He was the first "baseball man" to manage the Cubs in arguably 40 years. He'd been managing for 25 years when the Cubs brought him on in 1966 at the tail end of the College of Coaches fiasco. When he signed on, he brought with him more than 1,300 career wins, 3 NL pennants, 1 World Series win, and the attitude needed to turn the Cubs around. Not that it happened over night.
Much as we learned when watching the Cubs play in 2007, it takes time to purge bad baseball. Despite the numerous talented players on the 1966 Cubs overcoming bad habits and a long, loooong track record of losing was not an immediate thing. Despite having an aging Banks along with a young Santo, Williams, Holtzman, Hands, and Kessinger it also took some wrangling on Durocher's part to improve the squad and build them toward success in 1967 and beyond.
Durocher was a baseball man who knew how to make savvy personnel decisions. This was a new and unusual thing for the Cub fan of the 1960's. In previous years and decades Cub fans had seen the aforementioned College of Coaches fiasco, they'd witnessed P.K. Wrigley drop $20,000 a year on a "hex man" who he'd seen work wonders at a pro wrestling event, and they'd gotten used to the mediocrity that the Cubs are still known for to this day. But Durocher came to Chicago with a strange and wondrous plan - he would build the team with actually talented players! Wow!
The ink probably was still wet on Leo's contract when the Cubs netted their first really good trade in about half a decade. They acquired Randy Hundley and Bill Hands in a deal with the Giants. In April of 1966 Leo would land his other important piece - Ferguson Jenkins, in a trade with the Phillies. Add them to a puzzle of already talented players and you may understand why the Cubs of the late 1960's were so much better than anything the team had seen since the 1930's.
The only problem was that Durocher was already old when he came to Chicago - he was 60 when he signed on. He was in his twilight years and his passion for the game seemed to flow and ebb. In 1969 alone he actually left the team at points to celebrate his fourth bachelor party and he later blew off two games in order to visit his new wife's children at the legendary Camp Ojibwa in Wisconsin. Not exactly the kinds of things that endear a manager to a team or their fans, but that was Durocher and it was also why his team would eventually turn on him.
By the '69 season, Leo had been managing the Cubs for 3 years and they'd had back-to-back winning seasons. Then, as the '69 season unfolded, Durocher began to get on his team's nerves with his antics. Read the previous paragraph again -- he left on two occasions in a pennant race. Then add in the fact that he started his regulars without giving them rest and burned through his rotation without care or concern and you may understand why the Cubs flamed out in September and why the team turned on him in later seasons.
By the time he lost his gig with the Cubs in 1972 the team was in full revolt. He made the same mistake that others have made in recent years -- he got into a pissing match with Ron Santo. Note to anybody reading this: never get into a pissing match with Ron Santo. It's not that Ronnie will rip you a new one, but the millions of Cub fans who identify with him as Cub Fan #1 will spring to his defense, much as Santo's teammates did in 1972 when Durocher tried to paint Ron as being selfish. Leo tried to smear Santo's name, his teammates sprang to his defense, the worst Anti-Leo nay-sayers were dealt, and still Durocher was fired after 90 games.
Years later, Durocher owed up to his biggest mistakes. He apologized to the team for the way he managed them in 1969 and he took the blame for the squad's burn-out. And maybe it's also very much so Cub to play baseball for more than two decades without any direction, only to finally turn to a hardened, winning, baseball-man of a manager who turns out to be old, cranky, selfish, and increasingly senile.
Yep. That's the Cubs for you. They were lost before Leo and they became lost again because of him. Still, he delivered the team some of their most talented players and 5 years of winning ball. We'd have to go back to the 1930's to find a Cubs organization that won more than they lost for that long a span of time. Not to mention that since Leo left Cub fans have considered it a special occasion when the team wins more than they lose in even consecutive seasons. But the point of baseball isn't to win more than you lose, it's to win the World Series. We're still waiting.
If God hisself pointed down His finger and asked me to describe myself, I would characterize myself as a husband, father and Cubs fan, in that order, even before I list my vocation, religious affiliation, etc. Before my marriage(s) and kid(s), of course, I would just start with “Cubs fan” and just go from there. My story starts with the 1969 Cubs; this is the cornerstone, the immovable boulder on which my mountain of woe and frustration is anchored.
My first game I recall watching was in August 1969, the day Kenny Holtzman was working on his first no-hitter. I suppose I had seen the Cubs on TV before, since they were in first place that year and my Dad is a world-renowned front runner. But he called me in that day because he figured history was being made. Now, there's no guarantee of that - how many times between Milt Pappas' no-no in 1972 and Big Z's surreal game last year were you teased? How 'bout it, Jose Guzman? You too, Frank Castillo?
But there we sat. We about died when Hank Aaron hit his blast to left, even Jack the Brick figured the no-hitter was over. When it blew back into Billy Williams' mitt, the old man (who had just turned 25) jumped off of the couch, and it finally dawned on me that Cubs Baseball was special! Anything that could blast his big ass off of the sofa and onto his feet was serious stuff, man! As we all know, Holtzman got his no-hitter, and I was hooked, incurably and irrevocably, for the rest of my mortal life.
You may have noticed that this story starts at a high point – not the summit, but at a much higher perch than pretty much anything else that has happened in the 40 years since. You also notice that my story started in August, but obviously much had to happen before Holtzman's day, August 19th, with the Cubs 8 games up on the rest of the NL East. For the one or two of you who didn't realize the 1969 Cubs were +8 on August 19th, well, obviously a lot happened after that day, too. Why are the 1969 Cubs, who to the rest of the world were just another team who gagged up a lead down the stretch, still such a compelling story, 40 years later? There have been worse choke jobs – the 1964 Phils and the 2007 Mets are two cases that immediately crop up.
My theory is that, like any formula Disney sports flick, the plot behind the 1969 Cubs was clear-cut, simplistic, and easy for the masses to understand. Most of the middle-aged Cubs fans remembered the last of the 'glory days', which took place in the Thirties (the 1945 pennant was a wartime anomaly – the Cubs ' players were too old or infirm to draft). Since then, they suffered through three decades of total mismanagement. The younger fans, of course, never had a 'glory days', with the 'College of
Clowns Coaches' being their probable initial exposure to the Cubs. So you had the bad times, just like in the movies. Speaking of movies, it is a misconception that the makers of “Rookie of the Year” based their naïve, scatter-brained owner on P. K. Wrigley, and that simply isn't true. Wrigley simply tried to run his team like his confectionary business – with an emphasis on trying the 'latest training methods' and 'maintaining the physical plant', and little emphasis on things like scouting and minor league development.
