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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
“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.
No matter what unusual sights she witnessed or good people she encountered, Carol Haddon made her seat right next to the Cubs dugout appointment viewing, as she has done from three different locations at Wrigley Field since 1971.
A honor on the field would not be as impactful as an invitation to sit with Wrigley Field’s 75-year-old Grand Lady on Thursday, April 12, to take in the unique atmosphere of the 104-year old ballpark from her front row and (off-) center vantage points.
Carol Haddon in her new seat next to the enlarged Cubs dugout on April 12, 2018.
But as we met during a 70-degree noontime, we both could see we’re not in 1971 anymore. Or 1969, when now-Glencoe, Ill. resident Haddon zipped down from Skokie via the Yellow and Red Lines and got choice game-by-game seats from a friendly box office. So friendly, in fact, that on cold days she’d be welcomed into the office for a “hot toddy.”
And we seem a century removed from Haddon and mother Ruth Stern journeying all the way from the Chatham neighborhood on the far South Side via bus and Jackson Park L in the mid-1950s to see the Cubs and their matinee idols on Ladies Day. An afternoon at Clark and Addison, even in those losing years, seemed so stress-free compared to dad Rudolf Stern’s childhood in Dusseldorf, Germany. He had gotten out just in time prior to the onset of the Holocaust.
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.