Monday, May 31, 2010

The Pistons Take a Powder

     “We definitely won’t get swept.” So said Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons on Memorial Day, 1991. Game 4 of the NBA's Eastern Conference finals was to be played that day, and the Bulls had won the first three.
     The two teams had a good deal of history between them—it was their third straight meeting in the conference finals. The Pistons had defeated the Bulls in six games in 1989 and seven games in 1990, and had gone on to capture the world championship both times.
     The Pistons called themselves the Bad Boys, and indeed their style of play often suggested football or rugby rather than basketball. Bill Laimbeer’s specialty was the well-placed elbow to the back of the head; Dennis Rodman’s was taking the legs out from under airborne opponents as they drove to the hoop. “At some level, you were gonna have to contest [the Pistons] physically if you were gonna stay in the game with them,” Bulls coach Phil Jackson said. “If you didn’t want to stay in the game with them, fine. They’d go ahead and beat you. But if you wanted to compete, you’d have to do something physically to play at their level.”
     For three games, the Bulls had handled everything the Pistons had thrown at them.
     In the early stages of Game 4, though, it appeared that Thomas’s prediction might be right. Fired up by an ear-splitting crowd of 21,454 at the Palace of Auburn Hills, the Pistons came out with more intensity than they had shown in the previous games. They led 22-20 late in the first quarter
     Then came the turning point. As Bulls guard John Paxson drove to the basket, Laimbeer shouldered him into the stands. Paxson got up, had a few choice words for Laimbeer (his fellow Notre Dame alumnus), and calmly converted the two free throws. “It got me going a little bit,” Paxson said of Laimbeer’s cheap shot. On the Bulls’ next possession, Michael Jordan passed up a chance to dunk over Laimbeer and threw the ball out to Paxson, whose 18-footer was perfect. Paxson scored 10 straight points for the Bulls, and from then on the outcome was never seriously in doubt.
     If they were destined to lose, though, the Pistons at least remained true to their identity as the Bad Boys. They heard no inner voices urging them to bow out with dignity. With the Bulls in front 42-34 in the second quarter, Rodman’s body block sent Scottie Pippen skidding into the seats. Several players rushed off the Bulls bench expecting a fight to break out, but Horace Grant reminded his friend not to sink to the Pistons’ level. “You play, you play!” he shouted as Pippen shook the cobwebs from his head.
     “We knew what was coming,” said Jordan. “You take the lumps, bruises, and cuts. You take every beating, elbow, and punch and be smart about it. You look left and right and still try to play your game.” The Bulls kept their cool and gradually turned the game into a rout. They led 57-50 at halftime and 87-74 after three quarters. They were ahead by 20 two minutes into the fourth quarter, and that margin remained roughly unchanged thereafter. The Bulls won 115-94.
     Jordan was superb, as expected, but Pippen was a revelation. His 23 points and 10 assists proved that he was not only an ideal sidekick for Jordan, but also a full-fledged star in his own right. For the series, he averaged 22 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 5.3 assists to emerge at least partially from Jordan’s very long shadow.
     As the clock ticked down toward Detroit’s elimination, Laimbeer, Thomas, Rodman, and Mark Aguirre managed to embarrass themselves more completely than even the Bulls’ dominance had. By slinking off their bench and into the locker room before the game was over, the Pistons’ veteran “leaders” apparently sought to deny the legitimacy of the Bulls’ triumph—as if refusing to acknowledge the result would somehow erase it. They were rightly chastised for failing to congratulate the Bulls, but worse yet was how they so casually abandoned five teammates who happened to be on the court at the time. It was a fittingly shabby way for the Bad Boys to end their reign as champions.
     To every question posed by the media after the game, Laimbeer had the same sneering reply: “They won.” Rodman, too, claimed to be unimpressed by the team that had trailed for only 13 of the 192 minutes played in the series. “They still haven’t proved anything,” he said. “They’ve got to win about five or six championships before they’re a great team.”
     Even by this unreasonably lofty standard, of course, the Bulls would qualify for greatness before the decade was out. And, unbelievably, Rodman himself would be sporting their colors for three titles.

Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c)2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert

