Author: George Castle - CBM Historian

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

By on April 4, 2018

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

By on March 28, 2018

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

By on March 27, 2018

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

By on March 21, 2018

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

By on March 13, 2018

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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At other end of its rock existence, WLUP-FM upended baseball conventions with Disco Demolition

By on March 9, 2018

The terrible swift sword cut through the offices of WLUP-FM in Chicago the other day.

In radio, whether in 1968 or 2018, if a format or ownership change is announced, the sword of management cuts through quickly, without warning, and usually with no mercy. At the famed 97.9 rocker, morning man Mancow Muller went to bed on a Monday thinking he’d continue for awhile even through parent company Cumulus’ bankruptcy, which uprooted the White Sox and Bulls from Cumulus-owned WLS-AM a few weeks back.

Two weeks’ notice, a graceful departure, is not the standard in radio. Very few cashiered personalities are allowed to have even a brief good-bye party. Many are told at the end of an airshift they are finished. The bosses, throwing people under the bus to protect themselves, don’t want any brickbats thrown at them by the program hosts they are tossing away. Muller, who in previous on-air incarnations had the late Jack Brickhouse guest in a positive, respected manner, discovered on Tuesday morning WLUP was purchased by a company re-formatting the station to Christian rock. Like all other WLUP jocks, he did his last show, packed up his belongings and left without comments as TV cameras waited at the front door.

A favorite dial destination for two generations of rock fans, WLUP’s history was not fully explored in its business obituaries that made up major news in Chicago media. Former star Steve Dahl said it took God to knock rock off WLUP. He suggested “Highway to Hell” be its final song.

WLUP, nicknamed “The Loop” and named after the heart of Chicago’s signature image, became a rocker in 1977 after its previous life as WSDM — “Smach Dab in the Middle” of the FM dial at its frequency. At one point years before, its gimmick was an all-female staff of deejays.

Steve Dahl in all his glory revving up the crowd on Disco Demolition Night. Photo by Paul Natkin.

Steve Dahl in all his glory revving up the crowd on Disco Demolition Night. Photo by Paul Natkin.

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1969 Cubs Bleacher Bum still enjoyed World Series away from Wrigley Field

By on March 3, 2018

I just can’t get over the stark fact Randy Anderson relayed in a conversation the other day, when a hint of spring in the air suggested the second season since a Cubs World Series triumph was weeks away.

Randy Anderson, adorned in his yellow Left Field Bleacher Bums helmet, displays a copy of the famed 1969 Cub Power album — still unopened.

Anderson, still possessing his 1969 Left Field Bleacher Bums helmet, did not attend a game at Wrigley Field in the title season. Admittedly a people person who loved going to the bleachers for the relationships and simple ambience of the time, he instead enjoyed the long delayed-and-deferred championship in the company of friends at The Nil Tap sports bar on the Northwest Side.

I still can’t believe an authentic Bleacher Bum, as much a part of the ’69 Cubs as their four Hall of Fame-bound stars, couldn’t count as one of the 3 million-plus in the stands in ’16. Yet Anderson knows things have changed, mostly for the better, in how the Cubs are run and how they spend their money. In contrast, they have moved backward in the quality of fan now attending games.

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

By on February 21, 2018

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 BleedCubbieBlue.com 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 on February 14, 2018

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.

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New ‘Champions’ book displays the depth of the human spirit

By on February 14, 2018

Hot off the press will be signed copies of “Champions” at the book launch party.

Part of my job, say, in 2004-06 was to chronicle the ongoing comebacks of Cubs pitchers Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. World Series hopes, continually dashed, had rested on their formerly lightning-distributing right arms.

Both Wood and Prior came back, all right, though not in the form the Cubs envisioned. Through more surgeries and innumerable towel drills, Wood got lean and mean through workouts and organic foods, transforming himself into a good late-inning reliever starting out his 30s. Prior kept attempting comebacks for a half-decade after he threw his final pitch as a Cub in 2006. None of his comebacks got him back to the big leagues, so at a young age, Prior became a minor-league pitching coach. He’s now bullpen coach for the Dodgers.

Almost any major sports figure has some kind of comeback story, on or off the field/court/ice. I’ve gathered up some good ones in, what else?, a new book, “Champions.” And for the first time since my inaugural book, “I Remember Harry Caray” in 1998, they’re throwing a party to launch the project.

If you can’t get out to spring training on Feb. 22, you have an alternative. At 7 p.m. on that day, you can meet living examples of comeback stories from near and far in sports at Osteria Via Stato, 625. N. State St., just off Ontario Steet, in Chicago’s River North restaurant belt.  Signed copies from yours truly and all the profilees will be available along with drinks and some good food. Tickets are $79 with VIP admission at $179, available at www.signaturestrength.org/events.

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