SI Vault
 
First place always rattles a Cub fan
William Barry Furlong
May 28, 1973
Chicago has always had an instinct for a death rattle and its citizens have learned to make the most of it; the people found floating down the Chicago River with a lily on the chest and a hole in the head at least had the consolation of knowing they were getting out of Chicago. Nowhere is this reflexive rationale more apparent than in baseball, if only because the ball clubs make life in Chicago seem like a series of called third strikes. The White Sox have won one pennant in 53 years and the Cubs have not won any in 27. The attitude of their most fervid fans, the gamblers who gathered at the games, has been that while what they were doing in the bleachers was illegal, what the Cubs and Sox were doing on the diamond was downright criminal.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
May 28, 1973

First Place Always Rattles A Cub Fan

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Chicago has always had an instinct for a death rattle and its citizens have learned to make the most of it; the people found floating down the Chicago River with a lily on the chest and a hole in the head at least had the consolation of knowing they were getting out of Chicago. Nowhere is this reflexive rationale more apparent than in baseball, if only because the ball clubs make life in Chicago seem like a series of called third strikes. The White Sox have won one pennant in 53 years and the Cubs have not won any in 27. The attitude of their most fervid fans, the gamblers who gathered at the games, has been that while what they were doing in the bleachers was illegal, what the Cubs and Sox were doing on the diamond was downright criminal.

In honing and polishing their instinct for the death rattle, Chicagoans turn more expectantly to the Cubs than the Sox, for the Cubs have a particular gift for alternating hope and lamentation. The city cannot forget how they blew a 9�-game lead and faded to eight games behind the New York Mets, all in the last six weeks of the 1969 season. They also display a knack for the inexplicable: in the late 1960s you would look at the Cubs—with average pitching and fine hitting and perhaps the best infield in baseball—and ask, "How does this team ever lose?" But this season—as the Cubs ride the top of the National League's Eastern Division with Ernie Banks retired, with batting champ Billy Williams not up to his '72 form, with top pitcher Ferguson Jenkins struggling to win more than he loses, with a group of starting pitchers whose combined earned run average only recently crept below 4.00—you ask, "How does this team ever win?"

The answer in both cases is found in the manager. The manager has changed, of course, from Leo Durocher to Whitey Lockman, and so have the team's strategy, tactics and temper. Durocher's basic manpower policy was to take his talented players of yesteryear and push them to exhaustion, if they lost—as they did—he could say, "We lost with the best we had." Translation: "Don't blame me, buddy—it was all the players' fault." But Whitey Lockman has considered his men and counted their time to twilight—the average age of his top eight regulars is almost 32 and if the Cubs make it to the National League playoffs, six of those eight will be 30 or over. This is not to say they are tottering, but when the club celebrated Senior Citizens' Day last week nobody knew whether it was for the fans or the players. What Lockman is doing is providing a season-long routine of rest and rehabilitation to make sure his "old bones" are not exhausted by late summer. The program has already had gratifying results, if only because briefly rested players have come back strong. As it has happened, the subs have stepped in with hot bats, which has helped. One bench warmer, Ken Rudolph, has hit .319 and gotten eight RBIs as an understudy for creaky, oft-injured Catcher Randy Hundley, who was hitting only .202 with 11 RBIs in 30 games. "But the point of getting them to sit down isn't intended for that," says Manager Lockman, "so much as to improve how they feel in September." And, hopefully, in October.

Lockman has also changed the attack and the mood of the Cubs. Tactically, he has come up with a two-tier system of power, built largely around the power and speed of sometime leadoff men Rick Monday and Jose Cardenal. Under Durocher the Cubs led off with a two-hits-to-third strategy. The ideal was that Shortstop Don Kessinger would lead off with a single and move around to third on another single by Glenn Beckert. Then the power section of the Cub lineup—Williams, Banks, Ron Santo—would take turns driving in Kessinger, Beckert and each other.

But with Monday and Cardenal available to fill the top two slots, the Cubs now have a one-hit-to-home attack. Last week leadoff man Monday—at 27 the "infant" of the Cub starting lineup—led the Cubs in homers with eight, and Cardenal, often the No. 2 batter, had four. Thus they had the same number of home runs in 38 games that Kessinger and Beckert hit in the last three years. More than that, Cardenal was second on the Cubs in runs batted in with 21 and Cardenal and Monday together had more extra-base hits—32—than the "power" of the Cub batting order—Williams, Joe Pepitone (who was traded to Atlanta last week) and Santo.

To be sure, Lockman is not rigid about his tactics and sometimes is using Glenn Beckert in the No. 2 spot. Beckert has a controlled bat and a hot one. Last week he ran his consecutive-game streak to 26 before it was broken and elevated his batting average to .325. Lockman seeks flexibility and Cardenal is the key to it: Cardenal replaces Beckert, when Beckert is being rested and has replaced Williams in the power slot when he was out. The point is that Lockman is not locked into anything; he plays it loose and cool.

It is that change in temper that has helped elevate, and exhilarate, the Cubs. Under Durocher the atmosphere was always highly charged, with the players at extreme "ups" or extreme "downs." Few players felt this more intensely than Ron Santo, today the key man in the "second section" of Cub power. Santo is an unusual genetic mix: his mother was Scandinavian and his father was of Italian descent. He looks Scandinavian—blond, blue-eyed, open-faced—and acts nervously Italian. Early in the Durocher era—1966-67—he responded strongly to Leo's machismo. He hit .300 or more and led the Cubs in home runs, runs batted in, runs scored and runs produced in that two-year span. But bit by bit Santo's relations with Durocher declined and as they did, so did his performance. He hit only .267 for the last four full years of Durocher's reign. The nadir of their relationship came on Aug. 23, 1971, when—in the course of a volcanic clubhouse meeting—Durocher committed the ultimate indiscretion: he attacked Santo's personal integrity. He was saved from bloody retaliation by the intervention of four Cub players who had to hold Santo off. When it was over, Santo's depression was so deep that he felt that the only way he could recover was to get away from Leo. But it was Leo who left Chicago, of course, and last week a far more settled and mature Santo was hitting .349.

The sternest test of Santo's new serenity—and the Cubs' new style—will come when they meet their old mentor and tormentor, Durocher, as he brings his Houston Astros, a contender in their own right, to Chicago for a three-game series next week. It will be the Cubs' first confrontation with Durocher since Leo left. If Durocher, who has been ill, emerges from the snug safety of the dugout to coach at third base—a few feet from Santo—he will have a public chance to do what he always claims privately he is proudest of—putting his machismo where his mouth is. There in the third-base coaches' box, he will find out whether Santo will take the same things as an opponent that Durocher used to say to him as his manager. Then again, Leo may choose to stay in the dugout and yell at Santo from a distance, for if there is anything he should have acquired in his 6� years in Chicago, it is that high instinct for the death rattle. And an urgent wish to make sure it is not his own.

1