Friday, May 28, 2010

Dick Motta: A Lotta Bull

     The departure of the Bulls' popular head coach Johnny “Red” Kerr after the 1967-68 season was a serious blow. But when managing partner Dick Klein tapped an obscure young coach from Weber State University in Utah to replace Kerr, he probably saved the franchise. The announcement attracted little notice in the press—because Dick Motta’s first day as coach of the Bulls was also George Halas’s last as coach of the Bears. It was May 27, 1968, forty-two years ago yesterday.
     The two-year-old Bulls franchise was still all but invisible in Chicago. “We had four people in the front office,” said Motta. “We had a coach and no assistant. There were no newspaper people following us on the road. We didn’t do radio on the road. We didn’t do TV on the road. They sold, I think, 38 season tickets that year.”
     The Bulls opened the 1968-69 season with a starting five of Jerry Sloan and Flynn Robinson at guards, Bob Boozer and Jim Washington at forwards, and rookie Tom Boerwinkle at center. Their new coach was quite a contrast from the easy-going Kerr. He battled ceaselessly with his bosses, the media, referees, and any player who didn’t want to do things his way. A month into the season, Motta went home from practice one night and called Klein at home. “If Flynn [Robinson] is there tomorrow,” he said, “I’m gone.”
     Klein resented the ultimatum and told Motta so. Nonetheless, he traded Robinson to the Milwaukee Bucks for forward Bob Love and guard Bobby Weiss. Then he phoned Motta to “congratulate” him for forcing what he called the worst trade he’d ever made. “Motta had no idea who we were,” said Weiss, “and Klein did not like the deal. It was just one of those things that worked out.” Motta later described the trade as “the major turning point of the franchise.” The wiry, six-foot-eight Love became a force at both ends of the court (he would lead the Bulls in scoring for seven consecutive seasons), and the scrappy Weiss proved a solid sixth man.
     The Bulls went 33-49 and missed the playoffs in Motta’s first year, but they were starting to jell.
     Pat Williams was appointed general manager in 1969, replacing Klein, who had run afoul of his fellow partners. “I rubbed some furs the wrong way,” said Klein. Williams's first order of business was to complete a trade with the club he had just left, the 76ers, for forward Chet Walker.
     Walker, master of the pump fake and an excellent free-throw shooter, was just what the Bulls needed—a go-to guy who could deliver in pressure situations. “Chet [Walker] was a great clutch player,” said teammate Matt Guokas. “When teams stopped our offense, we needed good one-on-one players to finish it off. Chet was the guy.” Walker teamed with Love to give the Bulls a superb forward tandem.
     Meanwhile, the fiery Sloan thrived under Motta, a kindred spirit, emerging as the most tenacious defender in the league. “It took me about 10 minutes to recognize that he was very special,” Motta said. “There weren’t many players that had his intensity.” And Boerwinkle developed into an outstanding rebounder and passer. “He really set the whole Motta program up,” said Sloan, “because of his ability to pass the ball.”
     The 1969-70 Bulls finished 39-43 and won only one of five games in their first-round playoff series. It was clear, however, that they were on the verge of being one of the elite teams in the league. As Motta left the locker room after the last playoff game, he said, “I wish the season started all over again tomorrow.”
     The Bulls won 50 or more games in each of the next four seasons. Attendance soared. The Bulls didn’t win any championships in those years, but they won over enough Chicagoans to ensure that the franchise was here to stay. “The thing I really feel a little bit of pride in,” said Sloan, “is the fact that we kept the franchise here. Otherwise it would have been gone.”

Adapted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) 2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Stan Jones, 1931 – 2010

     If you sat down with some buddies to try and name the 26 Bears in the Pro Football Hall of Fame without looking them up, the name of Stan Jones probably wouldn’t be one of the first to come to mind.
     Jones, who passed away Friday at the age of 78, played for the Bears from 1954 through 1965 and was inducted into the Hall in 1991. If he is not as well remembered as other Bears legends, maybe it’s because he toiled for most of his career at the thankless position of offensive guard (he was only the fourth guard to be enshrined in Canton).
     Jones’s resume includes seven consecutive Pro Bowl appearances from 1955 to 1961, but his chief claim to fame is that he was the first athlete in any major sport to make weight training a central part of his workout routine. Lifting transformed Jones from a 140-pound high schooler to the strongest man in the NFL.
     “I'll tell you one thing, he could lift the side of a house,” said Bears defensive tackle Fred Williams. “He was one strong son of a gun.”
     Before Jones came along and proved its value, weight training was considered to be useful only for bodybuilding per se, not as a strength-and-conditioning tool for athletes. “If I hadn't lifted weights,” Jones said, “I probably wouldn't have become a pro football player. It really helped me recover from the bruises after every game.” Jones never missed a game in high school, college, or the pro ranks—logging 22 years of football without a significant injury.
     In 1962, the Bears were a little short on the defensive line, and their imaginative defensive coordinator George Allen asked Jones to help out. Jones played on both sides of the ball that year, and then played defense exclusively in 1963. Jones, at left tackle, was part of a front four that included Williams at right tackle and Doug Atkins and Ed O’Bradovich on the ends. Thanks in large part to this group, the Bears won the world championship.
    When asked it was strange playing defense after so many years on offense, Jones asserted that he was actually quite comfortable. “On offense, you are limited,” he said. “You have more freedom on defense. You can dish it out for a change.”

Monday, May 24, 2010

On a Roll

In 1992, as in 2010, the Blackhawks swept the Western Conference finals. We hope that the similarities go no further than that, because the '92 Hawks went no further than that.

