Wednesday, December 28, 2011

2011 Chicago Sports Memories Awards

Play of the Year: Jonathan Toews, Blackhawks, April 27

     After spotting the Vancouver Canucks the first three games of their first-round playoff series, the Hawks roared back to take the next three contests, forcing a Game 7 on April 27.
     In that game, the Hawks trailed 1-0 as the clock wound down to the two-minute mark in the third period. Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews took possession of the puck off an errant Vanvouver pass at center ice, circled, then moved in on the left wing. As he was being dragged down by two Canucks defenders, Toews slid the puck across to Marian Hossa, whose backhanded attempt was stoppped by goalie Roberto Luongo.
     Unfortunately for Luongo, the rebound landed in front of Toews, who poked it into the net as he himself skidded face-first along the ice. There was 1:56 remaining in regulation, and it looked as if the Hawks might pull off a miracle and capture the series after all. They ended up losing in overtime, but they demonstrated the heart and resilience that will contimue to be their trademark for years to come with Toews as their captain and Joel Quenneville as head coach.

Game of the Year: Bears vs. Green Bay Packers, January 23

     For the first 90 years of their existence, the Bears met their ancient rivals from up north only once in posteason play, in 1941 when the two teams tied for the Western Division title and needed a special playoff game to decide which would go to the NFL championship game.
     The Bears and Packers met for the second time in postseason play this past January, again with a trip to the NFL championship game (now known as the Super Bowl) riding on the outcome.
     In the NFC title game at Soldier Field on January 23, a knee injury forced Bears quarterback Jay Cutler out of the game early in the third quarter with the Bears trailing 14-0. Afterwards, Cutler had to endure ridiculous questions about why he hadn't been able to continue with a torn MCL (medial collateral ligament)!
     The Bears got to within 14-7 early in the fourth quarter, but finally went down to defeat 21-14. The biggest Chicago game of the year and of the past several years ended in frustration and recrimination. Meanwhile, the Packers went on to win the Super Bowl.       

Player of the Year: Derrick Rose, Bulls

     The third-year point guard carried the Bulls to the NBA's best regular-season record at 62-20 and in so doing became the youngest winner of the league's Most Valuable Player award at only 22. The Bulls made the conference finals, and they have justifiably high hopes again as they enter the truncated 2011-12 season.
     Rose's play on the court is truly jaw-dropping, but what makes him so much more impressive is his maturity, dignity, and humility. You might lump it all together under one word: class. Fame and fortune have not changed Rose at all. If anything, they have made him even more respectful and accountable to his teammates, to the game of basketball, and to those less fortunate than himself.
     Is it all too good to be true? We'll have plenty of time to find out, because Rose will be with the Bulls for a long time. For now, we'll close with a quote from Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf: "If you don't see something special in Derrick Rose, then you're blind."

Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order):
Marian Hossa, Blackhawks; Patrick Kane, Blackhawks; Paul Konerko, White Sox; Jonathan Toews, Blackhawks; Brian Urlacher, Bears.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

In Memoriam, 2011

     We Chicago sports fans lost some noteworthy performers this year. Heading the list were Chicago Cardinals Hall of Famer Ollie Matson, former Bears safety Dave Duerson, former White Sox skipper Chuck Tanner, former Northwestern and Bears receiver Jim Keane, and former Cubs pitcher Bob Rush.
     Blackhawks alumni Alexander Karpovtsev and Igor Korolev were among 44 people who perished when a plane carrying the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team, of which the two were members, crashed upon takeoff near Yaroslavl, Russia, on September 7.

Below is a list of notable Chicago sports personalities who passed away in 2011:

Ricky Bell, 36, Bears defensive back 1997-1998 (February 17).

Dave Cole, 81, Cubs pitcher 1954 (October 26).

Wes Covington, 79, White Sox outfielder 1961, Cubs outfielder 1966 (July 4).

Dave Duerson, 50, Bears safety 1983-1989, four-time Pro Bowler, member of Super Bowl XX championship team (February 17).

Woodie Fryman, 70, Cubs pitcher 1978 (February 4).

Joe Gentile, 87, Chicagoland car dealer, alumnus of and donor to Loyola University, whose basketball arena is named for him (October 10).

Jesse Jefferson, 62, White Sox pitcher 1975-1976 (September 8).

Alexander Karpovtsev, 41, Blackhawks defenseman 2000-2004 (September 7).

Jim Keane, 87, Bears end 1946-1951, led NFL in pass receptions with 60 in 1947, played college ball at Northwestern (March 8).

Igor Korolev, 41, Blackhawks center 2001-2004 (September 7).

Ed Manning, 67, Bulls forward 1969-1970 (March 4).

Ollie Matson, 80, Chicago Cardinals kick returner and halfback 1952-1958, traded to Los Angeles Rams in 1959 for nine players, six-time Pro Bowler, inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame 1972, previous to his football career won two medals at 1952 Summer Olympic Games (February 19).

Charlie Metro, 91, one of Cubs rotating managers in so-called “College of Coaches” era 1962 (March 18).

Tim McCaskey, 66, Bears vice president, second oldest of Ed and Virginia McCaskey’s 11 children (January 30).

Scotty Robertson, 81, Bulls head coach 1979 (August 18).

Bob Rush, 85, Cubs pitcher 1948-1957, White Sox pitcher 1960, two-time All-Star (March 19).

Johnny Schmitz, 90, Cubs pitcher 1941-1942 and 1946-1951, two-time All-Star, missed 1943-1945 seasons while serving in World War II (October 1).

Roy Smalley, 85, Cubs shortstop 1948-1953 (October 22).

Chuck Tanner, 81, Cubs outfielder 1957-1958; White Sox manager 1970-1975 (February 11).

Bob Will, 80, Cubs outfielder 1957-1958, 1960-1963 (August 11).

Gus Zernial, 87, White Sox outfielder 1949-1951, led American League in homers and RBIs in 1951 after being traded to Philadelphia Athletics early in the season (January 20).

Monday, December 5, 2011

Santo's Second Fondest Wish Comes True

     Today's announcement that Ron Santo has finally been elected to the Hall of Fame was more bitter than sweet, coming as it did a year after Santo passed away. Many observers have cited Santo as the most deserving player not yet in the Hall, a wrong that will be righted come induction day next summer. Alas, the honor will be too late for Santo himself to enjoy it.
     Santo was easily the best National League third baseman of his day and one of the best of all time. He was a nine-time All-Star, five-time Gold Glover, and four times finished in the top ten in MVP balloting.
     For the period of 1964 through 1969, Santo had the highest WAR (wins above replacement player) in the major leagues—better than Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson, or anyone else. His figure of 45.7 means that the Cubs won that many more games with Santo in the lineup than they would have won with an average player in his place. By that measure, Santo was the most valuable player in the major leagues over the six-year period.
     Santo the broadcaster is better known than Santo the player, at least to fans under the age of 45 or 50. He spent two decades in the Cubs' radio booth, teamed first with Thom Brennaman and Bob Brenly, and then, for 15 years, with Pat Hughes. As a broadcaster, Santo was a mirror for the feelings of his listeners in good times and bad. No one was more delighted than Santo when the Cubs won, and no one was more disappointed when they lost.
     His election to the Hall of Fame makes Santo's second fondest wish come true. His fondest wish was to see the Cubs win the World Series.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Ventura Ventures Into Uncharted Territory

     Having tired of biting the hand that fed him for eight years, Ozzie Guillen recently concluded that it was time to leave his post as manager of the White Sox. Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and general manager Kenny Williams were only too eager to agree--so eager, in fact, that they couldn't even wait until the end of the season. They granted Guillen his release with two games remaining on the schedule, so he could get a head start alienating his next employer, the Florida Marlins.
     All the self-appointed experts were sure that Williams would choose one of two former White Sox players, Sandy Alomar Jr. and Davey Martinez, to replace Guillen. As it turned out, however, neither Alomar nor Martinez even got an interview before the job was offered to and accepted by yet another former Sox player, Robin Ventura. Ventura has never coached or managed at any level of baseball from Little League on up, so his hiring came as a shock to everyone, including Ventura himself.
     Ventura the player had plenty of heart and character, qualities that should serve him well in his new role. He was one of the most popular White Sox of recent decades, so the fans will probably give Ventura the manager the benefit of the doubt, at least for a while. Only time will tell, of course, how he fares.
     Below is a brief listing of some noteworthy achievements--good, bad, and middling--of Ventura's predecessors as White Sox skipper.

