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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Ten Innings at Wrigley

The Wildest Ballgame Ever, with Baseball on the Brink

Kevin Cook

Henry Holt and Co.

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THE CUBS: FOILED AGAIN


The Chicago Cubs were born to lose. They were cursed. Their die-hard fans said so. It wasn’t just that Chicago’s National League franchise hadn’t won a World Series since 1908. Other teams had gone decades without winning, too. The Philadelphia Phillies had been in the league since 1883 and still hadn’t won a World Series. What distinguished the Cubs was how consistently and entertainingly they stunk.

They were winners before they were lovable losers and traced their ancestry to a different animal—the whale. Their home diamond started out with a different name, too. Wrigley Field began its long life as Weeghman Park, named for the luncheonette tycoon who built it.

In the early 1900s Charlie Weeghman strolled the busy sidewalks of the Loop with a gardenia in his lapel, tipping his bowler hat to the ladies. Lucky Charlie, they called him. He had landed a restaurant job as a boy, filling coffee mugs for the builders, bankers, lawyers, aldermen, priests, and mobsters who made the town go. He soon moved up to maître d’ and then manager, saving his wages and tips until he could open his own place. Weeghman’s Lunch Room was a spotless, white-tiled cafeteria where working people could get a sandwich and a glass of milk for twenty-five cents. Chicagoans lined up to get in. Before long he had a chain of Lunch Rooms—America’s first fast-food chain—that launched what the Tribune called a “cafeteria craze.” By the time he turned thirty-five, his fortune amounted to $8 million (about $200 million today), more than enough to build a baseball park.

As a boy he’d pictured himself knocking doubles and triples like Cap Anson, the great first baseman of Chicago’s National League baseball club, which played home games at the rat-infested West Side Grounds. After making his millions, Weeghman tried to buy the St. Louis Cardinals, but his wealth was a little too fresh for the silver-haired men who ran Major League Baseball. They turned him down. So he poured his money into a new league.

For the 1914 season the upstart Federal League of Base Ball Clubs placed teams in eight cities, including Chicago, to challenge the monopoly of the National and American Leagues. Their players were mostly big-league castoffs and never-wuzzes, but Weeghman had big plans for his Chicago Federals, cleverly nicknamed the Chi-Feds. As a first salvo against the game’s establishment, he signed the Cubs’ famous shortstop Joe Tinker.

Tinker had black hair spilling over a unibrow so pronounced you can see it on his Hall of Fame plaque. The Cubs’ catalyst when they won four pennants and a pair of World Series, he had crossed into folklore in a 1910 poem by newspaperman Franklin Pierce Adams, a New York Giants fan:

These are the saddest of possible words:

“Tinker to Evers to Chance.”

Trio of bear cubs, and fleeter than birds,

Tinker and Evers and Chance.

Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,

Making a Giant hit into a double—

Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble:

“Tinker to Evers to Chance.”

Weeghman signed the thirty-three-year-old Tinker as the Chi-Feds’ player-manager for an unheard-of twelve thousand dollars a year. Four days later, he leased nine acres in Chicago’s Lake View neighborhood. The land had been home to the city’s Lutheran Theological Seminary until the seminarians decided their neighborhood was going to hell. They could barely hear themselves pray over the noise from trains clattering through the new El station on Addison Street. One seminarian recalled “smoke, dust, grime, soot, dirt, foul gases, railroading by night and day, whistles, ding-donging of bells.” Weeghman leased the land for sixteen thousand dollars a year and hired architect Zachary Taylor Davis to build a ballpark there.

Davis had gotten his start at Louis Sullivan’s firm, working alongside a twenty-one-year-old Frank Lloyd Wright. With $250,000 of Weeghman’s lunch money to spend (about $6.3 million in today’s dollars), he started from scratch less than two months before the Chi-Feds’ 1914 season began. Davis and Weeghman hired hundreds of Chicago men to wield shovels, wheelbarrows, hammers, and saws and run mule teams and steam- and gasoline-powered engines on double shifts through February and March. From groundbreaking to Opening Day, they built the park in seven weeks.

They couldn’t have done it without the sort of friends who can help a construction job. One of Weeghman’s friends, New York mobster Arnold Rothstein, paraded around Chicago with flunkies like Legs Diamond, who enjoyed stabbing people who crossed his boss and cut out their tongues if they griped about it. This was five years before Rothstein fixed the 1919 World Series.

