Posts Tagged ‘Chicago Tribune’

The Chicago Bears, the Miami Dolphins, and the Legacy of Perfection

Saturday, May 6th, 2017

Professional athletes are forced to live up to legacies.  Retired uniform numbers, highlight films, and statues of icons from past eras remind them of the giant footprints to fill.  Or at least in which they must tread.  Such was the burden for the Miami Dolphins on December 2, 1985 in a Monday Night Football game against the Chicago Bears.  The former had a legacy of perfection to protect—the 1972 Dolphins squad had 17-0 record; the latter compiled a 12-0 record, theretofore.

During the same year that Marty McFly went back to the future, the Bears had an aura of celebrity transcending popular culture.  A spat concerning quarterback Jim McMahon wearing an Adidas headband became a matter of national debate—NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle fined McMahon $5,000 for endorsing a product during a game.  McMahon responded the following week—during the NFC Championship—by wearing a headband with Rozelle’s name written on it.

William “Refrigerator” Perry transformed from a defensive back into a fullback—but only with the end zone in sight.  This tactic may have seemed to be a gimmick because of Perry’s size, but it did result in touchdowns, as well as guaranteed prominence on national and local sportscasts.

Head Coach Mike Ditka had Bears blood running through his veins—he played for the team in the 1960s; Walter Payton’s graceful running garnered cheers from and catharsis for Chicagoans; Buddy Ryan’s 46 Defense alignment protected leads; and Mike Singletary’s single-mindedness set a model for defensive players to be aware of every twitch, movement, and indicator of their opponents.

There was a scent of destiny surrounding these Monsters of the Midway.  With each victory came a certain inevitability that the Bears would go to their first Super Bowl.  When pre-game shows mentioned Chicago, eyes and ears narrowed their focuses to ingest the latest information about the personalities, performances, and progress of the Bears.

Marching towards perfection, the Bears took the field at the Orange Bowl on December 2nd; a perfect season was a sustainable reality.  Miami would not allow that to happen.  Tension tighter than a prospector’s clutch on his gold pervaded the stadium.  And it pored through television screens tuned to the game, from Puget Sound to Passaic, New Jersey.

Larry Csonka and other members of the ’72 Dolphins stood watch on the sidelines, with arms folded and sober visages.  Theirs was a mission of intimidation, steadfastness, and pride—Miami’s  perfect season will not be matched.  Not tonight.  Not tomorrow.  Not ever.  It was an event made for the moment—ABC’s Monday Night Football was the only national telecast of NFL games; CBS and NBC aired games regionally.

The Dolphins beat the Bears 38-24.  Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino had an outstanding game:

  • Completed 14 of 27 passes
  • Threw for three touchdowns
  • Total yards:  270

Chicago Tribune sports columnist Bernie Lincicome tried to put things in perspective.

“So much for immortality,” wrote Lincicome.

“Not to underrate history, but the Bears did not lose a season in the Orange Bowl Monday night, they merely lost a game, and they already have so many.”

The day after, the Bears recorded “The Super Bowl Shuffle”—this rap song became a signature of the Bears’ brashness.  When the music video aired, it showed the Bears wearing their jerseys and singing in a studio.  If cockiness bled through the song’s lyrics, confidence poured.  Perhaps it was the right time for a diversion; the Bears won the remaining games in the schedule, dominated the playoffs, and beat the New England Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 25, 2017.

Hell Hath No Fury Like A Bruins Fan Scorned

Friday, May 5th, 2017

For fans of the Boston Bruins, there are two types of hockey players—Bobby Orr and everyone else.  A product of Ontario—Parry Sound in Georgian Bay, to be precise—Orr ignited his hockey destiny the moment he laced up his first pair of skates.  Bostonians, fiercely loyal, welcomed Orr in 1966 with a storm of applause, adoration, and acclaim.  Hockey writers, too, noted Orr’s excellence with the Calder Memorial Trophy—the award for the “most proficient in his his first year of competition in the National Hockey League.”

