A 17-year-old Les Grobstein stands between Fergie Jenkins (left) and Ernie Banks (right) at the Thillens Stadium softball benefit Les organized on July 15, 1969. At far left is Thillens game worker Bob Pollack, who went on to become a CNBC camera operator.
By George Castle, CBM Historian
Les Grobstein already was a legend in his travels when he agreed to co-host my syndicated “Diamond Gems” baseball radio show in 2003 after predecessor Red Mottlow had passed away at 76 from a brain tumor.
Once in a while, you could catch Les Grobstein in a sport coat and tie, but more often you’d see him as his informal self, pictured here.
As the story goes, one seemingly impossible trip had The Grobber finishing his all-night show on The Score AM 670 at dawn Friday, then hopping a plane to Seattle to cover the White Sox-Mariners American League Division Series Game 3 scheduled for 3 p.m. Central Time. When the Sox lost, The Grobber simply turned around on the longest Lower-48 States flight to Chicago and returned home. The next afternoon, he supposedly was in attendance as usual at a Northwestern home football game.
Another all-nighter on radio, then a round-trip to a Cubs-Cardinals game in St. Louis, were also endurance feats to Grobstein’s credit.
“He lived the life that he wanted to live,” said Mark Grote, Grobstein’s Score teammate, former Cubs radio pre-and-post-game host and Frank Gorshin-like imitator of Les and Sweet Lou Piniella.
Lou Brock in the Polo Grounds, where in 1962 he slugged a 460-foot homer to center.
The true measure of Louis Clark Brock goes far beyond his Hall of Fame status, 938 stolen bases — including 14 in the World Series and an NL record 118 in 1974 – along with 3,023 hits.
The complete tally is Brock’s baseball intellect. He was a true student of the game whose bottom line was striving to improve. And those “smarts,” as baseball second-sight was once called, radically affected the fortunes of the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals, the two teams to which Brock will always be tethered now that he has passed into the ages at 81, less than a week after worthy foe Tom Seaver.
Ever since June 15, 1964, one of the most infamous days in Cubs history, Brock has been the biggest ghost in the franchise timeline, the all-encompassing “What if?” that took away MVP-style production along with heart and soul from sports’ most star-crossed team.
The Cubs were a slow, ponderous team, and not just on the basepaths. A substandard baseball organization starved for both financial and intellectual capital by Phil Wrigley, likely baseball’s most affluent owner in his time, and then for decades by the Tribune Company could not nearly put together a championship-caliber team for an impossibly long time. All the while when the Cubs could advance just one base at a time, they had squandered away base burglar Brock and Bill North, two-time American League stolen-base king.
Three-hundred miles down Route 66/I-55 and in a more tropical climate, the Cardinals quenched their own 18-year pennant drought by stealing Brock from the Cubs in exchange for aching right-hander Ernie Broglio. Both team and man were simultaneously freed from shackles. Brock stole 33 bases and batted .348 in two-thirds of the remaining 1964 season, as if afterburners were suddenly affixed to Gussie Busch’s franchise. Busch paid decently, for the time, and Brock well-earned his pay leading the Cards to two World Series triumphs and three pennants to round out the Sixties.
Jim Frey’s reputation for bluntness (sometimes to a fault) preceded him as Cubs manager. And it was enhanced to the last day he worked at Wrigley Field.
The man now locked into historic honors as the first manager to take the post-1945 Cubs to the playoffs – 39 endless years later — recalled the Stadium Club press conference that introduced Larry Himes, Frey’s successor as general manager, and ending his third and final Cubs job. And his play-by-play revealed the byzantine nature of Tribune Co. politics — “very secretive…a CIA mentality” was his description — from which Frey was extricating himself.
“(Then-Cubs chairman Stan) Cook said to (team president Don) Grenesko,’ Don’t let Frey talk today. Don’t let Frey grab that microphone,’” Frey recalled in 2004. The suits really feared Frey might reveal some of the inner machinations that weighed down the Cubs for too long.
“Despite that, I grabbed the mike. I thanked everyone for eight great years. (Cook and Grenesko) were greatly relieved.”
I can second Frey’s notion. One day Grenesko saw me in the upstairs press box lunchroom and proclaimed me “Inspector Clouseau.” The corporate crowd did not like any undue attention. No problem. I outlasted Grenesko by 20 years at Wrigley Field.
