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.

1930: One Hack of a season

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Agony & Ivy on Sept. 7, 2010.

BY CHRIS REWERS
EDITOR

The story of Hack Wilson’s incredible 1930 season began the previous autumn, on Oct. 12, 1929 at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park.

Wilson and his Cubs teammates led the Philadelphia Athletics 8-0 heading into the bottom of the seventh inning of Game 4 of the World Series. The North Siders appeared well on their way to evening the series at two games apiece – and with the final two games scheduled at Wrigley Field – they had to like their chances of rewarding their long-suffering fans with their first world championship in 21 years.

Wilson was an odd-looking man. He stood 5-foot-6 and weighed 190 pounds. The hard-drinking Wilson was described as looking like a beer barrell and not being unfamiliar with its contents. He had a size 18 neck; bulging biceps; stumpy, muscular legs; and wore size 6 shoes.

He may not have looked swift, but Wilson was athletic enough to patrol center field – and he did so adequately – committing 12 errors in 406 chances for the ’29 Cubs.

But Wilson’s defensive reputation was forever tarnished on that sunny Saturday afternoon in Philadelphia.

The Athletics finally scored against Cubs starter Charlie Root, who up to that point had only surrendered three hits, when Al Simmons led off the bottom of the seventh with a home run.

Jimmie Foxx followed with an opposite-field single to right and Bing Miller hit a fly ball to center that Wilson lost in the sun. It dropped in for a single. Jimmy Dykes singled in Foxx and Joe Boley singled in Miller to make it 8-3.

Pinch hitter George Burns popped out to short, but an RBI single by Max Bishop cut the Cubs’ once seemingly insurmountable lead in half.

With two runners on base, manager Joe McCarthy called upon veteran left-hander Art Nehf to relieve Root. Up stepped Mule Haas.

Haas hit a looper to shallow center. Wilson started in on it, but suddenly froze. Seemingly blinded by the sun, Wilson ducked away as the ball shot past him and rolled into the deep recesses of center field. By the time right fielder Kiki Cuyler chased the ball down and relayed it to the infield, Haas had circled the bases for a three-run, inside-the-park homer and trimmed the lead to 8-7. A once quiet Shibe Park was up for grabs.

After walking Mickey Cochrane, Nehf was replaced by Sheriff Blake. A Simmons single advanced Cochrane to third and a Foxx safety drove him in with the tying run.

Pat Malone became the fourth Cubs pitcher of the inning, but he hit Haas in the ribs with a pitch to load the bases and surrendered a two-run, go-ahead double to Dykes. The 10-run inning remains a World Series record.

The Cubs lost that game 10-8 and then allowed three runs in the bottom of the ninth to lose Game 5, 3-2, to close out the series.

Wilson, despite hitting .471 in the World Series, was tagged by Cubs fans as the goat and apparently he entered the 1930 season determined to win the Wrigley faithful over.

In 1930, major league owners introduced a livlier baseball in hopes of promoting offense and increasing sagging attendance, Many hitters obliged, but none more impressively than Wilson.

Wilson’s 1930 stat line on http://www.baseball-reference.com is astounding.He hit .356; smashed 56 homers (an NL record that stood for 68 years); had an incredible, major league record 191 RBI; scored 146 runs, collected 423 total bases, and amassed a .723 slugging percentage. He also was credited with 18 sacrifice hits and walked 105 times.

Of Wilson’s 208 hits, 111 were singles, 35 were doubles, and six were triples.

He was a fearsome sight to opposing pitchers and his batting style was described by The Bleacher Report’s Cliff Eastham:

“At the plate he was a sight to see, squat, stumpy, and menacing, with an earnest, clenched-jaw look on the square face. He loved the high fastball and brought the bat around from the right side to meet it with little grace and mighty effort.”

Warren Brown of the Chicago Herald-Examiner called Wilson, “A highball hitter, on and off the field.”

Wilson’s season highlights included:

* On June 23, he hit for the cycle and drove in six runs as the Cubs routed the Phillies 21-8 at Wrigley Field.

* On July 26, he homered three times in the Cubs’ 16-2 victory over host Philadelphia at Baker Bowl.

* On Aug. 10, he had three homers and seven RBI in a doubleheader sweep of the Boston Braves at the Friendly Confines.

* On Aug. 30, Wilson capped a monster 53-RBI month with two homers and six knocked in against St. Louis at Wrigley.

* On Sept. 20, he drove in his 176th run in a 3-2 loss at Boston to break Lou Gehrig’s three-year-old major league record.

Can Wilson’s record be broken?

Bill James thinks it’s possible, but concedes in The New Bill James Historical Abstract (The Free Press, 2001):

“In 1930, most teams had one or two power hitters, surrounded by players who slapped at the ball and tried to get on base. That meant lots of RBI opportunities for the one or two power hitters.

“In modern baseball, everybody tries to hit home runs, spreading the offense top to bottom, but creating no ‘clusters’ of RBI opportunities.”

Wilson’s “clusters” were mostly created by Woody English and Cuyler.

Wilson batted cleanup in all 155 of his games in 1930. English, who batted second 118 times and first on 38 occasions, had a .430 on-base percentage and scored 152 runs. Cuyler, who hit third 133 times, had a .428 OBP and scored 155 runs.

And despite Wilson’s heroics, the Cubs failed to defend their NL title, finishing in second, two games behind the pennant-winning Cardinals.

One more Wilson story.

McCarthy was concerned about his slugger’s drinking habits and summoned him over to a table in the Cubs clubhouse. He placed a glass of water next to a glass of whiskey and dropped a worm into each beverage. The worm in the water bounced around the glass while the worm submerged in whiskey went limp and floated to the top.

“What does this demonstrate, Wilson?” the manager asked.

“That if I drink whiskey, I won’t get worms,” Hack responded.