The plot thickens as a 'youth movement' begins in the early part of the decade, as our eventual protagonists, leftfielder Billy Williams, third baseman Ron Santo, shortstop Don Kessinger, second baseman Glenn Beckert, catcher Randy Hundley and starting hurlers Fergie Jenkins, Bill Hands and Kenny Holtzman, join current team icon Ernie Banks, along with some 'bit players' such as outfielders Lou Brock, Adolfo Phillips and Oscar Gamble who did not end up appearing in the third reel. These youngsters take their lumps for a few years, which results in the appearance of the final 'star', longtime firebrand manager Leo Durocher, who upon his introduction in 1966 infamously stated that '…this is NOT an eighth-place team', referring to the Cubs' finish in a 10-team league the previous year.
Of course, you all realize that the Cubs finished tenth in Leo's first year.
Naturally, the Cubs then followed the plot to its eventual climax, as they rose to the top half of the league, then in 1968 they finished third, their highest finish since World War II. When Willie Smith hit his walk-off pinch-hit homer on Opening Day, 1969, it heralded the arrival of the 1969 Cubs Bandwagon, its big, blue doors thrown open wide…and everyone from the proper hat-and-suit wearing businessmen in the box seats, to the massive “Ladies Day” crowds on Tuesdays, to the construction workers and college boys in the bleachers piled on. In those days, the city of Chicago was more evenly divided in its baseball allegiances. In fact, due to a relatively successful run from their 1959 pennant to their near-miss in 1967, the White Sox enjoyed not only bragging rights, but a superior level of popularity to the Cubs. Cub Fan World, as it existed, had just spent 30 years dragging ass in the baseball desert with little food and water. Its thirst and hunger for victory was about to be slaked, and its superiority as a fan base was to be fought for and won, an advantage we still enjoy today.
For some reason, I seem to remember Banks' 500th home run in May – but that just might be due to it being shown during every rain delay the past 35 years. I am pretty sure I wasn't watching ball then; in fact I do not remember anything of the early season victories, the unprecedented media blitz that ensued, or the controversy of Santo's heel clicking. Today, every great play incites some sort of on-field celebration, high-fiving, chest-bumping, watusi-dancing and shirt-untucking. But in those classier, simpler times, guys simply did not show up each other on the field.
I don't remember how hot that summer was, so I didn't really notice the guys wearing down. Of course, by September, when the Mets roared past them like they were standing still, it was clear there was something wrong. Maybe the Cubs were worn down. Durocher did not believe in playing his bench players – the Old School, which to us now would be the Old, Old School, dictated that starters played every day, unless they had broken bones breaking the skin, and even then they were expected back in two weeks.
Of course, as I look at some stats, like Rebel Hundley's, well, he should have felt fit and strong towards the end. After all, 1969 was his lightest workload in 3 years. He only caught 151 games. The previous year, he logged 160. Utility man Paul Popovich would on occasion wear a Maytag repairman's uniform on the bench, because hell, he wasn't going to get in, anyway. Anyway, the wear and tear on the lineup, coupled with the daytime schedule, is a popular notion for the eventual failure of the 1969 Cubs. If it were a movie, we could show Kess and Beckert seating buckets on the field, stepping on scales every day, watching their weight plummet as the weeks wore on.
I do remember the uproar when Santo jumped on rookie CF Don Young for botching a flyball. It was the wrong thing to do, and I still hear old-timers bring this incident up as the point in time when they turned against Santo, and I've even heard the Young Incident brought up as a demerit keeping Santo out of the Hall. But you wonder maybe what might have been going through Ronnie's mind at the time, since the one glaring hole in the 1969 Cubs lineup was center field, and in his tenure, he saw Brock leave because the College of Coaches didn't think he hit for enough power (?!?) and then saw Phillips get run off the team because he was too laid back for Leo Durocher. Nice guys finish last, remember? The Shea black cat was a nice bit of symbolism, simple enough for even a five-year-old to grasp, and quite probably left a glaze of cosmic residue on my young mind that leaves me open to the existence of Curses.
Keep these numbers in mind: 5-4, 4-5, 5-1, 2-4, 3-0, 9-3, 7-1, 3-2, 7-1, 3-2, 4-0, 1-0, 1-0, 5-2, 3-5, 4-3, 5-0, 2-0, 2-8, 0-8, 0-4, 5-3, 6-1, 3-1, 3-2, 6-0, 5-0, 1-0, 2-0. These are scores, 6 of them are losses, and 23 were not. 10 were shutouts, five more were one-run efforts. This was the September 1969 of the New York Mets. The three losses in the middle happened in Pittsburgh; there is no truth to the notion that the other 26 games were against the Cubs. In fact, the Cubs were 8-17 that month, by far their worst month of 1969, and it was bad, but not legendarily so. The memories of the old-timers seem to indicate that we didn't do squat after Labor Day, but in fact the East was lost due to three things: some sub-par Cubs baseball; Mets pitching so superlative the world has not seen its like since; and the rest of the league rolling over and letting the Amazin' Mets traipse on them.
The postscript? After all, except for Banks, the rest of the Cubs' core was still in their competitive prime. Certainly they were a force to be reckoned for several more years in these pre-free agency times. In fact, we were contenders for the next four years. Ah, but this is my most vivid memory of all about the 1969 Cubs, one that actually did not occur until the next year. Expectations for 1970 could not have been higher; in fact, it was assumed (correctly) that the Mets had shot their wad, and the East was ours for the taking. We even won our first ten home games that year. Then, on April 22nd, Rebel Hundley tore the ligaments in his knee in a collision. The Cubs did not immediately dive into the second division, but they never quite got over the hump, either, and the All-Star catcher was never the same player again. It definitely seemed like his injury popped the bubble of excitement the 1969 club had. Credits, fade to black, curtain.
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OK! Show of hands...which one of you is The Biggest Cub Fan in the World? Alright, those of you NOT named Ronald Santo, born in Washington state in 1940, put your hands DOWN.