World Series champions
1906 - Fielder Jones
1917 - Pants Rowland
2005 - Ozzie Guillen

American League champions
1901 - Clark Griffith
1906 - Fielder Jones
1917 - Pants Rowland
1919 - Kid Gleason
1959 - Al Lopez
2005 - Ozzie Guillen

Division champions
1983 - Tony LaRussa
1993 - Gene Lamont
1994 - Gene Lamont [season ended in August]
2000 - Jerry Manuel
2005 - Ozzie Guillen
2008 - Ozzie Guillen

Finished exactly .500
1922 - Kid Gleason
1941 - Jimmie Dykes
1974 - Chuck Tanner
2002 - Ozzie Guillen

Finished in last place
1924 - Johnny Evers, Ed Walsh, Eddie Collins
1931 - Donie Bush
1934 - Lew Fonseca, Jimmie Dykes
1948 - Ted Lyons
1970 - Don Gutteridge, Bill Adair, Chuck Tanner
1976 - Paul Richards
1989 - Jeff Torborg

Thursday, September 29, 2011

"As Good as It Gets"

     Bo Jackson’s role as a glib celebrity pitchman in countless TV commercials tended to make people forget that he was not a cartoon character but a shy, modest man who was grateful for the gifts nature had given him. Jackson was an All-Star in both the NFL and Major League Baseball—a unique achievement—until a 1991 football injury left him with an artificial hip.
     His career seemed to be over, and when Jackson appeared at the White Sox’ spring training camp in 1993, few observers gave him much of a chance to make the team. “I have a little hitch in my giddy-up,” Jackson admitted, but he had put himself through a tortuous rehab program and claimed to be getting better every day. Jackson made the team, thus fulfilling a promise made at his mother’s deathbed several months before.
     Jackson’s first at-bat of the year (and first in 18 months) came in the home opener at new Comiskey Park on April 9. He belted the second pitch he saw over the right-field wall for a home run. The crowd of 42,775 went wild, calling him out of the dugout after he had circled the bases. “The only thing I could think of at that time was my mother,” Jackson said after the game. “I made myself a promise after she passed that when I got back in the game and got my first hit, I was going to give that ball to her.” He had the ball bronzed, inscribed, and affixed to his mother’s tombstone.
     Although the Sox lost to the Yankees, it was a stirring start to what would prove a storybook season on the South Side. After a listless three months in which they flirted with the .500 mark, the Sox stormed through the second half to open up a comfortable lead over the Texas Rangers heading down the stretch. First baseman Frank Thomas, Jackson’s football teammate at Auburn University, was having the greatest offensive season in White Sox history and would soon receive the first of back-to-back MVP awards.
     By September 27, the White Sox were poised to clinch the American League West title. On this crisp Monday evening, the Sox’ Wilson Alvarez and Seattle’s Dave Fleming dueled through five and a half scoreless innings. In the bottom of the sixth, Ellis Burks led off with a single. Craig Grebeck followed with a bunt single, and the crowd of 42,116 began to stir. But Fleming settled down and retired the next two Sox hitters. Then Jackson stepped into the batter’s box. Sensing the dramatic possibilities, the fans came to their feet cheering and waving a sea of white socks over their heads. Fleming approached Bo carefully, and the count went to 3-and-0. Given the green light, Jackson swung at the next offering and hit a sky-high drive to left field.
     “I thought it was a pop-up,” Jackson said. But the ball kept soaring up and out, up and out, until it finally landed beyond the wall for a three-run homer. “It was amazing,” said the Sox’ Lance Johnson. “I thought Bo missed it and popped it up, but the left fielder went back, back, back until he just ran out of real estate.”
     “That,” Seattle manager Lou Piniella said, “is one strong man.”
     Bo’s blow gave the Sox a lead they never relinquished as they won 4-2 to wrap up the division title. It was a miracle finish not only for Jackson, but also for Alvarez, who had returned from the minors in August to win his last seven starts.
     After the game, the champagne-soaked Jackson went back out to the field to thank Sox fans for their support. Few had left, although the game had been over for half an hour. Jackson jogged around the field, waving a white sock of his own at the delirious fans. “This is as good as it gets,” he said. “The most fun I’ve had as a professional athlete.”

Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) by Christopher Tabbert.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Day Before the Day

     On September 27, 1938, the newspapers and the radio were full of news about the Munich Conference, where Great Britain and France were in the process of handing Czechoslovakia over to Nazi Germany. A second world war was not yet regarded as inevitable.
     At Wrigley Field, only the National League pennant hung in the balance. Under recently appointed player/manager Gabby Hartnett, the Cubs had surged from far back in the standings to draw within striking distance of the league-leading Pittsburgh Pirates.
     The Cubs had won seven in a row and 17 of their last 20 to advance within a game and a half of the Pirates, who were also surging, having won eight of their last 10. “If we win five of our remaining seven games,” said Pittsburgh manager Pie Traynor, “it doesn’t matter how many the Cubs win.”
     For the opener of the three-game series that will all but decide the pennant, the Cubs turned to Dizzy Dean. Several years earlier, Dean had said, “Anybody who’s had the pleasure of seeing me play knows that I am the greatest pitcher in the world.” Indeed, he averaged 24 wins a year for five years beginning in 1932.
     But the Dizzy Dean who was acquired from St. Louis before the 1938 season was just a shadow of his former self. In the previous summer’s All-Star Game, a line drive had shattered the little toe on his left foot. Because the Cardinals were in a tight pennant race, Dean had continued to pitch, altering his delivery to favor the broken toe. He had ruined his arm in the process.
     For the Cubs, Dean was able to pitch only occasionally, but he always gave his team an honest effort—and a full house. He had not started in five weeks when Hartnett gave him the ball for this “must” game. “In a spot such as this,” Warren Brown wrote, “Dizzy Dean was perfectly at home. Here was a park packed with popeyed fans. Here was a game on which the entire season might depend. If you had asked Dean—and many did—what he thought about being put on such a spot, Diz had but one answer: ‘Gabby’s getting smarter every day. Who else would he pick to beat these guys but old Diz?’”
     “His arm was hurting him badly,” teammate Phil Cavarretta recalled. “The thing I remember best watching this man pitch, his presence on that mound encouraged us to go out there and play hard. Watching him pitch was an inspiration. You could see the man was suffering out there. You’d say, ‘My God, let’s go out and win it for Diz.’”
     Getting by on guts and guile, Dean held the Pirates scoreless for eight and two-thirds innings before running out of gas. As he left the field, a tumult of cheers rang down from the standing-room-only crowd of 42,238. “It was an incredible performance,” said Cavarretta. Dean’s teammates congratulated him in the dugout, but he was disgusted that he hadn’t been able to finish.
     With the Cubs clinging to a 2-0 lead and the tying runs on second and third, the ubiquitous Bill Lee relieved Dean. Lee had logged a complete-game victory just 24 hours earlier, and won would end up 22-9 for the season with a league-leading 2.44 earned run average and nine shutouts. If the Cy Young Award had existed in 1938, Lee would have won it. As it was he finished second in voting for the Most Valuable Player award.
     Pirates catcher Al Todd was up to bat. Lee's first offering to Todd was a wild pitch, scoring one run and moving the tying run to third. Then, with the crowd roaring its approval, he struck out Todd—the only strikeout of the game on either side—to narrowly preserve a 2-1 victory. It was Dean’s seventh win of the year against only one loss.
     The Cubs were now only a half game behind the Pirates, and the stage was set for perhaps the most dramatic game ever played at Wrigley Field. That game featured Hartnett's unforgettable “Homer in the Gloamin’,” which put the Cubs in first place to stay.