On April 23, 1914, a mile-long parade of motorcars and merrymakers led from the Loop to Weeghman Park to celebrate Opening Day. Ten brass bands played. A dozen fans in sombreros brought a live bull to the game. The park was built to hold fourteen thousand baseball bugs, as fans were called in those days, but more than twenty thousand packed the place that afternoon. Just before the game began, a car festooned with roses and carnations drove onto the field. Joe Tinker stepped out and waved to the crowd.

Tinker singled in three trips to the plate as the home team thumped the Kansas City Packers, 9–1. Chicago won again the next day. The Chi-Feds often outdrew the Cubs and White Sox—not only because they won but because Weeghman made baseball a bug-friendly experience. His concession stands sold the best ballpark food at fair prices. His team was the first to let fans keep foul balls, a policy that irked other owners, who had ushers chase down foul balls and return them to the field. Weeghman also pioneered Ladies’ Day, letting women in free every Friday.

In the winter of 1915 he held a newspaper contest to give his Chi-Feds a better name. With Charlie’s luncheonettes in mind, readers suggested that the team should be the Chicago Buns, Beefers, Doughnuts, or Pies. Windy Lads was another contender. In the end he decided to call his team the Whales. Weeghman’s Chicago Whales chased the 1915 Federal League pennant with help from another former Cubs star, Mordecai Peter Centennial Brown.

Born in 1876, the hundredth anniversary of American independence, Mordecai Brown was a Hoosier who had lost much of his pitching hand in a boyhood accident. A mechanical corn shredder tore off most of the index finger and part of the pinkie on his throwing hand. To his delight he discovered that the accident didn't keep him from playing ball. In fact, the stubs of his fingers helped put spin on his curveball. After signing a minor-league contract with the Terre Haute Hottentots, “Three-Finger” Brown climbed quickly to the majors, landing with the Chicago Cubs. He won 26 games with a league-best 1.04 earned run average in 1906, when the Cubs won 116 games, running away with the National League pennant. Nine years later he helped lead Weeghman’s Whales to a Federal League pennant on the last day of the season. Somehow the little ballpark held 34,212 fans that day, more than twice its official capacity. In one account, Chicago’s baseball bugs “went Borneo” when the Whales clinched, rushing the field to mob Tinker, Brown, and the rest of the players.

After that season, Major League Baseball—the established National League and American League owners—bought out the Federal League. Each Federal League owner received $600,000 to disband his team. (One club, the Baltimore Terrapins, refused and sued the major leagues for violation of federal antitrust laws. The case made its way to the Supreme Court, where the Terrapins lost. In an opinion by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the Court ruled that baseball was a game, not a business engaged in interstate commerce.) As part of the buyout settlement, Charlie Weeghman was allowed to buy the Chicago Cubs. Not only that, he got to add his Federal League players to the Cubs’ roster. Tinker and Brown rejoined their former teammates, who were glad to move from the dilapidated West Side Grounds to the new baseball palace on the North Side.

Lucky Charlie was having the time of his life. He watched his Cubs from the owner’s box and sometimes stayed after night fell on Weeghman Park. He kept a stable of horses in stalls under the grandstand. His favorite was Queen Bess, described by the Chicago Tribune as “an old, gentle bay mare.” On summer nights the owner let Queen Bess run and graze on the field.

* * *

WEEGHMAN’S FIRST MAJOR move as a National League owner was a blockbuster trade with the Philadelphia Phillies. In normal times the Phillies wouldn’t dream of trading their ace pitcher, Grover Cleveland Alexander, who had led the league four seasons running with an average of thirty victories a year and taken the Phillies to their first World Series in 1915. But two years later, with a world war on and every American male between twenty-one and thirty subject to the draft, Phillies owner William Baker worried about Alexander’s contract. Baker didn’t want to pay his ace seven thousand dollars only to have him march off to France and get killed. When Weeghman offered to take Alexander off Baker’s hands, the Phillies took the bait.

That winter, Baker traded Alexander to the Cubs for two part-time players and fifty-five thousand dollars—a massive amount of cash. It was the biggest trade in both teams’ history to that point, and both teams came out on the short end. The Phillies would finish last fifteen times in the next twenty-five years.

