Archive for the ‘ Profiles ’ Category

Now Playing: Keeping Score with Lennie Merullo, the oldest living Cub

Despite hailing from the Boston area, Lennie Merullo is a Cub through and through. The spry, 97-year-old former shortstop is the last surviving link to the team’s most recent World Series appearance in 1945 and is the oldest living Cub. After his seven-year playing career ended, Merullo remained with the organization for decades as a scout and said he truly bleeds Cubbie blue. He still watches every game, and his house is filled with memorabilia from his years on the North Side.

Vine Line caught up with Merullo when was honored at the park in early June. To read the complete interview, pick up the August issue.

From the Pages of Vine Line: Our July Q&A with Ernie Banks and Derek Jeter

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(Photo courtesy New York Yankees)

Mr. Cub and Mr. November. When it comes to playing shortstop in the major leagues, it’s hard to do better than Cubs legend Ernie Banks and all-time Yankees great Derek Jeter.

Between them, they have 28 All-Star appearances, two MVP Awards (with 10 top-10 finishes) and six Gold Gloves. They have also amassed nearly 6,000 hits and 800 home runs. Banks was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977. Assuming Jeter holds firm on his decision to retire after this season, he just needs the calendar to turn to 2019 for his certain enshrinement.

Both enjoyed long and distinguished careers with one organization; both spawned memorable moments and were the faces of their respective franchises; and both became great ambassadors for the game.

When Derek Jeter made a rare interleague appearance in Chicago this past May, Vine Line and Yankees Magazine couldn’t let the opportunity to get the two iconic players together slip away.

Yankees Magazine Editor-in-Chief Alfred Santasiere III spoke to the man affectionately known as Mr. Cub and the Yankees captain about playing a demanding defensive position, spending their entire careers with a single team, playing at the Friendly Confines and more.

For baseball fans, it doesn’t get any better than this.

Vine Line: First of all, it’s an honor to be here with two of the greatest shortstops the game has ever seen. Thank you both. Mr. Jeter, how did Mr. Banks, who is over 6 feet tall, impact the future of the position?

Derek Jeter: I’ve had the opportunity to meet Phil Rizzuto and Pee Wee Reese, who were two of the other great shortstops from Mr. Banks’ era. Those guys epitomized who played that position back then—shorter guys without a lot of power. Mr. Banks redefined the position, and he really paved the way for taller players like me to get the opportunity to play shortstop.

Ernie Banks: Who were the shortstops you watched when you were growing up?

DJ: I was a big Cal Ripken Jr. fan. He’s 6 foot 4, and he played the position as well as anyone I had seen. I also liked watching Barry Larkin, who played his college ball in my home state of Michigan. Alan Trammell played for the Detroit Tigers, and they were on TV a lot in my house when I was growing up, so I got to see him play frequently.

EB: Why didn’t they ever move you to third base?

DJ: I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure that out.

VL: Mr. Banks, what are your thoughts on Mr. Jeter’s ability to play such a demanding position so well for nearly two decades?

EB: Well, he’s a remarkable player, and that’s proven by the fact that he is still playing shortstop. We all slow down a little as we get older. I moved to first base after about 10 seasons at shortstop. But Derek has done what no one else has, and that’s remarkable.

VL: How much does it mean to each of you to have played for one team your entire careers—and to be synonymous with those teams?

DJ: Playing my entire career in New York has always been important to me. I’ve been fortunate because in this day and age, it’s more difficult to stay with one team than when Mr. Banks was playing. With free agency, there is so much player movement, and teams get rid of players when there are younger players available who can play the same position a little better. But I can’t imagine playing anywhere else.

EB: It means the world to me. We played all day games in Chicago back then because they didn’t have lights at Wrigley Field until 1988. That was something I got used to and really enjoyed. The only night games we played were when we were on the road. Like Derek said, I couldn’t have imagined what it would have been like to play for another team. If I had played for another team and I had to play most of the games at night, it would have felt like every game was an away game for me.

VL: How would each of you describe your respective fan bases?

