Just about the most cheerful band of traveling men in the country this week are the Chicago Cubs, a group of stalwart young athletes prowling through the ball parks of the eastern countryside under the amiable direction of smiling Stanley Hack (left). The Cubs were picked to go no place this year in the National League pennant race, certainly no higher than seventh. The Las Vegas gamblers, as conservative as such businessmen usually are, rated them no better than an 80-to-1 shot to finish on top. But last weekend, toting their trunks out of the Polo Grounds after a rousing series with the world champion New York Giants, the Cubs were a good deal closer to the runaway Brooklyn Dodgers than anybody else in the league.
Despite this the Cubs this season are in the curious position of the boy who cried wolf. Each year, it seems, the Cubs start off the season smartly, winning more games than anyone expects them to and racing past Memorial Day into June looking like a topflight baseball team. "Those Cubs are hot," the cry goes up. To other clubs, fighting for the pennant and worried by any challenge, it always sounds a little like "Wolf!" This year, with the Cubs solidly in second place as the National League pennant race passed Memorial Day, the Cubs are hot again.
But for years now, despite the warnings, there has never been a wolf. As one report from cynical Chicago puts it: "For the Cubs, June rhymes with swoon." Each season, just as the other teams begin to take notice of them, the Cubs have faded and died. They make threatening gestures toward the first division before Memorial Day only to stumble in June and quietly plummet, like lead in a shot tower, deep into the second division. Last season, for example, the Cubs were only 4½ games out of first place on Memorial Day. At the end of June they were 21½ games out. At the end of the season they were 33 games out. They have finished higher than seventh only once in the last seven years. They have not finished in the first division since 1946.
So it is little wonder that last week when June rolled around with the Cubs in second place, they were looked upon with a certain amount of reserve, if not suspicion.
No one dared to come right out and call the Cubs terrific, a real first-division team. They'd been fooled too many times before.
But neither did anyone want to say that the Cubs were nothing, that this was their annual spring efflorescence and that they were about to fold up on schedule. For, truth to tell, the Cubs looked pretty good.
As they invaded the East to open a June road trip in Philadelphia, they had won 15 of 18 games. They had had no long winning streak but a series of short ones, the mark of a good, steady team. They won four, lost one, won four again, lost another, won three, lost one, won four. They won games with brilliant pitching (Sam Jones had a no-hitter, Warren Hacker a one-hitter), superb fielding and timely, if sparse, hitting. The Cubs have the worst batting average in the league but they have hit more home runs than any team except the rampaging Dodgers. More than that, they have won games dramatically, melodramatically, outrageously.
The lead in the melodrama has been played by a lean young man named Bob Speake, who hit all of .264 for Des Moines last year and who had been to bat only eight times for the Cubs prior to May 2. Then veteran Outfielder Hank Sauer ate tainted shrimp and became ill with food poisoning. Speake, a first baseman by trade, was pressed into service as an outfielder and promptly caught fire. He hit a three-run triple against the Giants, a two-run homer to beat the Reds, a two-run homer to beat the Phils, a tenth-inning two-run homer to beat the Braves. He hit a home run to beat the Cardinals 1-0 in the first game of a double-header on May 25 and a run-producing double that provided the margin of victory in the second game. He hit a two-run homer in a 3-0 game against the Cards the next day. On Memorial Day he hit a two-run home run and batted in four runs as the Cubs beat the Cardinals 9-5 in the first game and won the second game with a home run in the eleventh inning. It was a very merry month of May for young Mr. Speake.
Despite all this Speake was not universally regarded as the prime reason for the Cubs' success.
"They got the most powerful pitching in the league," a New York Giant said. "I don't mean they have the best pitching. They don't. They don't have enough pitchers. But the pitchers they got are power pitchers. They throw hard. They blow the ball past you. They're not spring flowers. This big guy Bob Rush kills us. And that guy Hacker is murder in a tough game. And that Jones, he looks like the real thing: a real fast ball, a real good curve. Only thing that hurts him is control trouble. When he's over the plate you can't hit him. Then Jeffcoat comes in in the late innings and throws that sinker and nobody's going to hurt him. That's good pitching. The Cubs are all right."
Stan Hack agreed that the pitching was very important and agreed further that Shortstop Ernie Banks and Second Baseman Gene Baker, in their second full season, were just about the best double-play combination in the league. But he picked out something else as the main reason for success.
"The outfield has made the difference," says Hack. "Balls that went through for extra bases last year [when the Cubs had a heavy-footed, slow-moving outfield of Ralph Kiner in left, Frank Baumholtz in center and Sauer in right] are being caught. These young fellows we have are doing a wonderful job. King and Speake and Tappe and Bolger. But the nearest thing to a key man on this team, if there is such a thing, is Eddie Miksis."
Miksis? Miksis is a journeyman infielder who came up with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1944, was traded to the Cubs in 1951 and seemed doomed to spend his entire major league career as a utility man. A front office Brooklyn Dodger noted that the Cubs were playing Miksis in the outfield. "If they're playing Eddie out there," he said, "they're hurting."
"That's not so," says Hack. "He's been a tremendous outfielder for us. He's made some great catches. He comes in on ground balls better than anyone else in the league."
Earl Torgeson, the Philadelphia Phils first baseman, agrees with Hack on Miksis. "He's made plays I haven't seen anyone else make. He makes their outfield. And with Banks and Baker at short and second, they've got wonderful defense through the middle."
Nevertheless, against Philadelphia the Cubs had trouble. Jones lost a two-hitter to Robin Roberts on his own careless fielding. The Phils blasted Warren Hacker, took an 8-0 lead and held off a Cub rally to win 8-4.
The implication was plain. It was June. The Cubs had lost two straight. They were folding up. They held second place by only 2½ games and a four-game series was coming up against the third-place New York Giants. But on Friday night in the Polo Grounds, Bob Rush killed the Giants, 4-1. Miksis, Speake and Gene Baker hit home runs. On Saturday the Giants struck back, routed Starting Pitcher Howie Pollet and had a 7-2 lead going into the seventh inning. Then Jim King beefed a three-run homer into right to bring the score to 7-5. In the eighth Miksis tied the score with a two-run homer to left. Hal Jeffcoat came in and protected the . tie, fighting the Giants down through four precarious innings. In the eleventh, with rain falling, Ernie Banks punched a single into left that scored two runs and gave the Cubs an exhilarating uphill victory. They were sure of a split in the four-games series, sure of going out of the Polo Grounds in second place. In the clubhouse after the game Third Baseman Randy Jackson said with quiet pride, "We sure fought the hell out of them, didn't we?"
The next day, Sunday, Sal Maglie stopped the Cubs 3-2 in the first game of a double-header, and Jim Hearn had them down 1-0 with two outs in the ninth inning of the second game. But Banks singled, Dee Fondy walked and Pinch-Hitter Baumholtz hit Relief Pitcher Marv Grissom's first pitch into the seats for a three-run home run.
The folding Cubs had played four bitter games with the world champion Giants and had won three of them. They were ten games over .500 and had a solid 4½-game grasp on second place.
The cry was still the old familiar "Wolf!" but the villagers began to look at each other uneasily. Maybe the boy meant it this time.