Monday, March 28, 2011

'Twas Thirty Years Ago: Chicago Sports Memories of 1981

     In 1981, the Chicago Sting (remember?) won the North American Soccer League title, becoming Chicago's first championship team since the 1963 Bears. Coached by Willy Roy, the Sting went 23-9 on the season and defeated the New York Cosmos in the Soccer Bowl for the championship. The title game was scoreless for 90 minutes of regulation and 15 minutes of overtime before the Sting prevailed 2-1 in a shootout. Rudy Glenn booted the game winner for the Sting. Other prominent players included Karl-Heinz Granitza, Pato Margetic, Franz Mathieu, Ingo Peter, and Arno Steffenhagen.
     Founded and run by the ebullient Lee Stern, the Sting played outdoor soccer from 1975 through 1984 (when they won a second championship) and indoors from 1980 through 1988.

     By the latter part of the 1980-81 season, Bulls head coach Jerry Sloan had seen enough of Larry Kenon, a silky 6-foot-9 scorer who was not interested in playing defense. Kenon went onto the bench, and off came Dwight Jones, a blue-collar type who was Sloan's kind of guy. With Jones and David Greenwood at forward, Artis Gilmore at center, Reggie Theus and Ricky Sobers at guard, and guard/forward Bob Wilkerson as sixth man, the Bulls won 12 of their last 14 games to finish 45-37 and qualify for the playoffs. They swept the New York Knicks in a best-of-three opening round series before bowing in four straight games to Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics, who went on to capture the championship.

     For the Blackhawks, head coach Keith Magnuson was just one year removed from the conclusion of his 11-year playing career. The rookie coach welcomed another rookie, 19-year-old center Denis Savard, who was destined to join him among the most beloved Hawks of all time. Having come to Chicago from his native Quebec hardly knowing a word of English, Savard was initially bashful off the ice. On the ice, he was a dazzling skater and electrifying playmaker who proved he belonged from day one. With 28 goals and 47 assists for 75 points, Savard was second to veteran center Tom Lysiak for the team scoring lead. Better yet, he compiled a superb plus/minus of plus-27. He was headed for the Hall of Fame.
     Another future Hall of Famer, Tony Esposito, led the league in minutes played by a goalie for the sixth time in the past seven seasons. He was between the pipes for all but two of the Hawks' wins, but (not coincidentally) missed ten of their losses. The Hawks went 31-33-16 for the regular season and made a quick exit from the playoffs, swept by Calgary in the first round.

     The White Sox were in the first year of ownership by Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn, while the Cubs were in the last year of ownership by the Wrigley family. A work stoppage sliced two months out of the season, from mid-June to mid-August. Standings were kept separately for both "halves," with the unfortunate result that the Cincinnati Reds missed the playoffs despite having the best overall record in either league.
     For the White Sox, newly acquired catcher Carlton Fisk made a big splash on Opening Day against the Red Sox, the team he had just left acrimoniously. The White Sox were trailing 2-0 in the top of the eighth when Fisk cracked a three-run homer, stunning the Fenway Park crowd and leading to a 5-3 victory. The future Hall of Famer remained with the White Sox for the rest of his career, retiring in 1993.
     The Sox were 31-22 before the players' strike, but they slid to 23-30 after the strike to finish at 54-52. Twenty-two-year-old southpaw Britt Burns was a bright spot, going 10-6 with a sparkling 2.64 ERA. The 1981 season marked the end of broadcaster Harry Caray's 11-year run on the South Side.
     The Cubs were an abysmal 15-37 before the strike, a less atrocious 23-28 afterwards, and finished at 38-65 overall. First baseman Bill Buckner had a solid season, hitting .311 and knocking in 75 runs (more than twice as many as any teammate). Starting pitcher Rick Reuschel was traded away in June, depriving the team of its heart and soul.
     After 60 years of ownership by three generations of Wrigleys, the franchise and ballpark were sold to Tribune Company for a reported $19.5 million. The new owners appointed ex-Phillies skipper Dallas Green as general manager after the season. Broadcaster Jack Brickhouse, a fixture for some 35 years, retired and was replaced by Caray. In Green and Caray, the Cubs had hired the two people who would do more than anyone else to ignite the coming explosion in the franchise's popularity.