EB: The fans here are loyal. When I was playing, I got to meet a lot of fans, and that was a lot of fun. I signed autographs for as many kids as I could because I thought that one day I might be asking one of those kids for a job. Cubs fans aren’t as loud as Yankees fans though. The first time I met Derek, I asked him what it’s like playing in New York. He looked at me and said, “When you win, it’s loud.”

DJ: That’s a great story. Yankees fans follow the team closely, and there’s a lot of energy in Yankee Stadium every time we take the field. The expectation level is high, but there’s no better place to win than in New York.

VL: The enthusiasm that both of you have for the game is well documented. What makes playing baseball for a living so enjoyable?

DJ: Every day is a new day. It’s kind of like life in that you wake up and you never know what’s going to happen when you get to the ballpark. Regardless of how you played the day before, you come to the ballpark with a clean slate the next day. I like that about baseball. I have enjoyed competing and being around my teammates as well. That’s why I have played the game for as long as I have.

EB: It was fun being out there every day. That’s why I said, “It’s a great day for baseball. Let’s play two.” I especially enjoyed playing the shortstop position. For me, making adjustments to where I was going to play in the field depending on who was on the mound and who was at the plate was part of the game I relished. I got as much fun out of the strategy of the game and making sure I was in the right place to turn double plays as I got out of hitting the ball out of the park.

VL: Mr. Banks, what were the most challenging aspects of going directly from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues to the Cubs at a time when there were very few African-Americans in the majors?

EB: As far as being discriminated against, that’s all I knew since the time I was growing up. But the hardest thing about leaving the Monarchs for the Cubs was saying goodbye to my teammates in Kansas City. I liked being around those guys, and I didn’t want to leave them. They were like my family.

VL: How did you adjust to life in the big leagues?

EB: I played for [legendary Negro Leagues player and manager] Buck O’Neil in Kansas City, and I played alongside Gene Baker and Tony Taylor, who knew a lot about the game. I learned how to play the game from those guys. They taught me about the intricacies of the game and the shortstop position. That along with some God-given ability made it so I was prepared to play in the big leagues when I arrived in Chicago.

VL: Mr. Jeter, how was your career impacted by what Mr. Banks and others did in breaking the color barrier in the early 1950s?

DJ: It’s unimaginable for me. Mr. Banks is one of the players who paved the way for all African-Americans to play the game. I’m grateful to him for what he did on the field, and I also appreciate the way he has treated me since I was a young player.

VL: Mr. Banks, what stands out about Mr. Jeter’s accomplishments and the way he has represented himself and his team over the years?

EB: I really admire him. He’s accomplished so many great things. He’s knowledgeable about every aspect of playing the game. He studies the opposing pitchers, and he learned how to hit the ball to all fields at a young age. He’s an amazing young player. When he got his 3,000th hit on a home run, that was really special for me to watch. What was that like for you, Derek?

DJ: Well, I appreciate you referring to me as a young player. Hitting that home run felt great. More than anything, I was happy that it happened in front of our fans in New York.

EB: How did you do that?

DJ: I closed my eyes and swung the bat.

VL: Mr. Banks, what makes Wrigley Field such a special baseball destination?

EB: It’s special because it has been here for 100 years, and we’ve had some great teams. It’s a beautiful place, and so much history has taken place on this field. Babe Ruth stood a few feet from where we are sitting, pointed to the seats and then hit the ball out of the park. More than 80 years later, Derek Jeter will come up to the plate in the same place. That’s an amazing thing. Also, the fans are very close to the field, and that makes it an intimate setting for baseball. There’s no better place to watch a game.

VL: Mr. Jeter, how exciting is it to visit Wrigley Field in your final season—and during the stadium’s centennial?

DJ: I like being a part of history and tradition, and I’m thrilled to get one last chance to play here—especially since I was on the disabled list when we played here in 2011. I drove here with my class on my last day of high school, and that is a great memory. If I could have written a script for my career back then, I would have included a trip to Wrigley Field during my final season.

EB: You’re not really going to quit, are you?

DJ: After this season.

EB: You can’t do that.

DJ: Yes, I can.

EB: I wish guys like you never had to quit.

DJ: Well, let’s just say I’m moving on.

