White Sox phenoms

Michael Kopech is a man out of his time.

The White Sox’s flame-throwing prospect, from all accounts, is ready for the major leagues. By the standards of the 1970s, Kopech — after 155 strikeouts in 118 1/3 innings in Double-A Birmingham — would start the season in the Sox rotation. But since the date registers 2018 and a series of Collective Bargaining Agreements have codified service time, Kopech will likely cool his heels for a short time in Charlotte before the call to G-Rate Field.

Sox GM Rick Hahn does not want to rush his cache of prize prospects gathered from all over baseball and foreign shores anyway. And if Kopech’s aim catches up to his golden arm, the Sox brass want control of him for a full seven years from his big-league debut. Should he break camp with the Sox, he’d be contractually beholden on the South Side for just six seasons. Delaying the full season accrual of service time is now a fact of life for the best young players.

Bart Johnson’s high-kicking style added the illusion of speed to his fastball.

Kopech, turning 22 near the end of April, would have loved to play in the early days of the Marvin Miller-run Players Association if a fast track to the majors was free of such hindrances. However, he would not have favored the rock-bottom rookie salaries ($12,500 in 1969, for instance) or the near-servitude status of the players to their bosses.

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Innings-eaters consumed by time, overworked bullpens, sabermetrics

Bully for Jon Lester.

Embarrassed by a sub-par 2017, the Cubs well-compensated lefty wants to pitch 200 or more innings and spare his bullpen overwork this season.

Why it’s even an issue of Lester reaching a traditionally modest innings-pitched mark for starter shows the problems of 21st century baseball.

Sabermetrics and new-age front offices believe perils are courted if a starter goes through a lineup a third time. “Five and fly” or “five and dive” are no longer epithets against no-endurance starters, but new standards of performance. Bullpens are bloated to eight arms with a 13-man pitching staff overall. An extra starter is added for a doubleheader.

OK, where is the corresponding expansion of rosters to, say, 27?

Say a team inflates to 14 pitchers. That means eight position players are augmented by just three backups, one by necessity a catcher. If you’re in the National League, that gives a manager limited pinch-hitting and double-switching options. We’ve seen managers run out of players with a six-man bench, so a three or four backups — figuring the reserve catcher must be held back as long as possible — won’t serve the game situation’s needs well.

Theo Epstein's off-season work can be classified as "re-tooling."

If Theo Epstein backs Joe Maddon’s mid-game hooks of starters, then he must advocate expanded rosters, to 27.

Theo Epstein was branded the greatest leader in the world and a future Hall of Famer. But I’d like to see Theo use his stature in the game to balance out the sabermetrics of his front-office posse and Joe Maddon’s itchy fingers for his bullpen with an advocacy of enough players to accommodate the quick hooks for starters. Epstein would have to defy cost-cutting owners. If no starters go seven innings consistently with some pulled before five innings, and also relievers cannot go more than one inning apiece, then teams need 15-man pitching staffs.

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