Peeking at the men behind the Cubs’ curtains was not a theme in the initial wave of broadcast and published obituaries for Frey, who died the other day at 88. The narratives rightfully focused on Frey, nicknamed “Preacher Man” by some of his players, leading the Cubs out of the wilderness to a surprise 1984 National League East title and falling one game short of a clash-of-the-titans World Series against the Detroit Tigers. His true calling being a savvy hitting coach, Frey’s counseling of Ryne Sandberg to evolve from a slap hitter to pulling the ball with power in run-producing situations also got proper credit. Later, as the 1989 NL East champion Cubs’ GM, he ranked as the only man in team history to serve as a manager and top exec for a pair of first-place teams.
However, when the history of the Cubs is written at some future date, beyond the Twilight Zone-style coronavirus pandemic in which we’re caught, Frey’s name will be entered at the next level below that of Phil Wrigley and John Holland. The latter two gents rank one-two as the top characters needlessly delaying a resource-rich franchise’s possession of a World Series title for a sports-record 108 years.
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.
Beckert, Billy Williams talk to Woody English, witness to Babe Ruth’s “Called Shot.”
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.
Thom Ross makes his point – very sharply – about the Black Sox via his art in the most publicized exhibit commemorating the 100th anniversary of sports’ biggest scandal.
All of Ross’ drawings of the celebrities, sanctimonious arbiters and shadowy characters involved in the attempting throwing of the 1919 World Series have angular, almost severe lines. He did not sketch rounded, softer edges. The style makes everyone seem taller.
Sketch of Buck Weaver.
In fact, Ross’ depiction of Kenesaw Mountain Landis required a rectangular display case. The judge who threw the book – and then some – at the Black Sox almost seems to grow out of his confines with the artist making him long, lean and spare.
Artist Thom Ross
A lot of the motivations of the 1919 White Sox who took gamblers money and those who judged them are still up for debate. But not Ross’ MO in his sketching style. He has put it all together in an exhibit, “The Black Sox – A Century Later,” running through July at the Beverly Arts Center on the southwest corner of Western Avenue and 111th Street in Chicago. Commuters from nearby I-57 on 111th go up a sudden incline at Longwood Drive to Chicago’s highest point to gain a special perspective into baseball’s lowest moment that has been made into books, movies and endless recrimination.
“It’s just who I am,” Ross said, appropriately dressed in 1919 garb, complete with straw skimmer, for the opening of the exhibit. “My theory is things like mythology and legend are inspired by historical stories and truth. But it gets warped (over the decades). That’s why these figures (with sharp edges) don’t look like photographs. In that mythic world, you appear like you do in a dream.
Baseball’s an inherently cruel game, the ultimate sport of failure, grinding down the toughest of men. By those standards, Bill Buckner was made of cast iron, as if he had an impenetrable barrier against the hurricane winds that could have blown him apart.
Bill Buckner (in left) photo joins Fergie Jenkins at his autograph table at Sloan Park in Mesa, Ariz. on March 6 of this season. Buckner (right) was one of the most telegenic and productive Cubs of his era despite a gimpy left ankle.
One of the most popular and enduring Cubs of the last quarter of the 20th century, Buckner could have been crippled by a bad, surgically-repaired left ankle that required extensive treatment before and after games. Yet after missing chunks of the season in his first two years (1977-78) with the Cubs, Buckner rarely missed games, winning the 1980 NL batting title, until he was traded to the Boston Red Sox two months into the fateful 1984 season.
Then, after re-establishing himself at Fenway Park, Buckner was pilloried like few others in baseball history for allowing a potential game-ending Mookie Wilson grounder to go through his legs and allow the New York Mets to pull out Game 6 of the World Series. Raised from the dead , the Mets went on to snare Game 7 and extend Boston’s baseball neurosis another 18 years.
Amazingly, Leon Durham – the man who replaced Buckner at first for the Cubs – let a similar ball through the wicket in the deciding Game 5 of the 1984 NLCS against the Padres in San Diego. But Bull never got the guff from title-starved Cubs fans going forward. Buckner vitriol went to an unprecedented level. The man bent. He was human. But true to his form, he did not break.
Memories of Buckner’s steadfastness flowed on Memorial Day when his death at 69 from Lewy Body Dementia was announced. The debilitating disease that slowed body and mind still did not stop Billy Buck from enjoying the baseball life. As recently as spring training, he joined Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins, his Cubs teammate in 1982-83, and other ex-Cubs in greeting fans at Sloan Park in Mesa, Ariz.
“He was moving around very slowly,” Jenkins said. “His hands shook from time to time. But he took photos and signed autographs. Bill still wanted to be a part of the baseball family and scene. Pete LaCock went and picked him up every day.”
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.
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:
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.
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.