Posts Tagged 'baseball'

Johnny and Phil

The Cubs have been around, under various names, since 1876.  The White Sox have been with us since 1901.  At some time in our lives, most of us Chicago boys have dreamed of playing with one of the teams.

Of course, few people grow up to be major leaguers.  The Chicagoans who do usually wind up with other ballclubs.  Even those local boys who do make it onto one of the local teams—like Moose Skowron, for instance—often spend part of their careers on the side of an enemy.

With the baseball season underway, let’s look at two players, one from the Sox and one from the Cubs.  Both were natives of Chicago, and both played their entire major league careers in a Chicago uniform.  And both of them were stars.

Johnny Mostil was born in Chicago in 1896.  When he was a boy, his family moved a few miles over the state line to Whiting.  He started playing semi-pro baseball as a teenager.  He was mostly an infielder.
Mostil played 10 games for the Sox during the war-year 1918.  The war ended, the regulars returned, and Johnny went back to working at Montgomery Ward’s and getting in some ball on the side.  Then the “Black Sox” scandal hit.
Suddenly the Sox needed players.  Mostil rejoined the team as an outfielder in 1921, and showed superb defensive skills.  Writers compared him to the legendary Tris Speaker.  Once Centerfielder Mostil managed to catch a fly ball in foul territory, something even Speaker never did.

He became one of the team’s most popular players.  During his rookie year, his former colleagues at Ward’s staged a Johnny Mostil Day at the ballpark.  People in Whiting were proud of him.  Traffic on the South Shore Line spiked whenever Mostil and the Sox were playing at Comiskey.

Mostil twice led the American League in stolen bases.  He could hit, too—his batting average was usually over .300, peaking at .328 in 1926.  That year he was runner-up for the league’s Most Valuable Player award.

The Sox were in spring training at Shreveport in 1927.  On the morning of March 9, Mostil tried to commit suicide by slashing his chest and wrists with a razor.  The team announced he was suffering from neuritis, and had endured constant headaches and sleepless nights.  Insiders whispered that he was depressed over a shattered love affair.

Mostil recovered and came back late in the 1927 season.  But he was never the same player.  The Sox released him in 1929.

He later managed in the minor leagues, and eventually became a White Sox scout.  Johnny Mostil died at his home in Midlothian in 1970.

Phil Cavaretta was born twenty years after Mostil, in 1916.  Unlike Mostil, he made it to the major leagues quickly.  He was only 18, and a few months out of Lane Tech, when the Cubs signed him in 1934.  In his first appearance at Wrigley Field, he hit a home run.

The next season Cavaretta became the Cubs’ regular first baseman.  He developed into a solid left-handed hitter known for his hustling style of play.  Injuries plagued him.  Separate broken ankles kept him out of action for much of two seasons.

Cavaretta was rejected for World War II service because of a hearing problem.  Now in his late 20s, he hit his playing peak.  In 1944 he made the All-Star team for the first time.  The next year was Cavaretta’s year.

In 1945 Cavaretta hit .355 to win the National League batting championship.  He was named the league’s Most Valuable Player, and led his team into the World Series—the last time the Cubs made it that far until last year.  Though the team lost, Phil batted .423 for the seven games.

After the war ended, Cavaretta was named an All-Star twice more, showing he was more than a wartime flash.  Meanwhile, the Cubs were going into a long decline.  In 1951, Cubs’ owner P.K. Wrigley made his most popular player the team’s manager.

Cavaretta continued to play part-time.  His record as a manager was mixed.  Just before the start of the 1954 season, Wrigley fired him.  Always honest, Cavaretta had told his boss that the team had no hope of making the first division.

After 20 years with the Cubs, Cavaretta now signed with the White Sox as a first baseman and pinch-hitter.  He got into 71 games and hit .316.  That proved to be his last hurrah.  The Sox released him early in the 1955 season.

Phil Cavaretta stayed in baseball another two decades, managing in the minor leagues, working as a hitting coach, and doing some scouting.  He died in 2010 at the age of 94.  At the time of his death he was the last major leaguer to have played against Babe Ruth.




