Friday, April 30, 2010

Citing Citation

CITATION WITH EDDIE ARCARO UP

     Yesterday was opening day at Arlington Park and tomorrow is Kentucky Derby day, so today's a good day to reflect upon the Sport of Kings. Horse racing is a game of odds, and each of the three-year-olds who enters the starting gate at Churchill Downs tomorrow will have overcome odds of 1,865-to-1. Of the 37,315 thoroughbred foals registered in North America in 2007, twenty are talented, lucky, and healthy enough to have made it to the Derby.
     The difficulty of getting to the Derby, let alone winning it, is illustrated by the unfortunate case of Eskendereya. He was the runaway winner of the Fountain of Youth Stakes and the Wood Memorial earlier this spring and would have been a heavy favorite in the Derby but for an injury sustained last week in training. Eskendereya's injury appears to be relatively minor, but even if he comes back and wins many more races, he will never add his name to the list of Kentucky Derby winners.
     That prestigious roll will add its 136th name tomorrow. The previous 135 include eleven that have gone on to win the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, thus completing the Triple Crown. Will this year's Derby winner join that extremely select club? Probably not. No horse has since 1978, when Affirmed followed Seattle Slew (1977) and Secretariat (1973) to make it three Triple Crown winners in six years. Prior to that, there was a Triple Crown drought stretching back to Citation in 1948.
     And now we've gotten to the point, which is to recall Citation, one of the very greatest race horses of all time (most experts rank Man O' War above him, and some rank Secretariat above him, but few
rank any others above him). A recap of Citation's career in Chicago can be found below.

     Owned by Chicagoan Warren Wright and named after the baking-powder company he had founded, Calumet Farm was the most illustrious stable in racing history. A long line of champions carried its devil-red and navy-blue silks to glory in the forties: Whirlaway, Armed, Twilight Tear, Coaltown, Bewitch, and Citation. The last of these was exceptional even by Calumet’s rarefied standards. While it was not uncommon at the time for the best horses to compete in one top race after another with hardly a pause to catch their breath between starts, it was quite uncommon for any horse to win 19 races in a single year, as Citation did. “He could outsprint the fastest,” Edward L. Bowen wrote, “outstay the stoutest, and do it all with a mechanical rhythm invested of perfection.”
     Citation first came to Chicago in the summer of 1947, his two-year-old season. On July 24, he captured the Sealeggy Purse at Arlington Park, covering the five furlongs in 58 seconds flat for a new track record. He won his first stakes race, the Elementary, six days later at Washington Park. On August 16, he and two stablemates entered the Washington Park Futurity. They were trained by the famous father-and-son team of Ben and Jimmy Jones, who won the Kentucky Derby eight times between them.
     “We ran three horses in the Futurity that year,” Jimmy Jones later recalled, “and we figured we’d take the first three places with Citation, Bewitch, and Free America. So we told the riders before the race that we would split the fees three ways. That way nobody would do anything foolish in the drive. Bewitch, with Doug Dodson up, got the lead and finished a length in front of Citation, with Free America third. Steve Brooks, on Citation, said he could have gone by [Bewitch] at any time.” It was the only defeat of the year for Citation, who went eight-for-nine and was voted champion two-year-old colt. Bewitch was champion two-year-old filly.
     In 1948, Citation enjoyed the greatest three-year-old campaign of all time. He won 19 of 20 starts and earned $709,470 (the previous record for earnings in a single year was $424,195). He not only swept the Triple Crown races with astonishing ease, but he also won the Jersey Derby between the Preakness and the Belmont! “Citation is by far the greatest horse I’ve ever ridden,” said jockey Eddie Arcaro, and even curmudgeonly old-timers began to mention him in the same breath as the legendary Man O’ War, who had died at the age of 30 the year before.
     Fresh from his Triple Crown triumph, Citation returned to Arlington Park for the Stars & Stripes Handicap against older horses on July 5. That no three-year-old had won, and only one had run in the money, in the 20-year history of the event was of no concern to Citation. Before a huge crowd of 46,490, he romped to a two-length victory and tied the track record for a mile and an eighth at 1:49.2.
     Citation got a well-deserved six-week vacation, then devastated his rivals in an allowance sprint at Washington Park on August 21. A week later, the entry of Citation and Free America was sent off at odds of 1-10 in the American Derby, also at Washington Park. The race went true to form, as Citation scored by a length over Free America in a brisk 2:01.6 for the mile and a quarter. It was his ninth consecutive win. By the end of the year, the streak had reached 15, and Citation’s career mark stood at 27 wins and two seconds in 29 starts.
     An ankle injury sidelined Citation for all of 1949, but, because his owners were intent on making him the first equine millionaire, he came back to race 16 more times in 1950 and 1951. He lost on several occasions, in the words of racing writer Joe Hirsch, to “horses who couldn’t warm him up when he was right.” Nonetheless, he went out in style, winning his last three races to bring his lifetime earnings to $1,085,760.
     Citation made his final public appearance on July 29, 1951. While thousands cheered, he galloped down the home stretch at Arlington Park, then was led to that place he knew so well—the winner’s circle.


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

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Splendid Seasons: Blackhawks MVPs

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


Max Bentley,
1946

     Except on the ice, where he was the slightly superior stickhandler and playmaker, Max Bentley always followed his older brother. Doug joined the Hawks in 1939, Max in 1940. Doug won the NHL scoring title in 1943, Max in 1946 and 1947. Doug was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1964, Max in 1966.
     On January 28, 1943, Max had four goals and three assists, Doug had two goals and four assists, and their linemate Bill Thoms settled for five assists as the Hawks blistered the New York Rangers 10-1. That season, Max compiled a grand total of two penalty minutes and, not surprisingly, received the Lady Byng Trophy as the league’s most gentlemanly player. He missed the next two seasons while serving in World War II, then returned to center the Blackhawks’ famous Pony Line, with Doug at left wing and Bill Mosienko at right wing, in 1945-46. Max won the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s top scorer, with 61 points on 31 goals and 30 assists. He also managed to lead the Hawks to a winning season—their only one between 1940 and 1961. For that feat, he received the Hart Trophy as Most Valuable Player.
     Max was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs (for five players) on November 3, 1947. “It had to be done,” said coach Johnny Gottselig, “because we needed fresh blood and no other club wanted any of our players except Max Bentley.” The Maple Leafs went on to win their second of three straight Stanley Cups that season; they would win four in five years. The Hawks finished last for the second straight year; they would finish last nine times in eleven years.


