Chicago Cubs

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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Andre Dawson the water-safety advocate could make another splash with Cubs kids

Some kind of middle ground in apparel must exist between Andre Dawson‘s funeral suit for his family business and the T-shirt and trunks for the youth swimming program that bears his Hall of Fame name in west suburban Lombard.

Like a Cubs uniform?

Andre Dawson is starting his first year as a Cubs ambassador.

In an under-publicized manner, Dawson has indeed worn the Cubs uniform officially for the first time in 26 years in spring training, and hopes to do so again sometime this season for Cubs minor leaguers. Add in more brightly-colored business casual wear for meeting fans and sponsors in other duties as a new team ambassador, and you have the perfect balance in the life of one of the most respected Cubs in history.

“Let’s say I’m all over the place,” Dawson, tracked down in Chicago the other day, said of his 2018 schedule. His base is hometown Miami, but much of his heart is in the city that he claims vaulted him into Cooperstown via six memorable Cubs seasons from 1987 to 1992. Mention that he’d spend even more time in Chicago if the temperature did not drop below 50 and he’d not have to wear anything heavier than a windbreaker, and Dawson breaks into a knowing laugh.

He was cast aside in the off-season, along with fellow Hall of Famer Tony Perez, as a Miami Marlins special assistant by budget-slashing Fish boss Derek Jeter. Regrets are few because Dawson can now work for the Cubs — a longtime goal — while still tending to the funeral home he operates with wife Vanessa and two uncles, earning him national profiles such as respected baseball scribe Bob Nightengale in USA Today:

https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/columnist/bob-nightengale/2018/05/08/andre-dawson-hall-famer-funeral-home-florida-retirement/590358002/

And when two female fans of Dawson hired him a decade back as national spokesman for their Baby Otter swimming program and wanted to expand out of Florida, he suggested Chicago for obvious reasons. A photo of Dawson in the Lombard pool with a young student and a story in the suburban Daily Herald provided a surprising aspect of his 63-year-young life:

http://www.dailyherald.com/business/20180521/andre-dawson-opens-baby-otter-aquatic-center-in-lombard

His Cubs role, though, is still in development. He had talked to team chairman Tom Ricketts about a return to the organization on several occasions. He was officially free when he left the Marlins. And Dawson received an alumni 2016 World Series ring in 2017, proudly wearing the bling on three occasions at events. The Chicago Baseball Museum played a role in ensuring Dawson got the ring. The only better outcome would have been Dawson earning the jewelry as a Cubs player in, say, 1989, but that’s a whole other story.

The Cubs now have all their living Hall of Famers in the fold — Dawson, Fergie Jenkins and Ryne Sandberg as ambassadors, and Billy Williams as a special assistant. By now, Billy must be closing in on Yosh Kawano for most years in the team employ. “Whistler” has 57 seasons recorded as a player, coach, special assistant and marketing speaker.

Lee Smith (left) and Andre Dawson were 1975 draftees, Smith being picked by the Cubs nine rounds ahead of Dawson. But Dawson, who will represent the Cubs at the 2018 draft, made the Hall of Fame.

“I was hired as independent contractor,” the Hawk said. “I’ll go to  a variety of events during the year. When we reached agreement, the only other matter was getting out to spring training. I was in Mesa the final two weeks (of camp). I worked some with the outfielders.”

Dawson will represent the Cubs at the amateur draft starting Monday night, June 4. Back in 1975, the Cubs knew all about the Hawk coming out of Florida, but they passed on him, leaving Montreal to snare his rights.

Outfielder Brian Rosinski of Evanston Township High School was the Cubs’ No. 1 pick in ’75. Injuries derailed Rosinski’s career. Master scout Buck O’Neil got GM John Holland to pick Lee Arthur Smith at No. 2.  Big Lee ended up as the only ’75 Cubs draftee to make the majors — and he should have gone all the way to Cooperstown. Dawson eventually was picked by Montreal in the 11th round. Choosing ahead of the Expos, the Cubs picked shortstop Robert Umfleet out of the University of Oklahoma. Smith and Dawson do a lot of appearances together, so the subject of draft pedigree probably comes up.

