Chris and Ronnie’s grand night

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Agony & Ivy on July 6, 2010.

I lost interest in the All-Star Game long ago, but when I was a kid the Midsummer Classic was a very big deal.

The evolution of the separate but equal major leagues into the baseball equivalent of the NFC and AFC was well underway by 1983, but the National and American leagues of that era had distinct identities. Interleague play was a gimmick that was still far ahead in the future.

The AL was the league of old, dumpy ballparks like Cleveland Municipal Stadium and Fenway Park. It used the designated hitter. It was over-reliant on home runs and under-reliant on strategies like the double-switch.

The NL was the hip, modern league with futuristic ballparks like the Astrodome and Riverfront Stadium. Pitchers batted. Astroturf was the playing surface in six of the league’s 12 ballparks, and the parks generally had spacious dimensions. Such an environment placed a premium on speed and defense. It was an exciting brand of baseball.

There were players like Dave Winfield, Ted Simmons, Nolan Ryan, and Greg Luzinski who switched leagues – but more players tended to play their entire careers in the same league back in those days.

I was 13 – heading into eighth grade – and still enjoying the time in my life when summers seemed to last for years. There were few worries and plenty of time for watching Cubs games on Channel 9, Little League, pickup ballgames, pool hopping, and trading baseball cards with my friends.

The 50th anniversary All-Star Game was scheduled for July 6, 1983 at the old Comiskey Park – exactly 50 years to the day of the first showcase that was played on the South Side during the 1933 Chicago “Century of Progress” World’s Fair.

My 11-year-old brother, Ronnie, and I didn’t dare dream of attending the game. It was an event reserved for Sox fans and big shots. We were neither.

My Aunt Bea was a huge White Sox fan – almost annoyingly so. She never could understand why we were Cubs fans. We were South Siders and as far as Aunt Bea was concerned, it was our duty to back the Sox. The Sox were cooler. They played night games. They had fireworks. They had a Diamond Vision scoreboard.

The Cubs played on the North Side, and as far as Aunt Bea was concerned, anywhere north of Madison Street may as well have been a foreign country.

Aunt Bea recognized the significance of an All-Star Game in Chicago and she was determined to have my brother and me experience it. When the Sox announced that they were selling non-reserved tickets for $5 each for the All-Star workout day and an old-timers game on July 5, she jumped at the chance and bought tickets.

We sat several rows behind the third-base dugout. I remember that it was claimed the old-timer’s game represented the biggest gathering of Hall of Famers at a place other than Cooperstown. It was the only time that I ever saw Joe DiMaggio in the flesh and, as an added bonus, I got to see a 45-year-old Billy Williams hit an upper-deck home run to right.

The All-Star workout was also very cool. We were able to see some of our favorites up close, like Dale Murphy, George Brett, and Robin Yount. Future major leaguers Bret and Aaron Boone, who sporting Phiadelphia Phillies uniforms and were there with their All-Star father Bob, played catch in the outfield.

And I’ll never forget the power display of San Francisco’s Darrell Evans during batting practice. Evans hit towering fly ball after towering fly ball on top of and over the right-field roof. It was breathtaking.

The next day, I was eating lunch in our kitchen when the phone rang. It was Aunt Bea. She told me that she had scored two tickets for the All-Star Game and wanted to know if my brother and me wanted to go. I didn’t even have to ask. The problem we had, though, was finding a ride to my aunt’s home in Bridgeport. My parents were both working.

Fortunately, I soon learned that our across-the-street neighbor, Mr. Quinn, was attending the game and he said he’d be glad to give us a lift.

It was the first time we had ever attended a ballgame without adults and the sellout crowd made it somewhat intimidating. But we were blessed to have aisle seats in the right-field upper deck and and a couple cool middle-aged guys seated to our right. They bought us soda, gave us some Babe Ruth postage stamps, and asked me a trivia question I remember to this day:

Who was the last switch-hitter to win a league MVP award?

My answer: Pete Rose.

The correct answer: Vida Blue in 1971.

The seats weren’t that great, but there were very few decent seats at the old Comiskey. There was very little leg room, less elbow room, far too many obstructed view seats, and too many seats that were much too far away from the field.

The highlight of the game, of course, was Fred Lynn’s grand slam off Atlee Hammaker – still the only grand slam in All-Star Game history – during the American League’s seven-run third inning. The AL rolled to a 13-3 victory to end an 11-game NL winning streak. Lynn’s home run sailed high into the air and disappeared into the lower deck below us.

Fourteen of the players who participated in the contest, if you include the soon-to-be-inducted Andre Dawson, were Hall of Famers. It was the final All-Star Game for Johnny Bench and Carl Yastrzemski.