     The Bears lost six of their first seven games and ten of the first 13. They won the last three games to finish at 6-10, but it was too little and too late to save head coach Neill Armstrong, who was fired after four years at the helm that featured a 30-34 record and one playoff appearance. The Bears ranked 27th out of the NFL's 28 teams on offense and 14th on defense.
     Running back Walter Payton had what was for him a sub-par season, gaining "only" 1,222 yards on 339 rushing attempts for a middling average of 3.6 yards per carry. He scored just eight touchdowns (six rushing and two receiving) and was left out of the Pro Bowl after five consecutive appearances. Fortunately, those who thought the 27-year-old Payton was on his last legs proved to be sorely mistaken. Safety Gary Fencik was the Bears' only Pro Bowler and a first-team All-Pro to boot.
     When Armstrong was let go, Bears owner George Halas made a surprising and controversial move by giving the job to Mike Ditka, a Dallas assistant coach who had starred for the Bears at tight end during the 1960s. As Bears head coach, "Iron Mike" soon became an iconic figure.

     The inaugural Arlington Million, the first million-dollar horse race in history, was won by six-year-old gelding John Henry. Ridden by the legendary Bill Shoemaker, John Henry was well off the pace for most of the running, then launched a stirring stretch drive that saw him nip The Bart by a nose at the wire. John Henry was voted Horse of the Year for 1981, and he won the award again in 1984 after capturing the Million for a second time.

     They passed away in 1981: Freddie Lindstrom, 75, Cubs outfielder 1935, Hall of Famer; Joe Louis, 66, won world heavyweight championship at Comiskey Park in 1937 and retained it until 1949; Steve Macko, 27, Cubs infielder 1979-1980.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Meyer and Mikan

     When Chicago native Ray Meyer signed on as DePaul University’s basketball coach in 1942, he agreed to a one-year contract for the modest sum of $2,500. He turned down a three-year deal, he later explained, “because I didn’t know if I’d like the job or the profession.” His first agenda item was to turn the gangly, six-foot-10 freshman George Mikan into a basketball player.
     “I knew the value of the big man in basketball,” he wrote. “He gets more points by accident than a little guy [does] on purpose.” Every day after the team’s regular practice, Meyer put Mikan through a grueling regimen of skipping rope, shadow boxing, jumping over chairs, playing catch with medicine balls and tennis balls, and, almost incidentally, dribbling and shooting a basketball. In one drill, Mikan would stand under the basket and make a layup with his right hand, then rebound and make a layup with his left, rebound and layup with his right, etc., etc., etc. Known as the “Mikan Drill,” this routine has been used for virtually all big men ever since; among its adherents are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal.
     “Mikan was raw material with a little talent,” Meyer wrote. “His greatest asset was the desire to improve, which made him willing to listen and work. You can measure height and even talent, but not heart. Mikan showed me in the beginning he had the heart to be great.”
     Meyer’s patient tutelage transformed the Clark Kent look-alike into a Superman. Mikan learned to execute hook shots deftly with either hand and to rebound and block shots like no one else. In his first season at DePaul, he led the Blue Demons to a 19-5 record and an appearance in the NCAA tournament’s semifinal round (which hadn’t yet been labeled the Final Four).
     In 1943-44, Mikan and DePaul advanced to the championship game of the National Invitational Tournament, which was then equivalent to the NCAA in prestige, before losing to St. John’s to conclude a 22-4 campaign. Mikan was chosen national player of the year. The next year, DePaul won 18 of 20 regular-season games and marched through the NIT with awe-inspiring ease, crushing West Virginia 76-54, Rhode Island 97-53, and Bowling Green 71-54 to win the championship. In the semifinal game, Mikan nearly outscored the other team by himself, settling for a “tie” with 53. He was selected most valuable player of the NIT and repeated as national player of the year.
     Following the title game at Madison Square Garden, the Demons remained in New York for a contest with NCAA champion Oklahoma A&M and its six-foot-11 center Bob Kurland, Mikan’s only rival as the finest player in the country. Although the event was technically an exhibition to benefit the wartime Red Cross, it was hyped as a national championship game. DePaul had beaten the Aggies 48-46 several weeks earlier, and the rematch was expected to be a barn-burner. Unfortunately, it became somewhat anticlimactic when Mikan fouled out with six minutes left in the first half and three other starters soon followed. DePaul lost 52-44.