Al Rollins,
1954

     In 1953-54, the Hawks had the worst year of the bleakest decade in their history. They set a franchise record with 51 losses, against 12 wins and 7 ties, for their sixth last-place finish in the past eight seasons. They were outscored 242 goals to 136. Yet Al Rollins, the Hawks’ goalie, was voted the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player—“apparently,” as George Vass wrote, “for extraordinary gallantry under fire.”
     Rollins posted a respectable goals-against-average of 3.23 while losing a league-record 47 games. In the four games he missed due to injury, the Hawks surrendered an average of more than seven goals.
     Only the third goalie to win the MVP, Rollins had looked at life from both sides now. In 1951 with Toronto, he’d won the Vezina Trophy with a sparkling record of 27-5-8 and a goals-against average of 1.77 as the Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup. Traded to the Hawks in 1952, he endured five seasons as their regular goalie, during which time they averaged fewer than 18 victories (out of 70 games) per year.
     Crowds at the Stadium dwindled to 4,000 a game, and rumors were rife that the Hawks would move to St. Louis or withdraw from the league altogether. To the rescue came Tommy Ivan, who had coached Detroit to six first-place finishes and three Stanley Cups in six years. Named general manager of the Hawks in July 1954, Ivan engineered a rebuilding program that culminated in a Stanley Cup championship in 1961.


Bobby Hull,
1965, 1966

     Handsome, personable, and extraordinarily talented, Bobby Hull was the first glamorous hockey star of the television age, ranking with such other luminaries of the sixties as Arnold Palmer, Jim Brown, Mickey Mantle, Sandy Koufax, and Wilt Chamberlain. He was the prototypical goal scorer—the fastest skater in the league, possessed of tremendous physical strength, able to shoot the puck at truly frightening speeds (almost 120 miles per hour). His 50 goals in 1961-62 tied the single-season record, which he broke with 54 in 1965-66. He led the NHL in goals scored seven times, in total points three times, and was selected MVP twice.
     Hull and teammate Stan Mikita monopolized the league’s top individual awards for most of the sixties. To say that Hull was the more electrifying of the two is no disrespect to Mikita. The Golden Jet drew people to the edge of their seats merely by stepping onto the ice. There was always a buzz in the arena in anticipation of what he might do—and he usually did something. “I get as big a kick out of watching Bobby as anybody else does,” Mikita said, dismissing rumors of jealousy between them. “I’d hate to play against him.”
     In 1968-69, Hull demonstrated that he was as tough and courageous as he was entertaining. After suffering a broken jaw on Christmas Day, 1968, he missed only one game (while his jaw was being set and wired), then played for six weeks during which he could eat no solid food. He finished the season with 58 goals, setting yet another new record.
     Hull was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1983.


Stan Mikita,
1967, 1968

     “The guy has such tremendous reflexes and so much talent,” goalie Glenn Hall said of Stan Mikita, “that he can change his mind in mid-stride when he’s skating or shooting. And believe me, a guy who can do that drives goalkeepers nuts.” Mikita teamed with Bobby Hull to give the Blackhawks the most feared scoring duo in hockey during the sixties.
     Born in Czechoslovakia, Mikita was sent to live with his aunt and uncle in Canada at the age of eight, escaping the Communist subjugation of his homeland. When he joined the Hawks 10 years later, at five-foot-eight and 152 pounds, he made up his mind to hit rather than be hit. “Either they were going to kill me and carry me out in a box, or I was going to survive,” Mikita recalled. “Luckily, I survived.” Mikita was among the most penalized players in the league early in his career, earning the nickname Le petit diable (“the little devil”) from French-speaking fans. Then, in 1966-67, he suddenly decided that he needed to spend more time on the ice and less in the penalty box.
     The new Mikita was a revelation. His high-powered Scooter Line, featuring Ken Wharram on right wing and Doug Mohns on left wing, accounted for 91 goals and 222 points as the Blackhawks broke the NHL record for goals scored in a season. The Hawks won their first Prince of Wales Trophy as regular-season champions, and Mikita was rewarded with three trophies of his own: the Art Ross as the league’s top scorer, the Lady Byng as its most gentlemanly player, and the Hart as the player “adjudged to be most valuable to his team.” No player had swept the three coveted awards in one year before, and no one (not even Wayne Gretzky) has done it since 1968—when Mikita repeated the feat.
     After Bobby Hull defected to the upstart World Hockey Association in 1972, Mikita stayed on for almost another decade. In all, he played for the Hawks from 1959 to 1980. Mikita is Mr. Blackhawk. Like Hull, he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1983.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Lincoln, Washington, and Monday

RICK MONDAY RESCUES OLD GLORY

     As the United States prepared to mark its Bicentennial, most Americans were not in a particularly celebratory mood, their confidence having been shaken by the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, the energy crisis, and other recent reversals. Then, a strange thing happened to cheer everyone up.
     It was April 25, 1976, and the Cubs were playing the Dodgers in Los Angeles. A man and his son climbed out of the stands and onto the field. “One of them had an American flag tucked under his arm,” recalled Rick Monday, who was watching the pair from his vantage point as the Cubs’ center fielder. The two went to a spot in left-center field, about halfway between Monday and left fielder Jose Cardenal, where the older man spread the flag out on the grass and began to sprinkle lighter fluid over it.
     “The next thing I saw was the glint of the [lighter fluid] can,” said Monday. “I figured it wasn’t holy water. That’s when I took off. They couldn’t see me coming from behind but I could see one had lit a match. The wind blew it out, and just as they lit another and were about to touch it to the flag, I grabbed [the flag].”
     Monday scooped up Old Glory just before it would have been set afire. He sprinted to the left-field bullpen and handed the flag over to Los Angeles pitcher Doug Rau. As the fans in the ballpark realized what had happened, they rose to give Monday a standing ovation. The Dodger Stadium message board flashed, “RICK MONDAY, YOU MADE A GREAT PLAY.”
     The would-be flag burners were arrested and charged with trespassing. “If you're going to burn the flag,” Monday later said, “don't do it around me. I've been to too many veterans' hospitals and seen too many broken bodies of guys who tried to protect it.”
     In the following weeks, ceremonies honoring Monday were held in every city the Cubs visited. Jose Cardenal, who'd witnessed the attempting flag burning up close, understood why Monday's actions had struck a chord. He had left his homeland of Cuba at the age of 17 in 1960, a year after it became a Communist dictatorship, never to return. Cardenal loved his adopted country and wasn't embarrassed to admit it. “Now we have three great patriots,” he said. “Lincoln, Washington, and Monday.”