—Alfred Santasiere III

10 Decades, 10 Legends: 2000s—Carlos Zambrano

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(Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images)

For our annual July All-Star issue, Vine Line set out to find the most valuable player from each 10-year span in Wrigley Field’s history to create a Cubs All-Star team for the ages. There are hundreds of ways to go about this, so we simplified things by using the baseball statistics website Fangraphs to find the player with the highest Wins Above Replacement total for each decade.

Wins Above Replacement, better known as WAR, takes all of a player’s statistics—both offensive and defensive—and outputs them into a single number designed to quantify that player’s total contributions to his team (though for pitchers, we used only their mound efforts and excluded offensive stats). For our purposes, a player received credit only for the numbers he posted in each individual decade and only for the years he was a member of the Cubs.

In the final installment of our 10 Decades, 10 Legends series, we look at the eccentric and exciting Carlos Zambrano. Though it might come as a surprise to some to see Big Z on the list, he had very solid numbers throughout the 2000s.

Previous Decades:
1910s – Hippo Vaughn
1920s – Grover Cleveland Alexander
1930s – Billy Herman
1940s – Bill Nicholson
1950 – Ernie Banks
1960s – Ron Santo
1970s – Rick Reuschel
1980s – Ryne Sandberg
1990s – Mark Grace

2000s – Carlos Zambrano, 26.5 WAR

Seasons: 2001-09
W-L: 105-68
G-GS: 259-238
IP: 1,549.0
K: 1,324
K/9: 7.70
ERA: 3.51

Say what you will about Carlos Zambrano’s time on the North Side. Sure, some of his most memorable moments in a Cubs uniform occurred inside the dugout, including a scuffle with teammate Michael Barrett in 2007 and a few notable run-ins with the beleaguered Gatorade dispenser.

But at the beginning of Big Z’s career, he was an animal on the bump as well. The hard-throwing Venezuelan made his debut in August 2001 and became a workhorse soon after, logging five consecutive seasons with 200-plus innings from 2003-07. During that time, he made three All-Star teams, finished in the top five in Cy Young voting three times, led the NL in wins in 2006 and earned MVP votes in 2004.

The right-hander was the only NL pitcher to win 13 or more games each year from 2003-08, and he served as the Cubs’ Opening Day starter from 2005-10.

Zambrano’s finest effort in a Cubs uniform came on Sept. 14, 2008, when he tossed the club’s first no-hitter in 36 years, striking out 10 batters and walking one in 110 pitches against the Astros. By the end of the 2000s, his numbers had slipped dramatically, and he was out of the game at age 31.

10 Decades, 10 Legends: 1990s—Mark Grace

Grace

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

For our annual July All-Star issue, Vine Line set out to find the most valuable player from each 10-year span in Wrigley Field’s history to create a Cubs All-Star team for the ages. There are hundreds of ways to go about this, so we simplified things by using the baseball statistics website Fangraphs to find the player with the highest Wins Above Replacement total for each decade.

Wins Above Replacement, better known as WAR, takes all of a player’s statistics—both offensive and defensive—and outputs them into a single number designed to quantify that player’s total contributions to his team (though for pitchers, we used only their mound efforts and excluded offensive stats). For our purposes, a player received credit only for the numbers he posted in each individual decade and only for the years he was a member of the Cubs.

In the ninth installment of our 10 Decades, 10 Legends series, we look at first baseman Mark Grace, one of the biggest fan favorites ever to play on the North Side. He’s also grossly underrated and essentially dominated the 1990s.

Previous Decades:
1910s – Hippo Vaughn
1920s – Grover Cleveland Alexander
1930s – Billy Herman
1940s – Bill Nicholson
1950 – Ernie Banks
1960s – Ron Santo
1970s – Rick Reuschel
1980s – Ryne Sandberg

1990s—Mark Grace, 36.2 WAR

Seasons: 1990-99
AVG/OBP/SLG: .310/.385/.449
PA: 6,467
HR: 117
R: 843
RBI: 786
SB: 49

Given Mark Grace’s enduring popularity on the North Side, it’s hard to believe how much the beloved first baseman flew under the radar on a national scale.