A minor-league instructional tour for Dawson at some point this season is under discussion. The Cubs are multiple-men deep in hitting instructors, but they could always use the acumen as an eight-time Gold Glove winner in the outfield.

“I’m waiting to hear from upper management what the next step will be,” Dawson said. “However they see me going forward, that’s what I’m here for.”

Dawson the outfield counselor would be welcome. The Cubs haven’t employed such a big name in the minor leagues since Jimmy Piersall‘s 14-season stint starting in the mid-1980s. Baseball thinking men like Doug Glanville and Darrin Jackson praised Piersall’s animated instruction. Dawson would not be available full-time like Piersall. But the Hawk with his commanding presence and credentials will command attention whenever he steps on the field.

Dawson may not bring up the anecdote to his Cubs pupils, but fundamental outfield play can win games all by itself. Somewhere in the WGN archives is his laser throw to zap a Giants baserunner at home plate and end a Wrigley Field game in 1991.

One wants to be a fly on the wall when Dawson and fellow Miami native Albert Almora, Jr., two experts in center-field play, get together. Dawson was a Montreal Expos Gold Glover in center before the ravages of the Olympic Stadium artificial turf caused his shift to right.  So he knows what goes into a champion ballhawk.

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Santo could have been lock-down Hall of Famer if not for Type 1 diabetes

Count me among the childhood critics of eventual Hall of Famer Ron Santo, getting upset when he hit into a double play with crucial ducks on the pond, or made an error with his frequent Gold Glove at third.

But like so many others five decades ago, I didn’t have all the information at hand. Santo was playing at a perennial All-Star level with Type 1 diabetes that he could not accurately monitor with medical instruments before or during games. He developed educated guesswork when diabetic symptoms began to come on, quaffing a candy bar and/or a can of Coke for an instant sugar fix. Sometimes, though, the symptoms arrived quickly. They may have affected his vision or his physical reactions temporarily and thus in turn cut down on his performance.

Ron Santo (left) already dealt with the effects of Type 1 diabetes on his career when he posed with Vince Lloyd and Ernie Banks in the early 1960s.

As Fergie Jenkins noted, Santo could not have grown speed in his legs — slowness being his only physical drawback.  But some of those double-play grounders may have been slashed through the infield without the diabetic impact on Santo’s reactions.

Imagine a Santo with a modern day medical monitors, being able to head off symptoms at the pass. Cubs closer Brandon Morrow, former Cubs outfielder Sam Fuld and ex-Bears quarterback Jay Cutler were not hampered in their careers through modern medical monitoring of their Type 1, called “juvenile diabetes” in Santo’s time.

He would have had even greater offensive numbers during his 1963-70 prime, and perhaps not have fallen off as quickly as he did in his final four big-league seasons, the last a controversy-filled campaign with the White Sox in 1974. The several Hall of Fame voters who did not like Santo for his 1969 heel-clicking wouldn’t have been enough to deny him entrance into Cooperstown while the then-Cubs broadcaster was still living. Santo ended up selected in a kind of guilt-ridden posthumous vote by an incarnation of the veterans committee soon after his death in 2010.

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It’s 10 p.m. — do you know where your favorite Sox, Cub has shifted?

You can tell the players without a scorecard under Joe Maddon, but you better keep a sharp eye where they’ve shifted defensively in the field.

An accompanying Chicago Baseball Museum story details the historic defensive brilliance of Albert Almora, Jr. in center field. But at any time, Almora, Jr. could be flanked in the outfield by former MVP Kris Bryant, a pretty good defensive third baseman. Or by energetic starting catcher Willson Contreras, taking a break from behind the plate. Bryant has played every position on the field except second and catcher.

Bill Melton’s mood had improved considerably by the time this photo was taken, compared to the days he broke his nose playing third base and got shifted to right field.

