Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Talking to Darrel Chaney: An Important Cog in the Big Red Machine

I had the good fortune recently to talk to former Cincinnati Reds player Darrel Chaney, a good baseball player and an even better person. Darrel Chaney wasn’t a household name in the 1970s—except to Reds fans who realized his importance to the team known as the Big Red Machine. 

Chaney could handle a glove at second base, third base or shortstop with equal ease. He pinchhit, pinchran and could lay down a bunt or steal a base if needed. And just as importantly he was a good guy to have around the clubhouse with his selfless attitude and sense of humor. 
A three-sport star in high school in the northwest Indiana town of Hammond, Darrel was a Parade All-American quarterback on the football field. A slight of hand master on offense, he also intercepted 27 passes in three years while moonlighting on defense. He received more than 30 college football scholarship offers but turned them all down for a whopping $8,000 bonus to sign with the Cincinnati Reds who had drafted him in the second round (33rd overall) in the 1966 draft (the Reds first pick that year went to California high school pitcher Gary Nolan). While Chaney was a standout in basketball and football, it had always been his dream to play major league baseball and he never had any second doubts about his choice.
After military obligations wiped out most of Darrel’s 1967 minor league season, he turned in a solid year for Asheville in AA while playing for an unknown manager named Sparky Anderson. Sparky had managed a few years in the low levels of the Cardinal organization and was brought to the Reds system by new general manager Bob Howsam. Playing alongside future Reds Bernie Carbo and Wayne Simpson, Chaney hit 23 home runs and Asheville finished 32 games over .500 and cruised to the Southern League pennant. “I always told Sparky, ‘if it wasn’t for me you never would have made it to the big leagues,” Chaney says.

As for Chaney, it was his handy glove that helped him make the big leagues. His showing at AA earned him some reps with the big team in the spring of 1969 and the last day of camp manager Dave Bristol called the 21-year-old into his office and delivered the news he had waited his whole life to hear: “Congratulations Darrel, you made the club.”
“I had a really good spring,” Chaney says. “But it was kind of good and bad. I was happy to make the majors, but because I was one of the only guys who could play second, third and short I kind of got labeled as a utility player right off the bat. That’s unusual for someone 21 years old.”
The early move to the majors cost Chaney the much-needed time in the minors to perfect his hitting against high-level pitching. He traveled north with the Reds in the spring of 1969 with only 776 minor league at bats under his belt. It would ultimately prove to be damaging to his career. 

In June of 1969, Chaney experienced one of those moments every kid dreams of—a ballfield close encounter with his childhood idol. “I grew up a huge Ernie Banks fan,” Darrel explains. Hammond is just south of Chicago. “I admired the way he played and the way he acted. After my 12-year-old season in Little League [1960], Ernie Banks was the guest speaker at our banquet. I can still remember the speech he gave. He told us, 'When you go to work, work hard. When you play, play hard, when you pray, pray hard. And always tell the truth so you never need to remember what you said.' After Ernie talked I got to go up and meet him and get his autograph. He signed it, ‘I’ll see you in the big leagues.’ I still have that autograph framed in a collage.

June 7, 1969 the Reds were in Chicago for Darrel’s first series at Wrigley Field as a major leaguer. Ernie Banks was playing first base for the Cubs. “I got a double early in the game and so I didn’t get to stop at first. But later I got a single. I was standing on first and suddenly I felt an arm around my shoulder. I looked up and Ernie Banks said, ‘Darrel Chaney. I knew you’d make it. Welcome to the big leagues. It’s a long way from that banquet in Hammond, Indiana isn’t it.’ There had been a personal interest story in the paper the day before and maybe Ernie had read it, but it was so great to be standing there on first base in Wrigley Field with my parents and friends in the stands, with Ernie Banks giving me a hug.”

Chaney played solidly in the field during his rookie year, splitting time at shortstop with Woody Woodward and filling in as needed in late innings around the infield. The Reds narrowly missed winning the division that year. “We had a lot of talent in 1969,” he says. “That’s the first year they started calling us the Big Red Machine.” The Reds were tied for first as late as September 11, but a rash of pitching injuries slowed them to 12-10 the rest of the way while the Braves went 14-4 and took the flag.
That was the excuse Bob Howsam needed to give Dave Bristol the axe. “I was really surprised when Dave was let go,” says Chaney. “I loved the guy. Still do. Everybody on the team liked him. He was always in there fighting--and I mean fist fights sometimes--just to back us up. You knew if you ever got in an argument with an umpire or got thrown out he was going to back you up. Comparing the two managers, I think Dave knew more baseball than Sparky. I know that’s saying a lot because Sparky won a lot of games, but Dave really knew the game inside and out. But he was from the previous regime and Howsam wanted to bring in his own man. It’s unfortunate because Dave should be remembered as the man who helped build the Big Red Machine. He had all those guys--Bench, Pete, Perez, Helms, May—all of them in the minors. He brought them along. And we were so close in ’69.”

Under Anderson, Chaney initially platooned with young Venezuelan shortstop Dave Concepcion who struggled at the plate his first few years. “I outhit him in 1972 [.250 to .209] but when we got to camp in 1973 Sparky gave him the job fulltime.” The multi-talented Concepcion had a breakout year in 1973, winning the first of what would be nine All-Star selections over the ensuing decade. 

With second base manned by future Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, Chaney found himself starved for playing time. “You get on a great team like that and it’s hard to get in the lineup," Chaney says. "Sure, I wanted to play every day, but it was great just to be a part of a team that good.” 

Fans sometimes forget that everyone with enough talent and drive to make a major league roster was a star in high school and wants to play all the time. It's difficult to accept a reduced role for the good of the team, but that's what Darrel Chaney did. Once he had a heart-to-heart talk in Sparky Anderson's office about his place on the team and his future. Sparky explained that with a future Hall of Famer at every position, there was little place for Darrel as a starter with the Reds. But he reminded him that he was still valuable for all the things he could do. "Be ready when the time comes."

"And that's what I tried to do," Chaney says. "When I got my chance, whatever was needed, I tried to contribute."

Perhaps Darrel Chaney's most valuable season as a Red came in 1973. Concepcion broke his ankle sliding into a base July 22 and was lost for the year. At the time the Reds were beginning to roll--fighting their way back from a deficit to the first-place Dodgers which had been 11 games July 1--and had drawn to within five and a half games. With Chaney playing shortstop almost every game the rest of the way the Reds went 42-21, caught the Dodgers September 3 and never looked back, cruising to a 99-win season. “That was an exciting year because the Dodgers had such a big lead. But we just played great and they didn’t and their lead slipped away. We had so much hitting on that team, all I really needed to do was just catch the ball.” 

But being a part of a team that good meant that Chaney could never coast. “I went to spring training every year for seven straight seasons playing to win a roster spot. I never could relax in the spring. It was a great time, but there was a lot of pressure. I never knew what was going to happen, if I was going to get traded or something.”
The trade came in 1976. Dave Bristol had taken over as the manager of the rebuilding Braves. It says a lot that he remembered Chaney from 1969 and wanted to bring him in to the middle of his new infield. Chaney was a starter for the Braves in 1976 and hit a solid .250. “It was good that I got a chance to start in Atlanta,” he says, “but it was hard leaving Cincinnati. I had a lot of friends on the Reds.  It was such a great city and a magical time for the team; to be able to walk down the street in Cincinnati and have people say, ‘Hey, you’re Darrel Chaney. Great job.’ I was part of arguably the greatest team in baseball history.  I sat and cried when I watched them win the Series again that fall because I wasn’t a part of it anymore.”

Chaney played four years for the Braves then hung up his cleats after an eleven-year major league career. He made the Atlanta area his home and worked briefly in broadcasting before launching a successful business career. He also was involved for years in the Major League Alumni Association and as a public speaker. Now comfortably retired in the mountains of northern Georgia, he and his wife will celebrate their 50th anniversary next year. They raised one son and now enjoy watching another baseball Chaney—a 17-year old grandson rising senior who has been noticed by college and pro scouts.
Darrel keeps busy as a motivational/inspirational speaker. Faith has played a important role in his life and he is a big believer in the importance of character in the lives of young people. In 2013 Chaney and a minister friend published a book Welcome to the Big Leagues--Every Man's journey to Significance: The Darrel Chaney Story. More than your average baseball memoir, it is an inspirational faith-based book that takes lessons from the triumphs and struggles of his career. 

