When Lou Brock of the St. Louis Cardinals trots out to his position in left in Wrigley Field at about 1:40 p.m. this Friday, oh, is he going to get it! In May, Brock predicted that the Cards would be in first place the next time they played in Chicago, and a raucous delegation of Cub fans, about 200 strong and formally known as the Left Field Bleacher Bums, are all set to give Brock the razz. What the Bleacher Bums will do is tantamount to a state secret, but the Bums know how to work over a visiting player.
Tommy Agee of the Mets has called the Bums the "harshest" fans he ever has encountered, and Pete Rose of the Reds, whom the Bums absolutely detest since he spiked Ernie Banks two years ago, was positively distraught at the reception he got in one game. The Bums do not take it easy on Rose. When the Reds played in Wrigley Field a few weeks back the Bums greeted Pete by clapping and chanting, "Rose is a fairy, Rose is a fairy."
Jesus Alou of the Astros is another preferred target. When he recently came out to left field, there were cries of "Hey, Carlos! Rico! Roberto! Felipe! Manny! Matty! Chico!" The volley of Latin names thundered down in such volume that Alou turned and glared up at the bleachers with eyes of menace. For about a second there was silence, and then Foghorn Ralph, one of the Bums, bellowed down, "Don't even know your own name, ya dumdum!"
To anyone accustomed to what used to be known around Chicago as "the friendly confines of Wrigley Field," the screams of the Bleacher Bums and the winning ways of the Cubs must come as a shock. For years the Cubs and Wrigley Field symbolized Chicago's aspirations to respectability. In a city with more than its share of gangsters, ward-heeling politicians and numbers runners, the Cubs appeared as so many bishops of the Protestant Episcopal Church and Wrigley Field was Chicago's answer to the Boston Athenaeum. One could lay claim to gentility by rooting for the Cubs. There was a certain air of snobbishness even about going to Wrigley Field. The Mob might dump a dozen bodies in the Chicago River, the cops could shake down motorists on the Outer Drive and the stink from the stockyards could corrode any sinus in town, but all was right in Chicagoland as long as the Cubs played daylight ball in ivied Wrigley Field and took yet another pasting. They knew how to lose nobly, like Adlai Stevenson.
June 29, 1969
But Wrigley Field has changed. The Bleacher Bums and fans yell and scream. The Cubs look like a winner. They bunt, they take the extra base, they hit home runs. Their manager is Leo (the Lip) Durocher, who a dozen years ago was considered too rambunctious for the job by Phil Wrigley, the Cub owner. The Cubs have a truly exciting team. Suddenly a number of younger players—Don Kessinger, a brilliant shortstop, Second Baseman Glenn Beckert, Catcher Randy Hundley, Pitcher Ken Holtzman—are coming into their own, and the old standbys—Ernie Banks, Ron Santo (see cover) and Billy Williams—are on their way to knocking in 100 runs apiece. The bullpen of Ted Abernathy, Phil Regan and Hank Aguirre is among the best in baseball. Spurred on by Durocher and buoyed by the Bums, the Cubs are doing a job.
"This is the finest piece of baseball machinery I've ever seen," says Gene Oliver, the second-string catcher who has played in both leagues for 10 years. "It's a fantastic, synchronized mechanism." Although the Cubs' lead over the Mets early this week was down to five games, they were still 10½ ahead of the Cards, preseason favorites. Holtzman says, "Everywhere you go people say, 'Hey, what's happened to the Cards?' We're what's happened to the Cardinals."
No one knows better than Durocher how a team can blow a pennant. He managed the Dodgers when they blew a 10½-game lead to the Cardinals in 1942, and in 1951 he led the Giants to victory from 13½ games back of the Dodgers. Despite last week's losses, the Cubs may be more like the '51 Giants. They do not give up, though they may lose a few. With the Cubs leading 10-1 in a recent game against the Reds, Kessinger almost slid into the Cub dugout on his head trying to stop an overthrow at third. "You never know which run is going to be the big one," Kessinger said after the trainer anointed his bruises. In that same game Beckert broke his thumb tagging out a runner. When the Cubs heard the news later in the clubhouse they were down only for a moment. "There's no reason in the world why we shouldn't win," said Santo. "We're too good a ball club."
