The journey begins on the platform of the Addison Street El station, a block from Wrigley Field. "Here lie the Cubs. July 10, 1977—St. Louis 8, Chicago 3," reads graffiti scribbled across a platform billboard. Beneath that, someone else has written, "Have patience and hope, there's a little Don Young in all of us." All aboard.
The B train winds noisily among the red brick apartment buildings and the green parks of the North Side, then plunges underground before it reaches the Loop. At State and Lake you change trains and board the Dan Ryan Express, which slowly grinds away from the Loop and works south past the railroad tracks and warehouses before reaching the stop called Sox-35th, a block from Comiskey Park. All out, please.
Traveling in either direction, the trip takes 25 minutes and costs 50¢. In their wildest dreams these days, Chicago's long-suffering baseball diehards see themselves shuttling between Addison Street and Sox-35th in mid-October to watch the Cubs play the White Sox in the first all-Chicago World Series since 1906. Don't laugh. When the major leagues broke for the three-day All-Star Game recess last Sunday, the amazing Cubs and the amazing White Sox both were in first place, the Cubs holding a two-game lead over defending champion Philadelphia in the National League East and the White Sox maintaining a 2½-game margin over defending champion Kansas City in the American League West.
Not bad for two teams that once again were supposed to stagger through their annual "rebuilding" seasons. Instead, they have turned Chicago into the Disney World of baseball. Up at Wrigley Field the bleachers are filled by 10:30 a.m., and the mere appearance of a Cubbie—be it star Relief Pitcher Bruce Sutter or backup Catcher Steve Swisher—through the doors in the left field corner generates a standing ovation. Down at Comiskey Park the Sox fans, hyped to a frenzy by volcanic broadcaster Harry Caray, stand up and cheer slugger Richie Zisk even when he strikes out, and they routinely scream long and loud until home-run hitters emerge from the dugout for bows. "Superstars have that happen to them maybe once in a career, and I, Jim Spencer, had it happen to me twice in one game," marvels the White Sox' first baseman.
Baseball fever has seized the city. "Can't I hear anything but baseball baseball baseball?" a man asks his wife in Gritzbe's restaurant. The Chicago Tribune attributes a circulation jump of almost 10,000 newspapers a day mainly to the city's baseball lunacy. White Sox attendance is up 5,840 a game, the Cubs' 5,441, and at their present rate they easily will combine to attract more than the Chicago-record 2.67 million fans who watched them in 1973.
"What's happening here in Chicago is a phenomenon wilder than anything I could have imagined," says White Sox owner Bill Veeck. "People naturally love underdogs, but even more important is the fact that the people of Chicago are starved for a winner."
Over the years both the White Sox and the Cubs have played cruel tricks on their followers. Both Chicago teams were in first place in their respective divisions on June 29, 1973, but at the first mention of an intracity World Series they collapsed, both finishing with losing records. In 1969 Leo Durocher's Cubs did a complete El Foldo for the New York Mets, and in 1967 Eddie Stanky's White Sox managed to lose their last five games and blow the pennant to the miracle Red Sox. The White Sox won their last pennant in 1959, the Cubs their last one in 1945, and neither team has won a World Series since the White Sox beat John McGraw's New York Giants in 1917.
On paper, at least, there seems little enough reason for Chicagoans to dream of a Series this October. The Cubs' four All-Star selections—Second Baseman Manny Trillo, Center-fielder Jerry Morales and Pitchers Sutter and Rick (the Whale) Reuschel—have reputations that until the last few weeks were confined solely to the North Side of Chicago. And the White Sox? Well, swear on a stack of Veeck—As in Wreck books that you knew Pitcher Francisco Barrios had six straight victories and a 9-3 record until the Red Sox beat him Saturday night, that Shortstop Alan Bannister is third in the American League in base hits, that Designated Hitter Oscar Gamble has 18 home runs and that Pitchers Chris Knapp and Ken Kravec have a combined record of 14-6.
"I guess people look at the Chicago box scores and keep asking, 'Who are these guys?' " says White Sox General Manager Roland Hemond. Veeck says, "I think our fans especially love this team because, by today's standards, it seems down and out, unsung and lower class." Told of Veeck's thoughts, Spencer said, "You can say that again."
On the field there is little difference between the two Chicago teams. Both function with patchwork pitching staffs, renovated infields, surprisingly deep benches and without high-salaried free agents. Talentwise, both teams should finish no higher than fourth place. So why first place now?
