The Baseball Chronicle

Personal stories, August 2009

50 Years a Cubs Fan, Part Three

By Al Ottens

(Continued from Part Two)

The pitching matchup heavily favored the Giants. Jack Sanford was their starter, an established right-hander who had recently led the league in strikeouts while with the Phillies. He was a churlish competitor, held in utter contempt by Cubs fans. That contempt was well-earned because of the sheer delight Sanford took in pelting Ernie Banks with fastballs. Yes, Ernie Banks! Mr. Cub, the Bard of the Friendly Confines. Sanford drilled Banks more frequently than the rest of the league’s pitchers combined. The Cubs countered with southpaw Art Ceccarelli, a journeyman who had been let go by four previous organizations. His 1959 Topps baseball card shows him in a quarter-length portrait with a thin smile and thick jaw. A little cartoon on the reverse says, “Art was football, basketball and baseball star in high school.” Even as a twelve-year-old, I was savvy enough to know that Topps was damning him with faint praise.

While Ed was agitating himself about how our seats qualified as boxes, the Giants came right out of the chute against Ceccarelli. A walk, triple, and two-run homer by Willie Mays had the Giants up by three before an out was registered. A wobbly Ceccarelli—if a prizefighter, he would have been given a standing eight-count—settled down and retired the next three batters. It wasn’t looking good for the Cubs, who, I figured, were in for one of their patented “long days.”

But I was too quick to write them off and instead I learned a lot about Cubs fans’ confidence in reversal of fortune. In their half of the first, Cubs leadoff man Tony Taylor drew a walk, and George Altman followed with a homer. While working to the very next batter, the nasty Sanford was tossed for arguing balls and strikes with home plate ump Hal Dixon. If you’re a Cubs fan, there’s your silver lining! Giants manager Bill Rigney summoned Gordon Jones from the bullpen, and he had to be given time to warm up.

Ceccarelli surrendered a run-scoring double in the top of the second. The Cubs quickly tied it up with another two-run blast by Altman. How about that?! Eight runs combined in two innings! Balls were flying inside and out of Wrigley. I was paying attention. Just as quickly, the Giants came roaring back. A walk, an error and a home run put the Giants up 7-4. Ceccarelli was yanked and replaced by a promising young right-hander, Johnny Buzhardt. In a few months Buzhardt would be traded to the Phillies for 33-year-old outfielder Richie Ashburn. The pattern that galled Ed for decades appeared to keep repeating as another Cubs prospect got exchanged for a high-mileage veteran.

Despite KO-ing Ceccarelli, the Giants could not gain any traction. In the bottom of the third, pinch hitter Dale Long clubbed a two-run homer off the Giants’ next reliever, Eddie Fisher. That left the Cubs trailing 7-6. Ed, an old-school baseball purist, must have been mortified by the offensive excess. I was pumped by the carnage that each team was inflicting on the other. With five homers already and an ejection, there’d been enough action for a full nine-inning game.

In the bottom of the fourth, the Cubs began to assert their dominance. They used some “small ball” tactics—singles, walks and ground outs—to push across four runs against Fisher and his replacement, the junkballing Stu Miller. The key hit of the inning, and maybe the whole game, was a two-run pinch single by the well-traveled and long-forgotten utilityman, Art Schult.

With a 10-7 lead and sensing a possible victory, Cubs manager Bob Scheffing pulled out all the stops and brought in his ace relief pitcher, Don Elston. On this day he would turn in one of the gutsiest performances of his career, holding the potent Giants at bay for five innings. Elston became one of my all-time favorite Cubs pitchers. He was a fearless competitor, a rare beacon of talent on the woeful Cubs teams of the late ’50s and early ’60s. In my mind’s eye I can still see Elston’s delivery, which he punctuated with a quirky little dip of the head just as he released a pitch.

Elston provided some instant stability by retiring the Giants in order in the top of the fifth. As the first half of the game drew to a close and the grounds crew dragged the pockmarked infield, Ed allowed that it was time for some refreshment.