Weeghman signed the great Alexander to a generous contract: eight thousand dollars a year whether he played or not, plus a five-thousand-dollar signing bonus and ten thousand dollars for Alex’s fiancée. That made the owner a hero to Chicago fans just as war, recession, and a flu epidemic squeezed his finances. Restaurants closed. Baseball bugs stayed home.

Alexander won twice for the 1918 Cubs. Then the army called him up. The best pitcher alive spent seven weeks of trench combat, enduring bombardment from German howitzers that crippled him with shell shock.

His teammates went on to win the pennant with a record that gave them home-field advantage in the World Series against the American League champion Red Sox. To maximize revenue, Weeghman arranged a one-week lease with White Sox owner Charles Comiskey, whose South Side stadium held twice as many fans as Charlie’s place. And so the Cubs hosted their games in the 1918 World Series at Comiskey Park.

They were favored in Game One against Boston lefty Babe Ruth. A pie-faced twenty-three-year-old who played the outfield on days he didn’t pitch, Ruth blanked them in the opener, 1–0. During the seventh-inning stretch, a band played “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which was then the U.S. Navy’s anthem. Red Sox third baseman Fred Thomas, a sailor playing in the World Series on a furlough, spun and saluted the flag in center field. Others followed his lead. The fans stood and sang, some with hands over their hearts, and gave the tune’s last notes a long ovation. After that, baseball owners made sure the song played at every Series game. Thirteen years later, Congress passed a law making “The Star-Spangled Banner” the national anthem.

The Cubs lost the 1918 World Series. There was talk that they’d thrown it. Their losers’ share of $671 per man (to Boston’s $1,100) was far less than mobsters like Arnold Rothstein would pay for a certain result. No one ever proved the Cubs were on the take, as Comiskey’s White Sox would be the following year, but they had gone ten seasons without a Series title and would go oh-for-the-next-ninety-eight.

Charlie Weeghman might have gone bankrupt if not for William Wrigley Jr. The son of a Philadelphia soap maker who founded a chewing gum empire, portly, pomaded Wrigley kept his friend afloat with loans and purchases of stock in the team. Now, with two million soldiers shipping off to war, many of them chewing Wrigley’s Spearmint and Juicy Fruit gum, Wrigley bought Cubs stock until he had it all. After that the old owner faded away.

Weeghman disappeared from public view until 1921, when he hosted twelve thousand Ku Klux Klansmen at a white-power rally on his farm in Lake Zurich, Illinois. Later he moved east and got back into the restaurant business just in time for the Depression to ruin him. Years later a newsman tracked him down. Weeghman was living out his days in a studio apartment in New York, wondering what had happened to his luck.

* * *

THE BALLPARK HE’D built was known as Cubs Park from 1919 until 1923, when Wrigley overcame his modesty and named it after himself. In 1927 he built a second deck that added eighteen thousand seats. Attendance crossed the million mark for the first time that season. The most famous patron was a chubby cigar smoker who sat in the first row: die-hard Cub fan Al Capone.

Capone used to roll up to the park in an armor-plated limousine with bulletproof glass and tommy-gun turrets. His outfit, the Outfit, ran bootlegging, gambling, narcotics, prostitution, extortion, and murder for hire in Chicago. When Scarface Al took in a Cubs game, players came over to pay their respects. One day it was catcher Gabby Hartnett smiling and posing for photos with Capone. When baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis saw the photos, he sent Hartnett a telegram telling him to steer clear of unsavory characters.

Hartnett wired back: OK, BUT IF YOU DON’T WANT ME TO HAVE MY PICTURE TAKEN WITH AL CAPONE, YOU TELL HIM.

The Cubs won four National League pennants from 1929 to 1938, but always withered in October. In four World Series they won three games and lost sixteen. Still Chicagoans kept coming to Wrigley Field, even in the winter.

Starting in the ’20s, Wrigley rented his field to the Chicago Bears of the new National Football League. George Halas, the football club’s owner/coach/wide receiver/defensive end/ticket vendor, christened his team the Bears as a nod to their landlord, reasoning that bears are bigger than cubs. One Sunday, Bears fullback Bronko Nagurski barreled through the Washington Redskins, through the end zone, and banged his leather-helmeted head into the brick outfield wall. He jogged to the sideline, where Halas asked if he was okay. Nagurski said, “Yeah, but that last guy really gave me a lick.”