"What happens in cases like this, when teams seem to come from nowhere, is that a majority of the players are having their best years," explains White Sox Pitcher Steve Stone, who worked for the Cubs last year. "I guess it's just called 'putting it all together.' "
The Cubs put it all together for the first 10 weeks of the schedule, and by June 28 they had opened an 8½-game lead on the second-place Cardinals and Phillies. Then, maybe with visions of Don Young in their dreams—that rookie centerfielder cost the Cubs a loss to the Mets in the fury of the 1969 pennant race when he misplayed a fly ball, thus earning forever the wrath of Leo Durocher—they began to slump and lost 13 of 19 through the All-Star break. For five days last week everything went wrong for the Cubs.
On Tuesday night in New York, Catcher George Mitterwald hit a two-run homer in the top of the seventh to give Reuschel, at the time the league's winningest pitcher with a 12-3 record, a 2-1 lead. But Reuschel quickly yielded the tying run to the Mets, and in the bottom of the eighth, Sutter, the league's best reliever with a 5-1 record, 24 saves and a 1.11 ERA, lost the game when he fed a gopher pitch to rookie Outfielder Steve Henderson.
The next night the Cubs were leading the Mets 2-1 in the sixth inning when the lights at Shea Stadium suddenly flickered and then went out. The New York blackout forced suspension of the game, and the Cubs had to shower and dress in a dark locker room, return to the darkened city by bus and—candles in hand—walk as many as 16 flights of stairs to their hotel rooms, all of which were without air conditioning, of course.
The next morning the Cubs played porter and carried their luggage down the stairs to the lobby, prompting Pitcher Pete Broberg to complain, "I've got a new disease—luggage elbow." They bussed back to Shea Stadium and dressed again in the dark, only to be told that the suspended game and the regularly scheduled game had been postponed. Next: a one-way bus trip to Philadelphia where they lost a doubleheader to the Phillies Friday night. Their once cushy lead now was just two games.
On Saturday afternoon the Cubs had bus troubles getting from their hotel to the stadium, and once they arrived, the gate attendant at first refused to admit Herman Franks because he didn't look like a manager. For all their troubles, though, the Cubs finally had something to be happy about as they beat the Phillies 9-8 on pinch hitter Greg Gross' three-run triple and some strong relief pitching by the ubiquitous Sutter.
"Right now Sutter's the MVP in the National League," says Swisher. Coach Peanuts Lowrey says, "We may not have power or speed, but we've got him." The 24-year-old Sutter has pitched in 45 of Chicago's 88 games. While Franks obviously would prefer not to use Sutter with such regularity, he really has no choice. Aside from Reuschel, a sinker-balling righthander who showed only brief flashes of promise in his first five seasons with the Cubs, Chicago does not have a dependable starter.
Like most effective relievers, Sutter relies on one special pitch. His is something called a "split-fingered fastball," and it seems to be a distant relation of the forkball once employed so successfully by Pittsburgh's Elroy Face. Sutter didn't have his split-fingered fastball when the Cubs spotted him pitching for the semipro Hippey's Raiders in Lancaster, Pa. in 1972 and signed him for a $500 bonus. He didn't have it the next year, either, when Walt Dixon, his manager at Quincy, Ill., reported to the Cubs' minor league department: "When Bruce Sutter is ready for the big leagues, that will be the day the Communists take over."
It was then that Sutter encountered Fred Martin, the Cubs' minor league pitching instructor, and learned how to throw the pitch that, as he says, "has kept me from working the printing presses back home in Mt. Joy, Pa."
To throw his specialty, Sutter places his fingers outside the seams and releases the ball with the same motion he uses for his fastball and slider. By varying the pressure of his fingers, he can make the ball break anywhichway. "It comes up like a fastball for 55 feet," says Mitterwald, "and then it explodes." Pitching Coach Barney Schultz says, "It's really a matter of Sutter being the perfect man with the perfect physique and delivery for the perfect pitch."
Sutter's split-fingered pitch breaks so radically that hitters now complain he throws a spitball. He labored with a knot in his right shoulder for most of the last two weeks, and during that time his pitch did not work very well. So Franks ordered Martin to join the Cubs immediately and give Sutter a refresher course in the split-fingered fastball. With Martin looking on, Sutter earned his 24th save in the 9-8 win over the Phillies on Saturday. However, Sutter complained that his shoulder was still knotted up, and he later decided to miss the All-Star Game.