     After three seasons at DePaul, Mikan had become so outstanding that the rules were amended to diminish his dominance. It had been his custom to station himself under the opposition’s basket and simply swat incoming shots away or even catch them in midair and fling them ahead to teammates for easy fast breaks. Goaltending was outlawed prior to the 1945-46 season, but the change seemed not to bother Mikan, who continued to shine. He scored 555 points in 24 games (the previous year he had tallied 558 points, also in 24 games) and played superb defense. Rebounds were not counted in those days, but Mikan’s excellence in that area is well documented in contemporary accounts.
     DePaul rolled to a 19-5 mark in 1945-46, winning its final six games by an average of 20 points. Despite this, the Demons were snubbed by both the NCAA and NIT. Meyer suspected that his harsh comments about the officiating in the previous spring’s Oklahoma A&M game had gotten him and the Demons blackballed from both tournaments, but he never knew for sure. With no postseason opportunities forthcoming, the Mikan era at DePaul ended with a lopsided 65-40 victory over Beloit College in the regular-season finale on March 9, 1946.
     Meyer began to face life without the man who was later voted the greatest player of the first half of the 20th century. “While he was around,” Meyer wrote, “I was a great coach.” For his part, Mikan said of Meyer, “I’d be nothing without him.” The Demons had won 81 of 98 games in the four years and finished third, second, and first in their three postseason tournaments. Now Mikan was bound for greater glory in the pro ranks, while Meyer was destined for decades of obscurity. The 32-year-old coach would see his age double before he and DePaul returned to national prominence.

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

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Bill Mosienko's 21-Second Hat Trick

     The end of the 1951-52 campaign couldn’t come soon enough for the lowly Blackhawks, who were headed for their third consecutive last-place finish and the sixth straight year in which they missed the playoffs. Only 3,254 fans showed up at the old Madison Square Garden expecting to see the New York Rangers and the Hawks go through the motions in the season finale on March 23, 1952.
     The small crowd was treated to one of the most incredible sequences ever witnessed in the NHL. It began at 6:09 of the third period, when Hawks right wing Bill Mosienko took a pass from center Gus Bodnar, faked a shot to the left of goalie Lorne Anderson, then beat Anderson with a low wrist shot to the goalie’s right.
     Mosienko, the Hawks’ leading scorer, raised his stick in the time-honored fashion of celebrating a goal, then skated back to center ice for the ensuing faceoff. Again Bodnar controlled the puck and got it to Mosienko, who sped in on Anderson and fired the puck past him for a second goal in 11 seconds. The time was 6:20.
     Mosienko accepted congratulations from his linemates, then returned to center ice for another faceoff. Bodnar won the draw yet again, and this time he flipped the puck to left wing George Gee. Anderson, a rookie who was understandably rattled by now, committed himself to Gee too soon—and when he did, Gee slid the puck over to Mosienko, who deposited it into a wide-open net.
     The time was 6:30. Mosienko had scored three goals in 21 seconds—a record that will probably never be broken. “Anderson might have stopped Mosienko’s first shot,” according to the New York Times. “But the second and third goals were neatly executed and could have fooled any goalie in the league.” While Mosienko collected the puck for a souvenir, Ranger fans saluted him by showering the ice with their hats. The Times also reported that “the crowd of 3,254 cheered Mosienko with a volume that seemed to come from twice that number when the record-breaking accomplishment was announced.”
     The Hawks outlasted the Rangers 7-6 for just their 17th win of the season, against 44 losses and nine ties. It was typical of Mosienko to provide a bright spot in this dismal era for the Blackhawks, who qualified for the postseason only four times in his brilliant 14-year career. Mosienko was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1965.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Once More Into the Cauldron of Sound

     Yankee Stadium, which opened in 1923, was called "the House that Ruth Built," because Babe Ruth did more than anyone else to make the New York Yankees popular and prosperous enough to warrant such an edifice. On June 13, 1948, a ceremony was held to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the house Ruth had built and to honor the man himself by retiring his uniform number.
     Although he was desperately ill with cancer, the Babe showed up. The 49,641 fans knew that they would be seeing him for the last time. It was a dreary day, which was strangely fitting. Ruth donned the Yankee pinstripes and waited in the visitors’ dugout for his name to be called.
     When Ruth was introduced, he grabbed a bat (which belonged to future Hall of Famer Bob Feller) and, as W.C. Heinz wrote unforgettably, "walked out into the cauldron of sound he must have known better than any other man." As Ruth ambled haltingly to the third-base foul line, using the bat for a cane, he received the longest and loudest ovation of his life. It was also the last. He died two months later.