Friday, April 23, 2010

American Giant

RUBE FOSTER
    
     Andrew "Rube" Foster was easily the finest black pitcher before Satchel Paige, and perhaps the best, black or white, of his day. Cubs manager Frank Chance called him “the most finished product I have ever seen in the pitcher’s box.” Alas, Foster was born a couple generations too early to play in the white major leagues.
     Foster was a master of the psychological aspects of pitching. “The real test comes when you are pitching with men on bases,” he explained. “Do not worry. Try to appear jolly and unconcerned. I have smiled often with the bases full with two strikes and three balls on the batter. This seems to unnerve them. In other instances, where the batter appears anxious to hit, waste a little time on him, and when you think he realizes his position and everybody is yelling at him to hit it out, waste a few balls and try his nerve. The majority of times you will win out by drawing him into hitting at a wide one.”
     Foster was already the most famous black player in baseball when he started up his own club, the Chicago American Giants, in 1910. He leased South Side Park, an 8,000-seat facility at 39th and Wentworth, from John Schorling, a saloonkeeper and the son-in-law of Charles Comiskey (whose White Sox were just moving into their palatial new home at 35th and Shields). For years, Comiskey would happily reap tidy profits from black baseball while stressing the need to keep the major leagues all-white.
     Foster's new team was a juggernaut. “He put on all the plays and he had the type of men that could do just what he wanted them to do,” Buck O’Neil said. “Can you imagine a ballclub with eight or nine Rickey Hendersons? This was the Chicago American Giants in 1911, 1912."
     The American Giants played few games in Chicago. Instead, they traveled throughout the Midwest, West, and even the South, going to places where few black teams had dared to play. They dressed in the most stylish suits, rode the rails in a private Pullman car, and became black America’s team. In every dusty town they went through, the African-American community greeted Foster as a conquering hero. “I shall never forget the first time I saw Rube Foster,” said Dave Malarcher of Louisiana. “I never saw such a well-equipped ballclub in my whole life. I was astounded. Every day they came out in a different set of beautiful uniforms, all kinds of bats and balls, all the best of equipment.” If one of the local players showed especially well against his club, Foster was liable to sign him up on the spot; this was the equivalent of winning the lottery for a young black man living in the Deep South at the time. Malarcher was among the players who experienced this miracle.
     The American Giants went 123-6 in 1910. They were the dominant force in black baseball throughout the teens, although they were challenged for supremacy by clubs such as the Indianapolis ABCs, Detroit Stars, and St. Louis Giants. These stronger clubs tended to play each other only rarely, because games against white semi-pro and industrial teams generally drew better crowds than all-black contests. Taking note of this, the Chicago Defender complained that it would not be surprising if the American Giants soon “depended on the other race altogether.” But the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South into northern cities during and immediately after World War I changed all that. Suddenly there were hundreds of thousands of new fans available for black baseball.
     Throughout 1919, Foster loudly campaigned for a league that would serve this burgeoning pool of potential fans, stop the merry-go-round of players jumping from club to club for a few extra dollars, and eliminate the presence of white investors in the black game. (On these last two points, Foster would have had to be taken with a large pinch of salt. He had built his club by blithely raiding the rosters of others, and he remained heavily dependent on the financial backing of his silent partners, Schorling and Comiskey.)
     The Negro National League was founded in February 1920 in Kansas City. In addition to the American Giants, the league included the Chicago Giants, Cincinnati Cuban Giants, Dayton Marcos, Detroit Stars, Indianapolis ABCs, Kansas City Monarchs, and St. Louis Giants. Its letterhead proclaimed “A.R. Foster” as Chairman of the Board of Directors and as Chairman of the league’s governing body, the National Association of Colored Professional Base Ball Clubs. It also carried, in a swirling script, the motto “We Are the Ship, All Else the Sea.”
     The NNL’s first game was played on May 2, 1920, with Indianapolis beating the American Giants 4-2. Each of the eight teams was supposed to have a permanent home ballpark and was scheduled to play 100 games, but these plans soon went awry. The Cincinnati Cuban Giants never did line up a suitable ballpark, so they played all their games on the road. Some teams skipped league games on Saturdays and Sundays in favor of more lucrative dates with local white clubs. “Foster spent long hours in his office,” Mark Ribowsky wrote, “seeking to solve every problem in the operation. When teams ran out of money and were stranded on the road, Rube would wire them enough to get home. When teams were on the verge of going bankrupt, Rube would send a payroll advance to keep them afloat. Still trying to pump up weak clubs, he continued to rearrange player rosters.”
     It was rocky going at first, but the Negro National League survived and even flourished. The eight teams drew a total of 616,000 fans the first year, and each made a profit. Foster did not take a salary to run the league, but an entity called the Western Booking Agency, of which he was sole owner, collected 10 percent of all gate receipts; this meant an $11,000 windfall for Rube in 1920, and considerably more in later years. Foster stayed on as manager of the American Giants for the first two years of the NNL’s existence. In the absence of a balanced schedule or official record keeping, and with newspaper coverage of the league spotty at best, no one could say for sure which team had won the first NNL pennant. When the league office declared that the American Giants had, no one complained.
     Foster’s league prospered throughout the early twenties. Total player salaries soared from $30,000 in 1920 to $275,000 in 1925. The first Negro World Series was played in 1924. It matched the Kansas City Monarchs against the Philadelphia Hilldales of the new Eastern Colored League. The 10-game series was a traveling show, with two games played in Philadelphia, two in Baltimore, three in Kansas City, and three in Chicago. Kansas City won the series five games to four with one tie.
     The series was a huge success, both artistically and financially, but it marked the last hurrah for Foster. The Eastern Colored League, which had been formed by white entrepreneurs impressed by the profits Foster’s league had rung up, soon began luring NNL players with its higher salaries. Foster worked harder and harder trying to stanch the flow of stars to the rival league. By 1926 he was physically and mentally exhausted; he had to be institutionalized. He remained in the state hospital at Kankakee for the rest of his life, convinced that he would soon be summoned to pitch in the white World Series. On December 9, 1930, Foster suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 51. Three thousand persons attended his funeral in Chicago.
     Foster had aimed for nothing less than creating a stable, self-sustaining league for black ballplayers that was on a par with the white major leagues. He didn’t quite pull it off, but he came as close as anyone ever would. In the thirties and forties, the Negro Leagues featured players such as Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Satchel Paige, and a few dozen others who were at least the equal of their white counterparts. The undeniable quality of the play on the field, however, was usually accompanied by the same casual approach to contractual commitments, financial management, and other formalities that Foster had fought so hard to overcome.
     After Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, the black leagues survived, barely, for another decade while the likes of Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, Joe Black, Don Newcombe, Luke Easter, Sam Jethroe, Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron, and even the forty-something Paige became part of a mass exodus to the major leagues.