Over the years the park hosted car shows, rodeos, even a ski-jumping contest. The ski jumpers stood atop a ramp that rose to the roof. They schussed to another ramp near home plate, took off, and came down like loud outs in center field. Still the park was best known for baseball teams that kept finding fresh ways to fall short. It was at Wrigley Field that Babe Ruth, now a New York Yankee, hit his Called Shot in the World Series of 1932. Or didn’t. Historians say Ruth may have waved his bat to warn Chicago pitcher Charlie Root that the next line drive might take his head off. Scratchy game film, recently discovered, suggests they’re right. Either way, Ruth hit a long home run on the next pitch and the Yankees swept the Series.

Wrigley died that year. His only son, Philip Knight Wrigley, a pipe-smoking yachtsman, never quite warmed up to baseball. The rowdy pastime, P. K. Wrigley said, was “too much of a sport to be a business and too much of a business to be a sport.” To him, the Cubs were only one of the family’s holdings, like the chewing-gum business and real estate including Chicago’s landmark Wrigley Building and Catalina Island off the California coast. P. K. Wrigley abjured alcohol in his personal life but opened the taps at Wrigley Field as soon as Prohibition ended in 1933. Beer sales paid for renovations on the twenty-year-old stadium. The new owner rebuilt the outfield walls, bringing the diamond to its current shape: 400 feet to dead center, a cozy 368 to the power alleys, with recessed “wells” in the corners to create the longest foul lines in the majors, 355 feet to the left-field foul pole, and 353 down the right-field line. For a homey touch, he planted a dozen elm trees in tubs of dirt in the bleachers. That didn’t work—the winds off Lake Michigan blew the leaves off the trees, and workmen carted them away.

Wrigley had better luck when he hired twenty-three-year-old Bill Veeck, the son of a Cubs executive, to plant ivy along the outfield walls in 1937. Veeck would grow up to be the maverick owner who sent a dwarf to bat for the 1951 St. Louis Browns. (Eddie Gaedel, wearing uniform number ?, stood three foot, seven inches and weighed sixty-five pounds. He walked.) Over the years Veeck’s ivy grew lush enough to serve as Wrigley Field’s version of Charlie Brown’s kite-eating tree. Year after year a few gappers hop into the vines and disappear. Outfielders throw up their hands or point accusingly at the ivy, calling for a ground-rule double.

* * *

AFTER TRAILING PITTSBURGH by seven games in September, the 1938 Cubs roared back to cut the Pirates’ lead to half a game. On September 28 Gabby Hartnett came to bat with the score tied in the bottom of the ninth. It was getting dark, the sun dipping behind apartment houses on Clark Street. With Wrigley Field lights fifty years in the future, Hartnett squinted at the pitcher. Finally he spied a pitch he liked. Hartnett’s legendary Homer in the Gloamin’ sent the Cubs ahead of the Pirates and got them back to the World Series, where the Yankees swept them.

P. K. Wrigley outfitted ushers in blue and gold suits with brass buttons. He hired young women in sundresses to pass through the crowd selling cigarettes, and made Chicago musician Roy Nelson baseball’s first ballpark organist. At first, Nelson had no idea what sort of music to play. He chose what the Sporting News praised as “classic and soulful compositions.… What joy! A beautiful ballpark, delicious hamburgers with onions, a can of beer, victory and the restful, dulcet notes of a pipe organ.” The Cubs would continue to provide burgers and beer if not many victories.

As other owners began installing lights in the 1930s for night games, Wrigley stuck to day baseball. He said he didn’t want to keep the neighbors up at night. Critics wondered whether his policy was hurting the team. Only the Cubs had to reset their body clocks every road trip or homestand. Purists who praised the owner’s defense of day baseball would have been disappointed to know that Wrigley had bought tons of steel to build light towers in 1941. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he donated the steel to the war effort.

His team specialized in what were dubbed Cub Follies. During World War II, manager Charlie Grimm asked outfielder Lou Novikoff why he kept letting fly balls drop near the fence. Novikoff explained that he was afraid of vines. Asked why he’d tried to steal third with the bases loaded, he said, “I got such a good jump.” His teammate Lennie Merullo set a record by making four errors in an inning. That same day, Merullo’s wife gave birth to a son, and, in honor of Lennie’s performance, they named the baby Boots.

