By George Castle, CBM Historian
April 13, 2020
Even when the news of Glenn Beckert’s passing at 79 came your way on a lazy, housebound Easter afternoon, the reaction was not sorrow, but a knowing smile.
An all-time Cubs second baseman, Beckert enjoyed the light side of life amid a serious career as a contact hitter and key member of the fabled 1969 Cubs.
The stories about Beckert, who was in declining health for years, evoke laughs. About his alleged thriftiness. About his night-time wanderings with roomie Ron Santo. About given a nickname after a wrassler. About his apparent nervousness fielding the final out of Ken Holtzman’s strikeout-free no-hitter in Wrigley Field in 1969.
I didn’t meet Beckert during his playing days. But after he settled into his second career as a broker working the pits at the Chicago Board of Trade, I was fortunate to cross paths many times doing stories on his present and past timelines. The man who generated so much good feeling from his nine years as a Cub simply accumulated even more.
Such as the time I took Beckert to his first game in the bleachers on Sept. 4, 1983 to surprise friend Jerrle Miller Gericke on her 28th birthday. We walked up to the still-empty center-field section before meeting Gericke in the last row in right field. Glenn spread his arms to exclaim, “I can’t believe the view you get from here.” Yep, the views of his crouched batting stance and his No. 18 pivoting to combine with Don Kessinger for another double play are never purged from memory.
Or the cold Saturday morning in 1994 when I persuaded Beckert and Billy Williams to join me in an Arlington Heights studio for my “Diamond Gems” radio show, then titled “Chicago Baseball Review.” Our guest on the phone was 1920s-1930s vintage Cubs infielder Woody English, commenting on a home movie that showed Babe Ruth apparently not pointing to center for his “called shot” in the 1932. English was the third baseman at that moment. Enthralled by his eyewitness to history descriptions, Beckert called the 88-year-old Ruth debunker “Mr. English.” They were career equals, but Glenn was old-school in showing respect.
Or doing research on my “The 1969 Cubs” book I co-authored with Fergie Jenkins in 2019. Beckert already was too ill to be interviewed, but I had plenty of material from his own backtracking over the decades. Plus a quote I picked up from newspaper archives. Glenn could always spew forth a pithy or sardonic quote. When the Mets wrapped up their once-a-century comeback to shock the Cubs in ’69, Beckert simply vowed, “We shall overcome.”
No, they never did overcome, in terms of finishing first in the National League East. But as part of the 1969 “Million Dollar Infield” with Kessinger, third baseman Ron Santo and first baseman Ernie Banks, Beckert was a key in locking up lifelong loyalty from the masses who watched them in inexpensive seats at Wrigley Field or for free on WGN-TV within 80 miles of Chicago and for hundreds of miles around on “The WGN Continental Chicago Cubs Network.”
And now these players, proving as durable in appeal as any 2016 Cubs, are leaving us one by one. Beckert is the 19th member of the ’69 Cubs to pass away. Fifty-one years have gone by, in many ways quickly. Time has no overturned replay and the rules are like Satch Davidson’s “safe” call on Tommie Agee, negating catcher Randy Hundley’s swipe tag, on Sept. 8, 1969 at Shea Stadium. Appeals fall on deaf ears.
A bare majority of ’69 starters still alive
Now some 22 living veterans from ’69 remain, including starters Kessinger, Hundley, Jenkins, Billy Williams and seven of the nine center fielders manager Leo Durocher employed at a position GM John Holland could not fix that season.
Of all of the mainstay Cubs, though, Beckert probably got the most out of his abilities. In an important way, he was filling a job that should have been locked up by an earlier golden-boy type. Glenn almost was an accidental second baseman, a beneficiary of tragedy.
Kenny Hubbs was as near a “natural” athlete as ever wore Cubs pinstripes. He set several fielding records at second in winning the NL Rookie of the Year award in 1962. A dip in production in ’63 – the proverbial Sophomore Jinx – did not dim his prospects. However, just before spring training in 1964, new-private pilot Hubbs took off in sketchy weather conditions from a Utah airport. He and friend Dennis Doyle died when Hubbs’ plane crashed into a nearby lake.
The Cubs eventually converted Beckert, a shortstop they had plucked in the minor-league draft from the Red Sox after the 1963 season, to second. The move proved fortuitous, but only after some bumpy times.
Beckert made 37 errors for a .953 fielding percentage in 1964 playing shortstop at Salt Lake City, after advancing from A-ball at Wenatchee in ’63.
“I didn’t have the tools to play shortstop at the major-league level,” Beckert recalled years ago. “I don’t remember playing any second in the minors. I got a crash course in that position in the winter (instructional) league (1964-65). I felt sorry about it (Hubbs’ death). Strange things happen. Why did Lyndon Johnson become president?”
Beckert could hit, though. He led Salt Lake with 167 hits and 85 runs scored, finishing at .277. Hampered by owner Phil Wrigley’s decision to suspend signing new young players for part of the 1962 season, the Cubs moved up Beckert quickly. He beat out stopgaps Joey Amalfitano and Jimmy Stewart for the starting job on Opening Day 1965.