Throughout the 1990s, Grace’s WAR total ranks eighth of all NL position players. It’s also a well-known fact that he and Pete Rose are the only two players in major league history to lead the league in hits for a decade without being elected to the Hall of Fame. While those chances quickly faded—Grace received just 4.1 percent of the vote on his first Hall of Fame ballot in 2009, removing his name from future consideration—there’s a good reason Gracie has always been a fan favorite.

He had a solid debut in 1988, finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting, before becoming a legitimate star in the 1990s. Not only did he lead the decade in hits, he also had the most doubles, went to three All-Star Games (1993, 1995 and 1997), and helped the Cubs to a postseason berth in 1998. For the decade, he hit .310/.385/.449 with 711 walks versus 448 strikeouts.

Grace was also one of the better defensive first basemen of his era, picking up four Gold Gloves, all in the 1990s. He would go on to win a World Series title with the Diamondbacks in 2001.

10 Decades, 10 Legends: 1970s—Rick Reuschel

Reuschel

For our annual July All-Star issue, Vine Line set out to find the most valuable player from each 10-year span in Wrigley Field’s history to create a Cubs All-Star team for the ages. There are hundreds of ways to go about this, so we simplified things by using the baseball statistics website Fangraphs to find the player with the highest Wins Above Replacement total for each decade.

Wins Above Replacement, better known as WAR, takes all of a player’s statistics—both offensive and defensive—and outputs them into a single number designed to quantify that player’s total contributions to his team (though for pitchers, we used only their mound efforts and excluded offensive stats). For our purposes, a player received credit only for the numbers he posted in each individual decade and only for the years he was a member of the Cubs.

In the seventh installment of our 10 Decades, 10 Legends series, we look at towering right-hander Rick Reuschel, who was a consistent workhorse throughout the 1970s.

Previous Decades:
1910s – Hippo Vaughn
1920s – Grover Cleveland Alexander
1930s – Billy Herman
1940s – Bill Nicholson
1950 – Ernie Banks
1960s – Ron Santo

1970s – Rick Reuschel, 41.3 WAR

Seasons: 1972-79
AVG/OBP/SLG: 114-101
W-L: 284-274
G-GS: 284-274
IP: 1834.1
K: 1122
K/9: 5.50
ERA: 3.43

Unlike some of the other players on this list, Rick Reuschel’s numbers don’t jump off the page. He even led the league in losses in 1975 with 17, albeit with a 3.73 ERA. But while he didn’t earn a lot of attention for his efforts, Reuschel was definitely the standout performer for the Cubs during a down decade—a stretch that saw the team win between 75 and 85 games nine times.

The right-hander’s lofty WAR total can largely be attributed to a clean bill of health and a high level of consistency. He won at least 10 games from his big league debut in 1972 through the end of the decade. He also pitched no fewer than 234 innings a season from 1973-79, making at least 35 starts in each of those years. As a result, his WAR total ranks fifth among all pitchers in the 1970s.

The 1977 All-Star wasn’t one to strike out a ton of hitters—he averaged 5.1 K/9 for his career—but he used deception and a wide arsenal of pitches to get hitters out.

Big Daddy’s finest season came in 1977, when he went 20-10 with a 2.79 ERA, made his lone Cubs All-Star appearance and finished third in the Cy Young race. He ultimately pitched for 19 seasons and earned 214 major league victories.

 

10 Decades, 10 Legends: 1940s—Bill Nicholson

Nicholson

For our annual July All-Star issue, Vine Line set out to find the most valuable player from each 10-year span in Wrigley Field’s history to create a Cubs All-Star team for the ages. There are hundreds of ways to go about this, so we simplified things by using the baseball statistics website Fangraphs to find the player with the highest Wins Above Replacement total for each decade.

Wins Above Replacement, better known as WAR, takes all of a player’s statistics—both offensive and defensive—and outputs them into a single number designed to quantify that player’s total contributions to his team (though for pitchers, we used only their mound efforts and excluded offensive stats). For our purposes, a player received credit only for the numbers he posted in each individual decade and only for the years he was a member of the Cubs.