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

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Jim Finks: Just What the Doctor Ordered

     At a Bears game in 1973, George S. Halas, Jr., son of the franchise's legendary founder and a respected football executive in his own right, turned to his dad and said, "I am so sick of this!" By "this," the man known as Mugs meant the Bears' recent history of losing, which was about to extend to five consecutive sub-.500 seasons.
     Thirty-seven years ago today, on September 13, 1974, the Halases did something about it. They hired the Bears' first general manager other than Papa Bear himself--and the man they chose for the job proved to be exactly what the doctor ordered.
     He was Jim Finks, and he had just concluded a ten-year stint in a similar role with the Minnesota Vikings, which resulted in Super Bowl appearances after the 1969 and 1973 seasons and the NFL Executive of the Year award in '73.
     The Bears opened the 1974 season two days after Finks was hired, with a team that did not yet have his fingerprints on it. They beat the Detroit Lions in the opener, but soon reverted to form and finished 4-10 (giving them a dismal record of 24-59 for the past five years).
     Finks had spent the season evaluating the Bears' coaches and players, and he delivered his verdict shortly after clock ticked down on a season-ending 42-0 loss at Washington. Head coach Abe Gibron was sent packing, and so were a good many of his players. Jack Pardee took over as head coach, and Finks and his staff set about planning for the 1975 draft.
     The first player that Finks drafted for the Bears, with the fourth overall pick in 1975, was the immortal Walter Payton. Long-time starters Mike Hartenstine, Virgil Livers, Revie Sorey, and Bob Avellini also were products of that same draft.
     During his years with the Bears, Finks never missed on a first-round pick. After Payton, his other first-rounders were Dennis Lick, Ted Albrecht, Dan Hampton, Al Harris, Otis Wilson, and Keith Van Horne. One, Hampton, has joined Payton in the Hall of Fame, and the others were all starters for lengthy periods of time.
     Alas, neither Mugs Halas (who died in 1979) nor his dad (who died in 1983), was around to celebrate when Finks's rebuilding project culminated in the 1985 world championship. Finks saw his efforts come to fruition, but he was no longer employed by the Bears at the time. He had resigned in 1982 after Papa Bear hired head coach Mike Ditka without consulting him.
     After his time with the Bears, Finks served briefly as president of the Cubs, then signed on as general manager of the New Orleans Saints, where he remained from 1986 until 1993. Finks narrowly lost out to Paul Tagliabue when NFL owners selected a new commissioner in 1989.
     Finks was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1995, a year after he passed away at the age of 66. His contributions to the game of football and his reputation as both a brilliant executive and a gentleman live on.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Hendry Era Ends With a Whimper--From Ricketts

      Jim Hendry's lengthy tenure as general manager of the Cubs ended not with a bang, but with a whimper--from owner Tom Ricketts. Like most of Ricketts' actions since taking over the franchise in October 2009, the circumstances of Hendry's removal are puzzling, even bizarre.
     If Hendry deserved to be fired, and most Cubs fans are satisfied that he did, the time for Ricketts to pull the trigger would have been the same day he took over the franchise. His family's purchase of the Cubs from Sam Zell took better than two years to consummate, so it is incredible that Ricketts was not ready to hit the ground running when Zell finally handed him the keys. He should have had ample time to decide whether Hendry was or was not the right man for the general manager's job (not to mention to get his plans in place regarding how to finance the long-overdue renovation of Wrigley Field).
     Instead, Ricketts wasted the past two years while the franchise went backward both on and off the field. He fiddled while Cub Nation burned.
     When Ricketts got around to firing Hendry, he did so in the strangest way possible. He informed Hendry on July 22 that the latter was out of a job, but did not announce or enforce the decision until yesterday. In the meantime, the lame-duck Hendry directed the Cubs' draft of amateur players and also was responsible for the club's moves (or lack thereof) at the July 31 trading deadline.
     Let's just say that Ricketts has a long way to go to earn the confidence of his constituents. He has done nothing so far to prove that he has a clue what he is doing, but if he chooses the right man to replace Hendry, he will be taking a big step in that direction.

     As for Hendry, he is a class act who remained true to form when the news of his dismissal was announced. He answered questions from the media politely and thoughtfully, then went into the clubhouse one last time to wish the players well.
     Hendry's Cubs team made the postseason three times in his ten years as GM, but the National League pennant drought that began in 1946 continued, as did the world championship drought that began in 1909.
     Money burned a hole in Hendry's pocket. He extravagantly overspent to sign free agents of limited value, such as Alfonso Soriano, Kosuke Fukudome, and Milton Bradley, and to retain his own players, most notably Carlos Zambrano and Aramis Ramirez. In each of these cases, Hendry was essentially bidding only against himself.
     Hendry's most lauded trades aren't so impressive in retrospect. His acquisition of Ramirez from the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2003 and Derrek Lee from the Florida Marlins in 2004 were straightforward salary dumps by his trading partners. His acquisition of Nomar Garciaparra for the stretch run in 2004 looked like a coup at the time, but Garciaparra was available only because the Boston Red Sox had concluded that he could no longer play shortstop and that his offense was also slipping. The Cubs came to the same conclusions themselves a year later.
     Hendry's last major decision, the hiring of Mike Quade as manager, was a case of one hard-working baseball lifer rewarding another for his years of anonymous service. Quade survived the end of the Hendry era, but most likely not by much.
     "Obviously you always look back at your mistakes and want mulligans," Hendry said as he took his leave. "Just like most things in life, you don't get them."

Cubs General Managers:

Bill Veeck, Sr., 1919 - 1933
Charles Weber, 1934 - 1940
Jim Gallagher, 1940 - 1949
Wid Matthews, 1950 - 1956
John Holland, 1957 - 1975
E.R. "Salty" Saltwell, 1976
Bob Kennedy, 1977 - 1981
Herman Franks, 1981
Dallas Green, 1981 - 1987
Jim Frey, 1987 - 1991
Larry Himes, 1991 - 1994
Ed Lynch, 1994 - 2000
Andy MacPhail, 2000 - 2002
Jim Hendry, 2002 - 2011

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Eagle Lands in Hall of Fame

     Between August 7, 1992, and March 23, 1999, the Blackhawks traded four future Hall of Famers, getting practically nothing in return. That is pretty bad, even by the abysmally low standards set by Bill Wirtz and Bob Pulford, who mismanaged the franchise for decades.
     When the Hawks traded backup goalie Dominik Hasek in the summer of 1992, they could be forgiven because starter Ed Belfour was already established as a stalwart, having won the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year and the Vezina Trophy as outstanding goalie in 1991, and having led the Hawks to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1992.
     When they dealt center Jeremy Roenick in 1996, Belfour himself in 1997, and defenseman Chris Chelios in 1999, there was no excuse. And they paid the price. After making the playoffs 38 times in 39 seasons from 1959 through 1997, the Hawks missed the playoffs in nine of the next ten years.
     Fortunately, the Blackhawks are under new management now, they captured the Stanley Cup last year, and they are likely to be perennial contenders for the foreseeable future.
     The four future Hall of Famers who were traded in the Hawks’ darker days are all retired now, and each will be entering the Hall in the next few years. Belfour, the first one eligible, was elected two weeks ago. “I didn’t expect it in any way,” Belfour said. “I was just flabbergasted.”
     In addition to winning the Calder Trophy and the Vezina twice, Belfour won the Jennings Trophy for lowest goals-against average four times—three times for the Hawks and once for the Dallas Stars (in 1999, when the Stars won the Stanley Cup). His 953 games between the pipes ranks fourth in league history, and his 484 wins ranks third.
     When his election to the Hall of Fame was announced, “Eddie the Eagle” said something that any Hall of Famer in any sport can well understand: “It is hard to put into words what this means to me.”
     Hasek, Roenick, and Chelios will have the same feeling some day.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

When Cubs vs. Sox Really Counted, Part 2

     For the first four games of the 1906 World Series, the White Sox “Hitless Wonders” were true to form, with just 11 hits in 113 at-bats for an average of .097—yet the upstarts had given the heavily favored Cubs all they could handle. In the latter respect only, the remaining games of the Series would be no different.
     A throng of 23,257 filled every nook and cranny of the West Side Grounds for Game 5. Thousands more were outside, the Tribune noted, “packed on adjoining roofs, clinging to telegraph poles and wires like monkeys, or fretting behind locked gates and trying to gain from the incessant yelling some idea of how the tide of battle was going within.”
     Ed Walsh was back on the mound for the Sox, just two days after his complete-game shutout in Game 3, and Ed Reulbach went for the Cubs. Both pitchers had trouble in the first inning. Reulbach was touched for a run on three hits before he wriggled out of a bases-loaded jam. Walsh allowed his first runs of the Series, through no fault of his own, when errors by Frank Isbell and Jiggs Donahue led to three tallies by the Cubs.
     Cubs fans were ecstatic, figuring that the three runs would be sufficient to subdue the Sox, who’d scored only six times in the first four games. But suddenly the South Siders’ popgun attack erupted. When Isbell and George Davis rapped back-to-back doubles to lead off the third, Reulbach was through. The Sox weren’t. Jack Pfiester came on for the Cubs and retired the side, but not before Isbell and Davis scored. In the fourth, Pfiester got only one man out before he too was sent to the showers. By the time Orval Overall finally got the third out, the score was 7-3, and it was the Sox fans who had something to shout about.
     The Cubs scored once in the fourth and twice in the sixth, again on miscues by the Sox infielders (who committed an astounding six errors among them). Doc White relieved a tiring Walsh in the seventh and yielded just one scratch single over the final three innings to preserve Big Ed’s second win of the Series. The final score was 8-6; it could have been 8-0 if not for what the Tribune called “the rankest exhibition of fielding a team of champions ever gave in public.”