In 1945 the Cubs made their lone trip to the postseason between the 1930s and the 1980s. They faced a Detroit club led by Hank Greenberg in the ’45 World Series. Lieutenant Greenberg, just back from the Army Air Corps, won Game Two with a three-run homer. The Hebrew Hammer homered only once after that, but he wasn’t the goat of the Series. A goat was.

Before Game Four, a tavern owner named Gus Sianis let his beer-drinking nanny goat, Sonovia, out of her pen at the Billy Goat Inn. Sonovia hopped into his car and rode with him to the ballpark, where Wrigley’s ushers turned her away. Sianis couldn’t believe it. Here he was in his pin-striped suit and silk tie, proffering two tickets—one for him, one for the goat. Sonovia wore a blanket emblazoned WE GOT DETROIT’S GOAT.

“If we can’t go in,” Sianis announced, “the Cubs will never win.” Wrigley’s private security guards blocked the way, and the Curse of the Billy Goat was born. The Cubs lost Game Four and went on to lose the Series. They had been in seven World Series since 1908 and lost them all. They wouldn’t reach another World Series for more than seventy years. But as George Will would note, “Cub fans like to say that any team can have a bad century.”

* * *

THERE WAS NO baseball team at Dallas’s Booker T. Washington High School, so Ernie Banks played softball. He was so good that baseball scouts began showing up at his church-league games. One paid the skinny shortstop an eye-popping fifteen dollars to barnstorm with a squad of black major leaguers. Before he knew it, Banks was turning double plays with Jackie Robinson, sitting in a dugout with Roy Campanella, Larry Doby, and Don Newcombe. Then he got drafted into the army.

Private First Class Banks served with an all-black unit at Fort Bliss, near El Paso, where he starred for the base’s basketball team. After a game against the Harlem Globetrotters the team’s owner, Abe Saperstein, called the young soldier aside. “Maybe you could play for us sometime,” Saperstein said. Banks was too nervous to answer. It was the first time he’d sat beside a white man.

After his army hitch, Banks joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League, who sold his contract to the Chicago Cubs in 1953. Nobody expected the twenty-two-year-old Banks to play much—what the Cubs needed was a roommate for Gene Baker, the shortstop they planned to make the first black Cub.

Baseball teams of the ’50s still economized by having players room together on the road. Nobody would dream of asking a white player to room with a black one, so the Cubs brought Baker and Banks to the majors together. As it happened, Baker was nursing a sore muscle, so Banks played shortstop against the Phillies that day. He would start every game for the next two years.

Ernie Banks smacked forty-four homers in 1955, at the time the most ever by a shortstop. He was a fixture at short by the time Gene Baker got healthy, so Baker switched to second base. Cubs radio announcer Bert Wilson, who nicknamed them Bingo and Bango, loved calling 6-4-3 double plays they turned with first baseman Steve Bilko: “Bingo Bango Bilko and the Cubs are out of the inning!”

In 1958 the shortstop with the Pepsodent smile batted .313 with forty-seven homers and 129 RBIs to win the National League’s Most Valuable Player award. A year later Banks won again—the first National Leaguer to win back-to-back MVPs, even though the team finished fifth both years. Fans started calling him “Mr. Cub.” Banks did his best hitting at the sunshiny park he dubbed the Friendly Confines.

“It’s a great day for a ballgame,” he said in all weather. “Let’s play two!”

* * *

DURING THE 1960 home opener, one bleacher fan found the sun friendly and her clothes too confining. “The young lady did an impromptu and complete striptease,” the Tribune reported.

A year later, while the Yankees’ Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris chased Babe Ruth’s record of sixty homers in a season, P. K. Wrigley decided that baseball managers were overrated. Wrigley opted for a rotating crew of skippers who worked like an umpiring crew, with one of them serving as manager in chief every four games. He called them the College of Coaches: Harry Craft, Lou Klein, Vedie Himsl, and El Tappe. (The last two aren’t typos. Avitus “Vedie” Himsl and Elvin Tappe had played and coached in the big leagues for decades.) Wrigley’s brainstorm turned out to be one of baseball’s least successful experiments.