Orr, he of the destructible knees and indestructible fortitude, soon became a legend.  When #4 took the ice, the Boston Garden shook with promise of victory; in his first season, Orr helped lead the Bruins to the Stanley Cup against the Philadelphia Flyers.  It resulted in a loss; nevertheless, the Bruins won hockey’s greatest honor twice during the Orr era, which ended after the 1975-76 season.  Orr shot the winning goal in overtime against the St. Louis Blues to capture the Stanley Cup for the 1969-70 season.

After two seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks, Orr retired after the 1978-79 season with 264 career goals, 624 career assists, and a collection of trophies marking excellence.  Orr’s boyish grin off the ice and steely exterior on it imprinted the kid from Parry Sound with a stamp reading “legend” in hockey annals.

When a legend gets injured, fans worry.

When a legend gets disparaged, fans defend.

When a legend gets mistreated on the field of play, fans react.  Violently, sometimes.  Such was the case on January 24, 1974 in a Bruins-Blackhawks game.  With less than a minute to go, defenseman Bill White stuck out his stick, tripped Orr, and began a wave of protest not seen since the nation’s forefathers dumped tea into Boston Harbor.  White’s action was purposeful, as clear as a cloudless sky on a spring day at Fenway Park.  At least it was, according to the Boston Garden crowd.

Orr, in a protest that could be heard in the parking lot, confronted referee Wally Harris, who acted promptly—he ejected Orr from the game for a 10-minute misconduct penalty.  White received no penalty.  Bruins fans, in turn, showed their displeasure by throwing garbage onto the ice—it took a little more than 30 minutes to clean the ice, cool tempers, and resume the game.  “I’ve been through a few things like that,” said Blackhawks centerman Stan Mikita, whose views were documented in the media, including, of course, the Chicago Tribune and the Boston Globe.  “But never as bad as this.  I never thought it would happen in Boston.  But it shows how people can get when the big man (Orr) gets flattened.  They want blood.”

Chicago sportswriter Bob Verdi posed a whiff of indictment against Orr in the Tribune.  “On the particular play, White dropped to the ice and knocked the puck away from Orr with a reaching stick sweep,” wrote Verdi.  “Orr’s momentum then carried him into contact with White’s right arm and stick.  There’s no way to prove it, but it looked as tho [sic] Orr was trying to force the penalty; he looked like Stan Mikita taking one of his famous swan dives.  Mikita, tho [sic], is more convincing.”

Alas, the Boston press felt differently about the penalty.  A Globe editorial stated, “Television reruns of the play made it clear what ignited the violence, but surely no one can believe that it was worth endangering the physical safety of the men on both teams or the officials to vent that fury.”

If a game has less than 10 minutes before completion, the player’s time off the ice for the 10-minute misconduct “Orr’s momentum then carried him into contact with White’s right arm and stick.  There’s no way to prove it, but it looked as tho [sic] Orr was trying to force the penalty; he looked like Stan Mikita taking one of his famous swan dives.  Mikita, tho [sic], is more convincing.”

If a game has less than 10 minutes before completion, the player’s time off the ice for the 10-minute misconduct penalty amounts to time served—the outstanding time will not be carried over, either to the next game on the schedule or the next game against the opponent.

The Blackhawks beat the Bruins 2-1.  But it was not the score that exhausted the crowd wearing Bruins paraphernalia to indicate their chosen team of worship, a trait designed by geography during one’s formative years, except in occasional instances.  It was treachery against a favorite son responsible, in Jupiterian fashion, for two Stanley Cups—treachery that pierced the hearts of college students in Cambridge; of cultured millionaires on Beacon Hill; of nature lovers in Boston Common; of civil servants at the Massachusetts State House; of gardeners in Brookline; of contractors in South Boston; of cab rivers ushering passengers to and from an airport named Logan; and of MBTA subway conductors.

A victory unites Bostonians of every stripe in society.  A betrayal, even more so.

 

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 24, 2017.