     With the vaunted Cubs now at the brink of elimination, their ace Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown returned for Game 6 on two days’ rest. And despite his own rather lengthy stint just the day before, White started for the Sox. Like most managers in those days, neither Frank Chance of the Cubs nor Fielder Jones of the Sox was shy about using his best pitchers to, and often past, the point of exhaustion.
     A crowd of 19,249 packed South Side Park to see whether the Sox could pull off their miracle. The answer was not long in coming. Trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the first, the Sox had two on and one out when Davis banged a long fly to right. The Cubs’ Frank Schulte drifted back, circled, and then stumbled as the ball fell safely behind him for a double. The Cubs claimed that a policeman placed on the field for crowd control had purposefully kicked Schulte in the pants as he reached for the ball, but their pleas fell on deaf ears, and the game was tied. Shortly thereafter, Donahue doubled to left, scoring two more runs. He wouldn’t have batted if Davis’s ball had been caught. “Three runs scored where there should have been none,” Charles Dryden wrote in the Tribune, “and more disaster followed.”
     When Brown easily retired the first two Sox hitters in the second, it seemed that he had settled down, as Dryden wrote, and “might yet finish the game in his usual form.” But then he unraveled completely. Eddie Hahn singled, Jones walked, and Isbell singled to load the bases. Cubs shortstop Joe Tinker leaped and almost made a sensational catch of a line drive by Davis, but the ball ticked off his glove as two runs scored. George Rohe then singled, loading the bases again. With this, Overall replaced Brown. He promptly yielded a single to Donahue and a walk to Patsy Dougherty for two more runs before retiring Billy Sullivan, who had the dubious distinction of making two outs in the inning.
     The White Sox’ stunning two-out rally produced seven successive base runners and four runs. It also put the game out of reach. “Realizing only the most unexpected events could rob their heroes of the hard fought for honors,” the Tribune reported, “the thousands whose sympathies were with the Sox turned the affair into a jubilee of noise. The waving banners, the tin horns, the dinner bells, the megaphones, the counting of the score in unison—all were suggestive of a gridiron contest. Nothing like it ever before was seen on a baseball diamond.”
     For the first time in the Series, the home team won. The final score was 8-3. Against the Cubs pitching staff whose collective earned-run average of 1.76 remains the best of all time, the Hitless Wonders had exploded for 16 runs on 26 hits in the two games that decided the world championship. Their triumph still ranks among the greatest upsets in World Series history.
     Owner Charles Comiskey handed Jones a check for $15,000 and told him to split it evenly among the White Sox; this was in addition to the $25,052 they were to share from the gate receipts. Jones and the players, naturally, regarded the extra $15,000 as a gift from their grateful boss. They didn’t learn until later, and much to their chagrin, that it was really intended as an advance against their 1907 salaries.

Part 2 of 2.

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

Friday, July 1, 2011

When Cubs vs. Sox Really Counted, Part 1

     The Cubs and White Sox took divergent paths to the first single-city World Series in 1906. The Cubs blasted out of the gate and never looked back, racking up a phenomenal record of 116-36—still the best of all time—and outdistancing the defending world-champion New York Giants by 20 games. The White Sox started slowly, crept over .500 in mid-June, won 19 straight in August to assume first place, fell back into second several times in September, and finally surged to the finish line three games ahead of the New York Yankees (then known as the Highlanders).
     The Cubs led the National League in hitting, fielding, and pitching. They scored 80 more runs than the second-best offensive team and yielded 89 fewer than the second-best defensive team. They got better as the season went on, winning 50 of their last 57 games. They were 56-21 at home and 60-15 on the road. When asked whether he was amazed that the Cubs had won 116 games, pitcher Ed Reulbach said, “I wonder how we came to lose 36.” First baseman and manager Frank Chance led the league in stolen bases with 57 and runs scored with 102; third baseman Harry Steinfeldt tied for the lead in runs batted in with 83. Between them on the infield were Joe Tinker and Johnny Evers, the shortstop and second baseman later immortalized with Chance in the most famous baseball poem after “Casey at the Bat.” Johnny Kling was one of the finest catchers of his day, the first in the majors to throw from a crouch. Pitchers Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown, Jack Pfiester, and Reulbach finished one-two-three in the league in earned-run average; Brown’s figure of 1.04 remains the best ever by a National Leaguer.
     Against this juggernaut stood a White Sox club disparagingly nicknamed “the Hitless Wonders.” Their anemic .230 team batting average and puny total of seven home runs both ranked last in the American League. “It must be admitted,” Fred Lieb wrote, “that [manager] Fielder Jones won his pennant with mirrors.” Lieb should have said mirrors and pitching, for the Sox posted 32 shutouts. Frank Owen, Nick Altrock, and Doc White won 22, 20, and 18 games, respectively, and White’s ERA of 1.52 led the league. Ed Walsh added 17 victories, 10 of them shutouts. The cocky 25-year-old Walsh, described as “the only man who could strut while standing still,” had just mastered the spitball (which was then legal) after two years of trial and error. He was destined for the Hall of Fame.

     To an extent that has probably not been equaled since, Chicagoans in the first decade of the 20th century were absolutely mad about baseball. “All the honors worth winning,” an anonymous Tribune writer gushed, “in the most sensational, record-breaking, and most financially successful season in baseball’s history belong to Chicago, admittedly the greatest, most loyal, and enthusiastic baseball city in the world.”
     Chicago’s huge population of recent immigrants from Germany and Ireland was neatly divided in its loyalties. The Germans favored the Cubs, whose roster included Solly Hofman, Kling, Pfiester, Reulbach, Steinfeldt, Jimmy Sheckard, and Frank “Wildfire” Schulte. The Irish supported the White Sox, who featured Jiggs Donahue, Patsy Dougherty, Ed McFarland, Bill O’Neill, Billy Sullivan, Walsh, and White.
     Although the Sox’ record of 93-58 was excellent, it nonetheless would have placed them 17½ games off the pace set by the Cubs. It was no surprise, then, that the South Siders were overwhelming underdogs to their West Side rivals (the Cubs didn’t move to the North Side until 1916). But Giants manager John McGraw, for one, wasn’t so sure. “They say the White Sox won the flag without hitting,” he said, “but I know better. Their grounds prevent anyone from hitting heavily, and as they played 77 games there, it made their averages look very small. On the road, they hit as hard as anybody.” It was true that the Sox’ very spacious home field, South Side Park at 39th and Princeton, contributed substantially to the apparent futility of their hitters and mastery of their pitchers. When owner Charles Comiskey built his new park in 1910, he gave it, at Walsh’s urging, similarly gargantuan dimensions.
     The Cubs were being called the mightiest ballclub ever to take the field. They had good reason to be confident as they opened the Series with their ace, Mordecai Brown, on the mound. He’d had 26 victories in this first of his six consecutive years with 20 or more. Walsh was slated to oppose Brown in what would have been a dream matchup, but according to legend Sox manager Jones changed his mind at the last minute because he believed that Walsh’s spitballs would freeze in the unseasonably cold air. So the two greatest pitchers in Chicago history did not face each other. Altrock went to the hill for the Sox.

