Fergie Jenkins

Buckner plowed through pain of ankle, vitriol over World Series gaffe

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.”

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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.

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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/

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

 

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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