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

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Splendid Seasons: Cubs MVPs, Part 2

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 introduced below.


Phil Cavarretta,
1945

     Soon after graduating from Lane Tech High School in 1934, Phil Cavarretta moved two miles east on Addison Street to Wrigley Field. He played seven games for the Cubs in 1934 and was an everyday player in 1935, when he was still 18 years old for the first half of the season. Although he had very little power for a first baseman (he averaged less than five homers a year), Cavarretta was an excellent contact hitter who finished his career with a .293 average and more walks than strikeouts. He played on three pennant winners. For the last of these, in 1945, he hit a league-leading .355 with 94 runs scored and 97 runs batted in to take MVP honors.
     It was no fault of Cavarretta’s that the Cubs lost the World Series to the Detroit Tigers in seven games. He homered and scored three runs in the Cubs’ 9-0 rout of American League MVP Hal Newhouser in Game 1, and he ended up batting .423 (highest on either team), with seven runs scored and five RBIs for the Series.
     Cavarretta is the last Cub, so far, to hit a World Series home run. He was also the last in a long line of player-managers for the Cubs—which extended back to Cap Anson in 1879, and included Frank Chance, Rogers Hornsby, Charlie Grimm, and Gabby Hartnett. It was Cavarretta who, in 1953, wrote the name of Ernie Banks on the Cubs’ lineup card for the first time. The next year, he became the first manager ever to be fired in spring training, after he bluntly informed Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley that the club had no chance to contend. The Cubs finished seventh, but being proven right did not get Cavarretta his job back.


Hank Sauer,
1952

     Slow-footed outfielder Hank Sauer was the archetypal ballplayer of the early fifties, an era which decidedly emphasized power over speed. Sauer had a few brief trials during the war years, but it wasn’t until 1948, when he was 31, that he reached the majors to stay. After a season and a half with Cincinnati, he was traded to the Cubs, and he quickly made himself at home: he hit 11 home runs his first month in Chicago.
     Sauer was equally potent to all fields. He averaged a solid 32 homers and 97 RBIs for his first four seasons, then really busted out in 1952. His 121 RBIs topped the league, and his 37 homers tied him for the league lead with Pittsburgh’s Ralph Kiner. He also hit a two-run homer to give the National League a 3-2 win in the All-Star Game. Bleacher fans in the Friendly Confines acclaimed Sauer as the “mayor of Wrigley Field” and showered him with packets of his favorite chewing tobacco after each home run. Although the Cubs finished fifth, well out of the race, Sauer’s performance resonated enough to bring him MVP honors.
     In 1953, the Cubs traded for Kiner, who had won or shared the league’s home run title for seven years running. Alas, dreams of a one-two punch reminiscent of Ruth and Gehrig went unfulfilled. Kiner blasted 28 homers after joining the Cubs in June, but Sauer suffered broken fingers on three separate occasions and had just 19 round-trippers. While Sauer rebounded for a career-high 41 homers in 1954, Kiner managed only 22 and was gone the next year. Kiner later made a droll remark about his and Sauer’s lack of mobility in the outfield, which had made life miserable for Cubs center fielder Frankie Baumholtz: “Between us, we shortened Baumholtz’s career by three years.”


Ernie Banks,
1958, 1959

     Ernie Banks came to the Cubs from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues in September 1953—a wiry, soft-spoken kid from Dallas who in appearance and experience was even younger than his 22 years. A smooth-fielding shortstop and a devastatingly powerful hitter, Banks averaged 44 home runs a year from 1957 to 1960 and didn’t miss a game in that time.
     He was tougher than his genial attitude would have suggested. “In 1957,” umpire Tom Gorman recalled, “Banks was knocked down four times by four different pitchers—Don Drysdale, Bob Purkey, Bob Friend, and Jack Sanford. And each time he was knocked down, Banks hit the next pitch out of the park.”
     In 1958, Banks clubbed 47 homers (the most ever by a shortstop to that time), batted in 129 runs, scored 119, and hit .313, and became the first player in National League history to win the Most Valuable Player award with a losing team. The next year, he had 45 homers, 143 RBIs, and a .304 average, and became the first player in National League history to win back-to-back MVPs.
     His nickname said it all: Mr. Cub. Although the Cubs were often a laughingstock, Banks carried the sobriquet with pride. He played more games for the Cubs than anyone else before or since (over 2,500) but he never made it to the World Series or even the playoffs. He didn’t complain. He kept smiling and kept repeating his motto, “Let’s play two.” Players of later generations could have learned a lot from Ernie, who genuinely respected the game and loved its fans.
     Banks was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1977.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Here Come the Hawks

Few players in any sport have had a rookie season to equal Tony Esposito's with the Blackhawks in 1969-70. He broke the NHL record for shutouts in a season and carried the Hawks from worst to first in the standings.