     The United Center, which opened in 1994, has been called "the House that Jordan built," because Michael Jordan did more than anyone to make such a giant arena possible to sell out on a nightly basis. Last Saturday night, a ceremony was held to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Bulls’ first championship. Jordan and most of his teammates from the 1991 Bulls showed up.
     Like Ruth, Jordan is the greatest player in the history of his sport. (Unlike Ruth in 1948, Jordan is still hale and hearty.) When Jordan was introduced, he walked into a cauldron of sound that must have been much like the one which greeted Ruth. The crowd’s response was so effusive that even Jordan, no stranger to ovations, seemed a bit startled.
     He smiled broadly, waving to the crowd and soaking it all in, as he stepped up to say a few words. Having already proclaimed Derrick Rose the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for this season, Jordan gave his assessment of the Bulls as a team. "You guys," he announced to the fans, "are in store for a lot more championships." That remark brought the house down.
     Bulls center Joakim Noah appreciated the significance of what he had seen and heard. "The energy in the building from the beginning was great," Noah said. "Hearing the reception Scottie [Pippen] and M.J. got, that’s deep stuff, man. It was special to see that. Twenty years later, [Jordan] can’t even get two words across without the crowd going crazy. To see those guys together, it shows what winning a championship is all about. That’s a beautiful thing."

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Shout-Out to Luis Salazar

     Former White Sox and Cubs third baseman Luis Salazar, currently a minor-league manager in the Atlanta Braves organization, suffered a horrific injury last week when a line drive struck him flush in the face as he watched a spring-training game from the dugout. Salazar was said to have been unconscious for 20 minutes, and some of the Braves feared that he had died.
     Salazar was airlifted from the ballpark in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, to a hospital in Orlando, and he seems to be out of danger. It's not entirely clear as yet how much damage was done or how arduous his recovery will be. Naturally, our best wishes go to Luis and his family.
     Below is a tip of the cap to Salazar's role in the Cubs' 1989 division championship, reprinted from the recent book Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports.

     On September 8, 1989, one month to the day after the Cubs took over first place in the National League East, they opened a three-game series with the St. Louis Cardinals to determine whether they would stay there. Like any weekend series between the Cubs and the Cardinals, it was sold out well in advance, long before anyone knew that these would be the most important games of the year for either club.
     The Cardinals, who came into town only a game and a half behind the Cubs, rallied from a 7-1 deficit Friday afternoon to win 11-8 and reduce the margin to half a game. It was a horrendous defeat for the Cubs, who gave up four runs in the seventh inning and another five in the eighth as victory slipped away. Their collars were a little tighter when they took the field on Saturday, September 9, knowing that a loss would drop them into second place.
     It was a dark, drizzly afternoon, and Wrigley Field’s one-year-old lights were on from the first pitch at 3:05. Both starting pitchers, Rick Sutcliffe for the Cubs and Jose DeLeon for St. Louis, performed admirably. The Cubs pushed across a run in the first, and the Cardinals scored two in the sixth. That was all the scoring for the first seven innings.
     DeLeon maintained the precarious 2-1 lead into the bottom of the eighth. Dwight Smith led off with a single to right—a good start for the Cubs that almost turned disastrous when Smith took a wide turn around first base, then inexplicably stopped halfway to second. Cardinals right fielder Tom Brunansky hesitated to throw the ball back in, not sure whether Smith was headed to second or back to first. Finally, Smith bolted for second—and made it when Brunansky’s throw was off the mark. “I waited too long,” Brunansky admitted after the game. For his part, Smith justified the seemingly ridiculous risk he had taken. “If I screw up, I’m going to get a lot of questions for it,” he said. “But if you’re afraid to make a mistake, then you can’t win.”
     So Smith, representing the tying run, was on second with nobody out. But Mark Grace fanned and Andre Dawson grounded out, and suddenly Smith was on third with two outs. Enter Luis Salazar, a veteran third baseman who had been acquired ten days earlier to bolster the Cubs’ bench. Salazar’s line-drive single to left tied the score at two apiece.
     The game remained tied through the ninth inning and into the tenth. Grace led off the bottom of the tenth by popping out. Dawson coaxed a walk. And then Salazar stepped up to the plate again. With a count of 2-and-1, Cardinal lefty Ken Dayley threw a fastball well away from Salazar, who reached out and stroked it down the right-field line and up against the ivy. While Brunansky dug the ball out of the corner, Dawson ran for all he was worth. Dawson turned for home and kept on chugging as second baseman Jose Oquendo took the relay from Brunansky and fired it toward the plate—too late. Dawson’s aching knees had carried home the winning run.
     Shawon Dunston, the on-deck batter, leaped into Dawson’s arms behind the plate while the rest of the Cubs piled on top of Salazar. The unlikely hero had batted but twice, delivering clutch hits that tied the game in the eighth and won it in the tenth.
     “We were better than yesterday,” said manager Don Zimmer. “There were a lot of little things that happened in this ballgame.” It was a year in which a lot of little things added up to make the Cubs division champions. All season long, rookies and no-names like Smith, Jerome Walton, Joe Girardi, Mike Bielecki, Les Lancaster, Lloyd McClendon, Steve Wilson, and Salazar came through when it counted. The Cubs never looked back after the dramatic win on September 9. They won the division title going away, lengthening their margin to six games by the end of the season.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Roar from the Crowd