     Game 1 was played in the Cubs’ park, the West Side Grounds at Polk and Lincoln (now Wolcott), on October 9. “Never was such a contest, for such high stakes, played under worse conditions,” the Tribune reported. “A cold, raw day was made more disagreeable by a chilling wind, and cold gray clouds denied the sun more than a single, fleeting chance to light up the picture.” Snowflakes floated over the crowd of 12,693.
     Brown and Altrock were sharp, and the game was scoreless for four innings. In the fifth, Sox third baseman George Rohe drove one past Cubs left fielder Sheckard for a triple. Rohe, a seldom-used benchwarmer who was playing only because George Davis was injured, would figure prominently throughout the Series. He scored the Sox’ first run when Dougherty tapped a weak bouncer back to Brown, whose throw home somehow eluded the usually sure-handed Kling.
     Brown committed the cardinal sin of walking Altrock, a .152 hitter, to lead off the sixth. Altrock moved to second on a sacrifice by Eddie Hahn, then tried to score on Jones’s single to center. But Hofman’s throw to Kling was perfect, retiring Altrock while Jones took second. Jones advanced to third on a passed ball by Kling and scored on Frank Isbell’s single to left.
     Leading off the bottom of the sixth, Kling walked. Brown twice failed to bunt him to second, then swung away and singled over the middle. After Hofman sacrificed, Altrock threw a wild pitch that scored Kling and pushed Brown to third. But Brown, representing the tying run, went no further. First, shortstop Lee Tannehill raced back into shallow left to make an over-the-shoulder grab of a blooper by Sheckard. Then first baseman Donahue stretched to scoop Rohe’s low throw out of the dirt, retiring Schulte and the side.
     Altrock clung to the narrow lead for three more innings, and when it was over he and the Sox had escaped with a 2-1 win. “One swallow does not make a summer,” Cubs owner Charles W. Murphy remarked. “I might add one snowstorm does not make a winter, but it keeps fans away from ball games.”
     Game 2 was played before 12,595 at South Side Park, also amid snow flurries. The Cubs scored early and often, knocking White out after three innings and roughing up his successor, Owen, as well. They pounded out 10 hits and seven runs. Reulbach, meanwhile, allowed but one hit and one unearned run. In three different innings he walked the first batter and in another he hit the first man up, but only in one of these instances did the man reach second base. Brilliant fielding by the Cubs repeatedly rescued Reulbach from his self-imposed peril, and the Series was tied up. “That’s one and one,” said Comiskey. “And we’ll be there with the right kind of goods tomorrow.”
     Walsh, the right kind of goods, started Game 3 against the Cubs’ Pfiester. The weather had improved markedly, and 13,667 showed up at the West Side Grounds. They saw a superb pitching duel in which neither team scored for five innings. In the top of the sixth, the Sox loaded the bases with none out. Pfiester didn’t give in. He got Jones on a foul pop-up to Kling, who leaned well into the crowd behind the plate to make a fine catch. Then Pfiester fanned Isbell. He was on the verge of squeezing out of the jam when the unknown Rohe came up. Rohe hit the first pitch down the left-field line, where it bounced into the crowd for a ground-rule triple. The three runs were all that Walsh needed as he scattered two harmless hits and struck out 12. The Sox won 3-0.
     Game 4, played before 18,384 at South Side Park on October 12, featured a rematch between Brown and Altrock, who had battled memorably in Game 1. George Davis was back in action for the Sox, replacing Tannehill at shortstop while Rohe remained at third base. Right fielder and leadoff man Hahn was also in the lineup, unfazed by the broken nose sustained when he was hit by a pitch in the previous game. “They can hand me the beanball or push my nose aside every day in the week,” he said, “if the Sox can only win.” Hahn singled with two outs in the sixth for the Sox’ first hit off Brown, but he was stranded. In the seventh, he lost Chance’s drive in the sun and allowed it to fall for a single. Two successive bunts moved Chance to third, and Evers’s solid single to left scored him with the only run of the game.
     Brown blanked the Sox on two hits. In the ninth inning, with two out and the potential tying and winning runs on base, he was literally knocked down by a vicious shot off the bat of Isbell. He recovered both his bearings and the ball in time to throw to Chance for the game’s final out.
     Altrock was philosophical about finding himself on the short end of the 1-0 score. “There is no great loss,” he said, “without its compensating gain. Had I won this game and another, the irksome ethics of this profession would compel me to wear a collar and necktie all winter.”

Part 1 of 2.

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

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Chicagoland U.S. Opens

     Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland tore up the course at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, this past weekend to take the 2011 U.S. Open championship in fine style. The 22-year-old McIlroy shot under 70 for all four rounds, finished eight shots ahead of the runner-up, and set tournament records for the most strokes under par (16) and lowest total score (268).
     The previous record for lowest total score was 272, established by Jack Nicklaus in 1980 and equaled by Lee Janzen in 1993, Tiger Woods in 2000, and Jim Furyk in 2003--at Olympia Fields Country Club. The 2003 Open was the 13th played in the Chicago area, and the most recent to date.
     Some of the 13 have been more memorable than others. The 1975 Open at Medinah was decided by an 18-hole playoff on the fifth day, in which Lou Graham outlasted John Mahaffey. But what makes that year's Open famous, or infamous, is that Lee Trevino was struck by lightning while on the course. Always a jokester, Trevino said afterwards that he would know what to do the next time. "If you are caught on a golf course during a storm and are afraid of lightning," he said, "hold up your 1-iron. Not even God can hit a 1-iron."

Chicagoland U.S. Opens:

Chicago Golf Club, Wheaton
Champion: Joe Lloyd
Score: (unknown)

Chicago Golf Club, Wheaton
Champion: Harry Vardon
Score: 313

Glen View Club, Golf
Champion: Willie Anderson
Score: 303

Onwentsia Club, Lake Forest
Champion: Alex Smith
Score: 295

Chicago Golf Club, Wheaton
Champion: John McDermott
Score: 307

Midlothian Country Club, Midlothian
Champion: Walter Hagen
Score: 290

Skokie Country Club, Glencoe
Champion: Gene Sarazen
Score: 288

Olympia Fields Country Club, Olympia Fields
Champion: Johnny Farrell
Score: 294

North Shore Country Club, Glenview
Champion: Johnny Goodman
Score: 287 (1 under par)

Medinah Country Club (Course No. 3), Medinah
Champion: Cary Middlecoff
Score: 286 (2 over par)

Medinah Country Club (Course No. 3), Medinah
Champion: Lou Graham
Score: 287 (3 over par)

Medinah Country Club (Course No. 3), Medinah
Champion: Hale Irwin
Score: 280 (8 under par)

Olympia Fields Country Club (North Course), Olympia Fields
Champion: Jim Furyk
Score: 272 (8 under par)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Cubs vs. Yankees, 2003

     The New York Yankees are in town this weekend to visit the Cubs for the first time since the two clubs staged a memorable series in June 2003. This years Cubs appear hard-pressed to stay out of the cellar, but in 2003 the Cubs were destined to win a division championship. They would have met the Yankees again in that years World Series but for their unfortunate meltdown in Games 6 and 7 of the National League Championship Series against the Florida Marlins. All that was a long way off on the first weekend of June. 

     Sammy Sosa’s suspension for using a corked bat was still pending when the New York Yankees invaded Wrigley Field just three days after the episode, so he was in the lineup against the 26-time world champions, who were playing the Cubs for the first time since the 1938 World Series.
     The park was absolutely packed for all three games, and the atmosphere was fully charged. The first game, on Friday, June 6, was played in a light mist under cloudy skies. The Yankees led 5-0 after two and a half innings, but Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano and four relievers held them in check after that. A two-run homer by second baseman Ramon Martinez in the third and a solo shot by center fielder Corey Patterson in the eighth got the Cubs back in the game. In the bottom of the ninth, the Cubs had the tying runs on second and third and the winning run at the plate when Hee Seop Choi struck out swinging.
     Saturday’s game matched Cubs righthander Kerry Wood against Roger Clemens, a six-time Cy Young award winner who was still potent as ever at the age of 40. Wood had exploded onto the scene five years earlier, striking out 20 Houston Astros on May 6, 1998, in just his fifth major-league outing. Only two Astros reached base, one on a scratch single off the glove of third baseman Kevin Orie and the other when he was hit by a pitch. Eight pitches were hit into fair territory, just two out of the infield. With 20 strikeouts in a single game, Wood had joined a very exclusive club whose only other member was Clemens. He’d won 13 games for the season, fanned 233 batters in 167 innings, and been named Rookie of the Year. He had battled injuries and inconsistency since then, but he was coming into his own by 2003, and he made the All-Star team for the first time.
     Wood admitted he was thrilled to be facing Clemens, a fellow Texan and (along with Nolan Ryan) his idol. Adding some spice to the mix was the fact that Clemens was seeking his 300th victory.
     Both pitchers were sharp. A solo homer by Hideki Matsui in the fifth was the Yankees’ lone hit off Wood for the first seven innings. Clemens retired 15 straight Cubs in one stretch and carried a two-hit shutout into the bottom of the seventh. With two on and one out, New York manager Joe Torre removed Clemens and handed the ball to reliever Juan Acevedo. Clemens did not appear to be happy, and he was less so when Cubs first baseman Eric Karros drove Acevedo’s first offering into the left-field bleachers to give the Cubs a 3-1 lead.
     The drama wasn’t over yet. With two on and two out in the Yankees’ eighth, Wood issued a walk to Derek Jeter. Cubs skipper Dusty Baker called for lefty Mike Remlinger to face the next hitter, Jason Giambi. Wood departed to a standing ovation; he had allowed just three hits and three walks while striking out 11. Giambi, a former American League MVP, had already clouted 14 homers on the season, including one the day before. After a swinging strike and a called strike, he waited out three deliveries that were off the mark. Then, with the crowd roaring, the baserunners going, and no margin for error, the crafty Remlinger threw a changeup, right over the heart of the plate. Giambi swung through it for strike three.
     The Cubs won 5-2. “The most electric game I’ve ever been a part of,” said Karros.
     The Cubs won again Sunday night, defeating the Yankees 8-7. Entertaining as it was, the series against the New Yorkers was hardly crucial, for there were still 101 games left in the season. But the Cubs were gaining credibility and confidence. “You don’t know,” Baker said, “if this is a defining moment or a turning point until down the road.”