Chicago’s Forgotten Baseball Team

In the early twentieth century, America’s cities were growing. Baseball was popular.  The country already had the National and American Leagues.  Surely there was room for a third major league.

In 1913 a group of entrepreneurs organized the Federal League. At first the new league did nothing to challenge the NL/AL monopoly.  The Chicago team, known as the Chifeds, was headed by local businessman James A. Gilmore, and played its games at the De Paul University baseball diamond.  Operating on a tight budget, the Federal League got through the 1913 season.

James A. Gilmore and Charles Weeghman

Now the league began to attract some deep-pocket investors. For 1914 the Feds declared themselves a full-fledged major league.  They immediately began trying to sign players away from the two established majors.  Gilmore was named the new league president.  That opened the door for Charles Weeghman.

Weeghman had made his money running a string of low-cost lunch counters around Chicago. A few years earlier he’d been rebuffed in a bid to buy the St. Louis Cardinals.  Now he took over the Chicago Federal League franchise and immediately started operating.

“Going Major” meant the Chifeds needed a better ballpark. With the White Sox playing on the South Side and the Cubs on the West Side, Weeghman staked out territory on the North Side.  In December 1913 he secured a 99-year lease on a parcel of land at Clark and Addison Streets.  He hired Zachary Taylor Davis, architect of Comiskey Park, to design the new Weeghman Field.  Work immediately began erecting the steel-and-concrete stadium.

1914 Chifeds

That same month Weeghman pulled off a coup by signing Joe Tinker as the Chifeds manager and shortstop. The onetime Cubs’ star was the first “name” player to throw his lot with the new circuit.  Tinker’s signing gave notice that the Feds meant business.  Over that winter a bidding war broke out as the Feds tried to entice more players away from the two established majors.

The Chifeds opened their new stadium on April 24, 1914. A capacity crowd of over 18,000 people was on hand.  Bands played, school children marched, and the ladies’ auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic displayed a giant American flag.  The home team capped the day with a 9-1 victory over the Kansas City Packers.

“Baseball Magazine” April 1915

Throughout the season, the Feds battled the NL/AL monopoly in the courts. On the field the new league held its own.  In Chicago and in other cities where they faced off against the older leagues, the Feds cut heavily into ballpark patronage.  Federal League owners said they were willing to put up with a few seasons of red ink.  They were playing a long game.

And in Chicago, the Cubs and Sox were having mediocre seasons. Meanwhile, the Chifeds were battling for the league pennant.  The 1914 season ended the team with the team in second place, only one game behind the champion Indianapolis Hoosiers.  Pitcher Claude Hendrix led the league with 29 wins.

For 1915 the Chifeds were given a new name, the Chicago Whales. But the big news came when the team announced it had signed the great Walter Johnson away from the Washington Senators.  Alarmed that baseball’s best pitcher would be drawing more fans away from his team, Sox owner Charles Comiskey quietly paid Johnson $10,000 to stay in Washington.

The renamed Whales opened their season before another capacity crowd on April 10. Newly-elected mayor William Hale Thompson threw out the ceremonial first ball.  Once again, the team was in the thick of the pennant race.  But now some of the Federal League owners were growing tired of the baseball war.  Peace talks began with the two established leagues.

Big Bill Thompson at the 1915 Whales opener

The 1915 Federal League pennant race turned out to be one of the closest in all major league history. The Whales squeezed out the championship over St. Louis and Pittsburgh.  Spitball ace Slats McConnell topped the league’s pitchers with 25 victories.

That December the Feds signed a peace treaty with the two older major leagues. The Federal League was dissolved.  Weeghman bought a controlling interest in the Cubs, bringing with him Tinker, McConnell, Hendrix, and the best Whales players.  He also moved the Cubs to the ballpark at Clark and Addison, where they remain to this day.


Almost Perfect (6-27-1958)

Back in the 1950s, the era of the Go-Go White Sox, Billy Pierce was arguably the best left-handed pitcher in the American League. Whitey Ford got the most publicity because he was a Yankee. But whenever the two aces went head-to-head, Pierce usually came out on top.

Besides, in the 1955 season, Pierce posted an ERA of 1.97. That was remarkable for such a high-scoring era.