Darrel learned the value of a good role model when he was young and he tries to carry on the message. He has a strong desire to help the future generation and be a good role model. "It was so great to meet my idol Ernie Banks and have him turn out to be such a nice guy. I tell kids, 'Find out about your heroes. Don't just like a guy because he's a great player. Find out what they're really like.'"
“Baseball gave me a platform. If I can use that to make an impact on someone else’s life, especially a young person, there's nothing better than that."  You can contact Darrel to speak to your group at his website: Darrelchaney.com

Looking back on his baseball career, Chaney picks two moments that stand out above all the rest. The Ernie Banks episode of course is tops. “The second was riding down the street in Cincinnati in the parade after the 1975 World Series [the Reds’ first championship since 1940]. People were hanging out everywhere, paper and things were raining down on us from the buildings. Everybody loved everybody. You can’t realize what that felt like.”

Reds beat reporter Earl Lawson wrote in Sporting News that one winter in the early 1970s the Reds installed a universal weight machine in the clubhouse. After watching the trainer give the players a demonstration, Chaney asked one of the coaches, “If I do this will it help my batting average?”
“No,” came the smirking reply, “but you’ll look better while you’re sitting on the bench.”
Darrel Chaney always looked good for the Reds, both on the bench and the field. Every great team needs a Darrel Chaney, a good character guy willing to fill whatever role is needed.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Book Review: The Black Prince of Baseball: Hal Chase and the Mythology of the Game

Hal Chase is generally viewed as baseball’s all-time leading crook, a degenerate gambler and general ne’er-do-well who had a hand in every scandal in the early days of the game and was a major force in establishing the landscape that led to the Black Sox scandal of 1919. The Black Prince of Baseball: Hal Chase and the Mythology of the Game informs readers that this may not be quite a fair legacy.  Yes, he was a crook and all the rest, but maybe not so monolithic, and in his nefarious activities he definitely had company, including some of the biggest names in baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Hal Chase was drawing raves on the baseball field by his mid-teens as he played throughout California in the early part of the twentieth century. Working his way up from town teams to semipro squads, as an unenrolled ringer on a college team and finally in various professional leagues, he often played for several teams at the same time. He quickly developed a reputation for two things: flamboyant, often brilliant, play in the field and the penchant for jumping to whichever team offered him more money, regardless of previous commitments.

After being a top drawing card in the Pacific Coast League for several years, the 22-year-old Chase joined the major league New York Highlanders in 1905. Charismatic, well-spoken, and a good-timing guy in the bars of Manhattan, the much-hyped rookie quickly became a favorite of both fans and the media. By his second year he was being proclaimed as one of the best players in professional baseball.

 While he was a better-than-average hitter, the enduring legacy of Hal Chase’s play was his excellence on defense. Quick, daring, with a strong arm and great instincts, he was exceptional at taking away bunts--in an era when bunting was a major part of offenses—and acrobatic catches became routine. He was considered by many, fans and enemies alike, to be the best fielding first baseman in the first half of the twentieth century.

But there was another side to Hal Chase, one that would ultimately overshadow his playing ability. Throughout his career, he is shown having difficulty getting along with teammates and undermining managers he did not like. He had a propensity for holdouts and jumping teams; he skipped practices, missed games with mysterious illnesses and behaved generally as a clubhouse cancer. In viewing the discord around him, it was perhaps no coincidence that Chase never played on a pennant winner, despite several teams that went into the season with high hopes.  

Traded to the White Sox in 1913, he continued his habit of personally thriving in dysfunctional clubhouses. He jumped his contract the next year to join a team in the rival Federal League, winning the ensuing court case but making powerful enemies of both White Sox owner Charles Comiskey and American League President Ban Johnson, men who controlled the game and knew how to nurse a grudge. The authors insinuate that it is these two grudges more than anything else that contribute to Chase’s ultimate reputation as the worst of the worst among  baseball’s rogues.

Back in the majors in 1917, but blackballed from the American League, Chase signed with the Cincinnati Reds. It was in Cincinnati that his luck began to play out. He had always enjoyed a flamboyant lifestyle, living far above his means, as likely to swindle a friend out of a poker hand as to spring for drinks for an entire bar after he had done it. As the authors note, at 35 years old in 1918, Chase was one of the oldest regulars in either league and “Chase didn’t have to be told that his big pay days were winding down to a precious few and that he hadn’t provided for even an overcast day." 

Exactly when Chase began throwing games for gamblers is not known. As early as 1913 he was being accused of laying down in the field, however, at the time it was felt that he was doing it to cause an unpopular manager to lose his job. Chase had long ago perfected the subtle moves of short-arming throws and arriving late to the bag to make missed throws look like errors on the infielders—the hustler’s art of playing poorly while still looking good.

Considerable evidence exists that by 1917 Chase was making money on baseball skullduggery.  There was a string of suspicious losses for Cincinnati late in the season, often due to uncharacteristic errors or baserunning blunders. Hall of Fame teammate Ed Roush told an interviewer years later, “He was the best first baseman I ever saw. He was also the worst if he wanted to lose a game. . .  You could tell after an inning or two whether he was in there to win or to lose."

Another Cincinnati teammate later testified that Chase approached him on the mound one day with “I’ve got some money bet on this game. There is something in it for you if you lose."

By 1918 Chase, emboldened by meeting little resistance from baseball’s establishment, was regularly meeting with well-known gamblers around the league and also attempting to enlist teammates and opponents to throw games. Reds manager Christy Mathewson, unable to tolerate what he felt to be Chase’s open disregard for rules or the team, suspended him in August, 1918 with the official explanation of “indifferent playing.” 

The suspension and subsequent evidence of dirty play led to a highly publicized hearing in front of Baseball’s National Commission. But while Chase’s motivations were well-known to players, proving it in court was another matter when the only witnesses were other dirty players and gamblers. Chase lawyered up and beat the charges.

Although the National League President was enraged at the outcome of the hearing, the head of the commission, Reds owner Garry Herrmann did not take the news so badly. He had earlier implored the other baseball leaders that if overwhelming evidence warranted expelling Chase from the game, it should be kept private to avoid any public appearance of wrong-doing within baseball.

This feeling among the baseball powers to overlook gambling in order to protect the image of the game provides a dark undercurrent to the book. While telling the tale of Chase, the authors provide an excellent look at the rough and tumble state of major league baseball in the early days of the twentieth century. The public was fed a constant reminder that the game was beyond reproach as “a model of morally uplifting athleticism.” This squeaky-clean image is shown to be misleading, however, as unscrupulous egomaniacal owners fought savage power struggles with league officials, routinely pillaged other franchises and exploited players bound by the reserve clause. Meanwhile ruffian players and managers showed little regard for rules and gamblers openly plied their trade in box seats. In short, there was little morally uplifting about the game, on or off the field.

The authors show baseball of the time to be a game thoroughly entwined with gambling. Owners and players alike routinely enjoyed gambling over high stakes poker tables, in pool halls, casinos, racetracks, and on baseball games, and often they were business associates of well-known gamblers and bookies. In fact, betting on baseball games by baseball players and managers was not even expressly prohibited until an edict by the National League president in early 1919.

Major league baseball in New York particularly was lousy with gamblers and racketeers. The Highlanders owners were Frank Farrell, well-known as one of the biggest gamblers on the East Coast and Bill Devery, a Tammany Hall crony who had amassed his fortune as one of the most corrupt Police commissioners in the city’s history. New York Giants czar John McGraw and a professional gambler co-owned a popular Manhattan pool hall which was frequented by many prominent bookies and lowlifes, including the notorious Arnold Rothstein. This was business as usual within the game of baseball at the time and no one thought twice about it, except maybe to double check the odds of the next day’s games before laying down their money.