In the fourth installment of our 10 Decades, 10 Legends series, Bill “Swish” Nicholson provided the team with some necessary pop in the 1940s, especially during the early part of the decade.

Previous Decades:
1910s – Hippo Vaughn
1920s – Grover Cleveland Alexander
1930s – Billy Herman

1940s – Bill Nicholson, 36.9 WAR

Seasons: 1940-48
AVG/OBP/SLG: .271/.369/.472
PA: 5,371
HR: 200
R: 701
RBI: 795
SB: 26

Bill Nicholson was at his best in 1943 and 1944, when he won both the home run and RBI titles. He hit 29 homers and knocked in 128 in 1943, and followed that with 33 bombs and 122 RBI in 1944, when he was runner-up in the MVP voting. The right fielder also led the league in runs scored that year. But power was Nicholson’s game, as his 211 home runs in the 1940s (200 coming with the Cubs from 1940-48) rank second in the decade among NL hitters. All four of his All-Star appearances were with the Cubs during the 1940s, and he made starts in 1941 and 1943. Despite earning the nickname Swish for his swing-and-miss tendencies, Nicholson managed to draw more walks than strikeouts in his nine seasons on the North Side.

Now Playing: In the Dugout with Rick Renteria, July 2014

Cubs manager Rick Renteria is all about forward momentum. He doesn’t waste time worrying about trade rumors or other distractions. Instead, he’s focused on creating a positive learning environment and developing the team’s young major league talent. When we sat down with the skipper during a three-game sweep of the Mets in mid-June, things seemed to be heading in the right direction. We talked to Renteria about the team’s learning curve, Anthony Rizzo’s development as a hitter and the bullpen’s burgeoning youth movement.

To read the full interview, pick up the July issue at the ballpark or at Chicago-area retailers. Or subscribe to Vine Line, the official magazine of the Chicago Cubs, for just $29.95.

Hot Off the Press: July VL featuring the best player from every decade at Wrigley Field

VL1407_Cover_newstand

I’m a sucker for nostalgia, which is one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed this season at Wrigley Field so much. I have been looking forward to Wrigley’s 100th birthday for a few years now because I knew it would give Vine Line a chance to really delve into the organization’s history.

We not only produce the magazine, but we also create the scorecards sold at the Friendly Confines during every home series. To tie in with the Cubs’ 10 Decades, 10 Homestands promotion, we’ve been populating the covers with photos specific to the years being celebrated—which means we’ve spent countless hours searching the team’s photo archives for just the right shots.

When the Yankees were in town during the 1930s homestand, we found a picture from the 1932 World Series between the North Siders and the Bronx Bombers. When the Cubs were honoring the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League during the 1940s series, we found a photo of the league’s tryouts, which were held at Wrigley Field in 1943.

In the interest of full disclosure, my home is littered with black-and-white photographs of everything from the Chicago Theater to my relatives during WWII to the Cubs at Spring Training on Catalina Island. I love this stuff, and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t spent a few evenings looking through the photo archives just for fun.

In other words, this is probably something I shouldn’t get paid to do (though I probably don’t need to spread that news around).

Some of the things that caught my eye when we were planning our 2014 content for the magazine last year were the memorable program and scorecard covers the team used from the 1930s through the 1960s. We liked them so much, we decided to dedicate the valuable back page of the magazine (The Score) to featuring some of the best of the best this season.

When we wanted to learn more about the scorecards, we went to that amazing wellspring of arcane Cubs information from every era, team historian Ed Hartig, who has been an invaluable resource for all the historical content we’ve published this year. It turns out, for decades, most of the scorecard designs were the brainchild of one man, Otis Shepard, former art director for the William Wrigley Jr. Co. and longtime member of the Cubs board of directors. For our monthly Wrigley 100 feature, we look into the life and career of Shepard and how he came to design some of the Cubs’ most iconic images.