Besides keeping the Cubs in first place, Sutter's superb performances also have helped keep the normally dour and snarling Franks in a state of semi-permanent good humor. The only manager who chews tobacco on the field and wears Brooks Brothers suits off it, Franks, who managed the San Francisco Giants from 1965 to 1968, left baseball after coaching for the Cubs in 1971 and made several more fortunes in the real estate and investment businesses he operates in Salt Lake City.
"Managing's what I love to do," Franks says. "Since I don't have to worry about anything, I can tell people what I want." For his first act, Franks assembled an infield that nobody expected to survive the first month of the season.
Steve Ontiveros at third base, Ivan deJesus at shortstop, Manny Trillo at second base and Larry Biittner or Bill Buckner at first base hardly has the ring of Tinker to Evers to Chance or even Santo, Kessinger, Beckert and Banks. But Ontiveros, who was acquired from the Giants along with Bobby Murcer in the Bill Madlock deal, is hitting .294 and has fielded better than even Franks had dreamed possible, while deJesus, who was acquired from the Dodgers along with Buckner in the Rick Monday deal, is hitting .268 and fielding brilliantly. Trillo, whose previous claim to fame was that Charlie Finley attempted to activate him to replace the "fired" Mike Andrews during the middle of the 1973 World Series, is hitting .304 now but was at .350 for almost three months, and he works easily with deJesus around second base. And Biittner and the oft-injured Buckner have double-teamed first base with eight home runs and 56 RBIs. "Everyone's a little tired right now," Sutter says, "but the All-Star break will enable us to catch our breath. We'll still win it."
O.K., now what about the White Sox. "I still don't think anyone outside of our fans believes what we've done," says Spencer. "I'd never have believed it in spring training, but I sure do now. There's some magic here."
Indeed, the 1977 Sox may be Veeck's greatest flim flam. At the trading deadline the financially strapped Veeck swapped unsigned Pitcher Ken Brett, then 6-4 for the White Sox, to the rich California Angels for three minor leaguers and $400,000 in cash. Publicly, most of the Chicago players ripped Veeck for "selling off our chance at the pennant." So, a few weeks after that deal, the White Sox ran off nine straight victories and stormed into first place. And Brett? He is 0-4 for the Angels.
Earlier, Veeck had dumped unsigned Shortstop Bucky Dent on the Yankees, collecting Oscar Gamble and some 200,000 of George Steinbrenner's dollars in return. And before that he had sent $100,000-a-year Relief Pitcher Clay Carroll to St. Louis for Lerrin LaGrow, a righthander whose career record was 16-41. LaGrow now has a 4-1 record with 16 saves and a 2.29 ERA.
Veeck's best move, though, was the deal that brought Richie Zisk, a real live major league hitter, from Pittsburgh in exchange for Pitchers Rich Gossage and Terry Forster. "We led the league in only one department last year—runners left in scoring position," says Veeck. "I didn't want that to happen again." Zisk is hitting .297 with 19 home runs and 63 RBIs for a team that used to be called the hitless wonders. Zisk still has not signed a contract with the White Sox, but with the money from the Brett and Dent deals in the bank Veeck no doubt will make his slugger an offer he can't refuse.
Maybe the other White Sox are using Zisk's bats, or maybe they're using magic, as Spencer suggests. Whatever they're doing, they trailed the Red Sox by only .001 in American League team hitting. Jorge Orta, Ralph Garr, Lamar Johnson, Jim Essian and Eric Soderholm have batted near .300 all season, and Bannister, Dent's replacement at shortstop, has stayed near .315. Spencer has had two games with eight RBIs, and in one of them he played only four innings. Essian had not had a homer in four previous seasons, but during one four-game stretch he hit a home run in every game. When Zisk was hurt and missed a game, his replacement, Wayne Nordhagen, had four hits in five at bats.
For White Sox fans, though, the best news is that the pitching staff no longer is called the Missile Launchers. Knuckleballer Wilbur Wood has almost completely recovered from the knee surgery that sidelined him for a season, winning three of his last four starts. A healthy Wood, Veeck says, will take some of the pressure off the White Sox' young pitchers—Barrios, Kravec and Knapp—during the dog days of August and the pennant-race days of September.
As for October? "There are two million people in Chicago," Veeck says, "who have been waiting all their lives to make that trip from Wrigley Field to Comiskey Park in October."