Forty-five years ago today, on March 12, 1966, Bobby Hull of the Blackhawks broke the NHL record for goals scored in a single season. Below is an account of that moment from the recent book Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports.

     In the first five decades of the National Hockey League’s existence, only three players scored 50 goals in a single season—Maurice “Rocket” Richard of the Canadiens in 1944-45, Bernie “Boom-Boom” Geoffrion of the Canadiens in 1960-61, and Bobby Hull of the Blackhawks in 1961-62. No one had scored 51.
     As the 1965-66 season progressed, hockey fans and the media began to consider it a cinch that Hull would go to 51 and beyond that year. He scored his 50th goal on March 5 against the Detroit Red Wings. “I think it took a lot of pressure off me,” said Hull. “The monkey is off the back now.” Hull was averaging nearly a goal a game for the season, and he was certain that the record-breaker would come in the next game or, at the very latest, the game after that.
     But not only was Hull shut out in the next game, so were the Hawks. The same thing happened in the next game. And in the next. It was unbelievable: the league’s highest-octane offense failing to score in three straight games. In the fourth game after Hull’s record-tying goal, he and the Hawks again struggled. They trailed the New York Rangers 2-1 entering the third period.
     When the Hawks went on the power play with a little over five minutes gone in the period, the sellout crowd at the Stadium buzzed in anticipation. But almost immediately, New York’s Reggie Fleming picked off an errant pass and started up ice with a chance for a shorthanded goal. Lou Angotti of the Hawks was able to disrupt Fleming inside the Chicago blue line. Angotti kicked the puck across to Hull, who gained control and headed out of his own zone.
     As Hull crossed the Rangers’ blue line, goalie Cesare Maniago braced himself for a slapshot. Hull’s was the most wicked in the league, clocked at up to 118 miles per hour. As Maniago tried to get set, the Hawks’ Eric Nesterenko cut in front of him. Hull fired. It was a low screamer that, thanks to Nesterenko’s screen, Maniago didn’t see until it was too late. Before he could react, the puck was in the net. “Nesterenko lifted the blade of my stick,” Maniago said after the game, “and the puck went under it.”
     The Rangers’ protests were in vain. It was number 51 of the season for Hull, and it touched off a riotous celebration in the Stadium that delayed the game for several minutes. Hull skated around the ice shaking hands with fans who stuck their arms out over the glass. Galvanized by all the excitement, the Hawks scored twice more in the remaining minutes to pull out a come-from-behind win, 4-2. When reporters asked Hull what the key to the record-breaking goal was, he had an answer that wasn’t surprising to anyone who had ever attended a hockey game in the Stadium. “It was the crowd,” he said. “The roar from the crowd.”
     Hull finished the season with 54 goals and won his second consecutive Hart Trophy as the league’s Most Valuable Player. He broke his own record with 58 goals three years later. After he retired, he said, “When I played in that great building, Chicago Stadium, and I picked up the puck, I could feel every voice. It was like the fans were coming up the ice behind me.”

Thursday, March 10, 2011

History in the Making: Derrick Rose

       Resume of Bulls point guard Derrick Rose:
  • McDonald's All-American, representing Chicago's Simeon Career Academy, in his final year of high school, 2007.
  • Third-team All-American, representing the University of Memphis, in his first and only year of college ball, 2008.
  • First player selected in NBA draft, 2008.
  • NBA Rookie of the Year, 2009.
  • NBA All-Star in his second year in the league, 2010.
  • All-Star Game starter and a serious contender for the Most Valuable Player award in his third year in the league, 2011.