With the College of Coaches running things, the ’61 Cubs came in seventh in an eight-team National League. In 1962 they finished ninth in a ten-team NL, six games behind the Houston Colt .45s, an expansion team, and ahead of another expansion club, the comically bad New York Mets. But even at their worst, the Cubs put on a show. During one game a vendor’s hot dog cart caught fire and exploded in a spew of franks, smoke, and steam. Firefighters ran into the park from the firehouse across the street, hosed down the cart, and stayed to watch the game.

Wrigley ditched the College of Coaches. It didn’t help, but there were signs of life as the ’60s progressed. In 1966 they had Banks, now thirty-five years old, at first base. Third baseman Ron Santo won his third straight Gold Glove while batting .312 with thirty home runs. Outfielder Billy Williams had twenty-nine homers. Shortstop Don Kessinger and second baseman Glenn Beckert turned more double plays than Tinker and Evers. Still the Cubs lost a league-worst 103 games. Their new manager was not amused.

Leo Durocher had had a respectable playing career as a shortstop in the 1930s, most notably with the St. Louis Cardinals team known as the Gas House Gang. Later, as the Brooklyn Dodgers’ player-manager, he benched himself to get the talented rookie Pee Wee Reese into the lineup. In 1947 he welcomed Jackie Robinson to the team, only to get suspended for what the commissioner called “accumulated unpleasant incidents” including consorting with gamblers and stealing Hollywood actress Laraine Day away from her husband, who called Durocher “a love pirate.” When he jumped from Brooklyn to the rival New York Giants in 1948, Leo the Lip invited Dodger fans to commit suicide. Now bald and fleshy at sixty-one, the Cubs’ new manager mocked the aging Banks, ignored the front office, spat on umpires’ shoes, insulted reporters, and steered the 1967 Cubs into the first division for the first time in twenty years. They finished third in ’67 and ’68. Then came a season to talk about.

The year 1969 transformed the major leagues. To the world outside it was the year of Abbey Road, Woodstock, the Manson murders, the Stonewall Riots, and five hundred thousand tons of American bombs falling on Cambodia, but to baseball it was the first year of divisional play and playoffs. A pretty good team now had a better shot at making the postseason.

On July 20, 1969, astronaut Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and the Cubs’ Ferguson Jenkins beat the Phillies 1–0 to put Chicago five games ahead in the brand-new National League East. From then on the division was a race between the Cubs and the upstart New York Mets. Cubs reliever Dick Selma led cheers from the bullpen, waving a towel. Ron Santo jumped into the air after each win, clicking his heels. By the middle of August, Chicago was nine games ahead.

The Mets, who had yet to finish better than ninth in their seven-year existence, were nothing much on offense but electric on the mound. Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman headed the rotation. Nolan Ryan, a rawboned kid out of Alvin, Texas, threw one hundred miles an hour. Shaggy-haired reliever Tug McGraw baffled batters with his screwball. They won fourteen of sixteen to pull within four games of first-place Chicago. Durocher’s Cubs won five in a row to stay ahead, but then collapsed. Maybe all the Cubs’ day games wore them down, or maybe it was Durocher, who rode the starting pitchers he called “my horses” till they dropped. It was probably a combination of the two factors. Durocher wasn’t the only manager guilty of riding his horses too hard, but he was the only one whose team played all its home games in midwestern afternoon heat. Randy Hundley caught 151 of the Cubs’ 162 games that season, Banks played 155, Kessinger 158, Santo 160. Billy Williams played 163 games out of 162, including a tie that was called on account of darkness and replayed. Jenkins, Ken Holtzman, and Bill Hands, the team’s top three pitchers, made 123 starts that season and completed 53. (In 2018, all major-league starters—more than 250 of them—combined to throw 42 complete games.) The three of them combined to pitch nearly nine hundred innings but faltered down the stretch while Durocher raged and called them names. When Holtzman got lit up in one start, the manager called him a “gutless Jew.”

The Cubs lost eleven of twelve in September to finish eight games behind the Miracle Mets, who went on to upset the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. The Mets capped their first decade with a championship while the Cubs closed their sixth decade in a row without one.