Under Maddon, Ben Zobrist plays anywhere, and will continue to do so as long as he’s a Cub. Javy Baez is a wizard at second base, but you’ll also see him at shortstop and maybe even third. About the only Cub who is safe at his natural position is first baseman Anthony Rizzo. But he had batted leadoff, and if Maddon got some kind of brainstorm to play Rizzo in, say, left field, the affable team leader would be game.

Notice that none of these players are Hall of Famers, yet, or has led the  NL in homers. Apparently, being able to take your glove anywhere, under duress or via an ill-advised management decision, toughens you up. That’s what Chicago baseball historical (sometimes hysterical) annals show.

Some of the top achievers in the town’s history have played well out of position, and if you remind present-day fans who haven’t done a forensic research of the game, they won’t believe you when informed of their on-field wanderings.

Ernie Banks in left field and third base. Ron Santo at shortstop, second and left field. Billy Williams at first base. Bill Melton in right field. Carlton Fisk in left. And Kenny Williams, GM of the only Sox team to win the World Series since 1917, survived a trial by fire playing Melton’s old natural position at third after being a good center fielder.

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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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Cubs fans getting picky about when they attend games at Wrigley Field?

Cubs fans getting picky when they attend games at Wrigley Field warrants the attention of Tom Ricketts and Crane Kenney. And even Theo Epstein should take a peek.

Perception of the availability and cost of your Cubs tickets is affecting the total gate so far this year, compared to the wire-to-wire sellout present-day President of Cubs business operations Kenney experienced as Tribune Co.’s viceroy for the team in 2008.

Crane Kenney should have a good memory of why tickets to all games went quickly in 2008 compared to unsold seats in 2018.

The sight of the bleachers, the traditional “cheap seats,” only partially filled on an 80-plus degree spring afternoon the other day against the Colorado Rockies should raise the eyebrows of the Cubs’ top brass. StubHub listed bleacher seats for as little as $10. No internal Cubs promotion would ever dare go that low.

For the season, the Cubs have had reams of unsold seats. The tickets sold for the Rockies game were listed at just under 33,000, but the actual crowd count was lower. Three other games have had listed attendances in the 29,000 range. One was the Thursday, April 12, game against the Pirates with the game-time temperature around 70. I attended that game with senior season-ticket holder Carol Haddon. I took a quick trip to the upper deck. That seating area was empty. These listed attendances — seats sold have been the official crowd counts for decades now — meant many thousands of tickets were not purchased at all.

Meanwhile, at both April 12 and subsequent games, scores of prime box seats in the “Club 1914” area were unoccupied. Go back 10 years, and would you see a close-up seat between the dugouts empty?

Now, 29,000 or 33,000 with thousands of no shows is still light years distant from the cozy 3,000 or 4,000 early- and late-season gatherings of the 1970s, when Ronnie “Woo Woo” Wickers’ chants of “Fanzone, Woo!” would reverberate across the sections of empty seats. However, when applied to what has developed as the game’s flagship franchise only one year after the eternally-deferred World Series title, then some questions must be asked.

Are Cubs fans getting very picky about when they bust their entertainment budgets to attend a game at Wrigley Field? Does it have to be 60s through 80s perfect — excellent weather, an attractive opponent, a weekend or summer weekday? Is there a perception Cubs tickets are too expensive — even though the Rockies game was a 2010s bargain — and hard to get? Are fans tastes changing with so many other less expensive things to do — and the hypnotic rapture of smart phones always available?

When rationalizing pundits say we just endured the coldest April in memory, the adults are not on vacation yet and the kids are still in school, there is simple history to enlighten them. April always has been inclement in Chicago — it is just by what degree and whether gloves are still necessary. The workforce was never in big vacation mode in the first full spring month. And while the final day of school has been creeping backwards over the decades — I remember the third week of June in Chicago public schools — that joyous dismissal time has not yet moved into April yet.

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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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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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