Ed waved to a beer vendor below us who was occupied with a brace of fans. As he nodded back to Ed, he one-handedly poured two beers simultaneously into paper cups without spilling a drop—a pretty deft feat. Between pitches, I had been studying the multitude of vendors working the miles of Wrigley Field aisles. I discerned a pecking order or status hierarchy among them that appeared to depend on the item they hawked. Beer vendors were at the top. No doubt the main reason was that beer sales yielded the best profit. Each beer vendor had a thick bundle of lengthwise-folded bills curled around his left index finger. But to make the grade as a beer vendor, one not only needed good eye-hand coordination but personality and stamina as well.

The Wrigley beer vendor was on stage. He projected a singular, confident persona and perfected a signature “voice.” It might be a sharply barked, “Beer here!” Or the old standby, “Icecoldbeer!” shouted as if it were a single three-syllable word. Or the alliterative, “Hey, how ‘bout a Hamm’s?” followed by rhythmical rapping of bottle opener against metal case—and if the fans were in a spending mood, even a cha-cha wiggle. Beer vendors had to be in shape, too. Humping metal cases of fifty bottles up and down the stands for three hours left them sweating like blacksmiths. As Ed’s vendor poured him a bottle of Old Style, I was expecting a trickle of his perspiration to drip into the cup.

Ed’s 35-cent Old Style didn’t last long. Like the ways he ate and talked and dressed, Ed drank like a person from a different era, when beer wasn’t meant to be sipped and savored, but guzzled to quench thirst. Wiping his mouth, he declared it, “Good to the last Schluck.”

A 15-cent Coke was my route to rehydration. But this carbonation-depleted, watered-down soft drink’s vague Coke-ish flavor was overpowered by a distinct metallic aftertaste. Definitely no good. I needed a sly disposal method to keep Ed from getting worked up, so I excused myself for the men’s room. While pouring it into the communal urinal, I wondered if there might be something to Ed’s claim that P. K. Wrigley clipped the fans.

Although the Cubs failed to score in the bottom of the fifth, this inning produced one of the more controversial plays in Wrigley Field history. It involved Cubs leadoff man Tony Taylor, who was on third base with two out when an unusual combination of elements came into alignment. My recollection of the play is as follows:

The Cubs batter hit an infield pop-up that drifted barely foul by the third base bag. Jim Davenport, Giants third baseman, moved into position to catch it. However, Taylor was becoming an obstacle. He was astride the third base line with his left foot on the edge of the bag and right foot planted about a yard down the chalk line. Taylor refused to budge, no doubt reasoning, “Why should I? If I’m touching the bag, I’m entitled to space around it.” Davenport forced the issue by trying to climb over Taylor to make the catch. The pop-up dropped untouched into foul territory. Umpire Frank Secory saw nothing irregular in what just transpired in front of him, and he signaled for play to resume.

Bill Rigney, on the other hand, saw plenty that rubbed him the wrong way. He was out of the Giants’ dugout and on Secory in a flash. I was thrilled to see the beginning of what loomed as a sizzling confrontation. The essence of Rigney’s argument was that Taylor should have been called out for interference because he made no effort to yield the expanse of ground he occupied along the third base line. Secory and the rest of the umpiring crew remained unmoved by the rationale behind Rigney’s line of reasoning, forcing him to resort to even more emphatic gesticulations and loutish finger-pointing. As the rhubarb escalated and droned on, it began to wear on Ed, who was hoping for someone to “put an end to all this foolishness.” What I really, really hoped for was some Cubs bench-jockeys to taunt Rigney so that a bench-clearing brawl would result. Like the titanic battle two years before at Comiskey between the White Sox and the Yankees, when Walt Dropo of the Sox almost annihilated old Enos “Country” Slaughter. I remembered the Tribune’s photo of Slaughter walking off the field with his uniform in shreds. No such luck today with a brawl. The end result of all the time spent and emotions expressed was that Rigney officially protested the outcome of the game.