Inasmuch as almost a generation has passed since the Cubs won their last pennant in 1945, it is no wonder that the Bleacher Bums, who began in the pre-Leo days but have been coming on strong in each of the last three years, have to start lining up at 6 in the morning to get into a game. So far there has been one conspicuous absentee, Phil Wrigley, a shy, somewhat eccentric and very decent man. There were headlines this year when Wrigley was reported seen in the family box, but it turned out to be his cousin Byron. Always apprehensive about appearing in public—"The only thing I don't like about baseball is the publicity that goes with it," Wrigley says—he stopped sitting in the family box years ago because he did not like any fuss made over him. For a number of years he used to roam the grandstand anonymously in the late innings, but he says he has not been to a game at Wrigley Field in three years. "I just get so nervous, and I've gotten to be a pretty old man, you know," he says. "You get pretty good coverage on television." Wrigley is now 74 but he looks fit, and during the week he is to be found behind his desk in his office on the 16th floor of the Wrigley Building. He is still active as chairman of the board of the Wrigley chewing gum company, and as he works away in the afternoons he keeps an eye peeled at the game on a TV set built into the wall opposite his desk. When the Cubs come to bat in the seventh, he stands up and so does anyone else in his office. At his estate at Lake Geneva on weekends, where he has been busy digging 5,000 postholes, he and Mrs. Wrigley watch the game on TV together and stand up for the seventh-inning stretch. When the Cubs win, Wrigley pours himself a highball. Should they lose, he suffers "quietly, in my insides." Asked if he would attend the World Series should the Cubs win the pennant, he said "No."
The only time Wrigley goes to Wrigley Field is when the team is away. All the club profits are going into redoing the upper deck. He has plans for elevators and escalators and, even, for lights. The lights, however, will not be used for night ball. "That's so we won't have a game called on account of darkness," he explains.
With Wrigley the fans come first. He could sell out many games far ahead of time, but he purposely holds back 22,000 seats for sale the day of each game so fans will not feel shut out. It has always been Wrigley's practice to answer his own office phone, and even in years of the most bitter frustration he heard out every fan patiently.
On occasion he is amused. "The last interesting call I had this year was from a guy who obviously called up from a bar," Wrigley says with a flicker of a smile. "I was watching the game on television and this guy said to me, 'You get hold of Durocher and get that pitcher out of there.' Just as I hung up I saw Durocher coming to take the pitcher out, and all I could imagine to myself was that guy in the bar saying, "Boy, did I get fast action!' "
The current success of the Cubs dates back to the arrival of Durocher in 1966. For 19 straight years the Cubs had finished in the second division. In 1961 Wrigley was so frustrated and desperate that he abolished the job of manager and installed an unorthodox system of rotating head coaches. The coaching system did force-feed some young talent up to the Cubs, but the team went nowhere and the head coaches went nuts.
The experiment ended after the 1965 season when Wrigley called in John Holland, the Cub vice-president who functions as general manager. Wrigley says, "John Holland and I sat down and tried to analyze the team. We had good players but they were playing individually. We had to get a manager tough enough to lick these guys into a team. He mentioned Leo Durocher and I said, 'See if you can get him.' Leo came to us for less than he was making on the outside. He thought it was a challenge."
Previously Wrigley had not cared for Durocher. Once when there were reports in the late 1950s that the Cubs were going to hire him, Wrigley exclaimed, "No, sir! Wouldn't have him as a gift!" ("Did Mr. Wrigley say that?" asks John Holland. "Gee, he never said that to me.") Questioned about this now, Wrigley says that Durocher was "never particularly my type of manager," but "Leo's improved tremendously because he's mellowed with age, as we all have. He's mellow enough now. I don't want him to get too nice!"
Given the challenge of the Cubs, Durocher set to work. He finished 10th in 1966, but as Holland says, "It's probably a good thing we did. Leo told the players he meant business, to forget the 'we'll get 'em tomorrow' baloney. You get 'em today or you don't stay. But Leo never gets on anyone unless they don't hustle." In 1967 the Cubs moved to third place and stayed there in '68.
When it comes to putting a team together, Durocher is much like a gin rummy player seeking a winning hand. He discards, he draws, he improves, he takes every little advantage for a meld. "If I can get a player who's this much better than this player," says Durocher, holding his fingers an inch apart, "I take him. I like a guy who can play more than one position. Beckert can play second base or shortstop. Nate Oliver can play short, first or second. You're looking for maneuverability and fine defense and four or five guys who can run. The players make the manager.
"I remember 1954, when the Giants beat Cleveland four straight in the Series. There were all these stories, 'Durocher a genius.' Genius my foot. If you don't have the players, you don't win. It's simple for me to say hit-and-run but I better have the right hitter at the plate. Now all of a sudden this club is pretty good. Those players in the other room did it and I don't think they're getting anywhere near the credit they deserve."
