View from the center
By Lynn McKeown
Cub fans’ dream: Is this the year?
Finally, after 100 years, is this their time? The Chicago Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908. They haven’t even been in a World Series since 1945. The Cubs, the “lovable losers” among the nation’s baseball teams, will be in the play-offs for sure and seem to have a group of players who could make it to the Big Show this year. We can only hope.
I first became a Cub fan at a young age back in the 1950’s, partly because my Uncle Everett, who lived in the Chicago area, was an ardent Cub fan. He took me to my first Big League game in 1952 at Wrigley Field. Their big slugger of the time, Hank Sauer, hit a home run in that game, on his way to an unimpressive (by modern standards) league-leading 37 for the year – but probably accomplished without any performance-enhancing substance more potent than a cup of coffee. My uncle had returned from World War II about the time of the Cubs’ last appearance in the World Series and passed away a few years ago after living his whole, long life without a Cubs’ world championship.
Listening to Cubs games on WGN radio during the 1950’s (We had a television set but got few Cubs games in those pre-cable days), I remember the frustration as the Cubs floundered. They had a group of second rate players at the time – including a number of cast-offs from Brooklyn Dodgers – most of them pretty much forgotten. One of the better players traded to the Dodgers during the ‘50s, Andy Pafko, sometimes comes back to sing the traditional, seventh-inning “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” or for old-timer events. I think the final discouraging blow for me in that 1950s era was listening on the radio to a Cubs double-header loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates, then as now a rather second-rate team.
After that I tended to lose interest in the Cubs until the 1980s, in the days of Rick Sutcliffe, Andre Dawson and Ryne Sandburg. During the good years in the late 1960s and early 1970s I was distracted by other, unimportant activities such as making a living. I was aware, however, of those years with their outstanding players such as Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Fergie Jenkins and their always controversial manager, Leo Durocher. In the 1980s, though, partly because of getting swept up in the sports card collecting craze, I got interested in the Cubs again, including their history. That history featured some colorful characters.
There was, for instance, that team of the first decade of the twentieth century, the one that earned the only two Cubs World Series championships in 1907 and ’08. They included the double-play combination Tinker, Evers and Chance, immortalized in a poem famous at the time. (Tinker and Evers had a feud and were not on speaking terms but were skilled infielders.) And there was Mordecai “Three-finger” Brown, an outstanding pitcher whose injury to several fingers in two youthful accidents was said to give an added, almost unhittable spin to his pitches. Another outstanding Cubs pitcher, Ed Reulbach, once pitched two shut-out games on the same day.
In subsequent years, the Cubs weren’t quite so outstanding, though they were in the World Series again in 1918, when one of their best pitchers was “Hippo” Vaughn (love that name). In this period and on into the 1920s the Cubs, for a time, had another of the great pitchers of all time – and one with a Galesburg connection – Grover Cleveland Alexander. As a young man, “Alex” was playing with a semi-pro team called the Galesburg Boosters when he was hit in the head by a ball, leaving him in a coma for at least many hours (accounts vary) and probably causing his life-long affliction with epilepsy. In spite of the problem, Alexander went on to an outstanding career with the Phillies, Cubs and Cardinals. (He had a league-leading win total of 27 games with the Cubs in 1920.) “Alex” was also portrayed in a rather romanticized movie of his life by another famous former Galesburger, Ronald Reagan.
Starting in 1929 and continuing until 1945, the Cubs had many good teams, including such Hall-of-Famers as “Gabby” Hartnett, “Kiki” Cuyler, and Billy Herman. One of my favorite Cubs of all time, “Hack” Wilson, played during this era. Somebody has said that a modern scout, looking at Hack, who was built like a large fireplug (or ”like a beer keg and not unfamiliar with its contents,” as one sportswriter observed), would say he’d never make it as a baseball player. His drinking occasioned many stories, such as his observation that, when suffering from a hangover and seeing three balls instead of one leaving the pitcher’s hand, he would try to hit the middle one. But Hack was a determined competitor and powerful slugger who still holds the single season runs-batted-in record with 191 – in 1930, the same year he hit 56 home runs.
(One more Hack Wilson story: Once, in an effort to deter Hack’s drinking, his manager Joe McCarthy supposedly dropped a worm into a jar of alcohol and, when the worm died, asked Hack what conclusion he drew from it. “That if you drink whiskey, you’ll never get worms!” was the puzzled Wilson’s reply.)
Another interesting Cubs player from this period was Floyd “Babe” Herman. Babe was an intelligent man and outstanding hitter but a less than adequate fielder and base-runner. There were apparently several occasions when, as a first baseman, Babe misplayed pop-ups which hit him on the head. And in his earlier days with the Dodgers, he was involved in a notorious bad-base-running incident in which three Dodger runners ended up on third base at the same time. (An opposing infielder tagged all three and two were called out.) This led to a famous joke: First man: “Three Dodgers are on base.” Second man: “Which base?”
There have been many colorful and interesting Cubs players in more recent times, of course. During the 1970s, one of my favorites was talented, slightly eccentric outfielder Jose Cardenal, who, on occasion, liked to eat leaves (or pretend to) from the famous ivy on the Wrigley Field walls. And I suspect, when fans look back on the current period, they will remember pitcher Carlos Zambrano as one of the best, as well as most colorful, Cubs of his time. (I like his pre-game comic pile-driving routine where he pretends to drive infielder Mike Fontenot into the ground.)
Maybe the Cubs have been too colorful and “loveable” for their own good. Maybe if they had been more serious and business-like they would have won more post-season games. But then they wouldn’t have been as much fun to watch, would they? Anyway, this year they seem to be both colorful and talented, with the aforementioned Zambrano, as well as Dempster, Soriano, Lee, Ramirez and other very good players, led by manager Lou Piniella. Maybe they can go all the way. I’ll be satisfied if they even make it into the World Series. It’s been a long time.