His bald head tanned and glistening in the morning sunlight, Leo Durocher was out there at first base, showing half a dozen Chicago Cub players how to lead off—and get back to—first base. "We will," he said, "be daring."
Later he stood behind the batting cage, his hands on his hips. "We will hustle. We will bunt, drag, run—and we won't run scared." Before the game began, he sat in the cement dugout and said, "We'll have hungry players, too, players who come to play no matter what you pay them."
Under this brand of leadership—aggressive, forceful, positive, and maybe a little cliché-ridden—the Chicago Cubs, 19 straight years in the National League's second division, could not wait for the season to open before they started doing things better. They began in spring training. Pitchers raced from the mound to back up third base and home plate. Outfielders fielded and then threw hard and low back to the infield, so that the ball could be cut off if the situation said it should be. On hits to right field, base runners on first raced past second with third—or maybe even home—in mind. The Cubs, fat, complacent, satisfied and awful for 15 years, were suddenly spirited and determined. They reflected Durocher.
"I've been with this club for five years now," says Ron Santo, the captain of the Cubs, "and I've never seen it with the confidence and desire it has now. And it's all because of the Man."
April 18, 1966
The Man insists the Chicago Cubs are better than an eighth-place team. "There's too much talent scattered among the personnel," he says. "What has been beating this club is simple, stupid mistakes and a lack of confidence. I'm here to get rid of the mental errors and get 25 men believing they can win." And because this attitude has caught on among the old as well as the young members of the club, the team will win more games—not enough for the first division, but enough to make Wrigley Field a lot more exciting than it has been for too long a time.
The Cubs have four pitchers who have been 20-game winners at least once in their careers. Right-hander Ernie Broglio (21-9 in 1960) began throwing last January, after he found out he would be working for Leo Durocher, and hasn't stopped. "He was the most pleasant surprise of the spring," says Leo. Broglio, 30, is recovered from an elbow operation and is again throwing his best pitch, the fast ball. Then there are 34-year-old right-hander Larry Jackson (24-11 in 1964) and 26-year-old left-hander Dick Ellsworth (22-10 in 1963), who, according to Leo, "is just about the best lefty in the league outside of Koufax." Bob Buhl, another right-hander, is 37 and has won 160 big league games (though never 20 in any one year); he is a natural low-ball pitcher who could benefit from Chicago's marked improvement around second base. Submarining 33-year-old Ted Abernathy (appeared in 84 games in relief last year, a major league record, and had a 2.58 earned run average) and junk-baller Billy Hoeft (20-14 in 1956, and also 33—the Cub pitching staff is a bit long in the tooth) are in the bullpen. Lefthander Bob Hendley may alternate with Bill Faul and Bill Hands in the fifth spot in the starting rotation. Durocher also is looking for a left-handed reliever.
For the first time in years Cub pitchers can give up a base hit now and then without assuming the runner will steal second base before five pitches have been thrown to the next hitter. Durocher, bent on getting a solid defensive catcher with a good arm, did just that when the Cubs obtained 23-year-old Randy Hundley from the Giants. "That kid," says Pitching Coach Freddy Fitzsimmons, "has the best arm I've seen since Gabby Hartnett." To the surprise of everyone except, perhaps, Durocher, Hundley also hit with authority throughout the spring, and already figures prominently in the future of the Cubs.
The bulk of Cub runs will be scored by or batted in by three hitters—Santo, Billy Williams and Ernie Banks—who combine to make the middle of the Chicago order as formidable as any in the league, including San Francisco and Atlanta. Santo, the best third baseman in the league, last year hit 33 homers, drove in 101 runs and batted .285. As Leo, searching for a new phrase, says, "He's my type of ballplayer." Williams, the lithe, 175-pound right fielder, has had five good years in a row with the Cubs. His fluid, left-handed swing accounted for 34 home runs, 108 RBIs and a .315 batting average. "I wouldn't trade him for four Frank Robinsons," says Durocher. As for Ernie Banks, "He'd pay me to play," says Leo admiringly. The first baseman, 35 now, hit 28 homers and drove in 106 runs in 1965.
Building up around this core is Durocher's immediate problem. He has one of the National League's best double-play combinations in Glenn Beckert at second and Don Kessinger at short, but neither is particularly accomplished at the plate, though Beckert hit safely in 18 of Chicago's last 20 games in 1965. Kessinger is the finest fielding Cub shortstop in years, so he can get away with some inconsistency with the bat.
In left field it will be George Altman or Wes Covington with Harvey Kuenn in reserve. All can hit, but their fielding is unnerving. Altman needs a prod, however, and one from Durocher might make him the player the Cardinals and Mets hoped he would turn out to be. Covington, with a .282 lifetime average, was elated to leave Gene Mauch at Philadelphia and says he is anxious to play for Durocher. Kuenn, now wearing glasses to improve his depth perception, provides Chicago with a dangerous late-inning pinch hitter.
Byron Browne, a 23-year-old rookie who hits with power, is fast and possesses a strong, accurate arm. He will start in center field and stay there as long as his line drives and home runs of the spring continue. Ty Cline, who doesn't hit long fly balls but can chase them with the best, will back him up.
A lot of hits and a lot of runs—for both sides—and a lot of fun with Leo.