The Birth of the Designated Hitter

Monday, May 1st, 2017

Baseball—like any other living organism—evolves, adjusts, and adapts with beauty emerging from minutiae, memory, and, in some cases, masochism reinforced by decades of unrequited love.  See Red Sox Boston; 1919-2003.  See Cubs, Chicago; 1909-2015.  On January 11, 1973, baseball’s overseers added what New York Times scribe Joseph Durso called “a radical step…to put more punch into the game.”  The Designated Hitter.

The American League embraced the idea.  The National League, not so much.  Quoted by Durso, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn extolled, “Pitchers bat around .120 collectively and pinch-hitters around .220.  That’s automatically going to raise team batting averages.  Besides, if you decide to rest a Willie McCovey or Harmon Killebrew and use him as the designated pinch-hitter one day, he’s going to be better than the average pinch-hitter.  And he’ll go to bat four or five times, and that’ll improve his eye, too.”

While conventional wisdom highlighted the possibility of more runs with a slugger at the plate instead of a pitcher, White Sox skipper Chuck Tanner pointed out that a DH benefited a team’s defense.  In the Chicago Tribune, Tanner said, “Part of the game is forcing the other club to put that relief pitcher in the game after a pinch hitter replaces a pretty good starter in a low-scoring game.  But now the Angels, for instance, will be able to keep Nolan Ryan in there all the way.  Or, we can let Wilbur Wood go the route without sending him to the plate.  And this should keep the score down, too.”

Ron Blomberg earned the distinction of being the first Designated Hitter when he batted in a Yankees-Red Sox game in April.  Of his 338 plate appearances in 19783, that first one in the DH slot secured his name in the annals of baseball trivia.  Blomberg walked in his first time at the plate, went 1-for-3, and notched one RBI; Red Sox hurler Luis Tiant pitched a complete game, leading his fellow Bostonians to a 15-5 victory.

New York Times sports writer Murray Chass showed the irony of Blomberg’s output:  “He broke his bat on the single, which means the first two bats he used today wound up in contrasting places—the first in the Hall of Fame, the second in the trash can.”

Purists argued against the DH, as they had argued against a 162-game schedule, Astroturf, and domed stadia.  It was an argument against quantifiable evidence showing the cause and effect of the new position.  In the May 7, 1973 issue of Sports Illustrated, William Leggett wrote, “In three short weeks the DH has put more punch and excitement and scoring into the game—a hallowed game, agreed, but one that was being smothered by the excellence of the pitching.  Heavily criticized by some before it was given a chance to see the sunglight—a phony rule it was called, desperate, Mickey Mouse, a rewriting of Beethoven—the designated hitter is doing only what it was intended to do.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 11, 2017.

Ed Walsh, the White Sox, and Comiskey Park’s First Game

Tuesday, April 25th, 2017

Chicago welcomed an addition to its iconography on July 1, 1910.  Comiskey Park, that structure serving as a second home for baseball fans on the Windy City’s south side, débuted in an era of new stadia—Fenway Park in 1912, Ebbets Field in 1913, Weeghman Park (later rechristened Wrigley Field) in 1914.

It was about time that White Sox fans received a reward for their dedication to the team, according to I. E. Sanborn of the Chicago Tribune.  “For years the loyal rooters who have done so much to make this the greatest baseball city in the world have contented themselves as uncomplainingly as they could with accommodations inadequate to their needs while watching the fans of other and smaller cities rewarded, with far less reason, by modern steel and concrete edifices, each designed to surpass all its predecessors,” wrote Sanborn.

The White Sox opened this epoch of its history with a 2-0 loss to the St. Louis Browns.  Sanborn estimated the crowd at 28,000.

Comiskey Park saw one World Series champion team—the White Sox beat the Giants in 1917.  There were two other opportunities:  1919 and 1959.  The former, of course, has an ominous aura because of the “Black Sox” scandal that resulted in eight players being kicked out of baseball with the force of a sonic boom, otherwise known as Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball’s newly minted commissioner and a former federal judge.

Accused of purposed losing the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for payoffs from gamblers, the eight players were acquitted in court.  Landis argued that the integrity of the game superseded the legal process result.