     As the Bulls and Blackhawks advanced through their respective playoffs in 1992, Chicago fans entertained the novel idea of simultaneous championships. The Bulls were heavy favorites to win their second consecutive NBA title, while the Blackhawks were longshots to win their first Stanley Cup in three decades.
     The Hawks carried a seven-game winning streak into the conference finals, having won three in a row to close out their first playoff series against the St. Louis Blues and four straight to dispatch the Detroit Red Wings in the second round.
     It was their fourth conference finals against Edmonton since 1983, and the first three tries had not gone well. But the team confronting the Hawks this time was not the unstoppable Oilers who had won five Stanley Cups in seven years. Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, and Paul Coffey were gone, and the Oilers had plodded through the season with a mark of 36-34-10.
     The series began with a bang when Steve Larmer tallied for the Hawks only 47 seconds into Game 1 at the Stadium. But Chicago’s All-Star goalie Ed Belfour was shaky, allowing two soft goals later in the period. The score was 2-2 at the first intermission. “Eddie started slow,” said center Jeremy Roenick, “but then he put it in overdrive.”
     So did the Hawks, who suddenly transformed the tie game into a rout. A three-goal barrage by Mike Peluso, Roenick, and Steve Smith started 2:51 into the period and concluded less than 90 seconds later. The Hawks now led 5-2, and Game 1 had been decided. For good measure, the Hawks lit the lamp three more times in the third period to make the final score 8-2.
     Larmer, an unflappable 10-year-veteran and former Rookie of the Year, had scored the first and last goals of the game and assisted on two others in between. The four points put him over 100 in postseason games for his career, a level previously reached only by Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull, and Denis Savard in Blackhawks history. After the game, reporters asked if Larmer was excited about his performance and the Hawks’ prospects. “Maybe,” he replied. “I guess.”
     Edmonton coach Ted Green was more quotable. “We’re certainly going to have to pick up our socks,” he said, “or else it’s going to be a very short series.”
     Green proved prophetic. In Game 2, Larmer’s goal off a nifty pass from Michel Goulet tied the score 2-2 with 14 minutes left. Goulet tallied ten minutes later, assisted by Larmer. Stephane Matteau’s goal 45 seconds thereafter put the game away. Defenseman Chris Chelios assisted on all three Chicago goals in the third period.
     Game 3 at Edmonton was deadlocked 3-3 after three periods. Two minutes and 45 seconds into overtime, Roenick received a pass from Chelios in the slot and cranked away. Edmonton goalie Bill Ranford never saw the shot. “I heard a chink when it hit the crossbar,” he said. “I was waiting for a cheer [from the Edmonton crowd]. When I didn’t hear a cheer, I knew it was over.” It was indeed. Roenick’s shot clanged off the bottom of the crossbar and spun into the net. The Hawks won 4-3.
     The demoralized Oilers had little left for Game 4. The Blackhawks sailed away to a 5-0 lead in the first two periods and prevailed 5-1. Their postseason winning streak had reached 11, a new NHL record, and they were headed to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1973.
     By now the Tribune had taken to printing a “Championship Countdown” showing the “combined magic number of wins that would give the Bulls and Hawks championships.” On Saturday, May 23, the number stood at seven for the Bulls (who were tied 1-1 in their conference finals) and at four for the Blackhawks. Alas, the Hawks’ countdown went no further. They were swept by Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the finals, losing the four games by a total of five goals.
     The Hawks qualified for the playoffs every year from 1970 through 1997, and made three appearances in the finals, but the ultimate prize continued to elude them, as it had since 1961.

Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c)2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Fog Bowl


     When Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan resigned after the 1986 Super Bowl to become head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, the uneasy truce that he and Mike Ditka had observed for four years was fractured forever. Since they no longer had to work together, each man was now free to say just what he thought of the other. Both men made full use of the privilege, and their long-simmering enmity bubbled over in a series of recriminations back and forth through the media.
     The feud was good theater, and it sparked interest in the Eagles-Bears playoff game at Soldier Field on the last day of 1988. Unfortunately, the crowd of 65,534 and the national television audience saw only the first half. The second half was rendered all but invisible by fog.
     Neal Anderson’s four-yard touchdown blast put the Bears ahead 14-6 with 6:21 remaining in the second quarter. This took place under sunny skies. But when Kevin Butler added a field goal some four minutes later, the fog was rolling in from Lake Michigan and creeping over the stands. Within minutes, the whole field had been obscured.
     For the rest of the game, the spectators could not see a thing. Nor could the TV cameras capture the action going on behind and within the soupy curtain of fog. “I felt like I was on another planet,” a CBS producer remarked. For the players and officials on the field, visibility was better—but still less than 20 yards. “Have I ever played in anything like that before?” said Butler. “I haven’t even driven in anything like that before.”
     Philadelphia’s Luis Zendejas kicked two field goals (his third and fourth of the game) through the mist in the second half, and Butler booted another to make the final score Bears 20, Eagles 12. The game was quite unremarkable but for the fog. Quarterbacks Mike Tomczak of the Bears and Randall Cunningham of the Eagles tossed three interceptions apiece. The Eagles outplayed the Bears in most aspects, but they frittered away one opportunity after another—particularly in the first half, when Cunningham had two touchdown passes called back for penalties and another would-be touchdown strike dropped in the end zone.
     Despite 430 total yards and 22 first downs, the Eagles never breached the Bears’ goal line. “Credit the Bear defense,” Ryan said. “Every time we got down there, we didn’t make anything happen. We stopped ourselves. The effort was there, the heart was there, but it just didn’t happen.”
     The Bears were delighted to have gotten away with the victory that few people saw. “One good thing will come out of this,” said center Jay Hilgenberg. “We’ll have a short film session tomorrow. I mean, what are the coaches gonna show us?”
     Bob Verdi had the last word on the game that was known ever after as the Fog Bowl. “Somewhere over there on the lakefront,” he wrote, “there’s a guy who left his seat late in the first half to find a restroom and he’s still out there, trying to find his wife.”

Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c)2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Exciting Celebrity Encounters: Lynn McGlothen

All serious sports fans have probably had occasion to interact with some of the athletes they've followed, either on purpose or by chance. Sometimes these encounters reinforce an impression you've already formed, and sometimes they leave you surprised, disillusioned, or even disturbed. I'm going to describe some encounters I've had over the years, and my responses, in this space from time to time.


Lynn McGlothen, 1980

     Equipped with a little Instamatic camera, my brothers and I attended Cubs Photo Day at Wrigley Field in the summer of 1980. The Cubs were spread out along the foul lines and around the outfield at intervals of 15 or 20 feet, while we proceeded counterclockwise around this oblong circle, snapping pictures from behind a yellow nylon rope that separated the big leaguers from the common people.
     Most of the players made no attempt to conceal their boredom and irritation at having to stand around on display for the people who paid their salaries. (Maybe I’d have been surly too if I were playing for a club that was on its way to 98 losses.) Some, such as outfielder Jerry Martin and pitcher Doug Capilla, were openly hostile. Others, including first baseman Larry Biittner and pitcher Mike Krukow, were reasonably friendly. One, pitcher Lynn McGlothen, not only cheerfully posed for a picture, but also extended his hand, looked me right in the eye, and chatted with me as if I were his equal.
     A year later, McGlothen was traded to the White Sox. "Sure [the Cubs] can replace his innings and maybe his wins," Dave van Dyck wrote in the Sun-Times, "but how will they replace his leadership and competitive fire?"
     Since Rick Reuschel had also been traded by then, the question went unanswered.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Best Seat in the House

     The Blackhawks went into the 1938 Stanley Cup playoffs with an uninspiring record of 14-25-9. They dropped the opener in their first best-of-three series, against the Montreal Canadiens, before rebounding to take the next two games. They lost their first game against the New York Americans, then came back with a pair of do-or-die wins to claim that series as well. In each series, a shutout by goalie Mike Karakas staved off elimination and swung the momentum to the Hawks’ favor.      The Cinderella Hawks advanced to the finals against Toronto as decided underdogs; they had managed only one win in six tries against the Maple Leafs during the regular season. Worse yet, Karakas was diagnosed with a broken toe (suffered in the last game with the Americans) only hours before the series opener on April 5. “We had sent Paul Goodman, our spare goalie, home before the playoffs started,” recalled Hawks captain Johnny Gottselig. “There was no way of getting him to Toronto before the game that night.”
     Coach Bill Stewart tried to engineer a hasty trade with the New York Rangers, who had already been eliminated, for their outstanding goalie Dave Kerr—who was willing to join the Hawks, if only temporarily. But Toronto general manager Conn Smythe threatened to have any such deal vetoed by the league office. He recommended Alfie Moore, a journeyman who was property of the Maple Leafs but had played the entire season with Pittsburgh (then a minor-league club). After briefly scuffling with Smythe in a corridor of Maple Leaf Gardens, Stewart recognized that he had little choice but to give Moore a try. He sent Gottselig and Paul Thompson to fetch him.
     The two went to Moore’s house, not far from the arena, and were told by Moore’s wife that he was at a local tavern. When they got there, the bartender informed them that Moore had left an hour earlier for another tavern up the street. Sure enough, Gottselig and Thompson found Moore on a barstool, seeming a bit worse for wear. “He turned around and when he saw me his face lit up,” Gottselig remembered. “‘Geez, I’m glad to see you. How about a couple tickets to the game tonight?’ he said. ‘I’m glad to see you, Alfie,’ I said. ‘You’re going to get the best seat in the house.’”
     Moore was hustled to the arena and given a shower and several cups of coffee to sober him up, then he took the ice. “When we were warming up,” Gottselig said, “Stewart said, ‘Take it easy—don’t shoot too hard. I don’t want him hurt.’ But Alfie was stopping everything, laughing and waving at his friends. He was mad at Smythe for sending him to Pittsburgh and said, ‘I’ll show him.’”
     When the Maple Leafs’ first shot on Moore ended up in the net, the Hawks figured they were in for a long night. But nothing else got past him. “We threw everything at him but the house,” said Toronto goalie Turk Broda. Moore’s heroics and two tallies by Gottselig carried the Hawks to a 3-1 win.
     Smythe had technically loaned Moore to the Blackhawks, and he promptly unloaned him prior to Game 2 of the series. Goodman, pressed into service after two weeks of inactivity, proved no match for the Leafs in a 5-1 Toronto victory. But when the series shifted to Chicago Stadium, Karakas—outfitted with a special skate that protected his broken foot—was ready to go. A then-record crowd of 18,497 saw the Hawks win 2-1 in Game 3. Then, before another overflow throng of 17,204, the Hawks wrapped up their second Stanley Cup championship with a 4-1 triumph in Game 4.
     Alfie Moore received $300 and a gold watch from the grateful Blackhawks for what proved to be the only playoff victory of his career. He played only 21 regular-season games in the NHL, 14 of them losses. In 1961, on the occasion of the Hawks’ third Stanley Cup, Moore was asked if he had really been drunk that night in Toronto. “I’ve always been sort of hazy about that,” he replied. “I had quite a few beers that day and I just can’t remember.”

Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c)2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert

Friday, May 14, 2010

Smashing Debuts

     No one ever had a major-league debut quite like 20-year-old Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro did last Friday. He hit a home run, a three-run shot, in his first at-bat. That in itself was not unique; 107 previous players since 1895 had homered in their first at-bat, and three of these had bested Castro by clouting a grand slam. But none had ever cracked a bases-loaded triple in the same game, or ended the game with six runs batted in, as Castro did.
     Of course, in baseball more so than in any other sport, early success does not guarantee lasting fame. Nor does early failure preclude eventual glory. The Cubs’ Ryne Sandberg and the White Sox’ Robin Ventura had notoriously horrendous starts as rookies, but both soon proved that they had the right stuff.
     Was Castro’s electrifying debut a fitting start to an outstanding career, or (easy now) simply a fluke? Of the 107 previous first at-bat home-run hitters, most had careers that were noteworthy only as examples of mediocrity. Only one is in the Hall of Fame, and not for his hitting—pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm, who made his debut for the New York Giants at the advanced age of 29 and still lasted 21 seasons, six of them with the White Sox (for whom he had a 1.92 earned run average and 98 saves).
     Gary Gaetti is the career home-run leader in the first at-bat homer club with 360. He hit his first homer in 1981 for the Minnesota Twins and his last in 1999 for the Cubs. Jermaine Dye is next on that list with 325 homers, the first in 1996 for the Atlanta Braves and the last (so far) for the White Sox in 2009.
     Of the 107 first at-bat home-run hitters before Castro, eight were Chicago players. How many have you heard of?

Paul Gillespie, Cubs catcher, September 11, 1942. Played a total of 89 games in the majors between 1942 and 1945, all with the Cubs. Finished with 6 homers, 31 RBIs, and a respectable .288 average. Went 0-for-6 in 1945 World Series, and never appeared in another major-league game.

Frank Ernaga, Cubs outfielder, May 24, 1957. Played a total of 29 games in 1957 and 1958, all with the Cubs. Finished with 12 hits in 43 career at-bats, with two homers and seven RBIs.

Cuno Barragan, Cubs catcher, September 1, 1961. Played a total of 69 games between 1961 and 1963, all with the Cubs. One of 17 first at-bat home-run hitters whose first homer was also his last. Finished with one homer, 14 RBIs, and a .202 average.

Carmelo Martinez, Cubs outfielder, August 22, 1983. Played in 29 games for the Cubs in 1983, then enjoyed a reasonably productive six years with San Diego Padres. Ended up with 108 homers, 424 RBIs, and .245 average over nine seasons.

Jim Bullinger, Cubs pitcher, June 8, 1992. Made his major-league debut in a mop-up role two weeks before getting his first at-bat. Went 34-41 with 5.06 ERA in seven seasons, five with Cubs. Ended up with four career home runs and passable (for a pitcher) .188 average.

Carlos Lee, White Sox outfielder, May 7, 1999. One of several quality sluggers to graduate from the Sox’ farm system in the nineties, following Frank Thomas and Magglio Ordonez. Spent six years on the South Side and clubbed 152 homers; currently ranks third all-time in the first at-bat homer club with 309 to date. A serious Cub killer.

Miguel Olivo, White Sox catcher, September 15, 2002. Played a total of 166 games for White Sox between 2002 and 2004, with 14 homers, 58 RBIs, .245 average. Has since played for five other clubs. Career total now stands at 103 homers.