     This site usually focuses on players, teams, and events from decades ago, but in Rose we are witnessing Chicago sports history being made before our eyes. Rose is a player that Bulls fans will be talking about decades from now. He is everything that you'd want in a superstar. In addition to his amazing talent, Rose has the complete package of intangibles. He is confident, dedicated, selfless, focused, dignified, mature--use any adjective you want. "If you don't see something special in Derrick Rose," Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said, "then you're blind."
     By Reinsdorf's definition, Horace Grant is not blind. The former Bulls star was talking to reporters the other day in anticipation of the ceremony this coming Saturday in which he and his teammates from the 1991 championship team will be honored. Though he wasn't asked, Grant felt compelled to talk about Rose. "Derrick Rose--wow!" he exclaimed. "What a humble star! I haven't seen one of those like that in my era. How humble is that kid and how great is he and will he be. That's one young man I will seek out to shake his hand."
     During his career, Grant played with greats such as Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O'Neal, and Kobe Bryant, so he knows an all-timer when he sees one. None other than Jordan himself also has expressed admiration for Rose. "MVP of the season," Jordan declared. "He deserves it. He's playing that well. He deserves it, without a doubt."
     If Rose does win the award, which looks more likely every day, he will be the youngest MVP ever, at the age of 22. "The award," he said, "it will come if we keep winning. But we're just trying to play hard, play together, and keep playing aggressive and play with an edge."
     Under first-year coach Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls have exploded into the ranks of the very best teams in the league. They are 45-18 for the season, and they are 8-0 in their most recent meetings with the other top teams, including two recent wins over the Miami Heat, who considered the championship to be a foregone conclusion after loudly signing LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh last summer.
     There's a long way yet to go, but Rose and the Bulls haven't been shown any reason to doubt that they are legitimate contenders."I think the sky's the limit for us right now," said Rose. "Who's to say that we can't win it this year?"

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Cubs WARs

     Of the many new statistics introduced to baseball fans over the past decade or two, perhaps the most interesting is WAR (wins above replacement). This stat seeks to measure a player's value to his team by determining the number of wins he was responsible for. A WAR of 5.0, for example, means that the team won five more games with the given player in the lineup than it would have won with an average player in his place.
     Not including 19th-century pitchers who logged complete games and innings pitched that are beyond comprehension today, the highest single-season WAR of all time was Babe Ruth's 14.7 in 1923. The Bambino is also the career leader in WAR with 190.0.
     Among Cubs, the 13.8 figure posted by righthanded pitcher John Clarkson in 1885 is the highest in franchise history. Clarkson went (ready for this?) 53-16 with an earned-run average of 1.85, completed 68 of his 70 starts, tossed 10 shutouts, and worked 623 innings. Clarkson and his fellow pre-1900 hurlers Al Spalding, Bill Hutchinson, and Clark Griffith accounted for six of the top ten single-season WARs in franchise history.
     We have excluded these worthy gentleman from both the single-season and career pitchers' lists below, because comparing their feats to those of pitchers in the so-called modern era (since 1900) is apples to oranges. That leaves us with Dick Ellsworth's 10.3 in 1963 as the highest single-season WAR among Cubs pitchers. The 23-year-old lefty went 22-10 with a 2.11 ERA, completed 19 of his 37 starts, and yielded just 223 hits in 291 innings. At 82-80, the Cubs finished over .500 (barely) for the first time since 1946.
     The highest WAR ever recorded by a Cubs position player was Rogers Hornsby's 11.5 in 1929, a year in which Hornsby won the Most Valuable Player award and the Cubs won the pennant.