There was no true will among owners to seriously combat gambling, in part because most agreed that gambling was good for the turnstile. “Betting had been so grafted onto the roots of baseball that there was little certainty in the sport’s boardroom that it [cracking down on gambling] was bad for business.” Even crookedness among players of the time was tolerated as long as it didn’t become too public, less fans at large perceive a gambling problem and lose confidence in the effort of the teams (and stop spending money to watch them). Although there were numerous complaints of throwing games, no player was ever sanctioned as the cases were quietly settled.

Of the whitewashing efforts of the owners, the authors write, “If Herrmann, Johnson and the National League President of the moment [members of the ruling commission] were not out and out crooks, they were sitting on a library of suppressed reports identifying who was.” The authors imply that the keepers of the game were as culpable as the gamblers and the crooked players in the growing corruption of the game. “If the stink in the air wasn’t that of institutional immorality, it was of the closest thing to it—random morality. Executives of both leagues acted satisfied with the sliver of difference.”

Assisting in the public whitewash were the writers who were indebted to baseball owners for their very livelihood. They went to great lengths to perpetuate the myth that all was wholesome and clean within the professional game. The authors state, “The subject of gambling in baseball brought out the worst intellectual contortions . . . Albert Spalding had made it abundantly clear that it [baseball] was an uniquely American enterprise . . . this seemed to call for a patriotic protectiveness in which only clear thinking stood as a scoundrel.”

And so it was in this environment of casual rubbing elbows with gamblers and tacit acceptance by owners that men like Chase saw the opportunity to improve their meager pay.

After he was exonerated by the National Commission, Chase played one more year, joining McGraw’s 1919 Giants. In the period following the Black Sox scandal, in which he was widely reported to be somehow involved without any evidence, the 38-year-old Chase became a pariah. He continued to play baseball for another decade, however, blackballed by organized baseball but making his way through the outlaw leagues of California, Arizona and Mexico. While plying his trade for peanuts in dusty towns, Chase was unable to outrun his reputation even though he had never formally banned by Baseball Commissioner Landis. Broken down, unable to make a living with anything other than a baseball glove or a pool cue, Chase eventually played out his days in sad obscurity as an alcoholic, frequently dependent on his sister.

The book is exhaustingly researched and provides great history. It flows smoothly in chronological order and is well-written in the academic style, but it is not for light readers. At times it is a slow read, especially during his offseason California ballfield exploits. Baseball historians will find this an excellent addition to their knowledge on the early game and the general topic of gambling in baseball.

The authors are neither apologists nor crucifiers, but present a fact-filled portrait of a flawed man. The question of Hal Chase is not an easy one to answer and should not be undertaken flippantly. He was a man with gifted hands, equally adept at palming cards, hustling pool and digging errant throws out of the dirt. He was an unrepentant womanizer, an uncaring absent father, a philandering husband, a gambler and at times seemed completely selfish and amoral. But perhaps no more so on any of these charges than many other ballplayers, some of whom reside permanently in baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Ten Things You May Have Forgotten About Babe Ruth and Why He's Still the Best

I can clearly remember the first time I heard about Babe Ruth; remember it just like it was yesterday.

I was three years old; or maybe four; could have been five. My father sat me down and showed me an article in a sports magazine that had just arrived in the mail. I think it was Sports Illustrated; might have been Sport. He showed me pictures of the famous Bambino and told me all the stories: how he had been a pitcher and then switched to the outfield because he was such a great hitter, how he hit more home runs than anyone ever had or ever would; and, most of all, how he had called his shot in the World Series. I was hooked, forever convinced that there has never been, nor will there ever be, a baseball player comparable to the Babe. I remember it just like it was yesterday.

Or maybe the day before yesterday.

Most baseball fans of a certain generation have a similar story in their memory banks, sort of a sports coming-of-age moment, when they first learned of the mighty deeds of Babe Ruth. Thereafter, we tend to feel that we know everything there is to know about him. The problem is that, like my own recall, sometimes we forget a few of the details.

I am always amused when people try to come up with excuses for why someone other than Babe Ruth may be baseball's all-time greatest player. I think the feeling of complete knowledge in the face of a faulty memory contributes to this. To me, it's a worthless intellectual exercise to even consider that anyone else is superior. There really is no discussion. No one else is even close. As a player or as a personality, the Babe was just that much better. It's unfortunate, however, that the newer generation may occasionally believe impostors with their fancy statistics and new-age reasoning.

I have always felt that any statistical analysis that doesn't start with Babe Ruth being the greatest is, by definition, seriously and fatally flawed and worth about as much as the romper the guy was probably wearing at the time he came up with it.

Here are a few reasons why I love Babe Ruth and things about him you probably know, but may have forgotten:

1) The Babe was a man totally without pretense or guile. He made no attempt to portray himself as anything other than what he was. Sure, his legend was partly the creation of a very astute business manager who was decades ahead of his time in the marketing business, and the Babe may have had a few habits that might be looked down upon in certain quarters of civilized society, but he was essentially a true character. He rarely tried to hide his habits or apologize for them. We were never forced to witness the Babe visibly shrinking in front of a jury or Congress, groveling and mumbling lame excuses, not-talking-about-the-past, wagging his finger in arrogant mockery of his accusers, suddenly forgetting how to speak English, or defiantly lying about his actions to save his miserable butt. I believe, given similar circumstances, the Babe probably would have borrowed a line from Popeye and asserted, "I yam what I yam." And the public would have understood.

2) He never tried to impress people who he thought were important and he never resorted to namedropping to try to impress anyone else. Everyone was the same in the Babe's eyes--a "kid" or a "dame," he treated them all the same. When he met the top man in the free world, the Babe confidently looked him right in the eye and said, "Hot as hell ain't it Prez."

Once, he was invited to attend a Gatsbian party at a swanky place in Manhatten. The next day he told pitcher Waite Hoyt how much fun he had at the party, with "guys with green vests and plaid vests and tails on their coats," serving an endless supply of champagne and of jumping and splashing in the huge fountain.

"Where was this?" Hoyt asked finally.

Somewhere in the city--the Babe wasn't exactly certain where--but "there was a dame named Mrs. Vanderbilt" who was the hostess. The "dame" named Vanderbilt was New York City's leading socialite and the site of the party had been her famous mansion at 58th Street and 5th Avenue--at the time called the grandest mansion in the city, know to everyone in America. Everyone, that is, except the Babe.

3) The Babe didn't worry about politically correct niceties. Not that he had any malice, he just didn't think about it. Once while helping New Yorker Al Smith stump for the Presidency, the Babe was speaking on a radio show with teammate Tony Lazzeri, who was of Italian heritage. "Tell me Tony," Babe said into the microphone, "who are the wops going to vote for this year."

4) He wasn't just a pitcher before he switched to the outfield, he was a great pitcher who could lay legitimate claim to the best lefthander of his era. People forget just how great a pitcher the Babe was. Consider:

He never had a losing season as a pitcher.

His lifetime ERA was 2.28. That puts him 17th on the all-time list (of pitchers with more than 1000 innings pitched).

He had a lifetime record of 94-46. That's a .671 winning percentage--which places him 11th on the all-time list.

He topped 300 innings pitched in a season twice (for pitch-count fanatics, he threw 323 in 1916 as a 21-year-old).

From 1915 to 1918 he put together a four-year run that rivals Sandy Koufax at his best, and Babe was much younger. When he was 23 years old, he already owned a career record of 80-41 with a 2.09 ERA.

He threw nine shutouts in 1916--a league record for lefties that was unmatched until Ron Guidry threw nine in 1978.

His 14-inning victory in Game 2 of the 1916  World Series for Boston remains the longest single-game effort by a pitcher in World Series history. With modern bullpens and pitch counts, that's one that will most likely never be broken.

The Babe had a run of 29 scoreless innings pitched in World Series play, a record that stood for 42       years, until broken by Whitey Ford.

He was 3-0 with a 0.82 ERA in 3 World Series starts.