In 1959, the “Go Go Sox” compiled a 94-60 record to stand atop the American League.  The Dodgers defeated the White Sox in six games; it was the National League champions’ second year in Los Angeles.

What began in 1910 lasted 80 years—Comiskey Park finished its service as the home of the White Sox in 1990.  It was demolished the next year, which saw U.S. Cellular Filed become the team’s new site.

Ed Walsh got the loss for Comiskey Park’s opener, went 18-20 for the season, and led the American League in losses.  His career statistics earned him a place in White Sox lore:

  • 1.82 Earned Run Average
  • Led American League in Earned Run Average
    • 1.60 in 1907
    • 1.27 in 1910 (led major leagues)
  • Led major leagues in wins
    • 40-15 in 1908
  • Led major leagues in games started
    • 46 in 1907
    • 49 in 1908
    • 41 in 1912
  • Led major leagues in complete games
    • 37 in 1907
    • 42 in 1908
  • Led American League in shutouts
    • 10 in 1906 (led major leagues)
    • 11 in 1908 (led major leagues)
    • 8 in 1909
  • Led American League in strikeouts
    • 269 in 1908
    • 255 in 1911
  • 195-126 career win-loss record

The Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Walsh in 1946.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 26, 2016.

1986, Hollywood, and the Chicago Cubs

Sunday, April 2nd, 2017

1986 was the Year of the Cub—for Hollywood, anyway.

About Last Night stars Rob Lowe and Demi Moore, charter members of the Brat Pack—a group of young actors dominating movie screens in the 1980s.  Lowe and Moore play a couple trying to extend a one-night stand into a relationship.  A montage of dates includes watching a Chicago Cubs game from a rooftop on Sheffield Avenue overlooking Wrigley Field.  Based on David Mamet’s mid-1970s play Sexual Perversity in Chicago, the film showcases several Windy City locations in addition to The Friendly Confines, including Grant Park, the Wells Street Bridge, and the Biograph Theater.

Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel wrote, “As a backdrop for the human interaction, ‘About Last Night…’ manages to capture the spirit and look of Chicago as well as any film shot here since ‘Risky Business.’  And that’s true even though about half of the movie was shot in California.”

Running Scared stars Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines as Chicago Police Department detectives.  Their pairing was inspired.  Their chemistry, palpable.  Los Angeles Times film critic Sheila Benson wrote, “There’s really fine texture at the opening of ‘Running Scared’ (MPAA-rated R)—a great sleazy character named Snake (Joe Pantoliano), the partners’ silken assurance in and around their neighborhoods, and any number of good solid gags, accomplished with the utmost throwaway nonchalance.  After all the spurious ‘chemistry’ between acting pairs that’s oozed across the screen, Crystal and Hines give us friendship so tangible you can warm your hands in it.”

Crystal, a noted Yankee fan since birth, proudly wears Cubs and Blackhawks jerseys as Detective Danny Costanzo.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off showcases the adventures of the title character—a smooth-talking high school student—as he skips a day of school.  Bueller jaunts around Chicago with his best friend (Cameron) and his girlfriend (Sloane).  They make many stops around the city, including the Sears Building, the Chicago Board of Trade, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

New York Times film critic Nina Darnton described Bueller’s skill in deftly crossing every boundary that separates cliques in high school.  “The jocks, druggies, heavy-metal types, preppies, losers, grinds and popular kids all think he’s swell,” wrote Darnton.  “Why?  Because he has that magic ability so prized in adolescence—he can get away with anything.”

Of course, no trip on a day off in Chicago would be complete without a voyage to Wrigley Field, where Ferris catches a foul ball during a Cubs game.  It’s only natural that this event occurs for the carefree teenager who floats through life.

These films comprised a slice of culture during a year when Geraldo Rivera hosted a television special about opening Al Capone’s vaults, Microsoft held an Initial Public Offering for stock purchases, America celebrated the Statue of Liberty’s centennial, Oprah Winfrey launched her syndicated television show, NBC revamped its peacock logo, and the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded.