It’s also the July issue, which means it’s almost time for the Midsummer Classic. For our annual All-Star issue, we set out to find the most valuable Cubs player in each of Wrigley Field’s 10 decades. To do this, we used the stats website Fangraphs to compile the highest Wins Above Replacement totals for each decade. WAR essentially takes all of a player’s offensive and defensive efforts and outputs them into a single number designed to measure how many wins he provides over an average replacement player. There are definitely some names you would expect (I don’t think we could have a list like this without Mr. Cub), but there are also a few surprises (Rick Reuschel, anyone?).

Finally, Vine Line had a dream opportunity in May when the Yankees came to town. We worked with Yankees Magazine Editor-in-Chief Alfred Santasiere III to bring together two of the greatest shortstops the game has ever seen: Hall of Famer Ernie Banks and future Hall of Famer Derek Jeter. The legendary players sat down for a tête-à-tête that is every baseball fan’s dream come true.

Of course, we’re good for more than just history lessons. Follow us on Twitter at @cubsvineline for the best of the Cubs past, present and future.

And let’s keep that whole “shouldn’t get paid” thing between us.

—Gary Cohen

From the Pages of Vine Line: Cubs players reflect on their fathers’ influence

James-Russell
Cubs reliever James Russell is following in the footsteps of his dad, Jeff. (Photo by Stephen Green)

You grew up watching baseball on TV with your father. Then you played Little League, and your dad was the coach. Later, he started taking you to games, making sure the two of you got there extra early so you could snatch a few stray home run balls during batting practice.

For generations, baseball has been bringing fathers and sons together. Chances are, when you became an adult and had a son of your own, you tried to get him into baseball, coached his Little League team and took him to games too.

To celebrate Father’s Day this month, Vine Line caught up with a few Cubs players to discuss the almost mystical connection the game engenders. Though each person may have attached to the sport in a different way, there’s no denying baseball served as a valuable link between fathers and sons—just like it has in the past and will in the future.

Ryan Sweeney and his dad, Gary
“I think baseball is definitely, of any of the sports, the bonding thing between father and son, especially now that I have a son,” said Cubs outfielder Ryan Sweeney. “Sharing that with him is something that brings [us] closer together.”

Ryan credits his dad, Gary, for the success he’s had in the game, especially early in his life. Gary always pushed his son to excel, even if that meant making him do some extra work when the younger Sweeney wasn’t fully invested.

“My dad pushed me pretty hard to get me where I’m at,” Ryan said. “I might not have liked it at the time, but looking back, I’m glad he pushed me the way he did. He was my coach growing up for a lot of the time too. He never played baseball, but he tried to read up and learn as much as he could so he could teach me to do the right things.”

When Ryan finally did break into the major leagues, Gary happened to be visiting his son in Charlotte (home of the White Sox’s Triple-A affiliate). Ryan was at the stadium when he got the news and promptly called his parents. Though they didn’t believe him at first, they ultimately made the trip to Kansas City to see Ryan put on a major league uniform for the first time.

Despite having spent the majority of the last seven years at the game’s highest level, Ryan said he still shares the occasional instruction-filled phone call with his father.

“He tries to tell me what to do now, still, and how to play,” Ryan joked. “He’s constantly watching games on TV, saving my games, watching my swings, everything.”

Justin Grimm and his dad, Mark
When Justin Grimm graduated from junior high, he was faced with a difficult athletic decision. Both soccer and baseball were played in the same high school season, so he was forced to choose between the two. Though Justin was ready to put away the glove and bat for good, his dad, Mark, wasn’t in favor of the idea.

“He definitely leaned me toward baseball,” Justin said. “I thought I was a better soccer player at the time than I was baseball. He didn’t say, ‘You’re not playing soccer,’ but he did [say it] at the same time.

“He was a football fan, he loved football. He played at East Tennessee State in college, and he had a love for football, especially when I was growing up. Even to when I was 9, I was playing football, and I think it kind of crushed him when I definitely decided I wasn’t going to play anymore.”

Despite straying from his dad’s favorite sport, Justin said his father always supported his decisions and was somebody he could confide in growing up—even on topics he wouldn’t discuss with his close friends.

“[He] helped keep me encouraged, always feeding me positive thoughts instead of the negative ones,” Justin said. “He was pretty good with that growing up. Him and my mom both. They kept me on the right path, kept me going in the right direction, helped me stay into the right things and out of the wrong things.”