TONY ESPOSITO

     Sunday, April 5, 1970, was one of the most memorable days in the NHL’s long history. It was the final day of the regular season. The Hawks and Boston were battling down to the wire for first place in the Eastern Division, Detroit had clinched third place, and Montreal had the upper hand over New York for the fourth and last playoff berth. The Rangers not only had to win and hope the Canadiens lost, but they also had to finish the season with more goals scored than Montreal (a tall order, since they were five goals behind entering play).
     New York held up its end of the bargain, blitzing Detroit 9-5 to finish the season 38-22-16 for 92 points. Boston defeated Toronto. So when the Hawks and Canadiens took the ice at the Stadium, each team knew what it had to do. If the Hawks won, they would tie the Bruins with 99 points but would be division champions because their 45 victories exceeded Boston’s 40. If the Canadiens won or tied, they would be in the playoffs and New York would be out. If the Canadiens lost, their record would be identical to New York’s but they could still make the playoffs by scoring five or more goals to top the Rangers’ total of 246 for the season.
     Before a standing-room-only crowd, the Canadiens struck first. Yvan Cournoyer’s goal off a nice feed from Jean Beliveau gave Montreal a 1-0 lead at 9:12 of the first period. Fans began to wonder if perhaps the Hawks’ Cinderella story wasn’t meant to have a happy ending. Tension mounted as Montreal goalie Rogatien Vachon repelled one assault after another until 15:49 of the period, when Jim Pappin’s slapshot from the blue line lit the lamp. Thus reassured, the Hawks took the lead just 95 seconds later when Doug Mohns set up a goal by Pit Martin. “I took my time, and I picked my spot,” Martin said. “I didn’t even see where the goalie was; all I saw was about eight inches of net.”
     The Hawks led 2-1 at the first intermission. Bobby Hull made it 3-1 at 1:24 of the second period, but Beliveau’s tally put the Canadiens back in the game just two minutes later. For the rest of the second period and well into the third, the Hawks clung to a 3-2 edge.
     Then it was Pit Martin time. After the previous season, Martin had called the Hawks the most selfish, underachieving team he’d ever seen, rubbing more than a few teammates the wrong way. Now Martin put his money where his mouth was. At 7:15 of the third period, he scored the goal that gave the Hawks a commanding 4-2 lead. Three and a half minutes later, he scored again to complete the hat trick.
     The game was now out of reach, the champagne was on ice, and the Stadium rocked with chants of “We’re Number 1!”
     Montreal coach Claude Ruel realized that the Canadiens could not win the game, so he hatched a desperate plan to get the three more goals needed to surpass the Rangers for fourth place. For the last eight minutes of the game, goalie Vachon was replaced by an extra attacker each time Montreal got possession of the puck; this was the only way the Canadiens could get anything going.
     Ruel’s gamble backfired, to say the least. Almost every time Vachon skated to the bench, the Hawks stole the puck and gleefully swatted it into the empty net—first Eric Nesterenko, then Bobby Hull, Dennis Hull, Cliff Koroll, and Gerry Pinder. The fans were beside themselves, roaring more loudly after each goal. The final score was 10-2.
     The somewhat bizarre ending disguised the fact that the game had been hard fought and well played for over 50 minutes. When the horn finally sounded, the Hawks had become the first team in NHL history to go from last place to first in one year—and they had earned it, winning twice against the fabled Canadiens to end the season. Beginning with Tony Esposito’s shutout in Montreal on October 25, the Hawks had gone 45-17-8. For the last 12 weeks of the season, they had gone 30-7-4.
     Although their record of 38-22-16 would have easily won the Western Division (home of the six three-year-old expansion teams), the Canadiens were out of the playoffs for the first time since 1948. For the first time ever, the postseason would not include either Montreal or Toronto.
     While his teammates showered each other with champagne and beer, Esposito sat quietly in a corner of the Hawks’ dressing room, exhausted. “He’s the guy who made the difference,” said Martin, indicating the man who seemed oblivious to the celebration going on around him. “He has made stops nobody could believe in game after game. He is the guy we’ve rallied around. I don’t think there ever has been a goaltender with a season like the one he’s had.”
     Esposito’s season for the ages had carried the Hawks from last place the year before to first place in 1970. It had also earned him the Vezina Trophy as outstanding goalie and the Calder as rookie of the year (he finished second to Boston’s Bobby Orr in the MVP balloting). He had played 63 games, allowing just one goal in 15 of them and setting a record with 15 shutouts. As quick to refuse credit as he was to accept blame, “Tony O” was matter-of-fact about his feats. “All the guys worked so hard for me,” he said. “They have all year. I kept thinking, ‘Don’t ease up; you don’t want to let them down.’”

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

Friday, April 16, 2010

Sweet Swingin' Billy Gets His Due

Billy Williams is a prime example of that rare species, a player who is both a Hall of Famer and underrated. The Cubs' recent decision to erect a statue in his honor is as appropriate as it is overdue. Below is an appreciation of Williams from the forthcoming book Quotable Cubs.

 
BILLY WILLIAMS
     Billy Williams signed with the Cubs in 1956 for “a cigar and a bus ticket,” in his words. He came up to the majors for good in 1961, winning the National League Rookie of the Year award. He was a six-time All-Star, runner-up for the Most Valuable Player award twice, and established a National League record (since broken) by playing in 1,117 consecutive games from 1963 to 1970. His peers voted Williams The Sporting News Major League Player of the Year in 1972, the same year he won the National League batting title. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1987.
     Most quotes by Billy Williams are not particularly memorable, because he refused to toot his own horn, preferring to let his performance speak for itself. Quotes about Williams are similarly one-dimensional, for the simple reason that no one has ever been heard to say a bad word about him. The acerbic Cubs manager Leo Durocher—who didn’t dispense compliments too freely—was effusive in his praise of Williams, whom he called a “double professional,” meaning that Billy conducted himself as a professional both on and off the field.
     If Williams resented that he toiled for most of his career in the shadow of Ernie Banks, he never let on. He was and has remained a model of dignity, humility, and class.

“You can hit in the major leagues right now.”
--Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby, then a Cubs minor-league instructor, speaking to Billy Williams when the latter was playing Double-A ball in 1959

“Rogers Hornsby told me, ‘If you keep working, you’ll win a batting title.’”
--Billy Williams

“I have never seen a better left-handed hitter than Billy Williams.”
--Ron Santo, Cubs third baseman, 1960-1973

“A manager’s dream. For six years I was able to walk into my office and start the day by writing his name in the #3 slot of the lineup card. Never had to say a word to him. He’d be out on the field early every day practicing. Like clockwork.”
--Leo Durocher, Cubs manager, 1966-1972

"Just write his name in the lineup and watch him hit."
--Glenn Beckert, Cubs second baseman, 1965-1973

“He didn’t hit for just one or two days, or one or two weeks. He hit all the time.”
--Don Kessinger, Cubs shortstop, 1964-1975

"He wasn't flamboyant. He just went out and did his job day after day after day."
--Fergie Jenkins, Cubs pitcher, 1966-1973

“That’s up to you guys. I can’t write about myself.”
--Billy Williams, when asked by a sportswriter why he didn’t get more publicity

“Billy had a saying, ‘When fish open their mouths, they get caught.’ Billy didn’t talk much. Billy just played.”
--Ernie Banks, Cubs shortstop and first baseman, 1953-1971

“He enjoyed playing in Wrigley Field, enjoyed playing day baseball, enjoyed hitting, enjoyed playing the field. But unlike Banks, he wouldn’t go out of his way to tell you about it.”
--Bill James, baseball writer

“Billy Williams was everything Banks was supposed to be.”
--Leo Durocher

“I often tell [young players], your playing career goes by so fast. Give it all you’ve got while you’re on the field. Don’t say if I coulda, woulda, shoulda. Try to leave it all out on the field.”
--Billy Williams

“Cream and sugar. Billy Williams is in a class all by himself.”
--Leo Durocher

Reprinted from Quotable Cubs
To be published in Spring 2011
(c)2010, 2011 by Bristol & Lynden Press

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Splendid Seasons: Bears MVPs

We're remembering the 19 Chicago athletes whose splendid seasons have earned them the Most Valuable Player award for their respective leagues. The two Bears who rank among them also rank among the greatest football players of all time.