* * *

THE CUBS OF the early ’70s relied on Jenkins, a six-foot-five right-hander who won 21 games that year and 66 more in the next three seasons. In 1973, however, the thirty-year-old ace went 14-16 for a Cubs team that finished fifth in the six-team NL East. General manager John Holland thought Jenkins was showing his age. There was another factor: Holland didn’t want too many black players suiting up for the Cubs. Not because he was prejudiced, Holland claimed, but because the team’s overwhelmingly white crowds were. When the former Negro Leagues star Buck O’Neil, now serving as a Cubs scout, said, “Mr. Holland, we’d have a better ball club if we played the blacks,” Holland didn’t disagree. But the fans were already accusing him of making the Cubs look like a Negro League team, he said. So Holland traded Jenkins to the Texas Rangers. A year later, Jenkins led the American League with 25 victories. He would win 110 more on his way to the Hall of Fame.

The 1974 Cubs finished last despite twenty homers from outfielder Rick Monday and a .313 average from rookie third baseman Bill Madlock, who came from Texas in the Jenkins trade. That was almost enough losing for P. K. Wrigley, who could tolerate coming in fourth or fifth as long as the team turned a profit. The eighty-year-old owner had been a teenager when the Cubs last won the World Series, and that was before his father owned them. It was time for another experiment.

After a fifth-place finish in 1975, Wrigley replaced Holland with Eldred “Salty” Saltwell, the longtime chief of concessions at Wrigley Field, whom reporters dubbed “the general manager of hot dogs.” Before the 1977 season, Saltwell traded Madlock, who wanted a raise after hitting .354 and .339 to win consecutive batting titles. He dumped Kessinger for a player to be named later, and never got around to offering pitcher Steve Stone a contract. Saltwell got fired after only one season but left Cub fans something to remember him by. It was his idea to put wire baskets atop the outfield walls to keep bleacher bums from sitting on the walls or jumping onto the field.

His successor was Bob Kennedy, who had managed the 1963–65 Cubs and the 1968 Oakland A’s of Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson. Kennedy thought the Cubs could win if they made better use of a new way of acquiring players: free agency. As general manager, Kennedy assembled Chicago’s roster the modern way, signing free agents and trading depreciating assets for futures. He stole Bill Buckner and Ivan DeJesus from the Dodgers—a good start, but the Cubs still needed a home-run hitter. Pitcher Mike Krukow joked about their “Rush Street offense.” Like Chicago’s North Side nightlife, it was “lots of singles and not enough scoring.”

And so, in the winter of 1978, Kennedy spent $1.4 million to bring Dave Kingman to Chicago.

Kingman had grown up in Mount Prospect, Illinois, in the northwest suburbs many closer-in Chicagoans called the land beyond O’Hare. A four-sport star at Prospect High, he ran track, dunked for the basketball team, played wide receiver during football season, and set every record for the Prospect Knights’ baseball team. In his last high school game he hit two home runs and pitched a two-hit shutout. High school hero Kingman had a long, clean-cut jaw and wore his hair in a crew cut. He grew his hair out at the University of Southern California, where he led the Trojans to the 1970 NCAA baseball championship.

A year later he was in the majors. In his first ten big-league at-bats, Kingman conked three home runs. Two were off Pirates ace Dock Ellis, the only man ever to pitch a no-hitter on LSD. (It was the ’70s.) Kingman had the kind of power that put fannies in seats. He was with the Mets when he launched a blast at Wrigley Field that one writer swore “O’Hare could not have held.” But he never lived up to his potential. Booed out of New York for falling down in the outfield and striking out two or three times a game, he acted like he didn’t care. But now, following a disheartening 1977 season that saw him suit up for four different teams—the Mets, Padres, Angels, and Yankees—he was home, taking out his frustrations on the rest of the National League. He told reporters he wasn’t fond of New Yorkers but liked Chicagoans. They liked him back after he hit seven homers in his first month as a Cub. He cooled off after that but still led the ’78 Cubs with twenty-eight homers, two more than the other seven guys in the everyday lineup.

When the Phillies came to Wrigley in May 1979, Kingman had nine homers, second in the league to Mike Schmidt. He was also leading the league in strikeouts.

“Kingman kind of exemplified the Cubs,” Ed Hartig said. “He was bad in interesting ways.”


Copyright © 2019 by Kevin Cook