Billy Pierce

Pierce was a power pitcher, always among the leaders in strikeouts. That was also remarkable, since he wasn’t a big man. His full overhand delivery was the likely explanation.

On the evening of June 27, 1958, Pierce took the mound at Comiskey Park. The Sox were playing the last-place Washington Senators. About 11,000 people were at the park. I was ten years old and listening on the radio, trusting I could stay awake despite Bob Elson’s droning play-by-play.

The Sox scored a run in the third, and added 2 more in the eighth. Meanwhile, Pierce was shutting down the opposition. Going into the ninth inning, he had retired the first 24 Senators in a row.

Pierce quickly disposed of Ken Aspromonte and Steve Korcheck. With the pitcher due up next, the Senators sent in a right-handed pinch-hitter.

Ed FitzGerald

Ed FitzGerald was an eleven-year veteran. The Senators’ roster listed him as a catcher, but at this stage of his career, he was mostly a pinch-hitter. He was good at it, too, batting better than .350 as a sub in 1958.

The book said FitzGerald was a first pitch, fastball hitter. Pierce wound up and threw a low curve. FitzGerald swung, slicing the ball down the right field line. It landed fair by a foot.

As FitzGerald chugged into second, the park erupted in boos. At home I vented my disappointment by shouting a bad word at the radio. I don’t recall what Bob Elson said.

The perfect game was gone. So was the no-hitter.  Then Pierce struck out Albie Pearson on three pitches to end the game. Afterward the police escorted FitzGerald from the park.

In 2014 Billy Pierce was honored at Sox Park for his charitable work. He died in 2015.

Ed FitzGerald celebrated a birthday last month. He is now 93. He has not been seen in Chicago for some time.



Bleacher Bums (5-24-1920)

Forty-seven people were arrested today in the year’s biggest gambling raid.  The location was the bleachers at Cubs’ Park.

Club officials had been aware of the problem for some time.  The gamblers had staked out their own section of the stands.  Anybody in the park who wanted to place a bet knew exactly where to go.

So today undercover cops infiltrated the open-air casino.  They wore various disguises—“teamsters, sailors, soldiers, ice wagon drivers, sewing machine agents, bootblacks, farmers.”  They ate peanuts and drank pop like ordinary fans.  They watched the gamblers operate.

The Cubs were playing the Phillies.  Betting started as soon as the umpires announced the batteries.  Once the gamblers knew who was pitching, they could calculate the odds and accept wagers on the outcome of the game.

When play got underway, the action in the bleachers was even more intense.  Now there was betting on each pitch.

“Ten cents says he swings!”

“A dollar the pitcher changes his windup on the next one!”

“Two bits they send in a pinch-hitter the next time around!”

“Who wants ten dollars on the runner?  Ten dollars says he streaks down to second!”

At the end of the first inning, the undercover cops all stood up.  In one voice, they announced: “You’re all under arrest!”


The gamblers went meekly.  One of them tried the sympathy angle.  “Do you want to break up a home?” he pleaded to the nearest officer.  “My wife will get a divorce if she finds out about this.”

The cop was unmoved.  “Six bits says she finds out,” was his answer.

At the Town Hall Station, the 47 gamblers were charged.  They were each released on $25 bond.  Four of them didn’t have enough money.  They’d have to spend the night in jail, and probably lose their night-shift jobs.

Then one of the other accused stepped forward and posted their bond.  He didn’t know any of the four, but that made no difference.  “I have faith in human nature,” the Good Samaritan said.  “I’m betting they show up in court.”

What happened next?  The papers lost interest in the story, and nothing more was reported.  The final decisions are buried somewhere in a set of musty court files.

Cubs’ Park is now called Wrigley Field.  Is there still gambling in the bleachers?

Wanna make a bet on it?


New Uniforms for the Cubs

Now that we’ve had a while to digest the Cubs’ World Series triumph, we’ll consider what the team should do next season. I suggest they change uniforms.  To understand why, let’s take a look at some baseball history.

We sometimes hear talk that sports has become too ego-driven and rude—sort of like the general culture.  Back in the good old days, winners were polite.  They did not do victory dances or fist pumps, or otherwise rub their superiority in the face of the losers.  If you happened to come out on top, you acknowledged it with quiet grace.