Durocher has not been infallible. In 1966 the Cubs traded Abernathy, but this winter they were fortunate to get "Dear Abby" back again. Then Durocher intimated that Ernie Banks was near the end of his long career. But Banks, "Mr. Cub" to the fans—a term that irritated Durocher, kept coming back despite all the John Boccabellas who were put at first. Of course, Banks is an unusual case. Now 38, he has the body of a 25-year-old, and there are many persons who cannot believe him. One insider who has been around the Cubs for years says, "Banks is the St. Francis of Assisi of baseball. He never brags and he never complains when he's thrown at. I used to think he was giving everyone the most fantastic put-on, but I've seen him in good years and bad years and this is the way he is. He is for real."
Banks and Santo, who is the team captain, give the Cubs solid anchorage. In the words of Gene Oliver, Santo is "the team leader. I used to hear that he was a red-neck, that he'd break bats, but this guy here is the greatest, and I've played with the Boyers and Aaron and Groat. He's the man, he's the finest leader I've seen."
This season the Cub infield is probably the best in baseball, both hitting and fielding. Walter Alston, in fact, says that the infield, including Hundley, should make the All-Star team. When a Chicago paper recently ran a color photograph of what was captioned as the Cubs' Million-Dollar Infield, Beckert showed it to Kessinger and was heard to say, pointing to Banks and Santo, "There's $990,000."
This may have been a bit of tactful modesty, for Kessinger and Beckert give the Cubs great strength up the middle. Kessinger may well be the best shortstop in the majors, and it is mostly due to his own drive. When Durocher first saw him he was not impressed. But Kessinger is the sort of player who pushes himself to become better and better and better. There is a belief in baseball that a player sets his level after two or three years in the majors. Not so with Kessinger. A lean, round-shouldered boy from Forrest City, Ark., where his father was a grocer, he played baseball at Ole Miss. The Cubs signed him, and although he moved up to Chicago quickly, he was a weak hitter. But Kessinger learned how to switch-hit and he has continued to improve, and now at 26 he is hitting close to .300. By the time he is 36, he may lead the league with .350.
This season he set a record for major league shortstops by fielding in 54 games without an error. Durocher says, "He's as good as I'd want, and I would never want any better."
Beckert is cast in a similar mold. As a kid in Pittsburgh, he says, "You were brought up on the idea of winning." Undersized in high school, he went to Allegheny College, where he majored in political science and played short. He was signed by the Red Sox upon graduation, but the Cubs got him when the Red Sox had to choose between him and another shortstop, Rico Petrocelli. When Kenny Hubbs, a fine second baseman for Chicago, was killed in a private plane crash in early 1964, Beckert was rushed to a winter instructional league and taught how to make the pivot. In his first year he hit .239. Since then he has never hit less than .280 and last season he was the club leader with .294.
"When Leo came here," Beckert says, "he visualized what the club would look like three years ahead. You have to give him credit for that. In '65, my first year, it seemed that you had to hit the home run. But the big thing about Leo that I remember is that he told me I'm going to make just as much money if I don't hit home runs. He said, 'Move the runner for me. Get yourself on base before our big fellows, Santo, Banks and Williams, come up.' He said, 'I'll look after you,' and he has."
According to Pete Reiser, the oldtime Dodger hero and now a Cub coach, Beckert gives up 20 to 30 points in his batting average just to move runners along, but Durocher, informed of this, snorts, "Thirty to 50 points. Beckert, he's a double pro. Pretty hard to give anyone more of a compliment than that."
At the plate Beckert almost always manages to get a piece of the ball. For the last three years he has been the toughest hitter to strike out in the National League. In 1968 he struck out only 20 times in 643 official at bats. He was also the best-fielding second baseman in the league and he played in 155 games, a record he will not match this year because of his fractured thumb. Beckert should be back by next week.
If there is a weak spot on the Cubs, at least on paper, it is the outfield. Billy Williams is well established in left, but the centerfielder, Don Young, hit only .242 last year for Lodi in the Class A California League. Defensively he is excellent. Young is long-legged ("split high" is the expression) and he goes after a ball in what seems an effortless glide. Holland says, "He never looks like he's running hard, but he's there to get the ball." The other outfielders—Al Spangler, Jim Hickman and Willie Smith—have done a creditable job. Durocher has not hesitated to pinch-hit for any of them when the time was right. Durocher wants every run he can get. "Banks, Santo and Williams used to carry this club," says Holland. "When they didn't hit, we didn't score runs. But that's not true this year. The opposing clubs can't pitch around them."
