Monday, July 9, 2018

Interview with Former Cub All-Star Don Kessinger; One of Baseball's Good Guys

For me, Don Kessinger was one of the guys who defined the era of the 1960s and 1970s in baseball--a solid player with a reputation as being an even more solid character. So I was happy when he accepted my request for an interview while researching my upcoming Ernie Banks book [shameless plug--watch for it March, 2019].

Although Don Kessinger always looked like he only weighed a buck and a quarter by the time those steaming Chicago August day games rolled around, he possessed a rare graceful athleticism that made him stand out even among professional athletes. He grew up in the small Arkansas town of Forrest City where he starred in every sport. Heavily recruited as a basketball player by every major university in the region, he picked the University of Mississippi because it boasted one of the best baseball programs at the time and he was offered the chance to play both sports. He not only played, but he excelled in them, making All-SEC and All-America in both.

On the basketball court, the 6'1 Kessinger was a prolific-scoring guard (without the aid of the three-point shot). His high game occurred during his junior year when he dropped 49 on Tulane. He came close to achieving a rare double his senior year by topping the SEC in batting (.436) and narrowly missing in basketball (averaging 23.5, second only to the 24.6 of Kentucky's Cotton Nash).

Signed by the Cubs in 1964, by the next year Don was with the major league club in Chicago and he teamed with fellow rookie Glenn Beckert to form one of baseball's most stable keystone combos for nearly a decade. Added to future Hall of Famers at first and third, Ron Santo and Ernie Banks, that gave the Cubs one of the all-time classic infields. "They used to say we had a Million Dollar Infield," says the 75-year-old Kessinger, "but Beckert would always say, 'Yeah, but $900,000 of it is on the corners.'"

"I was really lucky with the timing to join a club like that," he continues. "There was a chance to play fairly soon and I was accepted pretty much immediately. On some teams, especially back then, rookies weren't welcome, there's a lot of garbage going on. But there was none of that on the Cubs. All the older guys were just great. Ernie, Billy, Ron--they were not only great players, but they were very welcoming to younger players. And we ended up with a group of players that turned into a pretty good team."

"Of course I was in awe of Ernie Banks when I got there. I think all the young guys were just because of who he was and his stature and what he had done in the game. And you found out very quickly that he was just a great guy; very relaxed, always optimistic, always saying something on the field to keep you up. He made the young guys feel welcome and a part of the team."

"It developed into a very close team; the most close-knit of any team I've ever been a part of. After a few years, we had a core of guys--there was very little change. We would go to spring training every year knowing what the lineup was going to be."

It was evident right away that Kessinger had the ability to play shortstop in the major leagues. Hitting was another matter. Manager Leo Durocher played an important role in Kessinger's development. He not only plugged him into the lineup on a regular basis, but he encouraged him to become a switch hitter and stuck with him through early struggles. Kessinger eventually became the leadoff hitter and table setter for the team.

"Being a former shortstop, I think Leo took more of an interest in that position. The one great thing Leo brought was there was absolutely no doubt about who was in charge. That was a big change for the Chicago Cubs. I will always be grateful that he played me and Beckert when we were kids. Even though we might not have been ready yet, he stuck with us. Maybe he could see what we would become."

Durocher, who joined the Cubs to great fanfare before the 1966 season, was not an immediate success. "In 1966 we lost 100 games. It was a long, long year. But Leo wasn't worried about wins that year. He knew he was building something for the future. We could all see that we were going to be a good team, regardless of our record in 1966. We added guys like Randy [Hundley] and Fergie [Jenkins] and we could see they were going to make us better. We felt the future was very promising. It was exciting to know that we were going to be a part of something special."

The Cubs of the '60s probably had one of the greatest backcourts in baseball history: utility infielder Paul Popovich had set the West Virginia high school scoring record with more than 40 a game and played on a great West Virginia University team with a guy named Jerry West. Who would have won a one-on-one contest between infielders? Kessinger diplomatically laughs. "Paul was a great basketball player. We're still good friends. We played a lot of basketball together as a team during the winter in those years, playing local teams for charity and stuff. I don't know who would win if we played one-on-one. Let's just say we both liked to shoot a lot."

Kessinger made his first major league All-Star team in 1968, then followed with his finest season in 1969, hitting .273 with 38 doubles and 109 runs. He repeated on the All-Star team and won his first Gold Glove. The year 1969 will always be bitter sweat to Cubs fans as the team lit up the baseball world for five months, but was overtaken in September by the charging Miracle Mets. Many historians have placed the blame for the finish on manager Durocher, but don't expect Kessinger to throw Leo under the bus. "I will always believe that we had the best team in baseball that year," he says. "All those day games might have worn us out by the end, but that's not an excuse. And it wasn't really Leo's fault for not playing other guys more either. You have to remember what Leo did for the franchise. Without him, we probably wouldn't have even been in that position. Later Leo was very helpful to me when I was managing the White Sox and we talked quite a bit. Sometimes when we talked, he alluded that if he had to do it all over he would make some changes."

Regardless of the finish, the '69 team holds a special place in the hearts of fans. "That was just such a fun year, and a fun team. Also, it wasn't just the closeness of the players. It was the relationship between the player and fans; it was very special."

Years later, catcher Randy Hundley started the cottage industry of fantasy camps--his Cubs camps were the first, giving the players and fans a chance to interact. "Randy Hundley's fantasy camps were great. It was good to see all the guys every year. And when it started we were still all young enough to move a little. Now, frankly, I have a hard time fitting into a baseball uniform."

Kessinger went on to a 16-year career as a six-time All-Star. He was traded to the Cardinals in 1975, the last of the old gang to leave the Cubs. He returned to Chicago in 1977, joining the White Sox. In 1979 Bill Veeck made him the last American League player-manager. He kept the job for one year before retiring. While on the South Side, Kessinger became a footnote to history as the manager the night of the infamous Disco Demolition game: "Craziest thing I ever saw in a ball park."

Speaking of superlatives, Don Kessinger did one of the scariest things I ever saw in a ballpark when I was young: he got up in front of a packed stadium at a Billy Graham crusade and gave his testimony. In my ten-year-old mind, batting with two outs in the ninth inning of a tie game was fun--that's what you wanted to do--but talking about Jesus in front of a big crowd? Terrifying.

"I had an opportunity to speak at the Billy Graham crusade in Chicago in 1971 because I was a Chicago player," says Kessinger. "But I wanted people to realize that I wasn't there just because I was a baseball player. I wasn't a baseball player who was a Christian. I was a Christian who happened to play shortstop for the Cubs. Religion always played an important part of my life and I don't mind sharing that. They gave me an opportunity to speak. The only scary thing about it was that when they say six minutes, they mean six minutes because of the TV schedule. There's not a lot of room for error."

Don returned to University of Mississippi as head baseball coach from 1991 to 1997, then became associate Athletic Director. In the mean time, his wife and son had founded Kessinger Real Estate in Oxford. Don joined them in the business in the 1990s. The Kessingers and the business thrived in the college town.

Two of Don's sons followed him to star on the Ole Miss baseball field and now there is a grandson on the team. Don Kessinger is a humble guy who was always aware of his position as a role model and who readily admits that he's lived a charmed life. It couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.

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