Fumble-fingered shortstop Roberto Pena did him no favors as his first double-play partner with 17 errors in the first six weeks. The talent-bereft Cubs force-fed rookie Beckert into the leadoff spot. He batted .239, amazingly fourth on the team after the Hall of Fame 3-4-5 combination of Williams, Santo and Banks. And by June, he’d team with Kessinger to form the second-longest-tenured double-play combo in Cubs history — almost nine seasons after the 11 seasons together amassed by Joe Tinker and Johnny Evers.
Durocher became a big backer
But Beckert quickly came into his own, boosting his average to .287 when Durocher took over as manager in 1966. Although far from frail at 6-feet-1, 190 pounds, Beckert simply did not possess a power stroke. He learned his limitations early and perfected a line-drive, inside-out hitting style in which he rarely struck out. Beckert fanned 25 or fewer times in each season from 1967 to 1973.
“In ’65, my first year, it seemed that you had to hit the home run,” he said in a big June 30, 1969 Sports Illustrated article on the Cubs. “But the big thing about Leo that I remember is that he told me I’m going to make just as much money if I don’t hit home runs. He said, ‘Move the runner for me. Get yourself on base before our big fellows, Santo, Banks and Williams, come up.’ He said, ‘I’ll look after you,’ and he has.”
Durocher became a huge backer of Beckert, calling him a “double pro,” and calculating he sacrificed 30 to 50 points off his average giving himself up to advance runners.
“Maybe 99 percent of the guys are down on the end of the bat,” Beckert said. “They don’t have the makeup to be home-run hitters. Nothing happens when you strike out. By putting the ball in play, you always have a chance.
“When I came up, I was down on the bat. Then I moved up about an inch to an inch and a half. My goal was to stay in the major leagues, and I wasn’t going to do it down on the bat. I didn’t have the power.”
Instead, Glenn could push the ball toward right field, the perfect skill to hit- and-run with Kessinger, who preceded him as leadoff hitter starting near the end of 1966.
“Beck was really, really good hitting ball the other way,” Kessinger said. “He could inside-out really well. He did not strike out. He worked hard at hitting and running. He played the game hard, and played to win.”
Beckert established himself as a firm .285 to .295 hitter batting second in front of Williams. But he finally fulfilled Durocher’s suggestion about his potential in 1971, at 30. Glenn began slashing the ball every day, every way, pushing his average to an NL-leading .359 at its peak in August. He lost the final month of the season to an injured thumb, ending at .342. Only Bill Madlock, the NL batting champ at .354 in 1975, has finished with a higher season average as a Cub ever since.
‘Bruno’ worked hard at fielding
While he was a natural at contact-hitting, Beckert still had to work hard long-term at becoming a proficient defensive second baseman. More steady than spectacular, Beckert was nicknamed “Bruno” after wrestler Bruno Sammartino. He might wrestle the ball into his glove before getting it to first – whatever it took. Beckert still earned him the 1968 Gold Glove Award at second.
“Beck worked very hard at his trade,” Kessinger said. “He fundamentally did things right. He caught balls fundamentally correctly. Beck and I spent a lot of time on the field, (figuring) where do you want to throw on the double play. Where he’d be if I’m over here. The first throw on the double play is the key, not the turn.
“Our rookie year, (coach) Alvin Dark took Beck and me out before batting practice. He’d go through all these things where we’re not being interrupted by balls flying by in batting practice. Beck and I were willing to try to learn our trade, and got to know each other.”
Beckert had to learn quickly he’d be a marked man for baserunners bearing down on him as he attempted to make the double-play pivot – especially those angered after being thrown at.
“Instead of going to the mound, they were taking it out on the second baseman or shortstop,” Beckert recalled. “He (Kessinger) can see where they were coming from, but at second base you can’t always see. After awhile, you learned to be careful, especially if it was someone with speed coming at you. A big heavy-set guy, you didn’t worry about. Back then, the guys were a little more aggressive taking out second baseman, breaking up double plays.”
Top example of Beckert being waylaid at second was Mike Shannon, still a Cardinals broadcast mainstay. The then-third basemen knocked Beckert clear into Jewish Hospital in St. Louis in an early-season 1969 game. He apparently was concussed, yet returned to the lineup within a few days. For the rest of his career, the hustling Shannon was booed at Wrigley Field.
Style points were not necessary for Beckert. He appeared to stumble a bit going to his right on Hank Aaron’s grounder in the ninth inning of Holtzman’s strikeout-free no-hitter on Aug. 19, 1969 at Wrigley Field. Bottom line, he threw to Ernie Banks for the final out as Holtzman was engulfed by teammates seconds later. Earlier in the game, Beckert made several excellent plays to his left, prompting the Braves to suggest the grass had been allowed to grow thick on a just-concluded Cubs road trip.
The Cubs infield typically stocked All-Star rosters for years. Chicago Today Cubs beat writer James Enright branded the quartet in “The Million Dollar Infield” in a June 8, 1969 Sunday magazine story in his tabloid paper. Beckert, Kessinger, Santo and Banks posed for a color photo at the open entrance to a bank vault. Enright, who had covered Banks when he broke into the majors back in 1953, called the Kessinger and Beckert “human vacuum cleaners afield hitched to youthful desire and enthusiasm.”