Elston’s rhythm must have been disrupted by the long delay, because he got into trouble quickly in the top of the 6th and came within a whisker of a fatal meltdown. He yielded three hits—a homer included—and a walk, but the Giants managed only two runs. That left the Cubs hanging onto a precarious 10-9 lead and fans wondering how the Cubs would ultimately blow it. Yet, it also had the cadence of a game in which both teams brutalize each other and limp off in a 16-16 tie due to darkness. But before the fans can get too pessimistic, the Cubbies bounced back with two runs in their half of the 6th to go ahead 12-9. Elston contributed to this mini-rally with a single.

A revitalized Elston dispatched the Giants in a scoreless top of the 7th. Time for the seventh-inning stretch! No singing of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during this baseball era. We had a different tradition, owing to the fact that all Cubs home games were telecast locally. The WGN-TV cameramen always panned the crowd for about thirty seconds before cutting away for commercials. This meant there would be about a 1% chance of my mug getting beamed home. Just in case it did and my mother was watching, I felt compelled to make myself camera-conspicuous. I launched into a dizzyingly fast execution of full-arcing arm flaps like I was flagging down an ocean liner, accompanied by a series of eye-rolls, ear waggles, and teeth-baring facial contortions. A routine I thought uproariously funny, yet not too unbecoming a youth who would be starting catechism instruction in a month.

The Giants, who were still very much in the game, chose left-hander Mike McCormick to hold down the Cubs. McCormick was a 20-year-old precocity and Cy Young winner-in-waiting. Against McCormick, the Cubs struck like a nest of aggravated timber rattlers. Ernie Banks led off with a double and was chased home by Earl Averill’s single, making it 13-9. Irv Noren and Bobby Thomson followed with a walk and a single respectively, loading the bases for the 37-year-old veteran Al Dark. Dark, an ex-Giant, was a shortstop in his heyday, but age had severely limited his range, and the Cubs used him only at third. Despite playing a position where offensive production is expected, there wasn’t much thunder left in his bat. But on this day, my Cubs Inauguration Day, against the young and talented McCormick, Dark connected.

That precise instant of bat/ball contact is forever frozen in my personal time, memorializing the moment when the Cubs became my team, when loyalty trumped expediency, when soul triumphed over superficiality, and surmounting tribulation proved a higher virtue than celebrating success. Everyone experiences and can exactly recall a split second in life when a significant transformation occurred, when one’s future detached irretrievably from one’s past, when one underwent a profound qualitative shift in how the world is perceived. So can I point to this pitch, this at-bat, and its result as the instant I embraced the Cubs. And that’s what has made all the difference.

The ball was lifted a far piece into left field, carrying over the ivy and into the bleachers. For a grand slam home run! Cubs on top 17-9! The fans leaped to their feet. I started arm-flapping and hooting. Ed seemed genuinely nonplussed. What with all the day’s heat and noise, the Cubs’ long-ball production and foul Coke, I was emotionally spent and a bit woozy. And there were still two innings to go. I hardly had time to digest Dark’s slam, when a batter later Tony Taylor smacked a solo homer for Cubs run number 18.

While Elston had the Giants in a choke-hold, the Cubs performed the coup-de-grace in the bottom of the 8th. Triples by Noren and scrappy Tony Taylor led to two more runs. The final tally had the Cubs bludgeoning the Giants 20-9. I had been treated to a baseball extravaganza. The Cubs looked like a team I could root for. What more could I ask of a team than to score twenty runs during my first game? As a kid who grew up on the contrived competition of Mickey Mantle vs. Rocky Colavito on Home Run Derby, my conception of what made a baseball game “good” was skewed toward ostentatious offensive production. The Yankees scored runs in abundance—that had attracted me to them—but I saw that a team in my own Chicago backyard could do the same. It was easier now to let go of my kindergarten infatuation for the Yankees.