The Cubs finished 1986 with a 70-90 record.  Second baseman Ryne Sandberg notched 178 hits, finishing 6th in the National League.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on June 11, 2016.

Kingman’s Performance

Monday, March 27th, 2017

Never at a loss for words, Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda uncorked a verbal geyser of “F” word variations in response to a reporter’s inquiry on May 14, 1978.  Dave Kingman earned the privilege of setting off Lasorda by going yard three times and tallying eight RBI in that day’s Cubs-Dodgers game.  It was a display of power awing the 31,968 attendees at Dodger Stadium in the same month that Pete Rose notched his 3000th hit, Al Unser won his third of four Indianapolis 500 races, and Ron Guidry went 5-0 on his way to an American League Cy Young Award season with a 25-3 record.

After the Cubs’ 10-7 victory, secured by Kingman’s three-run homer in the 15th inning, sports reporter Paul Olden of KLAC radio asked Lasorda, “What’s your opinion of Kingman’s performance?”

And that’s pretty much when the wheels fell off the wagon.

“What’s my opinion of Kingman’s performance?  What the f*** do you think is my opinion of it?  I think it was f****** horse****!  Put that in!  I don’t f******…opinion of his performance?  Jesus Christ, he beat us with three f******* home runs!”

That is merely the beginning of a monologue that lasts approximately 90 seconds, with Lasorda repeating the phrase “opinion of his performance” in disgust.

Frustration is often a signal of respect—such was the case with Lasorda, who admitted, “He put on a hell of a show.”

Richard Dozer of the Chicago Tribune remarked upon Kingman’s recent respites—none sparking delight—after showing signs of slump busting in a Cubs-Padres game.  “Kingman had two hits that night, then was benched against right-hander Gaylord Perry and against Don Sutton of the Dodgers,” reported Dozer.  “This did not please him anymore than being waved to the bench defensively on several occasions earlier this year.”

Kingman caught a Dusty Baker “wicked liner near the foul line” for the Dodgers’ last out of the ninth inning.  “It’s just a part of contributing,” declared Kingman.  “Some people around here think I can’t play defense, but maybe they’ll change their minds.”

In the Los Angeles Times, Ross Newhan quoted Kingman about his day of glory, noting the slugger’s association with Los Angeles dating back to his USC days.  “I consider this my home,” said Kingman.  “It’s always a great feeling to come back to Dodger Stadium.  I can’t put it into words.  It’s one of the most beautiful parks in either league.  The whole atmosphere is pure baseball.”

Kingman’s magical day provides a snapshot of strength, e.g., 442 career home runs, 35 or more home runs in a season six times.  Power had a cost, however.  It came in the currency of strikeouts for the Illinois native, who compiled a .236 batting average in his 16-year career.  Two outstanding years show the terrific contrast.

1979

  • Led the major leagues in home runs (48)
  • Led the National League in slugging percentage (.613)
  • Led the National League in on-base plus slugging percentage (.956)
  • Led the National League in strikeouts (131)

1982

  • Led the National League in home runs (37)
  • Led the major leagues in strikeouts (156)

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on May 14, 2016.

Wynn, World Series, and White Sox

Friday, March 24th, 2017

Not since Shoeless Joe Jackson and seven others received lifetime banishments from baseball had White Sox fans suffered a collective depression akin to the one on October 8, 1959—Chicago’s beloved team from the South Side lost the World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers, the transplanted team from Brooklyn in its second year of basking in the southern California sunshine.  And so, the Windy City shrugged its big shoulders as a dream of a World Series championship became a daymare punctuated by the formidable batsmen from the City of Angeles.

With a 22-10 record, veteran right-hander Early Wynn propelled the White Sox to a World Series birth; Wynn’s number of wins led the major leagues in 1959.  The man whom Ted Williams called “the toughest pitcher I ever faced” criticized the press as the White Sox prepared for Game Six, which turned out to be the deciding game.  “They made us look like a lousy ball club just because we’ve had some bad experiences in that circus grounds they call a ball park out there,” said the 39-year-old hurler of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in an article penned by Richard Dozer for the Chicago Tribune.  “They’ve been saying we ought to try to get into the their major league.”