Had Babe Ruth finished his career as a pitcher, he would have made the Hall of Fame at that position. He was one of the best pitchers during an era of pitching domination and then became the best hitter during an era of hitting domination. The only comparison for modern fans to comprehend would be if Clayton Kershaw decided next year that he was going to play outfield. To make the comparison correct though we would have to pretend that Kershaw had pitched in the postseason like he has in the regular season, which has not happened. And, oh yeah, Kershaw would need to hit 45 home runs--each year for the next 15 years.

5) Babe Ruth was not a slow fat guy for most of his career. In the 1921 World Series, he stole second and third base in the same inning. He stole as many as 17 bases in a season twice and had 123 for his career. He hit double digit triples four times and had 136 for his career. That's a lot of running, not just trotting, around the bases.

6) He did not use a diet of hot dogs, beer and women to stay healthy. Although he did more than his share of damage with all three, he was actually one of the first professional athletes to have a personal trainer. After his disastrous 1925 season, marked by the "bellyache" heard 'round the world, he hooked up with a former boxer who had a sort of gym for the stars in New York. Thereafter Babe worked out regularly during the winter months for the rest of his career and even took some dietary advice. This more than anything resulted in his remarkable performance into his late 30s which was decidedly unusual in that era.

7) The Babe holds up well to nerds. Babe was tops in Moneyball stats decades before Billy Beane was even a glimmer in the eye of Brad Pitt. He is baseball's all-time leader in OPS, on-base percentage plus slugging, and just in case you think he was artificially aided by his ballpark or the times he is the leader in OPS+ which accounts for that sort of thing.

WAR, wins above replacement, is the current stat de jour among the intelligentsia. A seasonal WAR of 10.0 or better is considered superlative and has been bettered just 56 times in recorded history. Babe Ruth did it nine of those times. He has the top two WAR seasons in baseball history with a 14.0 in 1923 and 12.9 in 1921, is tied for the third highest, occupies six of the top 12 spots and has the highest career WAR. However, rather than justify the Babe, these facts, in my mind, only justifiy OPS, OPS+ and WAR as valid measures of greatness (see above).

8) Babe didn't just usher in an era of home runs, or thrive in an era when everyone was hitting them, capitalizing on a new rabbit ball and small parks--he completely revolutionized the game and dominated all his peers. In 1920 he homered more than every team except two. While some of his run, RBI and batting average totals were certainly influenced by playing in the batting average-happy 1920s, the home run totals are a different matter.

A good measure of how much above the norm a player was is to compare him to other players of the time, who played with the same ball and in the same parks. In the history of baseball, a hitter getting more than 10 % of the entire league's total of home runs has been accomplished ten times. Gavvy Cravath of the Philadelphia Phillies did it in 1915 when he hit 24 of the National League's 225 (10.7%). Babe Ruth did it the other nine times, beginning in 1918 when he hit 11 of the leagues's 97 home runs (11.3%) while playing in only 95 games, 20 of them as a pitcher (13-7). As he led the league in home runs in 12 of the next 14 years, Babe had seasons such as 1920 when he hit 54 of the league's 370 homers (14.6%). For comparison, when Barry Bonds hit 73 in 2001, the National League had 2952. This gave Bonds 2.4 %. To equal 10%, Bonds would have needed to hit 296. Since there were 16 teams in Bonds' league in 2001, compared to 8 in 1920, without breaking out the slide rule we can say that, allowing for the extra teams, Bonds would have still needed to hit about 150 to have a comparable slice of the league's total. Still a pretty big task.

9) Contrary to his occasional remark to the press that "I always swing hard just in case I make contact," Babe was far from the modern home run-or-strike out guy. While he did strikeout more than was the norm for his time, it was not dramatically so--and nowhere close to the drastic difference in his home run total and the rest of baseball. He never struck out more than 100 times in any season. His most was 93 in 1923. In 1931, as an old man, he struck out a mere 51 times in 534 at bats, less than one in ten. He did lead the league in strikeouts five times, but the record when he started was 120 and 100 had been topped eight times by 1918. When he led the league in 1927 with 89, Lou Gehrig was a close second with 84. Babe currently ranks 121st on the all-time strike out list, just behind Dean Palmer, Gorman Thomas and Ellis Burks.

10) Babe knew how to rise to the occasion.  In addition to his early pitching heroics, on the offensive side, he twice hit three home runs in one World Series game. While the 3 home runs have been matched now 3 times, no one has ever come close to doing it twice.

He played in ten World Series, won seven. During those Series he hit 15 home runs in 129 at bats and had a lifetime Series batting average of .326. The average should be viewed with the knowledge that he was 1-for-11 in his first three World Series with Boston when he was a pitcher.

Boston had been in three World Series in the Babe's first four years and never won another pennant for 86 years. The Yankees had never won a pennant in their existence, but won seven in 12 years after getting Babe.

He hit the first home run in Yankee Stadium, the house that he built of course, and the first home run in the first All-Star game.

Perhaps the best way to explain Babe Ruth to modern fans is to say that he was "the Babe Ruth of baseball." Nothing more needs to be said.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Big Red Machine Takes the Field Again for Pete Rose Ceremony

Excuse me while I turn back into a ten-year old. I can't help it. It happened to a lot of middle aged baseball fans in Cincinnati this weekend.

It was Pete Rose Statue weekend at the Great American Ballpark. Everyone from the starting lineup of the 1975-76 World Champs was there with the exception of centerfielder Cesar Geronimo who lives in the Dominican Republic. Jack Billingham was there to represent the oft-overlooked, but extremely valuable pitchers, along with utility infielder Doug Flynn and former teammates Leo Cardenas, Tommy Helms and manager Dave Bristol.

Upon taking the stage, Rose told the cheering crowd, "Go ahead, you're not going to make me cry." He thanked sculptor Tom Tsuchiya, who had spoken earlier, but added, "You went on so long, 193 people passed out from the heat while you were talking."

He turned serious and told fans, "All those years, you motivated me." He talked about the proud tradition of Cincinnati-grown baseball players, Bill Doran, Dave Parker, Ron Oester and Buddy Bell. He could have included Don Zimmer, Ken Griffey, Jr., Barry Larkin and Joe Nuxhall. "All those guys had one thing in common, they all busted their asses on the field."

After telling the crowd, "I love these guys up here," Rose proceeded to show his love in his unique way--with insults: "I met Tony Perez in 1960 at Geneva, New York. I was 2 days out of Western Hills high school here in Cincinnati and he was 3 months out of Cuba. I've known him for 57 years. I was just talking to him back there and I still have no idea what he's saying."

Concepcion: "Because Davey lives in Venezuela we don't know how long he's gonna be around."

He pointed to his teammates, "Up here you've got the greatest catcher in the history of the game, the greatest second baseman in the history of the game, Tony, the greatest Cuban player in history." He looked at Griffey, "Griff, I'm not going to say you were even the greatest player from Donora, Pennsylvania because your kid was born there. Stan Musial wasn't bad either."

Rose thanked baseball owners. "We need to thank all the owners. Because if it wasn't for them we wouldn't get to play. But owners should know that if we were playing today, I would break the damn bank. So would Johnny and Joe and Tony."

In a later Q & A session, Rose and Bench said they had settled their publicized differences and later joked about their failed joint business ventures in a car dealership and bowling alley in the early '70s.

Yes, Pete Rose has committed transgressions and will likely continue to pay for them. But every time he makes an appearance at the Great American Ball Park, the Reds' owners can count on a sellout and Saturday was no exception--the largest crowd since Opening Day.

Out of town writers sometimes seem baffled when they discuss the city's love affair with Pete Rose. Sure, he's the ultimate home town sandlot kid who made good and he played the game with an enthusiasm and passion matched by few players in history. But it's also the team that the fans come to see and celebrate; the unique, wildly successful, entertaining team; a collection of superstars that we know could never be assembled in the modern game.

It was an era in which star players could be counted on to remain with their team for a decade or more. Fans knew their personalities and quirks; saw them around town, just like normal people. And it was such a fun team to watch--they were never out of any game until the last out. We are from a generation of kids who ran to get the newspaper every morning before breakfast to check the box scores; who found seemingly all of our team's players atop the Sunday stats; who listened to Joe and Marty regularly on the radio, hearing "And this one belongs to the Reds," not every single night, but at  least a hundred times a year, and sometimes even more; who watched our team of stars--true superstars--play through the postseason seemingly every single year. We were spoiled as kids--we had no idea it wouldn't always be that way. So now we jump at the chance to remember them again.