“Wow,” I said to Ed as the last out was made, “did you ever see a game like this?” My question didn’t seem to register with him. Instead, he pointed to the clock atop the scoreboard. He had a look on his face like one of his library books had lapsed overdue. I instantly caught his drift. The length of the game meant that we’d be late getting an early start home.

The combined offensive tonnage generated by the combatants—fifteen singles, four doubles, four triples, eight home runs and nineteen walks, plus an ejection and protest—had pushed the game almost to the four-hour mark. Three hours and fifty minutes officially, making it, up to that time, the longest nine-inning game in National League history. Considering that fifty years ago an average game lasted a smidgen over two hours, it meant that Ed and I were expected home at any moment. We were going to be late. So late that there would be a lot of catastrophic “what iffing” going on.

We weren’t helped by how long it takes for the fans to disgorge themselves from the park. Our path to the Addison Street El station was impeded by a mass of humanity that struggled to move forward. On our left, Wrigley Field butts very close against Addison, leaving only a few feet of sidewalk; and hemming us in on our right was a train of CTA buses, parked along the curb, belching thick hot diesel exhaust. We were stuck in between. I thought we’d be asphyxiated, and I was surprised no one passed out.

The return trip was total commotion. The El cars, already crowded with fans, soon became packed by a steadily growing influx of commuters. I was anxious to get home and regale my neighborhood buddies about my day at Wrigley. I spent most of the ride rehearsing to myself what I’d tell them about the homers and the Cubs’ come-from-behind perseverance. My reverie was interrupted now and then by a hard jostle from an exiting passenger, which made me call to mind Ed’s warnings about pickpockets.

Toward 7 p.m. we made our weary way through the front door. Our late arrival had disrupted family routine. “Where have you been?” my mother asked in a tone that suggested Ed and I had had a brush with calamity. “I couldn’t hold dinner any longer!” I ducked her question to get to the point.

“Did you see me during the seventh-inning stretch?” I said.

“When I tuned in, it was only the fourth inning. Then I was busy with other things and never got back to it,” she said. So my act went for naught.

As I ate some reheated pot roast and mashed potatoes, Ed was explaining to my father how the Wrigley Field box office stuck us in the grandstand but charged us for box seats. August 13, 1959 was just about to be called on account of darkness when I found a clutch of neighborhood friends lounging under the street light at the corner. Although word had already spread amongst them about the big Cubs win, I launched into my prepared description of the details. One pal, Jimmy Murray, the biggest White Sox fan on the next block, wasn’t much impressed. “I’m glad I wasn’t at that game. When the protest gets upheld, they’ll have to restart the game from that point. The grand slam and everything’ll be wiped out.” Obvious sour grapes criticism, but he caught me flat—I hadn’t practiced a rejoinder for such a challenge.

But not even Jimmy Murray could spoil the day’s thrills or dampen my new-found appreciation for Chicago’s other major league team. Before turning in, I spread out all my baseball cards on the bed and began combing through them. A southeast summer breeze was blowing through the window, enveloping me in the musky aroma of the Stockyards. Today the Cubs treated me right. I couldn’t have asked for a more rollicking ball game. So I decided to return the favor in a symbolic way. I selected out all the cards of any player connected to the Cubs—the legends, near-legends and unknowns—and gave them their own special rubber band-bound stack as the centerpiece of my collection. Thank you, Don Elston, for your warrior presence in the late innings; thank you, Warren Hacker, even if you did serve up more than your share of gopher balls; thank you, Ernie Banks, for hanging in there against villains like Jack Sanford; thank you, Hank Sauer, for painfully plodding after outfield-gappers. Thanks to the whole bunch of you. And thanks, too, to my grandfather Ed, for showing me how old-timers expressed love for the game.

About the author

Al Ottens is a retired professor of counseling from Northern Illinois University. His grandfather, Ed, was one of the last persons who could claim to have been born in the Territory of Idaho.

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