Sid Luckman, 
1943

     Like Pittsburgh’s Terry Bradshaw in the 1970s and San Francisco’s Joe Montana in the 1980s, Sid Luckman of the Bears quarterbacked four world championship teams in one decade. People tend to forget that the NFL existed for almost fifty years prior to the first Super Bowl in 1967—but, as they say, you could look it up. Luckman led the Monsters of the Midway to championships in 1940, 1941, 1943, and 1946.
     Luckman came to Chicago in 1939 after earning All-America honors at Columbia University, and he quickly proved to be the ideal quarterback for the Bears’ vaunted T-formation. He also played defensive back (hence his uniform number—42) and punted. In his first five seasons, the Bears went 49-9-1. They won their first championship of this period in a fashion that still defies belief, demolishing the Redskins 73-0 in the 1940 title game. They repeated in 1941, routing the Giants 39-7 in the championship game. In 1942, they stormed through a perfect 11-0-0 regular season but lost the title game to Washington.
     Luckman had his finest year in 1943, throwing for 28 touchdowns against just 12 interceptions, as the Bears reclaimed the championship. The highlight came on November 14, Sid Luckman Day at the Polo Grounds in New York. After being honored by the hometown folks in a pre-game ceremony, he went out and threw for 433 yards and seven touchdowns (breaking the NFL single-game records in both categories) as the Bears defeated the Giants 56-7.
     Luckman was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1965. "My boy," George Halas wrote to him when both were old men, "my pride in you has no bounds." Luckman was the first—and last—great quarterback for the Bears. The search for his successor continues.


Walter Payton,
1977

Although he played in an age of very specific roles, Walter Payton had all-around football skills—and a furious desire to succeed—that would have come in handy in any era. “He’s the very best football player I’ve ever seen,” Mike Ditka said. “At any position, period. He’s a complete player. He does everything you ask.” Not only did Payton rush for more yardage than anyone ever had before, but he was also a punishing blocker, a sure-handed receiver, a strong and accurate passer, and even an exemplary tackler.
     Early in his career people joked that the Bears’ typical offensive sequence consisted of Payton, Payton, Payton, punt. It wasn’t so funny—Payton broke the NFL single-season record for rushing attempts twice in three years. Though he was running behind a mediocre line, against defenses specifically geared to stop him, Payton led the NFC in rushing five straight times.
     In 1977, he ran for 1,852 yards and 14 touchdowns (with a staggering average of 5.5 yards per carry) and led the Bears to their first playoff appearance in 14 years. He gained 205 yards at Green Bay on October 30, and followed that with a record-shattering 275 against Minnesota three weeks later at Soldier Field. “You Chicago people are spoiled by Payton,” said Vikings coach Bud Grant. “He’s a phenomenon.”
     By 1984, Payton had become the NFL’s all-time leading rusher and the Bears had turned the corner. They pulled off an upset at Washington—the only playoff game the Redskins ever lost in RFK Stadium—and advanced to the NFC championship game in San Francisco. When the Bears lost 23-0, Payton was disconsolate. He didn’t know if he’d come so close to the Super Bowl again. “Tomorrow is never promised to anyone,” he said. Fortunately, the 1985 Bears turned out to be one of the most dominant teams ever assembled, and Payton got his Super Bowl ring.
     When he retired in 1987, Payton was the leader in career rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and all-purpose yards—but even more impressive was that he had missed only one game in 13 years of giving everything he had on every play. He had become an idol not only to fans but also to his teammates and even opponents.
     Payton was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993. He died, tragically, at the age of only 45 six years later. “When I'm older and I talk to my grandkids,” said former teammate Dan Hampton, a Hall of Famer himself, “I'll tell them I played with Walter Payton.”

Monday, April 12, 2010

When Willie Came Through

In honor of the Cubs' home opener today at Wrigley Field, we revisit one of the club's most memorable openers from the past. It was 1969, and a pinch-hit homer by Willie Smith (in photo) turned likely defeat into a stirring victory. Smith's blow touched off an unforgettable and ultimately heartbreaking season for the Cubs. 


BY CHRISTOPHER TABBERT

WILLIE SMITH
     The first indelible moment in sports that I witnessed live and was old enough to remember occurred on April 8, 1969. It was Opening Day, and the Cubs had entered the season with high hopes for their first pennant in 24 years.
     Their manager was Leo Durocher, a salty old-timer who had taken over after one of the worst periods in the Cubs' history and immediately promised better days ahead. “This is not an eighth-place club,” he said, referring to the Cubs’ finish in 1965, and he was proven right when his 1966 team finished 10th. But the Cubs’ climb to respectability and beyond was swift and sure thereafter. With relative youngsters like Fergie Jenkins, Bill Hands, Glenn Beckert, Don Kessinger, and Randy Hundley jelling around the veteran nucleus of Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, and Ron Santo, the Cubs rose all the way to third in 1967 (improving by 28½ games) and finished third again in 1968.
     “The Cubs are now ready to go for all the marbles,” Durocher announced before the 1969 season.
     In the opener, an overflow crowd of 40,796 at Wrigley Field saw Banks crack two home runs as the Cubs built up a 5-1 lead over the Phillies in the early going. I raced home from school to catch the final innings, and turned on the TV in time to see Philadelphia’s rookie shortstop Don Money rap two homers of his own, a solo shot in the seventh and a three-run blast that tied the score in the top of the ninth. The game went into extra innings, and the Phillies took a one-run lead in the top of the 11th.
     With one out in the bottom of the 11th, Randy Hundley singled. Then Willie Smith stepped out of the dugout to pinch hit for Jim Hickman. Smith took Barry Lersch’s first pitch. He lined the second pitch into the right-field bleachers, and just like that the Cubs had won, 7-6.
     I was not quite eight years old, and this was about the most exciting thing I could have imagined. The great Vince Lloyd made a call on WGN radio that can still produce goosebumps: "The whole ballclub is down at home plate as the welcoming committee for Willie! They mob him at home plate!" For quite a while after that, Willie Smith was my favorite player.
     The Cubs breezed through April at 16-7 and sailed through May at 16-9. For three quarters of the season, they were the best team in the league, and the long-awaited pennant seemed almost a foregone conclusion. The last quarter of the season is best forgotten.