Top Ten Cubs WARS, single season (pitchers, since 1900)

  1. Dick Ellsworth (1963), 10.3
  2. Grover Alexander (1920), 10.0
  3. Fergie Jenkins (1971), 9.2
  4. Bill Hands (1969), 8.8
  5. Mordecai Brown (1909), 8.7
  5. Rick Reuschel (1977), 8.7
  7. Greg Maddux (1992), 8.4
  8. Mordecai Brown (1908), 7.8
  8. Ed Reulbach (1905), 7.8
  8. Jack Taylor (1902), 7.8

Top Ten Cubs WARS, single season (position players)

  1. Rogers Hornsby, 2B (1929), 11.5
  2. Sammy Sosa, RF (2001), 11.4
  3. Ron Santo, 3B (1967), 10.2
  4. Ernie Banks, SS (1959), 10.0
  5. Ernie Banks, SS (1958), 9.7
  6. Mike "King" Kelly, OF-C (1886), 8.7
  7. Ryne Sandberg, 2B (1984), 8.5
  8. Frank Chance, 1B (1906), 8.4
  9. Ron Santo, 3B (1966), 8.3
10. Ernie Banks, SS (1960), 8.2

Top Ten Cubs WARs, career (pitchers, since 1900)

  1. Fergie Jenkins (1966-1973, 1982-1983), 53.5
  2. Rick Reuschel (1972-1981, 1983-1984), 46.8
  3. Mordecai Brown (1904-1912, 1916), 45.7
  4. Charlie Root (1926-1941), 38.6
  5. Grover Alexander (1918-1926), 35.9
  6. Bob Rush (1948-1957), 33.5
  7. Hippo Vaughn (1913-1921), 33.4
  8. Greg Maddux (1986-1992, 2004-2006), 31.4
  8. Carlos Zambrano (2001-present), 31.4
10. Ed Reulbach (1905-1913), 29.5

Top Ten Cubs WARs, career (position players)

  1. Cap Anson, 1B (1876-1897), 89.1
  2. Ron Santo, 3B (1960-1973), 68.5
  3. Ernie Banks, SS-1B (1953-1971), 64.4
  4. Ryne Sandberg, 3B-2B (1982-1994, 1996-1997), 62.1
  5. Sammy Sosa, OF (1992-2004), 60.0
  6. Billy Williams, OF-1B (1959-1974), 55.2
  7. Stan Hack, 3B (1932-1947), 54.8
  8. Frank Chance, C-1B (1898-1912), 49.4
  9. Gabby Hartnett, C (1922-1940), 49.3
10. Mark Grace, 1B (1988-2000), 44.9

Friday, March 4, 2011

White Sox WARs

     Of the many new statistics which have inundated baseball fans over the past decade or two, perhaps the most interesting is WAR (wins above replacement). This stat seeks to measure a player's value to his team by determining the number of wins he was responsible for. A WAR of 5.0, for example, means that the team won five more games with the given player in the lineup than it would have won with an average player in his place.
     Not including 19th-century pitchers who appeared in almost every game, the highest single-season WAR of all time was Babe Ruth's 14.7 in 1923. The Bambino is also the career leader in WAR with 190.0.
     What about White Sox WARs? In 1971, lefty knuckleballer Wilbur Wood went 22-13 with an earned-run average of 1.91, completed 22 of his 42 starts, tossed seven shutouts, and allowed exactly one baserunner (hits and walks combined) for each of his 334 innings. His performance on the mound earned him a WAR of 10.7, the highest figure for any pitcher or position player in club history.
     Alas, in those days before the designated hitter, Wood's contributions at the plate left something to be desired. He went 5-for-96 (.052), with no doubles, no triples, no homers, and no runs batted in. His WAR as a batter, even though it was measured against other pitchers, was minus 0.7, reducing his overall figure for the season to 10.0. In the list of all-time leading White Sox WARs below, we've cut Wilbur and his fellow hurlers some slack, listing their figures as pitchers only, and not docking them for their lack of hitting prowess.
     Among position players, unsung shortstop Ron Hansen cracked the top ten single-season White Sox WARs in 1964, largely on the strength of his 2.8 figure on defense. Hansen's 4.6 on offense gave him a total WAR of 7.4, tied for seventh place among all position players in club history. On the other side of the coin, Dick Allen, Frank Thomas, and Albert Belle all tallied negative scores on defense, but these were more than offset by their offensive production.