Well, not always.

The first World Series was played in 1903. The next year, the New York Giants won the National League pennant, then refused to play the American League champions—Giants’ manager John McGraw was feuding with the A.L. president.  There was no formal agreement mandating a World Series, so that was that.

1906 Giants--Turkey Mike Donlin

1906 Giants–Turkey Mike Donlin

Then baseball’s club owners belatedly realized that an annual championship playoff would be a great source of revenue. Beginning in 1905, the World Series became part of the game’s law.

As luck would have it, the New York Giants again won the N.L. pennant in 1905. Now they were required to face the A.L. champs.  The Giants made quick work of the Philadelphia A’s, winning the best-of-seven series, 4 games to 1.

The victory over the A.L. didn’t mellow Giants manager McGraw. He couldn’t resist the opportunity to gloat.  So for the 1906 season, the Giants wore uniforms with the words “WORLD’S CHAMPIONS” emblazoned across the chest.

The Giants tumbled to second place in the N.L. in 1906, so for the next several seasons, the World Series winners settled for rings and gold watches, and didn’t use their uniforms to boast of their achievement. Then, in 1920, the Cleveland Indians beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in the Series.

1921 Indians--Smoky Joe Wood

1921 Indians–Smoky Joe Wood

Baseball was in the middle of scandal. The news had just come out that a group of Chicago White Sox players had been paid off by gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series.  The public was questioning the integrity of its national pastime.

In any event, the newly-crowned Cleveland Indians opted to follow the Giant’s dormant example. For 1921 the Indians wore uniforms proclaiming “WORLDS CHAMPIONS.”  Perhaps they thought leaving out the apostrophe would guarantee they’d repeat.  But like the 1906 Giants, the 1921 Indians came in second.

Now we move forward to 1926. The St. Louis Cardinals had been the N.L.’s lovable losers, never winning a pennant.  This year they did it, and capped it off by knocking off the Yankees in a thrilling seven-game series.

1927 Cardinals--Grover Cleveland Alexander

1927 Cardinals–G.C. Alexander

Over the winter, Cardinals manager Rogers Hornsby got into a contract dispute with the front office.  Hornsby was also their star player, and wanted more money.  The upshot was that the Hero of ’26 was traded to the Giants.

“The team is bigger than one man!” argued management. So to underscore the point that they didn’t need Hornsby—and to underline the fact that St. Louis finally had a winner—they outfitted the 1927 Cardinals with “WORLD CHAMPION” uniforms.  Perhaps learning a lesson in discretion, the words were relegated to smaller print on the left breast, encircling a Cardinal logo.

It didn’t matter. In 1927, the Cardinals finished second.

After the fall of the Cardinals, World Series winners were reluctant to boast about it on their uniforms. However, in 1980 the Philadelphia Phillies went all the way.  They were the last of the original 16 franchises to win the grand championship.

1981 Phillies--Pete Rose

1981 Phillies–Pete Rose

Phillies fans had endured 77 years of frustration (which may seem like a short time to Cubs fans, but never mind).  Now team management wanted to do something special to commemorate the occasion, but they didn’t want to go overboard.  So for 1981, the Phillies wore the same style uniforms as they had worn in 1980.  However, the team’s warm-up jackets now sported the words “WORLD CHAMPIONS.”

The 1981 baseball seasons was thrown into disarray by a players’ strike. Suffice to say that the Phillies didn’t make it back to the World Series.

Now for the big question—what do the 2017 Cubs do? I say that they show their pride in their accomplishment.  The team should be outfitted in new uniforms with the words “WORLD CHAMPION CHICAGO CUBS” across the front.  So what if it didn’t work for other teams in the past!

After all, do we really believe in jinxes?



Come Back, Steve Bartman—All Is Forgiven!

The Cubs are going to the World Series for the first time in 71 years.  I think it would be a nice gesture to call Steve Bartman out of hiding to throw out the first ball at the first home game.  Just because the Cubs haven’t actually won the World Series in 108 years doesn’t mean we believe in jinxes.