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

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Kid's in the Hall

SCOTTIE PIPPEN
     Would Michael Jordan have been a Hall of Famer without Scottie Pippen? Yes. Would Pippen have been a Hall of Famer without Jordan? We don’t know. What we do know is that they needed each other and the Bulls needed both to win their six world championships between 1991 and 1998.
     Pippen will go down in history as Jordan’s sidekick, but he was a high-wattage star in his own right. Any doubts about that should have been erased by Monday’s announcement of his election to the Basketball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. “When you’re recognized as one of the greatest, it says a lot,” said Pippen. “This is something I never dreamed would happen to me as a walk-on at Central Arkansas.”
     When Bulls general manager Jerry Krause scouted Pippen at the obscure college, it was love at first sight.
“He came out and I said, ‘That’s the kid!’” Krause remembered.
“He had the longest arms I’d ever seen. That night, I got very excited.” But soon enough, the secret was out. By draft day, 1987, Krause was convinced that Pippen would not be available when the Bulls selected eighth in the first round. He engineered a trade with the Seattle SuperSonics that enabled him to move up three slots and get Pippen with the fifth pick in the first round.
     Krause never regretted it. Nor did he regret taking power forward Horace Grant with the tenth pick in the same draft. Pippen and Grant became fast friends off the court, and they teamed up on the court as an exceptionally athletic, rangy, and tenacious forward tandem that assistant coach Johnny Bach called the “Dobermans.” For Pippen, comparison to a greyhound might have been more apt. His loose limbs and long, loping strides allowed him to start and finish fast breaks with the best of them.
     With Pippen and Grant on board to complement Jordan, it was only a matter of time until the Bulls won the world championship. This they did in 1991, and again in 1992 and 1993.
     While Jordan was off playing baseball in 1993-94, Pippen emerged as unquestionably the Bulls’ leader and earned at least a share of the recognition he was due. He finished third in the Most Valuable Player balloting as the Bulls won 55 games, only two fewer than the year before. The Bulls swept the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first playoff series, then lost the conference semifinal series to the New York Knicks four games to three. If not for a phantom foul call on Pippen by referee Hue Hollins that all but decided the seventh game, the Bulls might well have advanced to the conference finals and beyond.
     The series against the Knicks also featured the infamous 1.8 seconds that Pippen would like to have back. In Game 3, he refused to return to the floor after a timeout because the play called for Toni Kukoc, rather than Pippen himself, to take the last-second shot. Thankfully, Kukoc made the shot and the Bulls won; otherwise Pippen might never have lived it down. “He understood he made a mistake and let his emotions get the better of him,” said teammate Bill Wennington, “and he told us. Then it was over.”
     After Jordan returned and Krause obtained Dennis Rodman to replace Grant, the Bulls won another three championships in 1996, 1997, and 1998, compiling a regular-season record of 203-43 (.825) and a playoff record of 45-13 (.776) in the process. In 1996, Pippen joined Jordan among the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History who were selected to celebrate the league’s 50th anniversary.
     Following the second “three-peat,” Jordan and head coach Phil Jackson retired (both eventually resurfaced elsewhere), Rodman was released, and Pippen was traded, clearing the way for Krause to embark on an ill-fated rebuilding plan.
     Pippen played one year for the Portland Trail Blazers and four for the Houston Rockets before finishing up with the Bulls in 2004. By the time he was through, Pippen had played in seven All-Star games, been named first-team All-NBA three times, and been named first-team All-Defensive team eight times. “The dunks were nice,” Krause said, “but I’ll always remember the defense. He could guard anybody.”

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Splendid Seasons: Bulls MVPs

We're remembering the 19 Chicago athletes whose splendid seasons have earned them the Most Valuable Player award for their respective leagues. Only one of these players has represented the Bulls, but the player in question won the award five times.


Michael Jordan,
1988, 1991, 1992, 1996, 1998

     There isn't much to say that hasn’t already been said about the incomparable Michael Jordan. Other athletes have had exceptional physical talent, intelligence, or competitive fire—but few, if any, have so astonishingly combined all three. His impact on the Bulls and the NBA was incalculable. He was the 1990s' equivalent to Babe Ruth in the 1920s, instantly recognizable even to people who had never seen him play.
     Jordan was elected Most Valuable Player for the first time in 1988, after the young Bulls won 50 games to mark themselves as a team to be reckoned with in the future. It was no surprise that Jordan took home the award, considering that he was both the league's leading scorer and Defensive Player of the Year.
     When the Bulls won their first world championship in 1991, he won the MVP again. Interestingly, not a single teammate from Jordan’s rookie year of 1984-85 remained. The Bulls had been rebuilt from scratch around him. They reeled off three titles in a row, and the streak almost certainly would have continued for several more years had Jordan not retired in 1993, while still at the peak of his powers, after the shocking murder of his father, James.
     Playing for the White Sox’ Birmingham farm club, Jordan proved he was human—when it came to baseball. He soon returned to basketball, much to the regret of rival teams. In 1996, 1997, and 1998, he won his eighth, ninth, and tenth NBA scoring titles, played his usual ferocious defense, and led the Bulls to a second “three-peat” as world champions.
     “Coaching Michael,” said Bulls coach Phil Jackson, “is like coaching Michelangelo, genius at work.” Jordan is generally considered the greatest basketball player who ever lived, but he was also arguably the most valuable player in any team sport, ever. It would be hard to name another who could so thoroughly dominate a game both offensively and defensively.
     After Jordan stole the ball from Utah's Karl Malone and hit a jumper from the top of the key to seal the Bulls' sixth world championship in 1998, the losing coach gave his assessment of the man who had replaced him as the greatest player in Bulls history. “I think everybody knows how Jordan should be remembered,” Jerry Sloan said. “As the greatest player that has ever played.”
     Jordan appeared in the All-Star Game every year of his 13-year-career, was first-team All-NBA 10 times, first-team All-Defensive team nine times, and MVP of the NBA Finals six times. In addition to winning the regular-season MVP five times, he was runner-up three times. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2009.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Homecoming

In honor of the White Sox' season opener today at U.S. Cellular Field, we revisit one of the club's most memorable openers from the past, which took place an even 50 years ago.

