Buck O’Neil

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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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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