Josh Fields, White Sox third baseman, September 18, 2006. Hit one homer in 2006 and 23 as an everyday player the next year, replacing the injured Joe Crede. In 2008, Crede was back and Fields was back in the minors. Has 31 career homers to date, all with White Sox. Traded to Kansas City Royals after the 2009 season.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Today is the 40th anniversary of Ernie Banks's 500th career home run. Fans who are old enough to have seen Banks play are probably feeling even older as they contemplate this fact. Younger fans might be surprised to learn that Mr. Cub's milestone was achieved before a sea of empty seats. Prior to the mid-1980s, sparse crowds were not unusual at Wrigley Field, especially on weekday afternoons when schools were in session.

     Only Ernie Banks would have called the dreary Tuesday afternoon of May 12, 1970, “a beautiful day for baseball.” It had rained throughout the morning, and there were puddles all over Wrigley Field when the Cubs took on the Atlanta Braves. Most fans assumed that the game had been called off, and only 5,264 diehards turned out.
     They never regretted it. In the second inning, Banks stepped up to the plate against Pat Jarvis. On the count of 1-and-1, he swung and stroked a low line drive into the left-field bleachers for the 500th home run of his illustrious career. “I felt the ball had a real good chance,” Banks said later. “Then when I saw [left fielder] Rico Carty turn and look into the seats, I knew it was in.” The ball ricocheted out of the stands and back to Carty, who tossed it into the Cubs’ bullpen for safekeeping.
     Jack Brickhouse, of course, was calling the game on WGN television. He shouted, “On your feet everybody—this is it!”
     Banks was the ninth player in major-league history to reach 500 homers. The fateful blow also marked his 1,600th run batted in; he was the 12th man to achieve that level. A generation later, either milestone might have held up the game for half an hour, but in Banks’s day there was a minimum of fanfare. Richard Dozer described the scene in the Tribune: “[Banks] doffed his cap as he crossed the plate and shook hands with Rick Ferrari, Andy Frain usher chief who arrived conveniently at the plate with a new supply of baseballs for the umpire. Later, after he’d shaken the hand of every teammate in view, he went out to his first-base position, received another ovation, and got a congratulatory handshake from Carty on his way to the Atlanta dugout.”
     Atlanta’s Hank Aaron also shook Banks’s hand upon reaching first base later in the game. He had preceded Mr. Cub to the 500-homer and 1,600-RBI milestones, and he would eventually reach the unprecedented levels of 755 and 2,297, respectively, in the two categories.
     The Cubs won the game 4-3 in 11 innings. It was strangely fitting that barely 5,000 spectators had witnessed the culmination of Banks’s career—for the melancholy fact is that no other player ever performed as wonderfully for such listless teams and before so many empty seats. That he somehow managed to turn all this into a triumph was his greatest feat.

Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c)2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert

Monday, May 10, 2010


     On April 30, 1922, White Sox pitcher Charlie Robertson took the hill in Detroit to face a formidable assemblage led by 12-time batting champion Ty Cobb. Cobb, the Tigers’ center fielder and manager, was showing no signs of slowing down at age 35. Flanking him in the outfield were Bobby Veach in left and Harry Heilmann in right. This trio comprised the three-four-five combination in the batting order and was responsible for most of Detroit’s offensive production. Cobb would hit .401 that year, Veach .327, and Heilmann .356, and the three would combine for 317 runs batted in.
     A crowd in excess of 25,000 was on hand, and officials at Navin Field (as Tiger Stadium was known in those days) found themselves with more fans than seats. As was common practice at the time, they simply roped off sections of the outfield and put the extra fans there. Any ball that rolled or bounced beyond the ropes would be called a ground-rule double.
     Robertson was still a rookie, having spent the past three years in the minors after pitching (and losing) one game for the Sox in 1919. But he pitched like a wily old veteran against the Tigers, mixing a lively fastball with an assortment of slower stuff and demonstrating pinpoint control. He retired Cobb on a grounder to third, a fly to short left, and a strikeout. He retired Veach on a deep drive to left (Johnny Mostil making the catch just inside the ropes), a high pop fly to right, and a strikeout. He retired Heilmann on a fly to right, a tap back to the mound, and a foul pop to first.
     You get the picture. Robertson faced 27 batters and retired them all for a perfect game. Six Tigers fanned, seven grounded out, six flied out, and—this was the real measure of Robertson’s effectiveness—eight hit pop-ups on the infield. The more frustrated the Tigers got, the harder they swung; and the harder they swung, the more weak pop flies they hit.
     Hoping in vain to upset the rookie, the Tigers complained ceaselessly from the fifth inning on that he was illegally doctoring the ball. First Heilmann, then Cobb, demanded that the home-plate umpire search Robertson’s cap and uniform for a foreign substance. When nothing was found, Cobb had the umpire inspect the Sox first baseman, Earl Sheely, also to no avail. (It was Sheely whose second-inning single had knocked in Harry Hooper and Mostil with what proved to be the only runs of the game).
     Late in the game, the Detroit fans took to cheering for Robertson. When pinch-hitter Johnny Bassler flied to Mostil for the final out, a group of fans carried Robertson off the field on their shoulders. He had pitched the third perfect game of the modern era, joining Cy Young and Addie Joss in a very exclusive club. There would be no new members until 1956, when Don Larsen pitched his famous perfect game in the World Series. White Sox lefty Mark Buehrle became the 16th member in 2009.
     From absolute perfection, of course, there is only one direction to go, and Charlie Robertson’s subsequent career proved the point nicely. He lost more games than he won every year, allowing better than a hit per inning and walking more batters than he struck out. He finished up with a record of 49-80 over eight seasons. Later he regretted having played major-league baseball at all. “It is ridiculous,” he said, “for any young man with qualifications to make good in another profession to waste time in professional athletics.” But where else could one be perfect, even if only for one day?

Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c)2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert

Friday, May 7, 2010

Record 46,572 See Dodgers Beat Cubs, 4-2

     A cursory glance at page 1 of the Tribune sports section for May 19, 1947, would have revealed the headline above, followed by a subhead reading "Brooklyn Bats Rout Schmitz in 4-Run 7th," and by a sub-subhead reading "It's Fifth Defeat in Row for Chicago."
     One would have had to read the small type to discover that the largest paid crowd in Cubs history had turned out not to root, root, root for the home team, but to witness the Chicago debut of Jackie Robinson, who was a month into his career as the first African-American player in major league baseball.
    Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey had been itching to sign African-American players for some time, and he had finally settled on Robinson as the man who best combined the playing ability and intestinal fortitude that would be required of the first one. Robinson was no kid at 28 years old, and he was both a college graduate and a former Army officer. He was also suitably sure of himself.
     In his first game in Chicago, Robinson went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts (thus ending his 14-game hitting streak), and he also made an error playing first base. The crowd cheered his every move nonetheless. The Dodgers' win and Cubs' loss left the two clubs tied at 14-12 for the young season, but they were headed in opposite directions. The Cubs were in the first of 16 consecutive seasons in which they'd finish at or below the .500 level. The Dodgers were destined to win the National League pennant in 1947 and five more times in the next nine years.
     For the season, Robinson batted .297, led the league with 29 stolen bases, scored 125 runs, and won the Rookie of the Year award (which has since been named for him). Two years later, he was elected Most Valuable Player.
     Robinson's success on the field and deportment off it paved the way for a parade of great African-American players who soon followed, including Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron, Bob Gibson, Frank Robinson, and other All-Stars and Hall of Famers too numerous to list.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Splendid Seasons: Cubs MVPs, Part 3

We're remembering the 19 Chicago athletes whose splendid seasons have earned them the Most Valuable Player award for their respective leagues. Nine of these players have represented the Cubs, and three of them are remembered below.

Ryne Sandberg,

     “Ryne Sandberg is the best player I have ever seen,” said St. Louis Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog on June 23, 1984. In an uncanny performance, Sandberg had homered off ace reliever Bruce Sutter with the Cubs trailing in the bottom of the ninth and repeated the feat in the tenth, tying the game both times. The Cubs had won 12-11 in eleven innings, with Sandberg going five-for-six and driving in seven runs.
     Prior to 1984, Sandberg was an opposite-field hitter who’d hit only 15 homers in his two years in the majors. Then the Cubs’ new manager Jim Frey encouraged him to pull more pitches and consequently hit more home runs. Sandberg’s breakout season resulted. He pounded out 19 homers and 19 triples, scored 114 runs, knocked in 84, and batted .314 as the Cubs achieved their first championship since 1945. The first three hitters in the lineup—Bob Dernier, Sandberg, and Gary Matthews—each scored over 90 runs; Sandberg and Matthews were among six Cubs who had 80 or more RBIs.
     Ryno had an even better year in 1985, but the Cubs lost all chance to repeat as N.L. East champs when their entire starting rotation fell victim to injuries. He got only one more shot at postseason play, in 1989, but continued for years thereafter as one of the most durable and reliable players in the league. Sandberg abruptly retired early in the 1994 season, then returned in 1996 and played two more years. By the time he retired for good, Sandberg had hit more home runs than any other second baseman in history (that record has since been broken). He was also a swift, heads-up base runner (he scored more runs than any other Cub of the 20th century) and the finest fielding second baseman of his era, and possibly of any era.
     A ten-time All-Star and nine-time Gold Glover, Sandberg was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2005.

Andre Dawson,

     The strange thing about Andre Dawson was that a man so quiet and gentle off the field smoldered with such intensity on it. His knees were so bad for most of his career that he could hardly walk from the car to the clubhouse—yet once the game started he went all out all the time.
     So sure was he that he wanted to play for the Cubs, that Dawson came to their spring training camp in 1987 and offered himself for whatever salary they would condescend to pay him. A free agent after a decade in Montreal as one of the league’s best all-around players, he had received no offers that winter. (It was later revealed that he, like all free agents that year, had been a victim of collusion by the owners.) Dawson wanted to play in Wrigley Field because he loved day baseball and because the natural grass would be relatively easy on his ravaged knees. Hat in hand, he signed a blank contract and asked the Cubs to fill in a salary figure of their own choosing.
     For their $500,000, Dawson gave the Cubs a monster season: 49 homers, 137 RBIs, a .287 average, and his seventh Gold Glove for fielding excellence. He became the first player to win the National League’s MVP award while toiling for a last-place club. Dawson put an exclamation point to his storybook season on closing day at Wrigley Field. As he stepped up to the plate for his final at-bat of the year, the fans signified their respect and gratitude with a standing ovation. Dawson responded by blasting a long home run into the bleachers in left center.
     Dawson was elected to the Hall of Fame earlier this year and will be inducted this summer.