The outcome of the game had long been determined by the time Cubs representatives Leon Durham and Lee Smith saw action. We saw Morganna “The Kissing Bandit” unsuccessfully attempt to plant one on Fernando Valenzuela and I suspect that actor George Burns had to be awakened in the middle of the seventh in order to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

As we exited the ballpark with fireworks filling the sky, I was certain that it was my favorite baseball experience at a ballpark other than Wrigley Field – and it remains so more than 30 years later.

1969: Holtzman’s no-strikeout no-hitter

BY CHRIS REWERS
EDITOR

(Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on Agony & Ivy on Jan. 19, 2011.)

Whenever I watch footage of Ken Holtzman’s no-hitter against the Atlanta Braves at Wrigley Field on Aug. 19, 1969, I am struck by the smiles on the faces of the Cubs players as they mobbed Holtzman after the final out.

holtzman no-hitter.jpg

The sports pages of the Sun-Times on Aug. 20, 1969 reported the news of Ken Holtzman’s no-hitter the previous day against the Atlanta Braves.

Those players – who included Ron Santo, Don Kessinger, and Glenn Beckert – probably thought the fun was just beginning. Little did they know that Holtzman’s gem was the last good thing that would happen to the Cubs that incredible season. It was all downhill from there.

Santo smashed a three-run homer in the first inning off Atlanta starter Phil Niekro to account for all the game’s scoring, and Holtzman took it from there.

A stiff 15 MPH breeze was blowing in from the northeast and Holtzman took full advantage of the conditions. The 23-year-old left-hander walked two – Gil Garrido in the third inning and Bob Didier in the fifth – and struck out none. Of the 27 outs Holtzman recorded, 15 were flyouts.

The most memorable of those flyouts came off the bat of leadoff hitter Henry Aaron in the seventh inning.

“Should have been a home run,” Holtzman told Rick Talley in The Cubs of ’69 (Contemporary Books, 1989). “On any other day it would have been over the houses across Waveland Avenue. I remember the trajectory. It was one of those high ones headed for distant places, and I remember (left fielder) Billy (Williams) backing up into that corner in left field, just standing there with his right arm against the wall. He kept looking up and looking up, and he knew it was going to land on the sidewalk. The ball was suddenly suspended up there – it seemed like 40 seconds between the time it left the bat and the time it started coming down – and finally it just dropped down into Billy’s glove. Without the wind, that ball would have landed in Evanston.

“I’ll never forget the look Hammer (Aaron ) gave me. Let’s face it, when Hammer hits it, you know it’s gone. He had those wrists and that top hand coming through, and when he started into that trot, he knew. Well, he was almost to second base when he saw Billy catch the ball. He made a U-turn around second and ran about four feet from me as he came past the mound. He just looked at me, puzzled, quizzical, and I just looked back at him. Nothing was said. Nothing needed to be said.”

Bill Heath was the starting catcher for the Cubs that afternoon, but had to leave the game in the eighth inning when he took a Tommie Aaron foul tip off his throwing hand. Heath, who broke a finger and never played in the major leagues again, was replaced by Gene Oliver.

Felipe Alou popped out to the shortstop, Kessinger, to open the ninth and Felix Milan grounded out to third baseman santo for the second out. All that separated Holtzman from a no-no was the dangerous Henry Aaron.

“Ollie runs out to the mound and says, ‘You want to walk him?’ I say, ‘If he gets a hit, he gets a hit,’ ” Holtzman recalled.

As the crowd chanted, “We want an out!” Holtzman fell behind in the count. Aaron sharply fouled off a 3-and-1 pitch into the seats down the right-field line.

“Holtzman in a demonstration of real pitching class, challenged Aaron with that pitch,” Cubs TV broadcaster Jack Brickhouse noted.

Aaron fouled the next pitch back to the screen and then on Holtzman’s 112th pitch of the afternoon, hit a sharp grounder to the right of second. Second baseman Beckert, who was shaded toward the middle, was perfectly positioned. An obviously nervous Beckert fielded it cleanly and then seemingly took forever to make the throw to first baseman Ernie Banks to retire Aaron for the final out.

With the victory, the Cubs improved to 77-45 and maintained an eight-game lead over the second-place New York Mets in the NL East.

But that seemingly comfortable lead evaporated in an amazingly short period of time. Following Holtzman’s no-hitter, the Cubs lost seven of their next nine and their lead over the Mets was down to just 2.5 games by Aug. 27. The Mets passed the Cubs on Sept. 10 and pulled away to win the division by eight games. The Cubs lost 25 of their final 40 in the aftermath of Holtzman’s gem while the Mets went 33-11.

Holtzman’s fortunes down the stretch mirrored his team’s. He went 3-6 in his final nine starts.