It is pitching, though, that until the last two weeks has been a major strength of the Cubs. There is the superb bullpen and some very fine starters. Ferguson Jenkins, who has won 20 the last two years, should win 20 this year and Holtzman should win 20 for the first time. Holtzman's only difficulty is that he cannot stand prosperity. In one seven-game stretch the Cubs got him 69 runs, but he was knocked from the mound in three of those games with leads of six, five and nine runs. He apparently gets complacent when way out in front and he simply cannot get back his good stuff when he needs it. By contrast, give Holtzman only a run or two and, odds are, he'll make it stand up for nine innings. Bill Hands is a capable third starter. Rich Nye has been a disappointment, but Dick Selma, strangely not protected by the Mets last season after a nine and 10 record and a 2.75 earned run average, has been of great help.
Even when Selma is not pitching, he works. He is the bullpen cheerleader for the Left Field Bleacher Bums. At the start of every game Selma stands, raises his right arm and spirals it upward as the Bums begin a rising chorus of "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!" Selma suddenly swings his arm down, the roar stops and the Bums sing, "Every time I go to town, the boys all kick my dog around. Makes no difference if he is a hound, you better stop kicking my dog around."
From then on, the clamor never lets up. Santo, whose company makes Pro Pizzas that are sold in the ball park, is greeted with cries of "Pizza Power!" Banks gets a roar of welcome. "He could be elected governor," says one of the Bums. A Confederate flag goes up for Hundley. If Jenkins sits in the bullpen, the Bums will start chanting, "Fergie, Fergie, Fergie." At the end of the inning Jenkins will run to the dugout as if to escape, whereupon the Bums will start chanting, "Leo, Leo, Leo." Durocher will send Jenkins back to the bullpen and when he arrives, the Bums shout, "Fergie!"
There are songs to fit all occasions. Give Me That Old Time Durocher is a favorite, and there is even one for the Cardinal announcer, Harry Caray, Quite Contrary, How Does Your Ego Grow?
The dedication of the Bums is such that they throw back any homer an opposing player hits into the bleachers. Should a Cub homer, the Bums throw their cups of beer into the air. They want to see the Cubs pour it on. If the Cubs have 12 runs, the Bums clamor for 13. If the Cubs have 13, the Bums roar for 14. By the eighth inning Wrigley Field is reverberating with noise as fans in the rest of the park stand up and slam their seats in cadence to the chants of the Bums. The din is so overwhelming that the opposing players in the field are at a disadvantage; they cannot hear the crack of the bat.
"These Bums are tremendous," says Selma. "It's something to be in a crucial situation and hear 25,000 people behind you. It gives you a strength you never knew you had." Gene Oliver says, "It starts a flow of adrenalin to you," and Santo adds, "They get everyone going." Once in a while catcalls from the bleachers backfire. The Bums got on Willie Davis of the Dodgers one day, and he got so fired up he hit two tremendous homers. The Bums were told, "Don't wake up Davis. Let him sleep."
The word is easy to pass among the Bums. They have a president, Ron Grousl, 24, a part-time bartender who began hanging out in the bleachers seven years ago. He wears a yellow hard hat with his name on it. Other regulars include Mike Haley, vice-president; Lou Blatz, 71, secretary (he pitched in what is now Wrigley Field in 1916 for the Chicago Whales in the Federal League); Doris Herbon, treasurer; and Bud Koszola, traveling secretary, who plans jaunts to spring training in Scottsdale or trips to Cincinnati and St. Louis. (Last year 17 of the Bums stayed in one room at St. Louis Chase-Park Plaza Hotel in a scene reminiscent of the Marx Brothers.)
The Bums, and other bleacher regulars, come from all walks of life. Some are schoolteachers who think nothing of playing hooky, and there is even an affluent gent with the grand old name of Samuel Insull III. Young Sam wears cut-down shorts, sneakers, a hat and tennis shirt. He speaks with an Ivy League accent and toddles about the bleachers with a beer. On occasion he is accompanied by his friendly, hovering stockbroker, L. E. (Pete) Kelley of Walston & Company, who says, "That Sam, he's the greatest."
After a game at home the Bums repair to Ray's Bleachers, a bar at Waveland and Sheffield directly across the street from the entrance to the bleachers. The jukebox rocks but shouts from the Bums drown out the blare. Some of the Cubs may drop by to say hello and when they do the bar goes wild.
No one is more elated about the Bleacher Bums than Durocher. "These are some kind of fans!" he exclaims. "They're absolutely frantic with joy and happiness. They are in seventh heaven and you can't blame them. Their screaming and antics air marvelous and just bring the club on. They have exuberance in their hearts. And this is the attitude of the players. They smell the roses, they smell the money. They have an attitude of desire and determination. They feel they can go out and beat anybody. What we are trying to do in this clubhouse is to win a pennant for Mr. Wrigley, for the fans and for the city of Chicago. Win a pennant, that's what we're striving for. It's been a very long time in coming."