One more pop quiz - who should be theeveryday "guest conductor" of the Seventh Inning Stretch? The marketing fools at 1060 W. Addison have forfeited their rights to pick appropriate guests, after the debacle that was Denise Richards(again...Denise Richards?!? Come on...what transpired theredeserves punishment that involves upside down hanging, permanent markers, Charlie Sheen and whatever bodily secretionsol' Carlos can conjure up at the time). But I digress, Ron Santo and ONLY Ron Santo should be singing "Take Me Out to the BallGame".
Now, onto what really matters - Santo in his playing days. The so-called "1969 Cubs", which was actually a team that finished no worse than third between 1968-1972, also finished no better than second. Of course the late 60’s – early 70’s team boasted three current Hall-Of-Famers, as well as 65% Hall-of-Famer Ron Santo.This is not a low swipe on the remaining original portion of Santo’s body that he still has dominion over, but, rather, the percentage he tends to end up with after the votes are counted. As we all know, the biggest argument behind the non-inclusion of nine-time All Star and Juvenile Diabetes sufferer Santo is that, for a team that won nothing, electing a fourth Hall-Of-Famer seems ludicrous. Many feel if it weren’t for the success of his three other teammates, Ronnie on his own merits would have been in there like a shot.
Well. At the time of his participation for the Cubs, Santo's accomplishments were overshadowed by Williams and Banks, despite his All-Star appearances and Gold Gloves. Considering the coverage he has received during his last four HOF near-misses, his constant presence on the radio, the documentary his son produced, etc, many would quite correctly state that Mr. Santo is over-exposed now. However, we feel that when discussing the greats of those Cubs teams, Ron Santo belongs in the conversation.
The first irony about my personal recollections of Santo was, although he is and was profoundly diabetic, the thing I enjoyed the most about him was the Ron Santo pizzas they sold in the stands. Santo has always dabbled in the restaurant business. But his first foray into food was the Ron Santo pizza, a very personal-sized wheel of dough slathered with some red sauce and a couple of bits of cheese and sausage that I would just stump for (no pun intended, again) upon entering the Friendly Confines until I was forcibly dragged out.
I’m not even sure if Santo was able to “enjoy” his product, because of his illness, but I sure did. I can’t even imagine what I would have to say about his pizza now – there’s a product at the stores called “Oscar Mayer’s Pizza Lunchables” that I believe resembles the late lamented Ron Santo pizza – but if we’re honestly recounting memories of the Cubs greats, I have to first and foremost disclose my love of Santo’s overpriced ballpark snack.
Most folks today either know Santo as the long-suffering monosyllabic drama boy who sits next to Pat Hughes every day on WGN Radio 720, or the equally long-suffering perpetual candidate on the Veterans Committee ballot for baseball’s Hall-of-Fame. Here in Cub World, Ronnie is most definitely a sympathetic figure, for how dare the egotistical dicksticks like Joe Morgan and Mike Schmidt conspire to keep a withering double-amputee out of the Hall? I suspect in the rest of the baseball world, who hold statistical tables to be sacred screeds, Santo is regarded as a pathetic grandstander who is too dim to give up.
The truth is, as a player, and factoring his disease out of the equation, Santo was not as spectacular as Banks, or as dependable as Williams, or as dominating as Jenkins. I can remember several times he failed in the clutch, and although we all loved him, partly because of his outsized personality, or maybe because of the pizzas, we didn’t get the same feeling of security out of him that we did from Williams, Jenkins, or even second baseman Glenn Beckert and shortstop Don Kessinger. He put out maximum effort, and was a fiery, emotional leader. There were plenty of opportunities and occasions to “check the pulse” of the Cubs during this interval of near-greatness. If you wanted to hear the company line, check with Banks. If you wanted to test the true temperature, you found Ronnie Santo and asked him how he felt at the time.
Santo was an “alpha-dog”, which his manager Durocher seemed to appreciate publicly, but in private Leo, being an alpha-dog himself, frequently butted heads with his third baseman. One day in particular, in 1971, the sparks between the two ignited into a raging and destructive inferno.
It is still unclear who initiated the idea for Santo to have his “Day”, similar to ones enjoyed by Banks and Williams.We do knowthat Santo chose this day to publically disclose, after an 11-year career, his affliction with Type 1 diabetes, which at that point in time was basically a death sentence, and we also know thatall donations associated with the day went to diabetes research.It was an emotional day for Santo, which should be unsurprising to anyone who has heard one of his “broadcasts”. Will Brant Brown ever be able to escape “Noooooo! Noooooo!! NOOOOOOO!!!? But I digress, again. Anyway, as you can imagine, the “day” was set a long time in advance, and as luck would have it, the late August date fell in the midst of what was becoming an annual Cub swoon in a tight divisional race, and Durocher felt the team did not need this type of ceremony to deflect focus from playing on the field.
Durocher needed sensitivity training about as much as Santo needs to lay off of theventi mochaswith double sugar.When Leo suggested to Ronnie that the day was unnecessary, Santo, um,didn't take it well.This resulted ina clubhouse fracas, in the dog days of August, in the cramped environs of Wrigley, and factions formed. Recent acquisitions Joe Pepitone and Milt Pappas, both noted 'clubhouse lawyers', took up for Ronnie against Leo, while other players such as Jim Hickman stood up against what was construed as insubordination against management. The team’s already tenuous support of Durocher was further endangered, and according to some accounts, certain guys never spoke to each other again after Santo’s "day".
I did manage to ask Fergie about it recently. What I said was, verbatim, "Fergie, what really happened back on Ron Santo Day?" And he replied, verbatim, "Aw, you're not gonna get me to say anything bad about my good friend Ron Santo." Consider: what was asked, and what was replied, and draw your conclusion, if you wish.
I didn’t think in these terms at the time, of course, but thinking back, I guess I knew I was watching ‘greatness’ when I saw Banks, Williams, and Jenkins. When Stargell, Clemente, Gibson, Brock, Mays, McCovey and Aaron, Bench, Perez, and Seaver came into town, I knew we were in trouble. I honestly did not feel that way when watching Ron Santo. In my eyes, Santo’s overall presence, as a diabetic, as a polarizing figure on the “1969” team, as a controversial figure during his “day” or during his criticism of Don Young, and as the color man on the radio broadcasts and as, arguably, the biggest Cubs fan in the world - if you take the whole picture in consideration, his place in the game is large enough to warrant enshrinement. But solely as a player,all else being equal, he was very good, not great.
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Along with Billy batting third, another thing we all took for granted was that every fourth day, Ferguson Jenkins would take the mound, and we could count on a great game, usually a win. In today’s pitch-count era, what Fergie did was mind-boggling, inhuman, video game-esque. His stats simply do not compare to today's pitching stats.
Because we're frequently accused of pessimism, let's begin bylooking at Fergie's worst season with the Cubs. In 1973, he won 14 games. These days, that, alone, would earn you close to an 8-figure annual salary. But let's also look at his past history, shall we?
Well, he won 20 games in 1967, and 20 more in 1968. He won 21 in 1969, 22 in 1970, and 24 in 1971! He won 20 in 1972, but that was a strike year. He sucked royal ass in 1973 – only 14, remember – then bounced back with 25 W’s in 1974. Unfortunately, he was a Texas Ranger by then. If you’re keeping track, that’s 6 20-game seasons in a row, 7 of 8, and after his one-year “decline”, P. K. Wrigley gave up on him and shipped him to Texas. We got a 2-time batting champ for us, Bill Madlock in return, who Wrigley refused to pay, possibly based on race, and then brought in a broken-down Yankee (of another race)who he paid more than Madlock was asking for, but hey, I’m not bitter. Not at all.
Fergie DID lose it one day in 1973, went totally batshit crazy, cleared out an entire batting rack out onto the field. Hell, Fergie did more just that one afternoon than noted hothead Milton Bradley has ever done in his entire career, combined. If that happened today, he would probably be suspended for fifty games, if not an entire year. Thing is, though, the incident did not seem terribly out of place on that frustrating, dysfunctional squad. By then, Wrigley had finally managed to force Leo Durocher out as manager, and was beginning to dismantle the great Cubs team of my early childhood. The team suffered through a 12-game losing streak that summer, a skein of such panic and hopelessness that a whole community was affected. Players as well as fans knew the last great chance to break the (then relatively miniscule) 60-year drought had passed, so it was not the end of the world that Fergie went nuts that day. Everybody forgave him, except for the perpetually out-of-touch Wrigley, who used the tossed bats as the skids to push the greatest pitcher in Cubs history out of town.
I mean, my God! In 1971, he threw 325 innings, completed 30 games, and hit 6 home runs! Did I mention he won 20 games 6 years in a row? This simply is not a man that should be traded. A year or two later, Billy Williams himself was traded to Charlie Finley's A's, but by then,Billy could not play the outfield anymore to his standards, and the newly created DH position seemed tailor-made for an old-warrior like he.
So perhaps one could rationalize that particular trade, but trading a man one year removed from a 20-12 record with 23 complete games is simply the most criminal act P. K. Wrigley ever perpetrated, and that includes Brock-for-Broglio.
Now I have met the man as well, several times, albeit not always in the best circumstances. I hate "autograph opportunities", because is the man up front furiously signing all the bats, balls, photos, cards that much more of a human being than all of those standing in line for the privilege? I always felt Fergie kind of felt the same way about it, too. To that end, he has established his own Foundation that supports a variety of Canadian charities, and he raises the money by typically charging 20 bucks for autographs. It's a good thing to be charitable. In the last couple of years, he has come to my hometown in support of his Foundation. He comes to our Elks club, a decent sized group of us gather around, chat a bit, we get to see the man in a bit more social setting. He still charges the twenty for the autograph, and believe me, I do not begrudge him or his Foundation. I believe though, his decision to charge is motivated as much by a desire to prevent mob scenes and autograph vultures as it is to support Canadian charities.
Fergie isn't as sunny as Mr. Cub, as smooth as Billy, as emotional and outgoing as Ron Santo, or as down-home as Rebel Hundley or Don Kessinger. Then again, my God, the man lost both a wife and a daughter in a bizarre incident. He also completely got raked over the coals in 1980 over a drug arrest. It wasn't quite the frenzy that the mid-eighties Willie Wilson/Dale Berra/Keith Hernandez/Dave Parker cocaine bust, or the recent steroid cheats, but unlike these other incidents, it was only Fergie, he had to weather the storm alone, and it had to affect him. He's had to deal with a lot in life, and that may explain why he isn't as "comfortable" in the spotlight as some of his 1969 Cubs peers.
But if you get the chance, pay your twenty, help a Canadian like Kurt get a proper pair of braces or something, and take the time to thank the man for everything he did for us in the pinstripes. There won't be another Fergie Jenkins.
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David Claerbaut wrote his book about “Durocher’s Cubs – The Greatest Team That Never Won Anything”. This is the Cubs team of my extreme youth, and of course, Claerbaut’s presumption that they were the greatest team that did not win anything is obviously flawed, but we suppose it helped sell his books. There have been better teams over the wide array of human sporting endeavors, in the long history of human existence, who failed to win a championship. We’re unsure, however, if any non-winning team was more famous, or revered by their fans, as if they actually had won something. Part of the reason why stems from the talent that did exist - three bonafide Hall-of-Famers, and a fourth on the bubble.
We’ve already discussed Mr. Cub, one Earnest Banks at some length. For good reason, he was and remains the Face of the Franchise. But it can be argued that Billy Williams was the better player of the two, and the best player on the 1969-era Cubs.
Billy Williams was money, kids. In fact, I cannot recall a single good thing that happened to the Cubs in those days that didn’t involve him, and with good reason. Between September 1963 and September 1970, Sweet Swingin’ Billy didn’t miss a game. But mere participation doesn’t seal the deal. Billy did it all. He was one of those left-handed hitting guys who looked sooo smooth at the plate – hence the moniker. He hit for average, leading the league with a .333 in 1972. He hit for power – 426 homers and a mess of doubles. Even though he wasn’t known for his fielding, he is perhaps best well known for one play – the catch he made in the “well” on Hank Aaron’s wind-blown drive, which preserved Ken Holtzman’s 1969 no-hitter, which incidentally was the first game I ever watched on TV. Billy didn't make errors, he threw guys out on the paths, not like Alfonso Soriano does today, but he did it all.
The team won far more often than they lost between 1968-1972, and as Williams drove in 98, 95, 129, 93, and 122 RBI, respectively during that five-year period, it stands to figure even to those who didn’t get to see him, that he was involved in most of the good stuff. He was not a spectacular player, with other-worldly talent, like a Bo Jackson or even Sammy Sosa. He was not a gimmicky guy, he didn’t click his heels like Ron Santo. He didn’t reach any major milestones, no 500 homers or 3000 hits, like Banks. He won the Rookie of the Year, but that was his last major individual award until his 1972 batting crown. I can’t really conjure up one particular game where he truly stood out, save perhaps the day the Cubs set aside for him in 1969, where he went 5-for-9 in a doubleheader against the Cardinals.
The one prevailing memory I have of Billy Williams is that, day after day for several years, in a time of my life where consistency and structure meant everything to me, when Jack Brickhouse read off the lineups before the game, Billy Williams batted third and played left field. Nearly everything else in life was variable, except in the “three hole” – B. Williams, LF. He was solid, you could always count on him, and if it seems like I am repeating the same thing over and over again, that is entirely intentional.
In these days of free agency and DL trips for hangnails, I cannot come up with a suitable modern-day analogy. He had the longetivity of Cal Ripken, the performance of, probably, a Jeff Bagwell in his prime, and the lack of controversy and total class both men exhibited. Just simply somebody you could count on, and take for granted. In fact, many of us were worried that he was SO taken for granted, that he would be bypassed for induction into the Hall. It was one of the big ups for the Hall that they remembered him. As Leo Durocher said, "Sugar and spice. Billy Williams was a classall to himself." I can't write enough, and feel I have paid proper homage to the man.
Feel free to pile on if you're my age, if you wish.
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By the time 1960 had rolled around, an entire generation of Cub fans had been born and grown up without a single World Series appearance. It must have seemed excruciating to them -- and we've seen that 15-year-drought double. And triple. And quadruple. And we're a quarter of the way into a quintuple. But I digress - the point is that P.K. Wrigley, in his infinite wisdom, saw that the Cubs had a problem and knew what they needed to do.
By God, they'd stop horsing around and start pumping some of that prodigious Wrigley money into the farm system! They'd get rid of long-time Cubs men in the front office and replace them with the most brilliant minds of that era! They'd take the league by storm, dammit! By storm!
Either that or he could go with the radical, never-before-seen approach of managers-as-professors, taking turns running the team and spending their "off-time" dispensing their baseball wisdom in a communal experience with all the young Cublings in the minor league system. A College of Coaches, if you will. And the Athletic Director who "coordinated" the system would be some douche with absolutely zero baseball experience but with a glare that was harder than steel.
Between the two, we'll let you guess which one P.K. went with. Naturally it was a disaster.
The original faculty of coaches consisted of the hilariously-named El Tappe, the equally ridiculously-handled Goldie Holt, Bobby Adams, Harry Craft, Verlon Walker (Verlon. Avon for men.), Ripper* Collins, Verdie Himsl, and Charlie Grimm. Later additions included Charlie Metro and Bob Kennedy. With a crew like that, apparently all one needed to have for their resume to stand out was ridiculous nickname.
The problem - well, "a" problem; one of many problems - was that to have a communal learning experience there must actually be a shared philosophy involved. The Cubs didn't have a shared philosophy. They had eight coaches with eight ideas on how to run a baseball team directed by a guy who didn't know enough about baseball to direct anybody. The coaches didn't help one another, they agreed on little-to-nothing, and as a result a team with incredibly talented players (four of whom were Hall of Fame level) never did better than win 82 games during the experiment. Like the White Sox with their game-shorts, the Cubs trotted out an aimless, confused, and embarassed team.
Admittedly, behind the gumwad of Wrigley's idea was a tiny hint of glorious flavor, but it's a small reward for the Cubs. After all, years later every team encorporates a solitary philosophy on baseball and employs roving instructors to teach that philosophy to the young players. But no team has a rotating manager. No team ever will again. And not many teams have such talent only to squander it on dumb ideas like the Cubs.
Next week we'll talk about the talent of the 60's, Leo the Lip, and perhaps even ... the '69 Cubs.
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I became a Cub fan in 1969, which amongst many, many other things, was the year Ernie Banks hit his 500th home run on a gloomy day in May against the Atlanta Braves. Obviously, every last one of his 512 dingers was Cubs property; so by May, 1969, Ernie had copyrighted the name of "Mr. Cub" for all perpetuity. Therefore, he was every 5-year-old Cub fan’s favorite player. It is a shame, however, that the Banks I saw was a weary, hobbled version of his former MVP self.
Mr. Cub was one of the very few happy accidents of the Phillip Wrigley era. Signed as a shortstop in 1953 from the suddenly inconsequential Negro Leagues, the talented, ebullient Banks stuck out like a Mercedes hood ornament on a rusted Ford Escort for the plodding Fifties-era Cubs. Ernie’s main weapons, ones he shares with current Cub Alfonso Soriano, were fast-twitch muscles coupled with lightning-quick wrists. In an era when most shortstops played defense and tried to get out of the way with as little damage as possible at the plate, Ernie’s league leading totals for homers and RBIs in 1958 and 1959 represented ultimate Value Over Replacement Player, as the kids like to say now, an ultimate VORP that was utterly wasted on these putrid Cubs teams.
Free agency has spared many fine players the same fate that Ernie suffered during his 19 years with us. It is hard to come up with a single modern analog to him. Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken labored mightily for many years apiece on some dreadful teams, but each managed to see October a couple of times. Michael Young of the Rangers has played 1,200 games without reaching the playoffs. Ernie logged over 2,500. Next highest on the list, is another Chicago player, naturally – Luke Appling. Ron Santo is fifth on the list. But of all the players in history that have grounds to grumble, to bemoan their fate, none are more deserving than Ernie Banks, and as you all well know, Ernie Banks is amongst the last people in history to actually do so. Year after year, Mr. Cub would predict a pennant, and whether he meant it deep in his heart, or not…let’s just say that either Banks was the most naïve man ever, or the best actor ever.
For the first dozen years of his career, there was absolutely no reason whatsoever to believe what he believed. Banks was and still is the Midwest distributor of pure, unadulterated "hope". In these days after the election of Barack Obama, we have been well versed on the definition of "hope", and Obama has been unfairly credited as the Midwestern distributor of this precious commodity. What President Obama was actually selling was "optimism", which is the idea of using information learned and applying that information to lend credence to a philosophy. Obama stressed "change" – but he based his optimism on the indication that his people were ready for it. In other words, he had reason to have "hope", and his timing was impeccable. But Ernie, his timing was awful.
Up until the point in time that Ron Santo, Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins blossomed, not only was Ernie Banks the best player the Cubs had, he was the only player they had. And by the time help arrived, ol’ Ern’s knees were shot, he was banished to first base, most of his gifts had diminished, and his manager, Lou Durocher, openly shopped him around the league. He was no longer the best player – Williams had taken those reins over – and by the fateful months of August and September 1969, which represented the closest that Hall-Of-Famer Ernie Banks would ever come to postseason play, he was depleted and could do little to stem the tide. If he was half the player he had been, the Cubs probably hold off the Mets. But such is life, and timing, and Banks’ timing was simply horrible.
Unlike several other Chicago sports legends with bad knees that immediately come to mind, Ernie has never wasted a moment’s effort on bitterness towards his former owner, management or medical staff. I have met him several times, first in 1977 on a Cubs Caravan in my hometown, where he made himself quite at home with my coaches from school and a few other local dignitaries. Even after a man’s portion of Wild Turkey, he gave all of us kids ample time and attention when our turn came. He asked me about my grades, and gave me a high-five for my efforts.
A buddy of mine lived in the same condo building as he did in the late nineties, and we often saw him in the lobby or the parking garage. He always had a joke or crack to make, and just like on his first teams, he shone above the rest of the snobs that lived in that joint. Things typically went as so: one time he rolled up in a huge Benz, which was necessary because, well, Ernie has a huge ass, thus he needs a huge Benz. As he and his huge ass emerged from within, we raved about his Benz. He replied that we needed to get ourselves our own Benz. I replied that I couldn't afford one, because I don't have baseball money like him. "Nah," Ernie said, "you know I didn't make no real money in baseball. This is my wife's money!" Well, sure, man, you were pre-free agency, and sure, all of what is yours IS your wife's, too, but come on – you're Mr. Cub, with a lifetime contract. Just a few fractional pieces of general truth in our conversation – the kind of schist that guys like to toss around.
Most recently, Jason went to Mr. Cub's wine tasting and found him to be most engaging – mainly because Ern wanted to talk Cubs, rather than wine. Nearly every one of my friends who claim to be Cub fans have their own story about Banks, and without exception he has proven to be accessible, attentive and interested.
Few athletes have endured the bad luck and poor planning that Banks had to endure, in a competitive sense. But he realized how fortunate he was. He not only got to play in the major leagues, in front of the best fans in the world, he also won 2 MVP awards, and was chosen as the "best shortstop of the second half of the decade" by MLB. In contrast to the never-ending swell of players now who claim to be disrespected over the difference between 15 million and 20 million dollars, Ernie Banks knew who paid his salary, and he understood that God smiled on him. Ernie "gets it". Claim "small sample syndrome" if you wish, but to me, the man has shown nothing but class, not only publicly, but to everyone I have ever talked to. Therefore I proclaim that Ernie Banks is class.
Jackie Robinson recounted that Branch Rickey insisted that Jackie swallow his pride for the first couple of years in the league, and turn the other cheek, until African-Americans were accepted in the sport. Because I am cynical, I have wondered for years if Ernie's "let's play two" persona was his version of "doing the dance" that Rod Tidwell resisted for so long in "Jerry Maguire". That somehow he felt like he had to be endearing, just as Jackie Robinson was asked to be humble, in order to gain acceptance. But, over fifty years later, there's no more reason to do the dance if you don't want to. Ernie Banks wants to dance, because that's just the way he is, and Phil Wrigley was right about one thing – too bad he didn't have nine Ernie Bankses.
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By the time of his passing, Philip Knight Wrigley -- known most commonly as "P.K." -- had owned the Cubs for something like 45 years. In that time he'd taken a Cubs team that reached the World Series 4 times in a 10 year span and turned them into a laughing stock with an epic World Series drought that continues to this day, more than 30 years since his death.
Cub fans commonly blame the championship drought on "the Goat Curse." But the reality is that there is no voodoo responsible. All the blame instead needs to fall solely onto the shoulders of P.K. Wrigley. But to be fair, he gave us something to be proud of. If only it was a competitive team.
Wrigley as Wonderland
The Cubs had been playing in Wrigley Field - or Cub Park as some called it - for more than 15 years when P.K. inherited the team. But it was through his marketing vision that Wrigley Field became the shrine that it remains to this day. Through his direction the park became the attraction. Ivy was planted on the outfield walls, lights remained banished from the park, and the term "Beautiful Wrigley Field" became a part of the Cub fan vernacular.
Wrigley also employed Otis Shepard - best known for designing Wrigley's Gum ad campaigns - to design not only the look inside the park but the look of the Cubs.
In other words, Wrigley's key concern with the Cubs was to make them look good. Unfortunately for Cub fans, he failed to consider just how awesome they'd look if they were World Series Champions.
And so instead the Cubs were a team where the fans were sold on the look. Come to Beautiful Wrigley Field and enjoy a lovely Sunday picnic! While you're there with your friends and family there will also be a baseball game on - not that the outcome of the game matters.
That was P.K.'s problem. For him baseball didn't matter. The only reason he held onto the team was out of some odd sense of loyalty to his dad William, the baseball man of the family.
Wrigley didn't want to spend a lot of money on things without some kind of visible result. He didn't want to hire the best scouts, or to sign prospects to meaty contracts. Wrigley would make a habit of selling his top young players to other interested teams. He'd come around slowly about integration, missing out on opportunities at some of the finest Negro League talents available. He'd also put his faith in Jim Gallagher, a general manager who apparently knew less about how to run a baseball team than the average fan in the stands (and was consistently hosed as a consequence by opposing teams).
And perhaps worst of all, he'd invest in one crazy idea after another. From spending $20,000 on a professional wrestling manager used to put hexes on the opposition to developing the brilliant concept of the College of Coaches (which we'll cover another time) it was one terrible idea after another with Wrigley.
Thanks to the century of losing and the dogma about Beautiful Wrigley Field, these days Cubdom is about as bipolar as was Wrigley's ownership style. There are fans like us who want one thing and one thing only out of the Cubs -- a World Series Championship -- and there are fans cultivated by Wrigley who only want to enjoy a beautiful afternoon in a timeless shrine where they happen to play baseball 80-odd times a year.
But the truth is that, while Wrigley made a landmark out of the former Weegman's Park, he also crippled an organization that could have been as successful as any other in baseball. He was the curse, the nightmare, the problem the team has yet to overcome. His legacy is a long shadow, his ineptitude at baseball has tainted the Cubs even now, and until they win a World Series it will be the legacy of P.K. Wrigley that defines the team more than anything else - even more than a Goat Curse, a black cat, or a Bartman.
P.K. Wrigley was a genius, when it came to producing and selling confections. The gum empire he inherited from his dad flourished to become the most successful gum company in all of human history. Wrigley Gum stuck to what was, at the time, a progressive business model - big investments in the physical plants where the product was produced, along with the machines used in the process. Equally big investments in advertising and marketing. As far as his product line, he stuck to the basics, and poured all his resources into his core brands. As far as "idea men", well, he didn't have any or need any. P.K. himself was a voracious reader where it came to operations management, and he made most if not all of the decisions for the Gum Empire.
Unfortunately, he ran his baseball club in exactly the same way. All of his resources were spent on the physical plant, advertising and marketing, and all sorts of "state of the art" medical and health initiatives that he read about in the non-baseball related material he favored. He fancied himself an innovator - but where his tinkering with machines served him well with gum, his ideas did not translate for the Cubs. In a time where the successful organizations hired "baseball men" and built farm systems, Wrigley could not bear to hire anything but "yes men" to run his baseball operation, A real baseball man would have to tell Wrigley that he should hire more scouts and spend less money on fancy medical machines, and no self-respecting control freak is going to allow anyone to tell him what to do.
What Kurt is trying to say, above, is if you love Wrigley Field, the anachronism, the shrine, the little slice of baseball's Glorious Past that it is, then you must thank P.K. Wrigley, in whichever realm of the afterlife which he resides. For part of the reason why all the great fields of the past - Crosley, Briggs, Shibe, Ebbets, even Comiskey - do not exist in the present is because they were not maintained and lovingly enhanced in the manner that Wrigley Field was. If it were not for P.K., the Cubs would have moved to some "ball mall" in the Western suburbs when the Tribune bought the team in 1981, and we would probably all be complaining right now that we should have a nice, new, 'retro' park downtown like nearly everyone else has.
Of course, if it weren't FOR Wrigley Field, there wouldn't be a demand for all of these 'retro' parks everywhere else, for they themselves all owe a debt to it.
But if you're like me, and you love the Cubs themselves more than their park, then P.K. are two initials you can't stand to see together. According to legend, it wasn't the Cubs that Leo Durocher was referring to when he allegedly noted "Nice guys finish last", but he might as well have been. Wrigley went out of his way to sign personable, white sluggers who couldn't run or play their positions, while ignoring most of the black talent or, in the cases of Lou Brock, Bill North, Bill Madlock, and in a way, Fergie Jenkins, pissed away the talent he had.
While I love Wrigley Field and am grateful for P.K. Wrigley's preservation of the park, I loathe how he managed to keep us in the second division for the vast majority of his reign. To hell with him.
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There is no such thing as the Billy Goat Curse. Let's get that out of the way first and foremost. Even if curses were real it would take more than a Greek tavern owner getting tossed from the stands with his pet for them to occur. There'd have to be blood and ceremony. Long-forgotten daemons would need their names to be invoked. Sacrifices would need to be made. Tribal dances around a midnight fire would need to be enacted. But try to tell that to a Cubs fan.
The 1945 Cubs were the last "great" Cubs team - and even then, the circumstances of their ascention have more to do with the war depleting the league of its stars. But there were a few legendary Cub players on the '45 squad who may otherwise avoid mention in this series, so let's take a look at them first.
A Chicago-born Cub, Cavaretta got his start with the team as a 17-year-old in 1934. He'd respond to that opportunity with a triple, a homer, and 6 RBI in 7 games and at the age of 18 ascended into a starter's role with the Cubs. He'd be their first baseman for close to two decades.
In 1945 Cavaretta was 28-years-old and the league's MVP. He'd lead the NL with a .355 AVG, a .449 OBP, and he'd drive in a career-best 97 RBI. Half a century later he remains one of the legendary Cubs, with only three first basemen playing more games for Chicago since his era.
Chances are he'll get more mention when we write about Phillip Knight Wrigley. Pafko was one of the last great center fielders to play in Chicago who was traded for a song in 1951. As a 24-year-old he led the '45 Cubs with 110 RBI and finished second on the team with 12 homeruns. In center field the Cubs eventually replaced him with Rick Monday and nobody else.
His name was William Sianis and he was a Greek owner of the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago; the goat was named Murphy according to some legends. For whatever reason Sianis took to his goat and began to cultivate his own physical appearance to look billy-goatish. Sianis would travel around the city with Murphy, promoting his tavern in the process, and wisely or not also began taking Murphy to games at Wrigley Field.
During the regular season -- and the stories are that Sianis and Murphy made many regular season appearances -- it wasn't an issue for the goat to be in the park. It wasn't a big deal for him to sit in the stands. After all, baseball in the 40's - and especially in 1945 - was not as well attended as it is today. Nobody would have to sit close to Sianis, and if they were seated near him and noticed the now-legendary stink of the goat they could simply move. But that was not the case in October of 1945. Seven years removed from their last trip to the Series and with a war ending, Cub fans flocked to Wrigley like it was a Baseball Mecca and filled the park to its brim. When Billy-Goat Sianis appeared that day with Murphy - adorned in a "We Got Detroit's Goat" cape and permitted to circle the field before the game - despite having paid for his goat's ticket to the game, the stink became an issue.
Even then Cub fans at the game patiently put up with Murphy's stink for seven innings before finally they complained to the attendants and asked that Sianis be escorted from the stands. The story goes that it was P.K. Wrigley himself who personally issued the ejection. Furious about the expulsion, it was then that Sianis uttered the famous words, "Never again will a World Series be played in Chicago."
And they haven't.
64 years later after several harrowing near-misses (which would often occur under mysterious, heart-breaking circumstances) and there are absolutely rational people who, at the very least, take pause when talking about the Goat Curse. After all, did you not see the Black Cat of '69 and the collapse of the Cubs? Did you somehow miss the fact that the Cubs once held a 2 games to 0 lead over the Padres in '84 and carried series-clinching leads into the 5th inning or beyond over the course of three consecutive losses? Weren't you there when the invincible-looking Cubs held a 3 games 1 lead over the Marlins in 2003 as a lazy foul ball fell into the glove of Moises Alou only to be deflected by the notorious Steve Bartman?
Haven't you seen it happen? The bad luck, the unlikely circumstances, the heartbreak? All because of a damned goat!?
There are stories about tribal societies in which if the death hex is put on somebody who believes, sure enough that person will die in a matter of days. Sometimes the act of belief is enough to transcend reality. If enough Cub fans believe in the curse, if the players themselves feel it and believe it too - even a little bit - then doesn't that make it real?
The answer is "maybe." Even though Sianis did not practice dark magic on that autumn day in 1945, even though there was no blood, no summoning of Baezelbub, no curse issued because of an expelled, stinky goat, the Goat Curse is real in the hearts and minds of perhaps millions. The good news is that we've seen such strong curses broken - the Red Sox just did it a few years back and the White Sox immediately followed. But whether it's real or not, imagined or dreamt, the Goat Curse has defined an organization far more strongly than the real culprit of the problems we've seen - P.K. Wrigley. We'll touch on his story next time.
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or: Wayne Drehs IS Evil
Goatfriend Wayne Drehs of ESPN Chicago wondered aloud what we would give up for a Cubs championship.
Heh. Well, those of you that know me know that I would give up nearly anything, but let's discuss some of you first.
Would you give up any of the recent Chicago championships? The Bulls Six-Peat, the Super Bowl Shuffle? What if the Hawks win the championship of Hockee?
For those of you who are not local, understand that Chicago is foremostly a Bears town. No, I would not put Bears fans up against Cheeseheads, or Skins fans from DC, or the lunatics who root for the Raiders. But there is solid Bear love in the city, and the 1985 Sweetness/Fridge/Ditka team still is beloved here. If you are local, I'm not telling you anything you don't already know. Short of a Cubs World Series, anything the Bears do on any given day will trump anything the Cubs do on the 10 o'clock news. Many of you reading this would even go as far as to put a Super Bowl over a World Series. I get it.
How about the Bulls? More specifically, how about Michael Jordan? I don't think anyone out there would equate a single NBA championship to a World Series, and there aren't that many true Bulls fans, but during the 90's, it was bizarro Sports Chicago. 6 titles in 8 years? Even non-fans were boggled by the sheer magnitude and opulence of it all. We in Chicago had our very own Dynasty, led by our very own G.O.A.T., which of course is not a smelly animal that eats garbage and gets banned from parks, but the Greatest Of All Time, the closer of all closers. For many locals, that's as good as it gets in Chicago, and I understand that, too.
Hockee, that there soccer crossed up with ice dancing? Well, it was on life support here until quite recently, when ironically it took the demise of former owner Bill Wirtz to revive the sport in Chicago. A small brave lot of holdovers have kept watch over the patient for the past thirty years, and as of this writing, the rebirth is in full bloom. But even Lord Stanley's Cup cannot possibly compare with the Big Flag flying over the North Side, can it?
Then of course you have to discuss what else would you give up, or overlook. Money, body parts, possessions, loved ones, other sacred memories. Would you welcome known felons? Certain cheats? Swollen, puffy, enraged junkmonkeys who smash balls in pieces and can throw balls through bomb shelter walls? Would you permit your organization becoming a laughing stock - a symbol for wrongdoing? Would you care if the Cubs became the world's headquarters of PED's if it meant we won a title? Who would you take in? Bonds? Sosa? Tejada? The Rocket? A-Fraud? Manny B. Manny a/k/a "Biaatch Tiaaats"?
Finally I have to mention Wrigley Field itself - the most famous "player" on the team, and one of the ten most famous sports venues on the planet. Time has marched on and on, teams and cities and stadia have come and gone, and Wrigley endures. Many of you were first introduced to the Cubs through the magic of Wrigley, on WGN and the SuperStation, and I know that there are just as many Wrigley Field fans out there as there are Cub fans. A good 2/3rds of the bleacher crowd on ANY given day would watch howler monkeys run around in silk pajamas down there as long as the ivy was green, the beer was still cold and the Trixies still hot and dumb. I understand if you feel that way; or, at least, that you love the park as least as much as you love the Cubs. Hey, it's a nice park, no doubt. What if the Friendly Confines itself was the Price that had to be paid?
Do you ask yourself that question, at least daily, if not hourly, every day of your life, even when the bitter cold of winter cuts through your new Christmas parka like a rapier? Honestly, for your own sake, I hope not - but I know there's a few of you out there, because I'm out here, and contrary to what a few of you have told me over the years, I don't think I'm THAT much of an outlier. I mean, I am going to be buried in my gray Maddux away jersey, in a Cubs casket, with the Cubs logo carved into my headstone, with Ryne Sandberg's "I did it the right way" quote from his Hall Of Fame acceptance speech as my epitaph. Certainly there are others, right?
Making the assumption that I am batguano crazy, would I give the Super Bowl Shuffle and the 6-Peat back? Damn right! In a heartbeat!
Would I give money? I already give all I possibly can, between tickets, merchandise, and every cockamamie scheme they cook up, like the "forever pavers" and the "Cubs Club". Would I give body parts? Hey, I have two sons, my work is done, you want one of my nutts, go ahead, it's yours. Want a kidney, too? How about some nice fat cells to fill in your worry lines and crows feet?
Would I want to see the Cubs cheat? Now, here's where we turn back to Mr. Drehs. No, I don't want to sully the franchise. But Wayne posed it thusly - "If nobody else in the world knew, but you, would you be able to accept cheating?" If nobody else knew...if there would never be any public shame brought to the franchise? If nobody else knew? Well, how is that any different than Reggie Jackson sticking out his hip and Don Denkinger making an awful call and A.J. Eyechart running on a dropped third strike that wasn't dropped? If only I knew...damn RIGHT I could live with that!
What about Wrigley? Here's where I may surprise a few of you. I have said in the past that I wouldn't give a rat's ass if they played every day at Troy Little League Complex in Shorewood if the Cubs won a pennant. And, if posed the question, "would I choose a World Series or for the Cubs to play in Wrigley for all of perpetuity?" I'd choose the World Series, 100 times out of 100.
BUT...point is, in my wildest fantasies, when they finally do win the big one, and the crowd is going bonkers, and the seventh seal is finally broken open and the Four (now 6?) Goat Riders stampede in from Heaven, and the true Apocalypse finally commences, I always pictured in my mind's eye that THIS party would happen at Wrigley.
So, no, I wouldn't give up Wrigley Field for a Championship. It just wouldn't be one without the other. I think most of us, for once, can agree on that.
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