It didn't take long Saturday for the decades to melt away--suddenly it was 1975 all over again with family trips to Riverfront Stadium, that space-aged round concrete and plastic-grassed giant that once stood just a few hundred yards away; where crowds of 50,000 or more gathered to watch great baseball. Where six bucks got you a blue seat--the best seats in the place.

 These men on the stage were no longer in their 70s, but were once again great young athletes in polyester beltless uniforms ruling the sport world.

A collection of men who won four pennants and five National League MVP Awards in seven years

Joe Morgan was not a frail man who has battled severe health problems the past year, hobbling on two crutches, being helped to his seat by teammates Billingham and Concepcion, but a cocky little guy with big side burns and an even bigger grin, flapping his back arm at the plate in that unmistakeable batting stance, drawing a walk late in a game, taking a huge lead off first and stealing second, even though everyone in the place knew he would.

Dave Concepcion wasn't gray-headed with a receding hairline, but was an impossibly skinny acrobatic kid whose physique at his first spring training prompted Rose to remark, "That guy doesn't need to worry about pulling a muscle, he doesn't have one;" ranging far to his right to spear a grounder in the hole and throwing a one-hopper off the turf to first.

There's Johnny Bench, driving in runs, showing off that glorious right arm, daring opposing teams to try it.

And Tony Perez, seemingly content to be the unsung hero behind the scenes, allowing room for the other big egos, but always coming through when it counted in the late innings.

Jack Billingham, unjustly ignored like all Big Red Machine pitchers, but finishing his career with a World Series ERA that is still the second best in history--just a notch better than two guys named Sandy and Babe.

And Foster and Griffey, power and speed, stars in their own right.

And, of course, Pete, charging around second base without slowing, helmet and hair flying, then launching himself horizontally and arriving in a cloud of dust.

They will live forever in the collective memory of their fans, and now in bronze outside the park.

Overall, it was a fun day. It was good to see all the players once more, to reminisce about the glory years, and to be ten years old again. Just for a while.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Putting the Memories in the Memorabilia Business

Hey gang,
It's your intrepid sports reporter Jacques Niffer back with another exclusive.

I've been hearing some disturbing rumors the past few years about the amount of fraud that's taking place in the memorabilia business. With that in mind, I decided to go undercover for an investigative, first-hand look at the underbelly of the business. I recently attended a national baseball memorabilia show, disguised as a gullible nerd. Let's roll the tape:

JN: This looks like a good place to start. This guy bills himself as Mr. Nearmint and seems to have a little bit of everything. Excuse me, sir.

MN: (with his back turned, shuffling through a stack of photos) Yea, whadduya want?

JN: I couldn't help noticing your fine collection. I'm a longtime baseball fan and I've got a lot of money to spend.

MN: (immediately turning, smiling broadly) Well, why dincha say so? You've come to the right place.

JN: I've heard you can't be too careful. That some dealers are less than reputable.

MN: You're right about that. You gotta watch some of these guys. But, hey, nobody's got more repute than yours truly. What are ya interested in?

JN: I like just about everything. I love staying in touch with the game through spending large amounts of money on seemingly insignificant items that remind me of my childhood heroes. Stuff that will probably sit in my closet only to be gotten out a few times a year when I want to show off for someone who will either not be interested or will hate my guts out of jealousy.

 MN: I know just whacha mean. Why I fell in love with baseball when I was a kid. I played shortstop  on my reform school team. I was the leadoff hitter; stole more than 20 bases. And twice that many hubcaps. And, hey, this business is really all about the kids.

MN: (turning around, interrupted by a 10-year-old with greased-back hair wearing a leather jacket): Where the hell you been Vinnie? I need your stuff. I'm trying to run a business here.

Kid: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I told ya I'd have 'em finished today didn't I?  Here's the whole stack of those autographed pictures you wanted.

MN: Did you spell the names right this time?

Kid:  Where's that C-note you promised me?

MN: (Reaches in his pocket and pulls out a wad of rumpled bills and peels one off). Here, now beat it, ya little shit.

(turns back to JN)  Now where were we. Oh yeah, the kids. That's what baseball's all about, right? But back to you. I can tell you're a man with a nose for a good deal. I got something you should be interested in. Just came in this morning. I heard some guys talking about the time Mickey Mantle sent a box of crap to a dealer who was always bugging him for stuff.

JN: He sent him a box of stuff like balls and bats?

MN: No, literally his crap. He meant it as an insult but the guy saved it and now it's worth a lot of dough.

JN: So that pile is worth a pile now.

MN: Huh? Anyways, I got to thinking and had one of my associates to dig up this. (Proudly pulls out a small tupperware dish containing a dark brown blob). It's Babe Ruth's.

JN: (trying to keep from gagging) Babe Ruth? But it looks like it's still steaming.

MN: No, no, that's just from the air conditioning in here. This is the real poop, if you know what I mean.

JN: How do we know it's from Babe Ruth?

MN: Look there's a little chunk of hot dog in there. Everybody knows how much the Babe loved hot dogs. Right?

JN: Impressive, but, I think I'll let that pass.

MN: I'm telling you, this won't lay here for long. This is the sort of stuff that moves quick. Somebody's gonna sniff this out and scoop it up and later this is gonna be worth a load. I'm telling ya, the sales of this stuff will wipe out everything else.

JN: Do you really think it'll go for that much?

MN: Well, if it's not the most valuable thing in here it's a solid number two.

JN: Thanks anyway. What else do you have?

MN: (Looks around and picks up a pair of shoes) Well how about these? These here shoes were the ones Joe Jackson never wore.

JN: A pair of pennyloafers?

MN: That's right. These were never worn by Joe. That's why they called him Shoeless Joe. Must be worth a fortune but I'll letcha have 'em for a hundred bucks.

JN: (pointing to a row of jerseys) What about that uniform jersey?

MN: Now this here is an official game-worn jersey from Ted Williams. Wore it all through the year in 1941. And if you know yer history you know that was the year he hit .400. No tellin' what this will be worth in a few years.

JN: (holding the jersey close) But it's made of polyester.

MN: (leans close and makes a fist) What about it?

JN: Um, well, I'll bet it was comfortable. (Pointing to a stack of photos).  You know this autographed picture of Ty Cobb looks interesting. But it looks like it was signed with a Sharpie. Did they have those back then?

MN: Of course. Everybody knows they was invented in 1903 by, um, Leopold Sharpie.

JN: Hmmm. What can you tell me about that Joe DiMaggio bat?

MN: I can see you've got a good eye. This even comes with a picture of Joe hisself signing it for me. Makes it worth twice as much.

JN: (inspecting the picture)  It looks like an old ad for Mr. Coffee with a polaroid of you holding a bat taped on to it. And I thought DiMaggio only had one M.

MN: What are you trying to say?

JN: Nothing, nothing. But  I was told I should get a Certificate of Authenticity with anything, you know, to make sure I don't get cheated.

MN: (stops smiling) A what?

JN: You know, some sort of guarantee.

MN: You want a guarantee? (grabs a piece of paper and starts scribbling)  Here, it says,"I hearby swear that if you think anything you get from me is a friggin' cheat, I guarantee I'll personally break your friggin' face." How's that?

JN: (running down the hall, being chased by Mr. Nearmint): Looks like that's all the time we have for today, fans. And remember, the baseball memorabilia business is an honest as the day is long. Have fun collecting.


Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Ballad of Mr. Cub and Leo the Lip

It was one of the most intriguing matchups in baseball history. Ernie Banks and Leo Durocher--thrown together in the same clubhouse. Rarely have two more disparate characters been coupled outside of a lousy television sitcom. Smiling Ernie Banks, the perpetually glass-is-half-full line drive of sunshine; a man so outrageously optimistic that he actually claimed the Cubs had a chance each spring when everyone else in the western hemisphere knew otherwise; but a man unable to lift his team out of mediocrity, no matter how brilliantly he played. Leo Durocher, the consummate tough-talking, rule-bending, angle-playing wise guy, who never hesitated to break any person in his way; a man summoned to Chicago to try to rescue a moribund franchise.