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

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Harry Caray, Part 2

     Broadcaster Harry Caray and general manager Dallas Green did more than anyone else to turn the Cubs into one of the most popular and richest franchises in baseball, after decades of benign neglect under the stewardship of the eccentric chewing-gum heir P.K. Wrigley.
     Artistically, Caray’s best days were behind him when he joined the Cubs in 1982, but his popularity soared to new heights. At first, he was less than beloved even in his own booth, for his arrival quashed Milo Hamilton’s plans to assume the top spot in the wake of Jack Brickhouse’s retirement. When Caray got up to do his first rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in Wrigley Field, Hamilton stalked out of the booth muttering “I don’t have to listen to this shit.”
     Hamilton—the only broadcaster who could, and did, make a transcendent moment like Hank Aaron’s record-breaking 715th home run as dull as dishwater—was advised to get used to Caray and his singing. He was relegated to radio only the next year, and was gone by 1985. Steve Stone became Caray’s partner in the TV booth, and, although the two could hardly have been more dissimilar, they had genuine chemistry on the air and became good friends away from the ballpark as well. They worked together for the rest of Caray’s career.
     Thanks to the reach of WGN’s cable-TV superstation, the Cubs’ magical, heartbreaking 1984 season introduced Caray to a far wider audience than he could have imagined even in his heyday with the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cubs became a national phenomenon, with Caray as ringleader of the summer-long celebration. He nicknamed Bob Dernier and Ryne Sandberg “the Daily Double” and Rick Sutcliffe “the Red Baron.” He serenaded Jody Davis with his own made-up lyrics to the old “Davy Crockett” theme song. He was, as William Nack wrote, “mirror and magnet for the emotions the team evoked.” When the dream turned into a nightmare in the National League Championship Series, Caray could not conceal the shock and dismay that he felt as deeply as any other Cubs fan.

     Despite his famous propensity for bar-hopping until the wee hours almost every day, Caray never missed so much as one inning in his first 42 years at the microphone. His incredible streak of 6,668 consecutive games ended in 1987 after Caray suffered a stroke in February while playing cards with some cronies in Palm Springs, California.
     If he didn’t already know, Caray learned during his recuperation how many people he had touched over the years. Every day, his wife Dutchie brought him box after box of mail from people who wanted him to know how much he meant to them and their families. “I can’t describe the effect it had on my entire being,” said Caray.
     He returned several weeks into the season with his enthusiasm intact, even enhanced, but with his skills diminished. After the stroke, Caray’s tendency to mispronounce names and to confuse contemporary players with those of earlier decades became more noticeable with each passing year.
     It didn’t matter. What mattered was that Caray was still at it, joyously selling baseball, beautiful Wrigley Field, and Budweiser. Fans realized that Caray was the last of the true originals, and that he would be sorely missed when he was gone. They could put up with a few mistakes from the most passionate, most entertaining announcer they’d ever know.
     In 1989, Caray received a long-overdue honor when he was admitted to the broadcasters’ wing of the Hall of Fame. In his brief, eloquent induction speech, Caray pointed out that his was the first family to produce three generations of broadcasters; the audience for the ceremonies included his son Harry Christopher, Jr., and grandson Harry Christopher III (better known as Skip and Chip, respectively). He went on to say, “I think of the fans, and perhaps that’s who I represent today. We are all fans, and I know it’s the fans who are responsible for my being here. They are the unsung heroes. We are temporary actors on the baseball stage. We move on but the game remains. I’m very proud to have been a part of this piece of Americana.”

     In signing off the air at the end of the 1997 season, Caray said, “So long everybody. God willing, I hope to see you next year.”
     It wasn’t to be. On Valentine’s Day 1998, Caray collapsed in Palm Springs, while dancing with Dutchie. This time, there was no miraculous recovery. Caray never regained consciousness, and he died after a four-day vigil by family and friends.
     “Who wouldn't take this deal?” Bob Costas mused upon Caray’s death. “You live into your early eighties (no matter what the official bio said), you do what you love doing right up until the end, and in the end, this can truthfully be said: You made millions of people happy, and millions of people will never forget you.”

Part 2 of 2.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Harry Caray, Part 1

     “The first thing I fell deeply, passionately, madly and irrevocably in love with,” Harry Caray wrote, “was the game of baseball. I loved to play it and to watch it, I loved to read about it, and perhaps most of all, I loved to talk about it, argue about it, analyze it.” Over the course of his remarkable career as a broadcaster, Caray shared his love with millions, who in turn made it their own.
     Better than half of Caray’s 53 years at the microphone were spent in Chicago, where he worked 11 seasons with the White Sox and 16 with the Cubs. In Chicago he became larger than life, the Mayor of Rush Street and the celebrated singer of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”—but it was in St. Louis that he established himself as a Hall-of-Fame broadcaster. For much of his tenure with the Cardinals, St. Louis was the southernmost and westernmost city in the major leagues, and Caray’s voice crackling over the radio was the closest that fans throughout most of the country ever got to a big-league ballpark. When conditions were right, station KMOX’s 50,000-watt signal carried the broadcasts into virtually all of the contiguous 48 states.
     “On a clear night from a thousand miles away, here came Harry Caray over KMOX,” recalled Bob Costas, who used to tune in on the car radio from his family’s driveway on Long Island. “Not smooth and melodic, like Red Barber, Mel Allen, or Vin Scully, but loud and bombastic.”
     Caray was a St. Louis institution for a quarter century. “There were just two names in St. Louis,” he once said. “Stan Musial and me.”
     After the 1969 season, his 25th with the Cardinals, Caray was abruptly fired. “I expected a gold watch,” he later joked, “but what I got was a pink slip.” It was a devastating blow, but not a complete surprise in light of allegations that he had become amorously involved with the attractive young wife of an Anheuser-Busch executive. Caray never denied it. “I’d rather have people believing the rumor and have my middle-aged ego inflated,” he said, “than deny it and keep my job.”
     In 1970, Caray hooked on with Charlie Finley’s Oakland A’s, but his blue-collar, beer-guzzling image and over-the-top broadcasting style were at odds with the laid-back culture of the Bay Area. After one forgettable season, Caray landed with the White Sox.
     The Sox were coming off a disastrous season in which they had lost a franchise-record 106 games and drawn only 495,535 fans. The club’s games were carried on WTAQ in LaGrange, a 5,000-watt station whose signal faded to 500 watts after dark, making it impossible for most homes in the Chicago area to receive the night games at all. It was quite a comedown for Caray, whose voice had boomed almost from coast to coast in his St. Louis days. It was also an adjustment for Chicago fans (and players), who had never known an announcer like him, accustomed as they were to the laconic Bob Elson and the always-optimistic Jack Brickhouse. Caray would root, root, root for the home team, but he never sugarcoated its shortcomings. “Look,” he said, “I don’t blast players, I just report what they do.”
     “Most announcers are shills for their teams,” said Caray. “I speak for the fan.” Like any fan, Caray came to the ballpark every day hoping, even expecting, to see something wonderful happen. When it didn’t, he was genuinely disappointed. When it did, though, he could hardly contain himself. For example, he made every home run sound like the first he had ever seen. “There’s a drive. Way back. It might be. It could be. It is! A home run! Holy cow! Listen to the crowd!”
     During his early years with the White Sox, the chief sponsors of Caray’s broadcasts were Falstaff Beer and the Chicken Unlimited chain. Caray sampled prodigious quantities of both products, and by the end of a game the booth would be littered with empty beer bottles and picked-over boxes of chicken. Often he would fling pieces of chicken from the booth into the waiting hands of fans below.
     White Sox fans loved his antics. Buoyed by Caray’s presence and the ballclub’s steady improvement under new manager Chuck Tanner, attendance at Comiskey Park climbed to 833,891 in 1971 and 1,186,018 in 1972 (that year, led by American League MVP Dick Allen, the Sox remained in contention all summer and finished a solid second to the A’s, who went on to win their first of three straight world championships). By 1973, Caray was on TV as well as radio, and the Sox drew 1,316,527 fans. Caray’s contract called for a relatively modest base salary of $50,000, with bonuses of $10,000 for every 100,000 spectators beyond 600,000; thus in 1973 his bonus was greater than his salary.
     By 1975, the White Sox were slipping badly, and Caray’s brutally honest appraisals of the situation were grating on players and management. Caray’s favorite target was third baseman Bill Melton, a former slugging star who’d never quite recovered from a back injury. “I didn’t mind him getting on me,” said Melton. “But we had a young ballclub—Bucky Dent, Terry Forster, a bunch of young players. He was getting on the whole team, the whole organization. It was building up. I had to confront him.” In July, he did; the two men had a well-publicized shouting match in a Milwaukee hotel lobby. At the end of the season, Melton’s request for a trade was granted, and Allyn indicated that Caray would not be invited back, either.