This statement referred to the Continental League, an idea spearheaded by Branch Rickey.  It ultimately failed, but gave rise to National League expansion in 1962 with the Houston Colt .45s (later Astros) and the New York Mets.

Game Six was Wynn’s third time taking the mound in the series.  He blanked the Dodgers 11-0 in Game One, held at Comiskey Park.  Though Wynn started Game Four, he did not get credited with the 5-4 loss.

Trailing the Dodgers three games to two, the White Sox were poised to even the series in Game Six.  It was a crucial moment for Wynn et al.  “The White Sox are in excellent position for pitching.  Wynn worked only three innings, a victim of semi-liners, pop hits and fielding blunders by his teammates in a four-run third inning,” wrote Edward Press in the Chicago Tribune, absolving Wynn of blame for the Game Four loss.  “So the 39-year-old butcher should be sharp.  He is still dunking his elbow in the whirl pool.”

Alas, it was not meant to be for the White Sox.  1959 belonged to the Dodgers.  Game Six secured the first World Series title for Los Angeles’s National League team, thanks to 13 hits and nine runs.  Wynn took responsibility.  “I threw some bad pitches,” said Wynn in an article by Robert Cromie for the Chicago Tribune.  “But I did nothing different today.  I thought I had pretty good stuff, and I wasn’t tired.  There were no effects from the two-day rest or anything.”

Wynn’s ’59 performance earned him the Cy Young Award.  It was the culmination of a season of excellence in the autumn of his playing years—he retired after the 1963 season with a lifetime 300-244 win-loss record.

Led by manager Al Lopez, the White Sox compiled a 94-60 record in 1959, spurred by future Hall of Famers Wynn, second baseman Nellie Fox, and shortstop Luis Aparicio.  Fox racked up 191 hits, notched a .306 batting average, and led the major leagues in plate appearances (717).  Aparicio’s prowess resulted in 157 hits, 98 runs scored, and a league-leading 56 stolen bases.

Lopez, himself a Hall of Famer, managed the Cleveland Indians from 1951 to 1956 and the White Sox from 1957 to 1969.  The Hall of Fame inducted Lopez in 1977.  When he took the reins in Chicago, the team became known as the “Go Go Sox” because of an emphasis on speed instead of power.  Lopez lived just long enough to see the White Sox bring a World Series title to the South Side in 2005—the team’s first championship since 1917—he died four days later.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 29, 2016.

The Hall of Fame Case for Harvey Kuenn

Saturday, March 4th, 2017

There are coaches and managers who approach baseball with a Lombardi-like focus on winning without the trademark Lombardi philosophy of striving to obtain psychological, emotional, and physical fulfillment through 100% effort.  Their desire to win is pure.  Their process, deadening.

Harvey Kuenn was not one of these leaders.

“Look, you guys can flat out hit, so go out there and have fun.  Don’t be stone-faced on the bench.  If a guy breaks a bat, laugh about it and he’ll laugh with you.  When you laugh and have fun, you get relaxed,” said Kuenn, when he ascended from being the Milwaukee Brewers hitting coach to managing the team in the middle of the 1982 season, according to an article by Skip Myslenski in the Chicago Tribune, before the American League playoffs.  Kuenn steered the Brewers around after taking over the team with a 23-34 record; the Brewers finished the season at 95-67.

Harvey’s Wallbangers, a pun nickname, reached the World Series in 1982—the Brewers lost to the Cardinals in seven games.

Kuenn shot to baseball prominence when he won the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 1953 as a member of the Detroit Tigers.  “The rookie’s success is a rare example of general baseball prophecy coming true,” stated the New York Herald-Tribune.  “From the start of spring training last year, a brilliant future was predicted for Kuenn.  However, Fred Hutchinson, the Tiger manager, said only that Harvey would start the season at short.  Kuenn not only started, but finished there, playing in 155 games.”