While Ernie was loved by millions and, except for a few ex-wives, liked by virtually everyone else, Leo was . . .  well, I’m sure he must have once had a dog who acted like he liked him at dinner time.

Before he arrived in Chicago, Leo Durocher was already a baseball legend, an outsized caricature who dominated every scene by sheer force of personality. His baseball career had started with the Yankees of the late 1920s where as a hustling, under-talented shortstop, he famously had trouble getting along with Babe Ruth, who called him “the all-American out.” And he either did or did not steal the Babe’s watch, depending on whose version you're willing to believe. As a manager Leo had taken over losing teams in Brooklyn and New York and turned both into pennant winners.
Possessing a voice with the commanding ring of a Marine drill sergeant and a snarl savage enough to give even the toughest of badasses pause, Leo could captivate a group of men like few others. Learning at an early age that yelling was the way for him to get the upper hand in life, he had an explosive temper that begged for anger management therapy.
Durocher routinely used every vile invective and slur against both his players and opponents. Jews were Kikes, Italians were Dagos, and Blacks were, well, called much worse. And according to the grammatical rules Leo preferred, the slurs were most often used as adjectives, surrounded by other less-than-endearing terms, such as when he often referred to pitcher Ken Holtzman--to his face and in front of teammates--as a “gutless Kike bastard.”
But it could not be accurately said that Leo was racist. He hated everyone equally--regardless of race, religion or belief--who stood between him and victory. He had taken a stand for Jackie Robinson during Jackie’s first spring with the Dodgers, telling a late-night meeting of the team, “I’ll play an elephant if he can do the job, and to make room for him I’ll send my own brother home.”  With the Giants he had been a father figure to Willie Mays who adored him.
Leo never lacked for enthusiasm, especially when there was a microphone in his face or a photographer nearby. While he loved publicity in general, he hated media members personally. For their part writers uniformly despised the man, but loved the fact that he was in their city; if nothing else, he was always good for easy copy.
As a player and manager Leo Durocher was a master of the dark arts of baseball. Flinging dirt in infielders faces, kicking balls out of their gloves, stealing signs, beanballs, intimidation, nothing was too much if it helped him win a game. He would say virtually anything from the dugout to give his team an edge. When he yelled to his pitcher from the dugout, “Stick one in his ear,” no one doubted that he meant it with all his heart. No fan of sportsmanship, Leo said “Show me a good loser in professional sports, and I’ll show you an idiot.” And, “I believe in rules. Sure I do, if there weren’t any rules, how could you break them?” He wanted “scratching, diving, hungry ballplayers who come to kill you,” on his team. He freely admitted that if his mother was rounding third with the winning run he would trip her—but just to show that he did have a heart, he added that he would pick the old lady up and brush her off afterwards.

But few men could get more out of a team than Leo Durocher. While he knew baseball and knew how to win, he was extremely hard on his players. For those who won his approval, who showed their toughness through fire, they were his guys for life, or until the next loss. Only a certain type of ballplayer, with a certain tough hide, could play for Leo Durocher. His past was littered with the carcasses of players for whom he had no use; men he had broken. He loved letting his team know that no one’s job was secure, no matter the past. His favorite expression was to “back up the truck” as in loading up all the unwanted players and carting them away.
Brutally frank and decisive, if Leo ever had a doubt about anything he did, he never showed it. Confidence exuded from his pores and enveloped him like a bad cologne. He was absolutely certain deep in his heart that there was no man whom he couldn’t bluff out of a pot while holding a hand full of nothing and there was no dame he couldn’t talk out of her pants with a few well-chosen words and a fist full of charm.

Although Leo had not managed a baseball team since 1955 he had remained very much in the public eye by coaching, commentating on televised games and being a general celebrity. He was perhaps the only man who could boast of achieving the 1960s cultural trifecta of appearing on the Mr. Ed, Munsters and Beverly Hillbillies television shows (as himself of course). When Fred Flintstone was wooed by a no-nonsense big league manager named Leo Ferocious of the Boulder City Giants, no one doubted who the cartoon character represented. 

Ernie Banks was in many ways the polar opposite of Leo Durocher, exactly the kind of nice guy Leo famously said finished last. While Leo spent a lifetime refining how to get what he wanted by climbing in faces and forcing uncomfortable situations, Ernie was a walking conflict-avoidance seminar. He was constitutionally, almost pathologically, unable to have a forceful face-to-face disagreement with another human being. Want to know the essence of Ernie Banks: a 1967 clubhouse encounter with teammate Ron Santo tells you all you need to know. Santo played with Banks for more than a decade and knew him as well as anyone, which is to say he didn’t have a clue what made the man tick. When the hot-headed Santo entered the clubhouse the day after a tough loss and flew into a tirade, Ernie calmly pleaded, “Don’t let the past influence the present."

Santo turned on Banks and exploded, “What the hell’s wrong with you? You like losing?”

Ernie merely walked away while saying something about it being a lovely day—the fact that it was cloudy and drizzling at the time did not matter—and that it was time to “beat the Pirates, beat the Pirates.” That day, the Cubs did beat the Pirates, winning 8-4 and  Ernie’s two doubles and Santo’s home run accounted for four RBIs.

Avoidance of conflict, avoidance of controversy, show the world only happy thoughts, put a positive spin on virtually everything; this was the protective hard-shelled candy coating in which Ernie Banks had successfully encased himself. It was a philosophy born of a combination of the optimism of Ernie’s Negro League manager, Buck O’Neil, and the ultraconservative don’t-ever-show-anybody-what-you-really-think and, above all, don’t-stand-out, Ernie’s father preached as a way to survive the uncompromising Jim Crow life of Dallas in the 1930s and 1940s.

It was a seemingly simple aura of smiling optimism and it worked well for Ernie. But was it the real Ernie Banks? We’ll never know, because he never told. Even those closest to him were never able to penetrate the candy coating. Few people, if any, ever knew the true Ernie Banks.

 And where Leo loved talking to the media about himself, Ernie could not be forced to talk about himself by any means. Unfailingly polite with the media, he would hold forth at length spouting his well-worn clich├ęs and meaningless optimistic proclamations and at the end of a half hour, the writer would have absolutely nothing. Even when young Ernie was copping consecutive MVP awards in the late ‘50s, writers approaching him for a personal story would come away with only, “Yessir, yessir, quite an honor to be included with these guys. That Willie Mays, what a great player. And, my, Henry Aaron. What a fantastic year he had.”

By the mid-1960s Ernie had perfected a smiling two-step whenever a writer got too close: “Thank you, thank you, it’s a beautiful day for baseball here at the friendly confines,” he would say while walking the writer to the other side of the clubhouse. “And the guys you want to talk to are right here, Donnie Kessinger and Glenn Beckert. Two of the next stars. The best young double play combo in baseball.” And when the writer turned around, Ernie would have vanished. It was a polished, seemingly effortless, shtick and always left Ernie looking like a good guy, while both giving young players some exposure and saving Ernie from any truly prying questions.
By 1966 Ernie had been in Chicago a dozen years, the face of the franchise, not only a perennial All-Star but recognized as one of the game’s great gentlemen off the field. He never turned down a request for an autograph or a speaking engagement, often appearing gratis at Little League banquets and the like throughout the upper Midwest. He had a rare moral compass that refused to allow any public perception of trouble. Through all the losing years he never said a bad word about management. Ernie was the ultimate organization man for a team without organization. When he began to be referred to publicly as Mr. Cub in the early 1960s, no one disagreed. Banks had been one of baseball’s top hitters, hitting more home runs between 1955 and 1960 than anyone in the game. Although never out of shape, still retaining the thin frame that impossibly launched all those home runs, Ernie had not aged well. Chronic knee problems and a variety of other ailments had cut his production and forced a move from shortstop to first base in 1961. By 1966 Banks visibly hobbled at times on the field and in the dugout.