     Caray’s salvation (and that of the White Sox) was delivered by the chain-smoking, peg-legged entrepreneur Bill Veeck, who headed a group that bought the franchise from Allyn to prevent its moving to Seattle. Caray went for an interview to get his job back. “Here I am,” said Veeck, “talking to the man who ran me out of St. Louis.” It was true that Caray’s popularity had hastened the demise of Veeck’s St. Louis Browns in the early 1950s. Nonetheless, Veeck retained him.
     Caray flourished under Veeck’s anything-goes administration, which reached its apex in 1977—the year of the “South Side Hit Men.” The Sox rebounded from a last-place finish the year before by leading their division into August, winning 90 games, and drawing a club-record 1,657,315 fans. “Harry fits in with our group,” said Veeck. “He fits in with our style, which is casual, even raucous. Can you envision Dodger fans standing up in the middle of a game to cheer Vin Scully the way they cheer Harry here?” He might also have asked, can you envision Vin Scully broadcasting, shirtless, from a wind-whipped perch in the center-field bleachers, amidst hundreds of boisterous, imbibing young people?
     It was Veeck who created an enduring Chicago ritual for the seventh-inning stretch. Caray had been in the habit of singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” to himself. Veeck heard him one night. The next night, he had Caray’s microphone connected, surreptitiously, to the public-address system. “Here I am,” Caray remembered, “not dreaming that anyone notices, singing ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame.’ All of a sudden, I hear my voice booming back at me, along with the sound of thousands of other voices. When the game was over, I went up to Veeck and asked him what this was all about. He said, ‘Harry, all my life I’ve wanted to do that. I was just looking for the right guy. I knew you were the right guy because I knew any fan sitting in the ballpark, no matter how badly he sings, would realize that he could sing better than you and would freely join in.’”
     It was also Veeck who, in a fit of inspiration (or lunacy), teamed Caray with the volatile Jimmy Piersall in the broadcast booth. During his playing days, Piersall had suffered a nervous breakdown that was later chronicled in the movie Fear Strikes Out. He and Caray were a memorable tandem. The two would sometimes become so engrossed in arguing about a certain aspect of the game that they would briefly forget about the action on the field. One time, an exasperated Caray exclaimed, “Aw, Jimmy, you’re crazy!” Without missing a beat, Piersall retorted, “And I’ve got the papers to prove it.”
     When physical and financial woes forced Veeck to sell the White Sox in 1981, Caray’s days on the South Side were numbered. He did not suit the image that new owners Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn sought to project. “What it really came down to,” Caray said, “was they were jealous of me because my picture was in the paper more than theirs.” He lasted for one year. After Einhorn announced that henceforth most Sox games would be available not on free TV, but on a new subscription service, SportsVision, Caray up and quit. Worse yet for the Sox, he joined the Cubs. In explaining his decision, Caray said, “It came down to, do you want to go into 8,000,000 homes free or 50,000 homes on pay TV?”

Part 1 of 2.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Marciano vs. Walcott, 1953

     “Boxing was a mystery to me,” said Jersey Joe Walcott. “When I look back and see what I had to go through to get to the top, I find it hard to believe.”
     Walcott fought for the heavyweight championship eight times between 1947 and 1953. He lost gamely in the immortal Joe Louis’s final two title defenses. He split four remarkable bouts with Ezzard Charles—losing twice, then winning once to claim the title and once more to defend it. Then he was defeated in a spirited battle with Rocky Marciano.
     Walcott’s performance against Marciano earned him a rematch eight months later, in the latter’s first title defense.
     It was May 15, 1953. Marciano, 29, had enjoyed a relentless climb through the ranks of pretenders and contenders since donning the gloves only five years before. Though he was small for a heavyweight at 184½ pounds, the son of a Brockton, Massachusetts, shoemaker was a devastating puncher who had won all 43 of his fights, 38 by knockout. He had knocked Louis out of the ring altogether in one of the great man’s unfortunate comeback attempts.
     Walcott came into the rematch at 197¾ pounds. Officially he was 39 years old, but he had confessed to more than that two years earlier. Briefly considering retirement after his second loss to Charles, Walcott had said, “You can tell them the truth; I am 41.” So he might have been 43 when he clambered into the ring to face Marciano. Either way, he was the oldest man to hold the heavyweight title until 45-year-old George Foreman in 1994.
     For the first two minutes, Walcott appeared a bit gun shy. He well remembered the straight right to the jaw with which Marciano had knocked him out in the 13th round of their previous fight. This time, Marciano tried a different tack. He threw a roundhouse left hook that dazed Walcott, then followed with a withering right uppercut before Jersey Joe knew what hit him. “It wasn’t a crushing knockdown,” A.J. Liebling wrote, “the kind that leaves the recipient limp, like a wet hat, or jerky, like a new-caught flatfish. This appeared to be a sit-down-and-think-it-over knockdown, such as you might see in any barroom on a night of full moon.”
     With hundreds of late-arriving fans still searching for their seats and television viewers rummaging through their refrigerators, ring announcer Ben Bentley hoisted Marciano’s hand in the air at 2:25 of the first round.
Walcott and his manager, Felix Bocchicchio, maintained that referee Frank Sikora had quick counted.    “Gentlemen,” Bocchicchio said, “I never saw no robbery equal to this tonight.”
     “I could’ve gotten up at two,” said Walcott, “but I was looking at Felix and he told me to stay down. I never heard the referee count past seven. It’s the most ridiculous thing I ever seen.” Many fans agreed that they hadn’t heard Sikora count to ten, but that was not unusual considering the terrific din inside the Stadium. Moreover, Walcott had remained on the seat of his pants, making no move to get up even after Sikora finished counting him out. “I was surprised he didn’t get up,” Marciano commented matter-of-factly.
     Actually, few did get up after Rocky tagged them. Marciano defended his title five more times, winning four by knockout, then retired undefeated at the age of 32. There was no one left for him to fight.

Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) by Christopher Tabbert.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Ones That Got Away: White Sox, Part 1

Of the three dozen or so most prominent examples of players and managers who left Chicago early in their careers and went on to greater glory elsewhere, refugees from the Cubs outnumber those of the White Sox by a substantial margin. However, the Sox have not been entirely immune themselves. A few noteworthy White Sox castoffs from before 1950 are recalled below.