Kuenn played for the Tigers, the Indians, the Giants, the Cubs, and the Phillies in a 15-year major league career as a shortstop, a third baseman, and an outfielder.  With a .303 career batting average, Kuenn ranks in the upper echelon of batters.  He does not, however, have a Hall of Fame plaque.  Though a .300 plateau is not, perhaps, an automatic measure for Cooperstown, Kuenn’s other achievements, collectively, boost advocacy for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame:

  • Led the American League in hits four times and the major leagues once
  • Won the 1959 AL batting championship
  • Made the American League All-Star lineup eight consecutive years
  • Led the American League in doubles three times and the major league twice

One argument against Hall of Fame inclusion is Kuenn’s career RBI figure—671—though one can counter that RBI is a function of opportunity rather than hitting ability.  Also, though Kuenn’s career 950 runs scored is not an overwhelming statistic, by any means, a similar counter applies; if Kuenn is on base safely, which occurred regularly, a teammate must perform for scoring to occur.

When the Tigers traded Kuenn to the Indians for Rocky Colavito at the beginning of the 1960 season, team president Bill DeWitt certified the rationale.  “I have a high regard for Kuenn’s ability as a player,” said DeWitt in an Associated Press article.  “But we felt we needed more power at the plate and we’re hopeful this move will help us score more runs.”  Tiger manager Jimmie Dykes revealed, “It was a deal in which we had to trade consistency for power.”  Indeed.  In 1959, while Kuenn led the American League in batting average, Colavito led in home runs—42.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on March 5, 2016.

The Great Brawl of ’84

Saturday, February 25th, 2017

Not since the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre had Chicago seen an eruption of violence like the one on May 27, 1984 at Wrigley Field—okay, not quite an apt comparison.

A three-run homer in the second inning of a Cubs-Reds game ignited the fury.  With Leon Durham and Mel Hall on base, Ron Cey smashed a Mario Soto pitch into the left field stands.  Umpire Steve Rippley called it fair, which prompted outrage from the Cincinnati bench.  Fred Mitchell of the Chicago Tribune cited the viewpoint of Reds third baseman Wayne Krenchicki.  “I was the first one to confront him.  I could see in his eyes he wasn’t sure.  He didn’t say one word when I protested,” said Krenchicki.

The wheels fell of the wagon.  Immediately.  While the Cubs celebrated, the Reds protested that Cey’s knock was foul.  A reversal of the ruling triggered outrage from Cubs manager Jim Frey and third base coach Don Zimmer.  Wrigley Field’s famed bleacher bums responded by throwing debris onto the field.

Cubs announcers Harry Caray and Steve Stone debated the validity of a protest.

Caray:  “I would imagine that this game is going to be continued under protest by the Cubs, though.”

Stone:  “Well, I don’t think you can protest a judgment call.”

Caray:  “Well, whose judgment call are we talking about?  The judgment of the third base umpire or the judgement of the home plate umpire?  Now whose jurisdiction is it?”

Stone:  “Well, it’s still a judgment call at any rate because it’s not an infraction of the rules and you cannot protest a judgment call.”

Caray:  “Well then why don’t you let the plate umpire call them all?  Why do you have the third base umpire who’s that close, who runs down the line because the jurisdiction of the call is his, otherwise he wouldn’t even bother to go down the line?”

Stone:  “But he can and has been on many instances overruled as is the case right here.”

Caray:  “Well, what I’m saying is if you can’t protest a judgment call, you certainly can protest the fact that one umpire’s judgment says it’s fair and the other umpire’s judgment, who is not the umpire who is empowered normally to make the call, says that it was a foul ball.  The other guy who usually is empowered to make the call says it’s a fair ball.  And he was much closer to the play than the other guy.  I would protest anyway.  I don’t care whether…how many times do you win a protest anyway?”

Stone:  “You’re never going to win the protest.”

As Caray and Stone bantered in the WGN broadcast booth and the Cubs manager, coaches, and some players argued with the umpires, Cey remained on the bench, observing the chaos.