Leo Durocher, at 59, was still very much an energetic, dynamic, forceful, dominating personality when he was hired to manage the Cubs for the 1966 season. He was the alpha male of all he surveyed. Leo’s impact on the windy city was both immediate and seismic. The Cubs were fresh off four years of PK Wrigley’s ridiculous College of Coaches experiment and had not finished above 7th place since 1959. “I’m not a nice guy,” Leo said at his Chicago unveiling in October 1965. In case anyone was wondering, he added, “I’m still the same SOB I always was.”

 “Pitching, defense and speed, that’s the kind of ball club I like,” pronounced Durocher that day. “And that’s what I’m going to be working toward with the Cubs. Hit and run, bunt, steal. You can’t win with those big slow-footed guys even if they do hit one out of the park for you once in a while.” Initially Durocher said, “As for Banks, he comes with the franchise and I’m glad to have him on my side for a change.” But anyone with even remote knowledge of the game could see that Leo obviously had other plans for the slow-footed first baseman who could no longer run, bunt or steal.

Shortly after taking over the Giants in 1949, as part of his master plan that would produce two pennants and a world championship within five years, Leo had traded thirty-something year old All-Stars Johnny Mize and Walker Cooper--less than two years removed from combining for 86 home runs—peddling them to open space on the team for the kind of guys he liked. He wanted to do something similar in Chicago and there was one big unavoidable target: Mr. Banks.

Durocher initially talked of trading Banks to the Giants for Orlando Cepeda, but he quickly learned what every other manager, director of player personnel and general manager (whatever Wrigley’s title de jour for them was) had learned: the chances of PK Wrigley agreeing to any trade involving Ernie Banks depended entirely on the weather—just in case Hell did freeze over . . .

Since Leo could not trade Ernie, he did the next best thing: he began to hate him and plotted a way to shame him off the field. Leo was merciless in pointing out Banks’ deficiencies to both Ernie and anyone who would listen. He constantly harped on Ernie’s lack of speed and publicly called him a “rally killer.”

“Mr. Cub, my ass,” he told reporters. “I’ll give Mr. Cub $100 anytime he even attempts to steal second.” [editors note: for the record Ernie Banks stole 4 bases in 7 attempts in the 6 seasons he played for Leo; it was never noted if Leo actually ponied up the $700].

Pitcher Fergie Jenkins later wrote, “One thing that drove Durocher nuts was that, at that point in Ernie’s career, when he was 35 or 36 years old, you didn’t have to be Einstein to know he wasn’t going to steal any bases. So Ernie took tiny leads off first base, like three inches. He wasn’t going to steal, and he sure as heck wasn’t going to let himself get picked off. Durocher screamed to the first-base coach, ‘Get him off! Get him off!’ Meaning he wanted him to make Ernie take a bigger lead so if someone got a hit he might make it to third base safely. That went on the whole year. The rest of us, sitting on the bench, watching and listening, just wanted to turn to Leo and say, ‘Give it a rest.’ But nobody did that. Ernie was just the greatest guy. He was a lot of fun to be with. He always talked when he was in the field. He was always bubbly and great to be around. Durocher seemed to be the only person on planet Earth who had trouble getting along with Ernie Banks.”

 In Leo’s defense, inheriting an aging star is one of the least pleasant tasks for a new manager—a political and managerial quicksand for any polite leader concerned with social etiquette (see Stengel/DiMaggio). And Leo was never accused of politeness or social etiquette.

Also Leo loved to play amateur psychologist. No one had ever gotten on Banks before. Leo was making a statement to the entire team that no one was above reproach.

Others have hinted at more sinister motives: “He disliked Ernie from the go,” wrote longtime Cubs announcer  Jack Brickhouse, himself no great Durocher fan. “It was just that Ernie was too big a name in Chicago to suit Durocher.”

While Leo grudgingly conceded that Ernie Banks had been a great player in his time, “Unfortunately, his time wasn’t my time,” he later wrote. “He couldn’t run, he couldn’t field; toward the end, he couldn’t even hit.  . . . As a player, by the time I got there, there was nothing wrong with Ernie that two new knees wouldn’t have cured. He’d come up with men on the bases and if he hit a ground ball they could walk through the double play. . . . I’ve got to have somebody there who can play. Balls are going by there this far that should be outs or double plays. . . But I had to play him. Had to play the man or there would have been a revolution in the street. Ernie Banks owns Chicago.”

Leo was mystified at the goodwill Ernie had built up in the city and did not buy into his act. “How does he do it? You could say about Ernie that he never remembered a sign or forgot a newspaperman’s name. All he knew was, ‘Ho, let’s go. Ho, babydoobedoobedoo. It’s a wonderful day for a game in Chicago. Let’s play twooo.’ We’d get on the bus and he’d sit across from the writers. ‘A beaooootiful day for twoooo.’ It could be snowing outside, ‘Let’s play three.’”              

Whatever the motive, the opportunity Leo hoped for arrived soon. In mid-May, 1966, with Banks hitting .188, the Cubs traded pitcher Ted Abernathy to the Braves for first baseman-outfielder Lee Thomas. “I’m going to him [Thomas] every chance to play regularly at first base,” Durocher announced to the press. “Ernie Banks hasn’t done it for me, so I’m going to give Lee every chance to show me.” Durocher made the peculiar move of shuffling Ron Santo to shortstop and putting Ernie at third base and Thomas at first—an ill-conceived experiment that weakened all three positions and lasted a mere four days. Then he benched Ernie and gave first base to Thomas outright.

But Thomas failed to cooperate with Leo’s plan. In early June, with Thomas hitting .200, Ernie was back as the regular first baseman and he launched an 8-game hitting streak. June 11, the old man legged out three triples in a game—all pokes to right field. But the slump returned. In early July Durocher announced that Banks was benched again—this time for powerful youngster John Boccabella, who had hit 30 homers in the minors in 1965. With the Cubs locked in the cellar, Durocher added, “The future of this team has to be with the young fellows.” The unmistakable message was that Banks was officially over the hill and finished.

Reporters wrote that Banks took the news with “Impeccably good grace. He has the unfailing gift of always saying the right thing.” Among the “right things” they quoted Ernie with saying was, “There comes a time in every player’s life when he must face up to this sort of thing. As we get older, we have to make way for the younger players. . . . I won’t say it doesn’t hurt because it definitely does. However, I simply have to adjust to it.”

But Boccabella failed to hit and once again, before the last shovel-full of dirt could be tossed on his grave, Ernie came back. From the All-Star game to August 11, over a five-week period, he hit .359 (37-103). He ended the season with a mediocre 15 homers, 75 RBIs and a .272 batting average for the last place, 59-103 Cubs.

All winter Leo said he was sticking with the youth movement, adding that Boccobella would be given a full shot at first. At one ceremony, Leo called Banks  “Grandpa.” Liking the way it sounded, Leo used the term liberally throughout the winter.

And the offseason gave Leo time to think of a new strategy to deal with his unwanted aging star. February 28, 1967, Leo announced that Ernie Banks had been named to the Cubs’ coaching staff: “Banks will do a lot of playing for us, the only difference is that Ernie now will be able to teach our kids. He’ll have as much authority as any of the other four coaches.”

The move was a complete surprise, and Banks seemed more surprised than anyone else. It immediately led to open speculation and interpretation: was it was the beginning of the climb up the corporate ladder for Banks or was it a public relations move by Durocher to keep Banks on the bench. Durocher, sensing everyone’s suspicion, stated that this shouldn’t be construed in any way as a move to end Banks’ playing career. He added that Ernie still had a chance to fight off Boccabella for first base playing time. The tone left little doubt that the job appeared to be Boccabella’s to lose. For his part, Ernie smiled, noted that he would become just the fourth African-American major league coach (behind Buck O’Neil, Gene Baker and Junior Gilliam) and said, “It’s all very gratifying.”

Leo played Boccabella, Clarence Jones, Norm Gigon and Lee Thomas at first all through the spring, along with feeding rumors of other first base candidates being brought in by trades. Banks didn’t get any regular playing time until about 10 days before the exhibition season was over even as the mythical coaching duties never seemed to materialize.