Gavvy Cravath
White Sox, 1909

     Outfielder Gavvy Cravath had hit one homer in 19 games for the White Sox when he was traded to the Washington Senators for pitcher Sleepy Bill Burns in May 1909. Burns went on to an undistinguished career that was tainted by accusations of complicity with gamblers (after his playing days were over, he became a key figure in the Black Sox scandal of 1919-1920). Cravath, meanwhile, emerged as the greatest slugger the game had seen up to that time.
     Playing for the Philadelphia Phillies from 1912 to 1920, Cravath led the National League in homers six times and tied for the lead another time. His 24 round trippers in 1924 established a new single-season record, which was broken by Babe Ruth in 1919. Cravath retired as baseball's all-time leading home-run hitter with 119. He retained this distinction for one year. In 1921, Ruth hit 59 homers to bring his lifetime total to 162.
     Cravath got off a memorable quote while managing the woeful Phillies. When one of his players complained about the razzing the club was getting from opponents and fans, Cravath did his best to console him. "Don't let anyone tell you that you're not a major leaguer, son," Cravath said. "We might not be a major-league club, but we are playing against major-league clubs."

Edd Roush
White Sox, 1913

     In his brief trial with the White Sox, 20-year-old center fielder Edd Roush managed but one hit in ten at-bats. He signed on with the Indianapolis Hoosiers of the upstart Federal League the next year, lured by the princely salary of $225 per month.
     When the Federal League folded after two seasons, Roush joined the New York Giants, where he took an intense dislike to legendary manager John McGraw. Since the feeling was quite mutual, Roush was soon traded to Cincinnati. With the Reds, Roush became the most popular player in franchise history before the emergence of Pete Rose half a century later.
     Roush was only five-foot-eleven and 170 pounds, but he used the heaviest bat (48 ounces) in major-league history. Because the bat was hardly tapered at all, Roush could bunt, get good wood on inside pitches, and slap balls to the opposite field. From 1917 through 1926, his lowest batting average was a league-leading .321 in 1919. That year, Roush and the Reds triumphed over the "Black Sox" in the World Series.
     Roush retired with a .323 average and two batting titles in 18 seasons. He entered the Hall of Fame in 1962.

Dixie Walker
White Sox, 1936-1937

     Early in the 1936 season, the White Sox picked up right fielder Fred "Dixie" Walker on waivers from the New York Yankees, for whom he had been bouncing between Triple-A and the majors since 1931. Walker had a big year for the Sox in 1937, hitting .302 with nine homers, 95 RBIs, and 105 runs scored, while also leading the league with 16 triples. He was promptly traded to the Detroit Tigers.
     When Walker landed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in mid-season 1939, his career took off. In Brooklyn, he soon became known as "the People's Cherce" for his popularity among the fans. Walker was a four-time All-Star for the Dodgers and four times finished in the top ten in MVP balloting. He led the National League in batting average in 1944 and in RBIs in 1945.
     The lefthanded-hitting Walker emphasized contact over power; he never hit more than 15 homers nor struck out more than 28 times in a season. He was a key player on Brooklyn pennant winners in 1941 and 1947. Before the '47 season, Walker balked at playing alongside his new teammate Jackie Robinson and also tried to enlist other Dodgers in a boycott. To his credit, he came to sincerely regret the episode, calling it "the stupidest thing I've ever done in my life."

Ed Lopat
White Sox, 1944-1947

     The prototypical small, crafty lefthander, Ed Lopat had a record of 50-49 in his four years with the White Sox. After the 1947 season, he was traded to the New York Yankees for three players--only one of whom, pitcher Bill Wight, lasted long enough to make an impression (he lost 20 games in his first year with the Sox). Lopat became a mainstay on the Yankee teams that won an unprecedented five successive world championships between 1949 and 1953.
     At five-foot-ten, Lopat was far from overpowering, but he knew how to get people out. Though he yielded about a hit an inning and a walk for every strikeout, Lopat compiled a phenomenal record of 92-40 from 1949 through 1954. He led the American League in winning percentage and earned-run average in 1953. He won four out of five World Series starts, including two complete-game victories in 1951 in which he allowed a total of one run.

Friday, May 13, 2011

'Twas Forty Years Ago: Chicago Sports Memories of 1971

     In 1971, two of the all-time great Chicago athletes called it a career within three weeks of each other. Ernie Banks played the last of his 2,528 games for the Cubs on September 26, and Gale Sayers played the last of his 68 games for the Bears on October 17. Sadly, both players finished up as mere shadows of their former selves. Banks, 40, had only 83 at-bats for the season, hitting .193 with three homers and six runs batted in. Sayers, just 28, played in two games and rushed for 38 yards on 13 carries before conceding that this latest comeback from a succession of knee surgeries had run its course.
     Neither man would have to wait long for the call to join his sport's Hall of Fame.

     The Blackhawks took an immediate liking to their new home in the NHL's Western Division, where they were the only established franchise among six four-year-old expansion teams. The Hawks won 26 and tied 5 of their first 37 games. They did not lose on home ice until January 6, compiling a home record of 16-0-2 prior to that. They ended up at 49-20-9, racking up 107 points to win the division going away. Mainstays of the club were goalie Tony Esposito, center Stan Mikita, forwards Bobby Hull and Dennis Hull, and defensemen Bill White and Pat "Whitey" Stapleton.
     In the playoffs, the Hawks dispatched the Philadelphia Flyers (four games to none) and the New York Rangers (four games to three) to advance to the Stanley Cup finals against the Montreal Canadiens. The Hawks won the first two games at home, dropped the next two at Montreal, then won again at home--in a 2-0 shutout by Esposito--to draw tantalizingly close to capturing the Cup. But the Canadiens won the next game in Montreal to even the series again.
     In Game 7 at the Stadium on May 18, Dennis Hull tallied in the last minute of the first period on a power play and Danny O'Shea lit the lamp seven minutes into the second to give the Hawks a 2-0 lead. The home team was closing in on the championship, and the old barn was rocking. Alas, the Canadiens scored three unanswered goals--two in the second period and one in the third--to win 3-2. As Montreal captain Jean Beliveau hoisted the Cup, the standing-room-only crowd of heartbroken Hawks fans politely applauded the champions. The Cup that Beliveau cradled in his hands would remain beyond the Hawks' grasp for 39 more years.

     In their fifth year of existence, the Bulls had their first 50-win season in 1970-71. They played an intense, physical style of ball that mirrored the pugnacious personality of their coach, Dick Motta, and they had the Stadium turnstiles spinning. Forwards Bob Love and Chet Walker were All-Stars, guard Jerry Sloan was named second-team All-Defense, and Motta was voted Coach of the Year. Although the Bulls lost a hard-fought first-round playoff series to the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games, with the home team winning each game, the future was still bright. They won 50 or more games in each of the next three seasons, and they proved that a pro basketball franchise could not only survive but thrive in Chicago.

     The Cubs plodded to an 83-79 mark in Banks's 19th and final season, finishing tied for third place in the National League East, 14 games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates. The lanky and elegant 28-year-old righthander Fergie Jenkins went 24-13 with a 2.77 earned-run average and 277 strikeouts to earn the Cy Young Award. It was the fifth of six consecutive seasons in which Jenkins won 20 or more times. The future Hall of Famer was joined in the All-Star Game by second baseman Glenn Beckert, shortstop Don Kessinger, and third baseman Ron Santo.

     After bottoming out with a 56-106 record the year before, the White Sox welcomed a new manager, Chuck Tanner, and a new broadcaster, Harry Caray, and then welcomed a return to respectability. The Sox finished at 79-83, and attendance at Comiskey Park nearly doubled. Tanner and pitching coach Johnny Sain converted knuckleballing lefty reliever Wilbur Wood into a starter, and the experiment proved a success, to say the least. Wood went 22-13 with a 1.91 ERA while logging 334 innings. He finished third in Cy Young balloting and established himself as the South Siders' ace for the next several years. Wood and 25-year-old third baseman Bill Melton, who led the American League (and tied his own club record) with 33 home runs, represented the Sox in the All-Star Game.

     After several years of mediocrity, the Bears galvanized fans by winning six of their first nine games. On November 14 against the Washington Redskins, a 40-yard touchdown run by Cyril Pinder tied the score 15-15 late in the fourth quarter. On the extra-point attempt, the snap went awry, but holder Bobby Douglass (also the Bears' quarterback) picked up the ball, scrambled around a while, and then fired a strike to Dick Butkus (of all people) in the corner of the end zone to give the Bears a dramatic 16-15 win.
     At 6-3, the Bears seemed headed for the playoffs, but they lost the next five games--four of them by very lopsided scores--to finish 6-8. Head coach Jim Dooley was fired after compiling a record of 20-36 for four seasons; he would be replaced by Abe Gibron, who didn't fare much better.
     The Bears' game at Detroit on October 24 was marred by the on-field death of Lions receiver Chuck Hughes from an apparent heart attack.