And the rage escalated.  Soto had already bumped Rippley before his teammates held him back.  Ultimately, he got ejected, which set him off further—he sprung out of the dugout.  Further, he tried to go after fans with a bat before being restrained.  Jim Frey and Larry Bowa shouted at the umpires so loudly, passersby on Sheffield Avenue could hear them.  Cubs outfielder Mel Hall held back his manager.

Frey’s Cincinnati counterpart, Vern Rapp, then discussed the situation with the umpiring crew:

  • Home Plate:  Paul Runge
  • First Base:  Randy Marsh
  • Second Base:  Bob Engel
  • Third Base:  Steve Rippley

Things cooled down for a few minutes.  And then a bench-clearing brawl broke out with the force of February winds off Lake Michigan.  “What a rhubarb!” exclaimed Caray.

The umpires reversed Cey’s home run.  In the do-over at bat, Cey lined to Reds shortstop Tom Foley.

Soto received a five-game suspension from National League president Chub Feeney, the Cubs lost the game 4-3, and Chicago’s North Side had yet another ignominious moment in its baseball annals.

Wally Altmann, a St. Xavier College sophomore, caught Cey’s home run ball.  “From the position that he might have been standing the ball did look fair from where he was.  But where we were standing, it was foul,” explained Altmann to Caray and Stone.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 18, 2016.

Ken Holtzman’s No-Hitters

Sunday, February 5th, 2017

During the summer of Woodstock, Hurricane Camille, and Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind, Ken Holtzman escalated to legend status in the Friendly Confines when he pitched a no-hitter against the Braves.  Holtzman finished 1969 with a 17-13 record, 12 complete games, and six shutouts.

It was not, however, a turning point for the ’69 Cubs squad, which seemed destined for a World Series berth.  In a 2013 Bleed Cubbie Blue web site article about Holtzman’s achievement, Al Yellon clarified, “In hindsight, it was the climax of the season.  The Cubs’ division lead, as big as nine games just a few days earlier, began to shrink.  The team was 77-45 after that game, 32 games over .500, their high point of the season.  They wouldn’t be that far over .500 again until 2008.  They went 15-25 the rest of the way.”

Indeed, 1969 belonged to the Mets.

Ron Santo gave Holtzman sufficient padding with a three-run blast in the first inning—they were the only runs for the Cubs that afternoon.  David Condon’s Chicago Tribune column “In the Wake of the News” captured the exhortations of Cubs manager Leo Durocher, who basked in the afterglow of Holtzman’s performance.  “The grass slowed a couple of balls, I guess,” said Durocher.  “It’s the same grass, tho we have all the time.  It sure wasn’t as bad as the grass in San Francisco where you couldn’t blast thru it with a shotgun.

“They can’t grow grass high enough to have stopped that three-run homer by Santo.  He hit the hell out of it.  Had to, to get it thru the wind.”

Holtzman duplicated the feat two years later in a game against the Reds.  It impacted the hurler’s bottom line—George Langford of the Chicago Tribune wrote, “Holtzman, who did not strike out a batter in his gem two years ago, Fanned six tonight and after the game was presented a new contract by John Holland, the Cubs’ vice president and general manager, calling for a $1,500 raise.”

After the 1971 season, Holtzman went to Oakland, where he prospered as a keystone of the A’s dynasty that won three consecutive World Series championships (1972-1974).

Dan Epstein, author of the 2010 book Big Hair and Plastic Grass:  A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s, interviewed Holtzman for JLiving, a magazine about Jewish culture.  Unpublished excerpts appear on Epstein’s web site www.bighairplasticgrass.com.

Prompted by Epstein’s query regarding which accomplishment brought the most satisfaction—three World Series rings with the A’s, two no-hitters with the Cubs, Jewish pitcher with the most career victories—Holtzman revealed, “Of the three choices given, I would say winning the three rings is tops.  However, I’ve said many times my biggest thrill and accomplishment remains the first time I walked onto Wrigley Field in a Cubs uniform because it validated all the hard work and sacrifices that I made to reach the big leagues. The other milestones were very satisfying but, in a sense, anti-climactic.  Achieving a childhood dream is hard to surpass.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 19, 2016.