While Ernie hit ropes in the batting cage, Leo acted like he didn’t notice, raving instead about the young prospects. When writers ventured that Banks was being ignored, Leo snarled, “Why don’t you knock off that Mr. Cub stuff? The guy’s wearing out. He can’t go on forever.”

It became a running gag in the press box, whenever Banks hit a home run or knocked in a key run: “Do you think Durocher will acknowledge that?”

Despite the near daily criticism and indications that he was through, outwardly Banks seemed exactly the same to observers. He never let on that it was anything other than another routine, glorious spring training in the sun. He showed up every day with a smile on his face, singing to pregame music, welcoming one and all to the park and cheering opposing teams through their calisthenics. Then he would get into the cage and flick line drives with his still-magnificent wrists.

Near the end of the spring, when Ernie was hitting .419, Leo conceded that the first base job probably belonged to him. Except for two second games of doubleheaders, Leo wrote “Banks” on the lineup card every game from April 28 to June 20.  Ernie got off to his best first half since the MVP season of 1959 and made the All-Star team.

Leo Durocher delivered for the Cubs the way he had promised. Two decades of futility were laid to rest as the Cubs took over first place in July, 1967 for the first time since 1945. They finished the season in third place—their first time in the first division in 21 years. Ernie played in 151 games in 1967, finishing with 23 homers and 94 RBIs, second on the team to Santo’s 98 and second among league first basemen.
Reporters, eager for a good winter-time story, kept giving Banks chances to rub his success in Leo’s face, unmistakably teeing up leading questions. But Ernie steadfastly left the bat on his shoulder. In fact, in an act similar to happily digging through a pile of manure looking for a horse, he gave Leo credit for the good season. All that time on the bench in the spring, Ernie explained with a smile, had been the plan all along to allow him to get ready on his own, to take his time getting in shape. “That undoubtedly was a good break for me, because if I had tried to compete with the young fellows, I would have been struggling, really struggling. . . . [when the time to play came] I was ready.” It was an explanation Ernie repeated numerous times all through the fall and winter, leaving incredulous writers to question their sanity.

The pattern quieted the next two years as Ernie got off to hot starts and showed that, while he couldn’t run, he could still drive in teammates. In the notoriously tough pitcher’s year of 1968, Ernie was second in the league with 32 home runs and his hot hitting helped the Cubs jump out to a big lead in 1969 as he ended up with 106 RBIs.

By 1970, however, Ernie’s body was just about ready for the glue factory. His knees were so swollen and achy that some days he could barely walk. The final countdown is difficult with any aged star and Ernie’s was no less painful, for him or his manager. Their relationship deteriorated as a familiar pattern played out: Leo would watch Ernie limping through the clubhouse and ask the trainer who would tell him that Ernie couldn't play and Leo would write him out of the lineup. Reporters would go to Ernie and he would say he felt fine. They would ask him why he didn’t play and Ernie would shrug and say, "The man says I play, I play.” They would then write that Durocher had benched Banks for no reason and fans would complain. Durocher felt that Ernie was betraying him with passive-aggressive behavior. 

May 4, 1971 against the Mets, Ernie suffered the indignity all geriatric stars eventually face: he was removed for a pinch-hitter in a clutch situation. Teammates felt Leo humiliated Banks by allowing him to face Nolan Ryan three times, only to pinch-hit for him with right-handed batter Jim Hickman when lefty Ray Sadecki was on the mound in the eighth inning with men on first and third, trailing 2-1 . Ernie was in the ondeck circle when he unexpectedly saw the shadow of Hickman approaching. Hickman sheepishly told him, “I gotta hit for you.” Banks nodded without emotion, walked back, put his bat in the rack slowly and sat down on the bench—right next to Leo. He never said a word.

 “Hickman told me later it was one of the toughest things he ever had to do,” wrote Brickhouse.

Ernie retired as a player after the 1971 season, but owner Wrigley kept him on the Cubs as a coach for 1972, against Leo’s wishes. By that time the Cubs’ pennant chances were in sharp decline. As the team struggled, amid speculation that Leo would be replaced, tempers flared, leading to a famous clubhouse explosion involving Leo, Milt Pappas, Joe Pepitone and Ron Santo. Afterwards Leo stormed out and threatened to quit. Ernie and coach Joey Amalfitano went to his office and tried to talk Durocher into staying. According to Durocher, Ernie told him, “Please Leo, don’t quit. We want you here. We need you. Don’t go doing something you might regret.”

Soon after, on September 3, PK Wrigley ran a full page ad in a Chicago paper backing Durocher. He concluded with the immortal line: “P.S. If only we could find more team players like Ernie Banks.”

Within two years Leo and Ernie were both gone from the Cubs clubhouse.

It is insightful to look at their words in the years after their time together. They both stayed remarkably true to character. Ernie never said a bad word about Leo and Leo, well, they didn’t call him Leo the Lip because of his trumpet-playing ability.
Over the next four decades numerous interviewers gave Ernie a chance to trash Leo. Or at least take a few good pokes. He never did. Usually he changed the subject or offered only bland statements. Ernie knew exactly what everyone else said and thought, but he pretended not to. When cornered, he only gave them: “I learned long ago that when you say derogatory things about people it stays with you. Everybody remembers it, especially if it’s written. You can’t retract those things. Of course you have those feelings. . . . but suppose that tomorrow you feel he’s a nice guy again."

In Banks’ 1971 autobiography the chapter dealing with the late ‘60s was titled, “Life With Leo.” While the title of the chapter may have given readers hope of learning his true thoughts, in keeping with the entirely vanilla tone of the book, there were exactly zero negative comments. Ernie credited “Leo’s leadership” with helping the Cubs become a winner. “Leo is unlike any other manager I’ve played for,” he stated. But he offered no specifics. Instead there were generic statements such as “A bark now, a good laugh a little later. He does it to keep us on our toes,” and “Leo can build a players’ morale like no one else.” He credited “Leo’s fine head planning and plotting for the future.” There was absolutely nothing about what “Life with Leo” was really like.

In 1977 Jet magazine offered an article with the leading title, “Banks Finally Tells of Durocher’s Many Insults.” Actually in the article, Banks told very little. The article summed up the many insults and included quotes from others, but Banks himself said nothing of substance.

In his old age, Ernie would add his own altered reality: “It was misinterpreted that Leo disliked me. He made my life better, he made me a better player,” and “Leo wasn’t jealous of me. I think he was just trying to push me. You know, when you’re in the latter stages of a career like I was, sometimes you get lackadaisical. I understood what he was trying to do.”

In 2006, the 71-year-old Banks finally allowed that life with Leo was a bit tough. Even then he quickly added, “As hard as he [Durocher] was on me, I tried to treat him with kindness, always talked to him, on the lane, in the dugout.”

Of course, Leo was much less reserved, and much more nasty. In his book “Nice Guys Finish Last” he devoted an entire chapter to Ernie. It was not a nice chapter. He took care to tarnish both Ernie Banks the player and the myth. He even took swipes at Ernie’s book, writing “All the writers in the country rushed to write what a great book it was, and all of them said in private, ‘If he wanted to write a book, with all the goodwill he has going for him, why didn’t he get himself a writer?' I don’t know why it is, but where Ernie is concerned everybody is always ready to fall over and play dead.” [In Leo’s defense, the criticism of Ernie’s co-writer, Jim Enright, was entirely valid—and it takes only a reading a few pages to agree].

Years later, Leo Durocher had a change of heart, perhaps surgically induced. In 1983 a very contrite 78-year-old Leo, recovering from a recent open heart procedure, perhaps seeing his own mortality at last, spoke at a Cubs reunion and tearfully apologized to the team in general and Ernie Banks specifically for how he had behaved. 

Leo passed away in 1991 at the age of 86, Ernie in 2015 at 84. It's nice to think that they are now finally happy together in a better place:  

Other Cubs stories:

 The Curious Case of the Cubs College of Coaches

When Ernie Banks Ran For Alderman

Gene Baker: First African American Major League Manager