MINNIE MINOSO
     On April 19, 1960, one of the most beloved Chicago ballplayers of all time celebrated his homecoming at Comiskey Park. His name was Orestes "Minnie" Minoso, and he had rejoined the the White Sox after two years in exile with the Cleveland Indians.
     Minoso had made his White Sox debut nine years earlier, after being acquired from those same Indians. When he took the field on May 1, 1951, Minoso became the first black player to appear in a major-league game for a Chicago team. “I’m the first guy to bat,” Minoso recalled many years later. “First pitch comes right over the plate and I hit a home run to center field. The people who wanted to boo me didn’t get a chance. But later they got a chance. The bases were loaded and I was playing third base. A ball bounced off the bag and hit my ankle, then went through my legs. I was charged with an error, and two runs scored. My first game on the White Sox I was at the top and then sunk to the bottom. Same day, good and bad.”
     As time went on, there was a lot more good than bad. In his first seven years, Minoso hit over .300 five times, knocked in 100 or more runs three times, and led the league in stolen bases three times. Minoso's aggressive style ignited the Go-Go White Sox, and he became the most popular player on the South Side. But then he was traded to Cleveland, and he missed the pennant year of 1959.
     When Minoso returned to the White Sox in 1960, he received a hero's welcome from a then-record opening-day crowd of 41,661 at Comiskey Park. Also in attendance were the Kansas City Athletics; it was the first time in the Sox' 60-year history that they opened a season against a team other than the Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, or St. Louis Browns (when travel by train was the norm, the Midwestern clubs opened against one another, and the East Coast clubs did likewise).
     Minoso gave the throng its money's worth. A more eventful day would have been difficult to imagine.
     In the first inning, Minoso beat out a bunt for an apparent base hit but was called out for running outside the baseline; a lengthy rhubarb ensued. In the second, he hit a screaming liner and was robbed on a circus catch by Kansas City center fielder Bill Tuttle; he was credited with a sacrifice fly when Luis Aparicio scored on the play. In the fourth, Minoso hit a grand slam. In the fifth, he narrowly missed colliding with Aparicio as both men chased a pop fly; he dropped the ball for an error. In the seventh, he raced into the gap to spear a line drive that would have scored two runs. In the top of the ninth, with the score tied 9-9, he threw out a runner at the plate.
     The game was still tied when Minoso stepped into the batter's box to lead off the bottom of the ninth. He blasted a long home run into the left-center field bleachers, giving the Sox a 10-9 win.
     Minnie was back, as his two home runs, six runs batted in, two sensational defensive plays, and countless ovations from the crowd amply demonstrated. “I’m comfortable here,” he said after the game. “I was here before and I feel like this is my home.”
     And so it has remained for half a century more.

Friday, April 2, 2010

No Billy Goat to Blame


STAN MIKITA, KEN WHARRAM, DOUG MOHNS

     The Blackhawks have no billy goat to blame for their scarcity of championships, but they did have "The Curse of Muldoon." The story went like this: when the Hawks fired coach Pete Muldoon after the 1926-27 season, he raised his hands, rolled his eyes, and solemnly pronounced, “This team will never finish in first place.”
     In fact, the legend was invented by a Toronto newspaperman in the early forties. Nonetheless, it was also a fact that going into the 1966-67 season, their 41st in the league, the Hawks had never finished first—nor even come close until the past few years. Though laden with All-Stars like Hull, Stan Mikita, Pierre Pilote, Ken Wharram, and Glenn Hall, the Hawks hadn’t been able to get over the hump. They finished third in 1960-61, then stormed through the playoffs to win the Stanley Cup. They finished third twice more and second three times over the next five seasons. For all practical purposes, 1966-67 would be their last chance to overcome the imaginary curse, because it was the last season before the NHL expanded. If the Hawks were ever to finish first among the “original six” teams, it would have to be this year.
     The Hawks ran off a 15-game unbeaten streak early in the New Year to build up a substantial lead in the standings. Still, the skeptics could point to 1962-63, when the Hawks led all the way only to collapse in the last three weeks. But the Hawks kept winning, and finally, on the sunny Sunday afternoon of March 12, they had a chance to clinch the Prince of Wales Trophy (emblematic of the regular-season championship). The game against the Toronto Maple Leafs drew a capacity crowd to the Stadium and was televised throughout the United States and Canada—though not in the Chicago area.
     After killing off a two-man disadvantage early in the game, the Hawks drew first blood on a goal by Ken Hodge from Phil Esposito and Hull at 11:54 of the first period. Less than four minutes later, Hodge lit the lamp again, this time assisted by Esposito and Pat “Whitey” Stapleton. In the final minute of the period, Hodge, Stapleton, and Hull came driving out of their own zone. Hodge, on the right wing, sent the puck across to Stapleton, who carried it over the Toronto blue line and centered to Hull. The Golden Jet fired one of his patented slap shots from about 40 feet out. It sailed over goalie Terry Sawchuk’s right shoulder to give the Hawks a 3-0 lead.
     The Blackhawks’ first-period barrage had given Glenn Hall more than he needed, as he turned away 39 shots for a shutout. Lou Angotti scored twice in the third period for the final margin of 5-0. When the horn sounded, the fans showered the ice with hats, half-eaten hot dogs, paper cups, and rolled-up programs. The Hawks clomped downstairs to their dressing room for a well-earned celebration. Coach Billy Reay and general manager Tommy Ivan were thrown into the showers in their suits and ties. “I knew we were up for this one,” said Hodge as he wiped champagne from his eyes. “You could feel it before the game—everyone was raring to go. You’d have to be blind not to see it.”
     The 1966-67 Hawks were easily the class of the NHL, finishing 17 points ahead of the second-place Montreal Canadiens and scoring a then-record 264 goals while allowing only 170, lowest in the league. Mikita pulled off an unprecedented sweep by winning the Hart Trophy as most valuable player, the Art Ross Trophy as leading scorer, and the Lady Byng Trophy as most gentlemanly player. Hall and Denis DeJordy shared the Vezina Trophy for goaltending excellence.
     But when the Maple Leafs bounced the Hawks from the playoffs in the first round, Ivan decided that changes were in order. Hall was left unprotected in the expansion draft, while Esposito and Hodge were traded to Boston, where they won the Stanley Cup in 1970 and 1972.