“It was a compliment,” said Kessinger. “I was very happy for it. We worked really hard at what we did. We took a lot of pride in The Million Dollar Infield name. It was an infield acknowledged to be one of the best.”
The entertaining side of Beckert carried over to his spare time. His pairing with Santo generated some Baseball Babylon stories. But, first, Beckert was let in on a big Santo secret – his Type 1 (“juvenile”) diabetes with which the future Hall of Famer shockingly was diagnosed just as he signed with the Cubs in 1958.
Beckert did not want this needle
“What he did to play with diabetes all those years during those day games was amazing,” he said. “In my rookie year, we’re waking up in the hotel in San Francisco and Ronnie gives himself a shot (of insulin) in his stomach. I’m hitting .200, he’s hitting .330 and I ask him, ‘Where do I get one of those needles for me?’” Um, Glenn, you don’t want those needles in a million years.
Beckert later said the fans should not have believed all the wild stories circulating about player carousing in their era. However, you took with a grain of salt his claim of early bedtimes in New York.
Santo confirmed one Cincinnati encounter that displayed how close the roommates got to spending the night in the pokey, and played into the public’s stereotype of ballplayers as post-midnight two-fisted drinkers.
In Santo’s 1993 autobiography, For Love of Ivy, he recalled going with Beckert to meet Reds second baseman Tommy Helms after a Crosley Field night game victory at two clubs, The Living Room and The Apartment, the latter of which featured go-go dancers. Three men walked in to The Apartment as the trio was drinking, talked to Helms, ripped the Cubs and blocked Beckert’s view of the dancers.
Mimicking the Bruno for whom he was nicknamed, Glenn dove over a table and began whomping one of the trio. Santo described the recipient of Glenn’s punches as being “beaten to a pulp.” Calling the police, the bartender urged the ballplayers to depart via a back alley. But Santo trailed, having checked the vanquished Beckert foe to see if he was still breathing. Helms and Beckert used all their speed to vanish by the time Santo reached the alley.
But two cops handling German shepherds on leashes stopped Santo. They interrogated him on the spot as Santo worried the dogs wanted a late-night snack – on him. He talked his way out of the jam, claiming he was not involved in the fight. Returning to the Netherland Hilton Hotel, Santo found Beckert’s bloodied sports coat, but no Glenn. On a hunch, Santo returned to The Living Room, where he found Beckert sipping. “Where have you been, Ron?” Bruno innocently asked his roomie.
Sometimes they’d grapple with one another. Santo and “Bruno” were found wrestling on the floor of the clubhouse while teammates stepped around them.
Glenn and Ron went to Las Vegas together, drove snowmobiles in a tandem and calmed down enough to take their wives out in New York. When Santo opened his pizza restaurant in Park Ridge, he enlisted Beckert to help out a bit. With his hands, Glenn no doubt contributed to the cardboard quality of “Pros Pizza.”
The man who squeezed a buck
While Santo had a large wad of cash on hand most times, Beckert seemingly depended on the charity of others. He was constantly bumming cigarettes. He may have hit up broadcaster Lloyd Pettit for one as they waited to do a rain-delay interview on the road in 1969. Director Arne Harris may have punched up the camera prematurely before the interview was supposed to begin. Pettit and Beckert were shown puffing away. By the time they went on the air, they had snuffed out their smokes.
Another time, young catcher Ken Rudolph could not find the blue Cubs jacket on which he had used a chunk of change from his $10,000 salary to purchase from Yosh Kawano. Eventually Rudolph found the jacket drip-drying in Beckert’s cubicle. He had appropriated the garment to work out pre-game.
Eventually, Beckert was tagged as the wealthiest of the ’69 Cubs, apparently having saved his first dime.
“No, no, no,” he’d reply. “Maybe I get teased about that. I was somewhat frugal. You just try to save everything up.” He’d later go shopping at Sam’s Club.
Beckert gambled it all after his career. A bad ankle caused him to quit baseball at 34 after the Cubs traded him to the Padres for outfielder Jerry Morales. Needing to make a living, he re-mortgaged his Palatine home to buy a seat at the Board of Trade. Beckert won the gamble, his gift for gab and split-second judgments serving him well on the trading floor. After several decades, he’d lease out his seat and spend the winter in Florida.
No matter where he alighted, Beckert had time for a story or four. He was a good-time guy almost to the end. The on-field and night-crawling version of Beckert set the table for a Cubs era in which everything took place except the postseason. He is another of the endless examples of the joy being in the journey instead of the final result.Category Chicago Baseball History Feature, Chicago Baseball History News Tags 1969 Cubs, Billy Williams, Chicago Cubs, Cubs, Diamond Gems, Don Kessinger, Durocher, Ernie Banks, Glenn Beckert, Jerrle Miller Gericke, Ken Holtzman, Ken Rudolph, Kenny Hubbs, Lloyd Pettit, Ron Santo, Woody English, Wrigley Field