Top Ten White Sox WARs, single season (pitchers)

  1. Wilbur Wood (1971), 10.7
  2. Eddie Cicotte (1917), 10.0
  3. Red Faber (1921), 9.9
  3. Ed Walsh (1912), 9.9
  5. Wilbur Wood (1972), 9.7
  6. Ed Walsh (1908), 9.5
  7. Eddie Cicotte (1919), 8.8
  8. Ed Walsh (1910), 8.7
  9. Thornton Lee (1941), 8.2
10. Ed Walsh (1911), 8.2

Top Ten White Sox WARs, single season (position players)

  1. Eddie Collins, 2B (1915), 10.1
  2. Dick Allen, 1B (1972), 9.3
  3. Minnie Minoso, LF (1954), 8.3
  4. Eddie Collins, 2B (1920), 8.0
  5. Luke Appling, SS (1936), 7.7
  6. Frank Thomas, 1B (1992), 7.6
  7. Albert Belle, LF (1998), 7.4
  7. George Davis, SS (1905), 7.4
  7. Ron Hansen, SS (1964), 7.4
  7. Joe Jackson, LF (1920), 7.4
  7. Frank Thomas, 1B (1991), 7.4

Top Ten White Sox WARs, career (pitchers)

  1. Ted Lyons (1923-1942), 58.8
  2. Red Faber (1914-1933), 55.2
  3. Ed Walsh (1904-1916), 55.0
  4. Billy Pierce (1949-1961), 50.3
  5. Wilbur Wood (1967-1978), 44.9
  6. Eddie Cicotte (1912-1920), 43.1
  7. Mark Buehrle (2000-present), 42.9
  8. Doc White (1903-1913), 29.9
  9. Thornton Lee (1937-1947), 28.0
10. Tommy John (1965-1971), 22.5

Top Ten White Sox WARs, career (position players)

  1. Frank Thomas, 1B-DH (1990-2005), 70.6
  2. Luke Appling, SS (1930-1950), 69.3
  3. Eddie Collins, 2B (1915-1926), 66.0
  4. Nellie Fox, 2B (1950-1963), 42.7
  5. Minnie Minoso, OF (1951-1957, 1960-1961, 1964, 1976, 1980), 42.7
  6. Robin Ventura, 3B (1989-1998), 38.8
  7. Fielder Jones, OF (1901-1908), 35.1
  8. George Davis, SS (1902, 1904-1909), 33.4
  9. Luis Aparicio, SS (1956-1961, 1968-1970), 31.5
10. Carlton Fisk, C (1981-1993), 29.6

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Ollie Matson, 1930 - 2011

     After winning the world championship in 1947 and narrowly losing the championship game in 1948, the Chicago Cardinals fell back into their accustomed position as second-class citizens not only in their home town but also in the NFL. They had two winning seasons in the next eleven years. But while they were not particularly successful in the 1950s, the Cardinals were never boring. Their battles with the Bears remained fierce and compelling, and these years were also enlivened by the exploits of two future Hall of Famers, defensive back Night Train Lane and running back Ollie Matson.
     Matson, who passed away February 19 at the age of 80, was sensational. He was not only big for a running back in those days, at six-foot-two and 220 pounds, but he was probably the fastest man in the league as well. An All-American at the University of San Francisco, he was drafted by the Cardinals in 1952 after winning two medals at that summer's Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland (a bronze in the men’s 400 meters and a silver in the men’s four-by-400-meter relay).
     Matson was an excellent back and an absolutely devastating returner of punts and kickoffs. “I could either run around you,” he said, “over you, or through you.” He shared the 1952 Rookie of the Year award with Hugh McElhenny of the San Francisco 49ers. He was a first-team All-Pro every year from 1952 through 1957 (except in 1953, when he missed the entire season while serving in the military). He made the Pro Bowl in 1952 and every year from 1954 through 1958. Despite Matson’s formidable presence in the lineup, however, the Cardinals’ record was a dismal 23-58-3 over that period.
     With very little to lose, the Cardinals traded Matson to the Los Angeles Rams after the 1958 season for nine players—“none of whom,” a teammate later said, “was worth a damn.” (The man who traded for Matson, the Rams’ 32-year-old general manager Pete Rozelle, became NFL commissioner a year later.) The Cardinals went 2-10 in 1959, then packed up and moved to St. Louis.
     Matson played four years for the Rams, one for the Detroit Lions, and three for the Philadelphia Eagles. When he retired after the 1966 season, his 12,799 all-purpose yards ranked second all-time to the great Jim Brown. Matson was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1972 (his first year of eligibility) and elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1976. Joe Kuharich, who coached Matson both in college and in the NFL, called him “the greatest all-around player I've seen or coached.”
     In his final years, Matson suffered from dementia, which those close to him suspect was connected to his years in football. Regrettably, his situation has been all too common for NFL players of the past. Here’s hoping that it can be made the exception, rather than the rule, for players of the present and future.