Sammy Sosa,

     No one ever doubted that Sammy Sosa had tremendous physical gifts; he was a prototypical “five-tool” player who could hit for average, hit with power, and run, field, and throw with the best of them. For nine long years, however, immaturity and inconsistency tarnished his brilliance. Then, in 1998, he exceeded the wildest dreams of even his most ardent supporters.
     Sosa cracked 20 home runs in June, the most ever in a single month, and for the rest of the season he joined Mark McGwire of St. Louis in a relentless assault on Roger Maris’s 37-year-old record of 61 homers in a season. When McGwire hit No. 62 against the Cubs on September 8, Sosa offered his congratulations. “Mark is my idol,” he said. “He’s the man!”
     Although McGwire eventually outhomered him 70-66, Sosa led the league in RBIs with 158 (highest total in the majors since 1949), in runs scored with 134, and in total bases with 416. He also established career highs in batting average (.308), hits (198), and walks (77) as the Cubs rebounded from a disastrous season the year before to win 90 games and a wild-card playoff berth.
     Sosa was elected the National League's Most Valuable Player and achieved a level of celebrity that had rarely been attained by any baseball player.
     As time went on, though, the record-smashing feats of Sosa, McGwire, Barry Bonds, and others were tainted by the well-founded suspicion that they had been helped along by the use of steroids. If many of the unprecedented performances of recent years seemed too good to be true, fans concluded, they probably were. Sosa tried to laugh off questions about his own transformation from the 160-pound greyhound who joined the White Sox in 1989 to the 235-pound block of solid muscle he’d become. He credited the change to a daily regimen of Flintstones vitamins.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Double No-Hitter

     The cold, blustery afternoon of Wednesday, May 2, 1917, was not a promising one for baseball, and only about 2,500 fans came to Wrigley Field (then known as Weeghman Park) for the privilege of seeing something unique in baseball history.
     The Cubs and Reds each sent their ace to the mound—lefty Hippo Vaughn for Chicago and righthander Fred Toney for Cincinnati. Vaughn walked Heinie Groh twice, but each time the Cubs turned a double play to end the threat. Toney, a former Cub, walked Cy Williams twice, but allowed no other baserunners. An error by the Cubs put Greasy Neale on base, but he was promptly caught stealing.
     On and on it went, inning after inning, with neither team managing a hit. It was the ultimate pitcher’s duel. When the Reds were retired in the ninth (with Toney fanning for the final out), the sparse crowd cheered lustily, both for Vaughn’s magnificent pitching and for the prospect of a Cub rally in the bottom half of the inning. But the Cubs went down easily. Both Vaughn and Toney had gone a full nine innings without yielding a hit. But only Toney would go into the record books as having pitched an official no-hitter.
     Vaughn got the first batter in the 10th to pop out. Then Larry Kopf drilled the first hit of the game, a single to left center. After Neale flied out to Williams in center, Hal Chase hit another fly to Williams for the apparent third out. But Williams muffed it. Kopf took third on the error, and Chase stole second on the next pitch. Jim Thorpe was at bat (yes, the same Jim Thorpe who'd been the hero of the 1912 Olympic Games and was regarded as the world's greatest athlete). Thorpe swung and tapped a little dribbler down the third-base line. “I knew the minute it was hit,” Vaughn said, “that I couldn’t get Thorpe at first. He was fast as a racehorse. So I went over to the line, fielded the ball, and scooped it toward the plate. Kopf, running in, was right behind me and he stopped when he saw me make the throw to the plate. I didn’t see him or I could have just turned around and tagged him out.” Catcher Art Wilson wasn’t able to handle Vaughn’s throw; it hit his chest protector and bounded away, allowing Kopf to score. When Chase rounded third and tried to score too, Wilson finally recovered the ball and tagged him out. But the damage had been done.
     Toney set the Cubs down one-two-three in the bottom half of the inning to preserve a 1-0 victory and a 10-inning no-hitter. Vaughn went on to win 23 games that year, but there again he came up just shy of Toney, who won 24.
     There have been some 150,000 major-league ballgames in the 93 years since Toney and Vaughn staged their amazing duel, but no pair of opposing pitchers has equaled their feat of tossing nine hitless innings against each other. Given the scarcity of complete games in this day and age, it is safe to say that none ever will.

Adapted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) 2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert