“Perhaps crossing the barriers of time has freed me.” – W.P. Kinsella
The passing of a baseball icon on Friday reminded me that the upcoming season represents 50 years of being a Cubs fan for me. Work stoppages and the current pandemic have shortened a few of those seasons, but a half a century of baseball equals something like 8,100 games, a large percentage of which I’ve seen in person or on television. Then you add in spring training and the playoffs.
Though I remember bits and pieces of the 1969 and 1970 seasons, it was 1971 when I sat in the Wrigley Field bleachers for the first time. A bleacher seat back then was your initiation into Cubs fandom. I’d been to games previously with my father, usually sitting right behind the Cubs dugout. We sat close enough to talk to the players back then, in fact, but those memories from ’69 and ’70 aren’t as vivid to me as that June afternoon in ’71.
Wrigleyville was entirely different in those days and we didn’t have to wait in line for hours ahead of game time to get a good seat. On game days, my father paid the same neighborhood kid two bucks to park his Impala convertible, so we literally drove right up to the gates. Dad took two of my cousins, my Uncle Red, and me out to the left field cheap seats that day and let the kids sit a few rows in front. It was close enough for them to keep their eyes on us, but we felt a million miles from adult rules and ballpark idiosyncrasies.
I believe I said but three sentences to my father the entire game that day and all were “Yes, sir.” Each was reverently uttered when he asked me if I wanted a hot dog, a soda, and the Cubs’ official brand malt cup that came with that awful flat wooden spoon. Sure, you risked the chance of a splinter piercing your tongue, but child safety was a trivial matter in the early ’70s.
I say it's not really the Wrigley Field bleachers unless there's an unemployed 60-year-old drunk teetering right above the left fielder. But that's just me. pic.twitter.com/heER1gnZiq
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) October 5, 2019
It was nearly 100 degrees that day and as my father and his brother watched the game sans shirts, my cousins and I decided we’d remove ours, too, only to be playfully teased by the Bleacher Bums. You see, having yet to enjoy the community pool that summer, the three of us had the types of farmers’ tans where our arms resembled the deep dark tones of a Hawaiian Tropic ad while our torsos were so blindingly white it was as if we’d just moved to Chicago from Siberia.
We sat next to two ladies who boastfully proclaimed themselves the “Bleacher Broads” — they even had t-shirts that said that — and they had a heck of a time comparing my nipples to pencil erasers all game.
“Hey, No. 2 (like the pencil, I assumed), I messed up my scorecard,” the blonde frequently bellowed to the amusement of her red-haired accomplice. “Can you bring those tits of yours over here and help me out?”
The combination of freshly spilt Old Style, the stench of half-smoked Marlboros and Lucky Strikes, and the sweet bouquet of neighborhood barbecues forged my first memories of the bleachers. My dad quit smoking a few years earlier because he lost a lung to cancer and he would sit in the bleachers occasionally, even though we had eight full-season box seats, just to get a game-long whiff of those fire-roasted tobacco products (Second-hand smoke? What’s that?). For me, it was simply the smells of the game and, like the preferred perfume of a first girlfriend, it’s something one never forgets.
I was first awestruck watching the Cardinals take batting practice because it seemed just like the Little League pregame ritual I had been used to. Outfielders casually chased lazy fly balls while the Punch-and-Judy hitters took their hacks, then I watched baseball after baseball fly out onto Waveland Avenue when Joe Torre took his reps. Back then, Torre was the only power hitter the Redbirds had except on the days Bob Gibson pitched. In addition to winning 251 games, Gibson belted 24 taters in his storied career, probably 90% of them against the Cubs.
The Cubs ‘cued the Cards 4-1 that day, thanks to a complete-game performance by Fergie Jenkins, a line-drive home run by Jim Hickman, and some great glovework at shortstop by Don Kessinger. When Jenkins wasn’t striking out St. Louis hitters — he had 10 that day — he induced about half a dozen Cardinals to shoot worm burners in the general vicinity of Kess at short. Number 11 doesn’t get a lot of recognition today, but old-timers like myself can vouch that he was the game’s best defensive infielder. Just ask Billy Williams about Kessinger next time you see him at Wrigley Field or Cubs Convention.
It’s hard to believe it’s been 50 years already, and it’s true, you never forget your first.
“Once a Cubs fan, always a Cubs fan,” my father would remind me back then.
Truer words were never spoken.
Cubs News & Notes
- Scott Mitchell of TSN believes that rumor of a potential Kris Bryant trade to the Blues Jays, with Kyle Hendricks included, is more than just casual speculation.
- The Cubs have signed backup catcher Austin Romine to a one-year deal worth $1.5 million. That represents the third-richest deal the Cubs have given a position player since 2017. Jon Jay got $9 million that season and Daniel Descalso signed for two years and $5 million prior to the 2019 campaign.
- Realistic free agent options for Chicago’s rotation likely include castoffs and reclamation projects such as Chris Archer or Trevor Williams, among others.
- Prospect Brailyn Márquez is aiming to be a mainstay of the team’s rotation, starting as soon as this season.
- Farm boss Matt Dorey has high expectations for many of the system’s top prospects.
Odds & Sods
By any number, Luis Aparicio was a living legend as soon as stepped on the field.
Today In 1960: The Chicago #WhiteSox introduce the first major league baseball jersey with the players' name on the back – a great idea from Bill Veeck! (Curiously, the team shows a Luis Aparicio jersey with the wrong number, he wore #11) #MLB #Baseball #History pic.twitter.com/t3h2K89uDL
— Baseball by BSmile (@BSmile) January 22, 2021
Updates On Nine
- The baseball world lost genuine royalty when Hank Aaron passed away on Friday. The governors of both Georgia and Alabama ordered flags to be flown at half-mast in honor of Aaron, who was born in the port city of Mobile and called Atlanta home for much of his life. The Braves opened up Truist Park to the general public for the first time since the 2019 season, allowing fans to pay socially distanced tribute to Aaron at his statue, located in a monument garden on the main stadium concourse.
- As his adopted hometown mourned Aaron’s death, some fans called on the Braves organization to change their nickname to the Hammers in his honor.
- The sad news of Aaron’s passing has also renewed the debate as to whether he or Barry Bonds is baseball’s true home run king.
- The Red Sox have signed free agent Garrett Richards. The 32-year-old righty pitched for the Padres in 2020 and the deal is said to be worth $10 million for one year.
- Super UT Kiké Hernández has agreed to a contract with the Red Sox that will pay him $14 million over two seasons. Hernández, 29, reached free agency with one priority: joining a team that would give him the chance to play one position every day and accumulate 500-plus plate appearances per season. Boston manager Álex Cora intends to start Hernández at second base.
- According to Dominican reporter Hector Gomez, the Red Sox are among six teams showing interest in slugging OF/DH Marcell Ozuna. The other teams Gomez mentions are the Yankees, Dodgers, Mets, Twins, and Brewers.
- The Mets appear to very interested in signing Trevor Bauer, but if anybody should stay as far away as possible from the free agent starter, it’s Mets owner Steve Cohen. In light of discrimination claims filed against Cohen’s firm Point72 Asset Management in August, and in the wake of GM Jared Porter’s disastrous departure last week, the Mets can’t dig a hole any deeper when it comes to the question of sensitivity toward women. Bauer has repeatedly set off sexist red flags with his online conduct.
- The Yankees have reportedly reached out to the Pirates on the availability of starter Jameson Taillon, according to MLB Network’s Jon Heyman. Earlier on Saturday, MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand and Adam Berry reported Pittsburgh was looking to move Taillon this offseason, possibly in the coming days.
- Hammerin’ Hank put up some amazing statistics at Wrigley Field, including 50 home runs, more than he hit at any other away ballpark.
Hank Aaron was an absolute legend. pic.twitter.com/axT6FS2Ytn
— MLB (@MLB) January 23, 2021
They Said It
- “It took me seventeen years to get three thousand hits in baseball. It took one afternoon on the golf course.” – Hank Aaron
- “Hank was diligent, very patient at the plate, didn’t swing at bad pitches. And that’s a tribute to his ability. He was swinging at his own pitch, not the one you were trying to get him out with.” – Fergie Jenkins
- “I saw some of the letters, and there were a lot I didn’t see because he wouldn’t show them. They were just low down. It was a trying time. He had to fight off racism. He had to have [security] with him at all times, had to have a policeman take his kids to school. A lot of stuff, you don’t read about. I remember after [Cubs games] I’d meet him [at] the Marriott and talk about the letters, the racism, and ‘What I’m going through.’ He had a tough time. I think he lost a few strands of hair. He was so glad when he got it over with.” – Billy Williams
Sunday Walk Up Song
Hot Fun in the Summertime by Sly & The Family Stone – Few things are better than an afternoon of day baseball at Wrigley Field.