I’ve already told my Ernie Banks story here.  I also have a Cubs World Series story.

In 1984 the Cubs won the National League Eastern Division title, finally avenging the Great Collapse of 1969.  Of course, they’d have to get by the San Diego Padres in the playoffs, but everyone knew that was a mere formality.


Anyway, as soon as the Cubs had clinched the division, they put World Series tickets on sale.  For us everyday fans who didn’t have connections, there was a lottery.  You mailed in your name and address on a postcard, and then there would be a drawing.  If your card was drawn, you could buy two tickets.  Only one postcard per household was allowed.

I figured that getting my card drawn was a longshot.  I also figured that if they did happen to draw one of my cards, they’d probably draw a second one, and I’d be disqualified.  So I played by the rules and only sent in one card.  But I did have my mother send in a card.

My card wasn’t drawn.  My mother’s was.

Now it was a question of claiming the two World Series tickets.  The rules said that the lucky winner had to pick up the tickets in person, showing an I.D.  My mother wasn’t a baseball fan, and didn’t care about going to the Series.  The problem was, she’d just broken her foot and had it in a cast.


So I drove her out to Wrigley one day.  A nice cop let me wait on Clark Street while she hobbled into the ticket line on her crutches.  While she was waiting, a Tribune photographer spotted her, and thought that a 63-year-old temporarily-disabled woman who’d stand in an hour-long line on her crutches was a great story, and wanted to take her picture.  Mom refused; she hadn’t put on her makeup.

Of course, I never did get to use those World Series tickets.  My daughter Tracy Samantha was just four months old when these events transpired.  Last night she was really excited about the Cubs making it to the Series, and maybe she’ll be able to score a ticket.

As for me, I just realized that I’m already older than my Mom was when she braved that ticket line.  So I think I’ll stick to listening to the Series on the radio, and not even try to get into Wrigley for one of the games.

After all, I don’t want to somehow jinx the team.



The Waitkus Tragedy (6-14-1949)

Unlike some other baseball players, Eddie Waitkus did not have a reputation as a horndog.  That made the event doubly tragic.

After returning from World War II in 1946, Waitkus became the Cubs’ regular first baseman.  He was a fine defensive player and a solid line-drive hitter.  In 1948 he played in the All-Star game.

Waitkus was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies after the 1948 season.  In June 1949 he returned to Chicago with his new team.  While in town, the Phillies stayed at the Edgewater Beach Hotel on Sheridan Road.

About 11 p.m. on June 14, a hotel bellboy gave Waitkus a note from a Ruth Anne Burns, asking to see him about something “extremely important.”  Waitkus phoned her room.  After talking briefly with the woman on the phone, he went up to meet her.

At Room 1227A, a tall young woman invited him in.  With little preliminary, she produced a rifle and pointed it at Waitkus.  “For two years you’ve bothered me,” she said.  “Now you’re going to die.”

The woman shot Waitkus in the chest.  He collapsed in a pool of blood, muttering over and over, “Baby, why did you do that?”

A doctor and a house detective came rushing down the hall.  The woman told them, “I’ve shot Eddie Waitkus.”  An ambulance was called, and Waitkus was taken to the hospital.  The woman was placed under arrest.Steinhagen

Her name was Ruth Anne Steinhagen.  She was 19 years old and worked as a typist.  She had become obsessed with Waitkus when he’d played for the Cubs, though she had never met him.

“I had to kill him,” she told the police.  “I thought it would get rid of the tension.”

Waitkus nearly died on the operating table.  The bullet was finally removed.  By August he was back in uniform and finished the season.

Ruth Anne Steinhagen was found to be legally insane.  She was committed to a mental institution.  After receiving shock treatments, Steinhagen was declared sane and released in 1952.  She lived the rest of her life under an assumed name, dying in 2012.

The shooting changed Waitkus.  He became moody and suspicious, and was treated for alcoholism.  Today we’d say he suffered from post traumatic stress syndrome.  Eddie Waitkus died in 1972, at the age of 53.

In 1952, Bernard Malamud wrote a novel called The Natural, based on the Waitkus shooting.  A version of the book was later made into a movie.