These days, the reliever said he gets a kick out of how excited his dad gets when he visits the clubhouse or throws the ball around with Justin in a major league outfield.

“He enjoys it probably 200 times more than I do,” Justin said. “He loves just going places, especially to different [venues]. Every time he comes into town, he wants to go see the park and what I do every day. And he wants to go to the team shop and get a bunch of gear, so he can support me back home. He’s definitely one of my biggest fans.”

James Russell and his dad, Jeff
Though James Russell is the son of former big league closer Jeff Russell, there was never any pressure for him to follow in his father’s footsteps. Still, between playing baseball every day and spending countless afternoons and nights in major league locker rooms growing up, the left-hander quickly formed an affinity for the game.

“He never really pressured me into it,” James said of his father, who spent 14 seasons in the majors, including 10 with the Rangers. “It was just something that I was good at, and I enjoyed playing. I loved all sports. I played everything growing up—football, basketball and baseball being the bigger three of the sports.

“Fortunately, I grew up in clubhouses that are a little bigger than ours at Wrigley, but it was fun getting into trouble. There were always a bunch of other kids that I [got] to hang out with. We’d find our ways and [make] little batting cages and stuff, so we could just mess around until security came and kicked us out.”

As James got older, he’d go to the ballpark virtually every day with his dad. While the Cubs reliever credits those trips for stoking his desire to play professional ball, he also knows how important those moments were for his father.

“That was some of the most memorable stuff out of his career,” James said.

With the roles now reversed, James has been informed his dad can be a tough guy to watch a game with.

“I’ve always heard he’s a real nervous guy whenever I’m throwing,” Russell said. “He can never sit down in a seat. He’s always walking around. He’s usually drinking a couple of beers to ease his nerves. If he’s not around a TV, he’s got it on his phone.”

John Baker and his dad, Dave
Entering Spring Training, journeyman catcher John Baker was on the outside looking in when it came to finding a spot on the Cubs’ 25-man roster. However, after a strong preseason showing in which he consistently provided outstanding effort, the North Siders found room for the 33-year-old backstop. Baker can thank his dad, Dave, for his solid work ethic.

“He was the biggest baseball influence I had [growing up],” John said. “There are still a lot of things I think in my head that my dad told me. His favorite line was ‘It takes no talent to hustle.’ That was his favorite thing to say. That … and ‘The most important position is the ready position.’

“He was always about being prepared, hustling and playing the game the right way—developing a strong work ethic. I got to see that as a kid, watching him go to work every single day. He’d get up with me at five in the morning and flip me baseballs in the side yard.”

Though many people were surprised to see John make the team over veteran free agent George Kottaras, one person never doubted it for a second.

“When I called [my dad] and told him I made the team here, he told me, ‘Son, I believed you were going to make the team, so two weeks ago, I went ahead and bought a ticket to Chicago,’ which was a really cool, validating feeling for me, knowing that he really believed in me without even telling me,” John said.

Dave played a lot of baseball growing up, so he had a good idea of how much effort it was going to take to make a career out of the game.

“There were days where I didn’t want to go [out to the field to practice], where he made me go,” John said. “And there were days where he came home from work, and I probably said, ‘Dad, can you throw me some balls?’ and he kind of went, ‘Yeah, let me take you to the batting cage. Let’s go do it.’ So it was give and take, but I was never turned down.”

Mike Olt and his dad, George
Early in Mike Olt’s career, his father, George, served as a sort of “baseball whisperer” for his son. As a former college player, the elder Olt had spent a fair amount of time around the diamond and knew a thing or two about the game. But if there was one thing he knew better than baseball, it was Mike.

“He knows I’m a head case, so he usually would tell me one little thing, which I probably wasn’t doing any differently [anyway],” Mike said. “Like, ‘Hey, raise your hands’ or something small that meant nothing.

“But he knew that was the only thing I’d think about and not what the pitcher was throwing. Next thing you know, I’m 4-for-4, 4-for-5, it was crazy. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Mike grew up in Connecticut, listening to his dad tell stories about traveling to Yankee Stadium with his own father. Years later, Mike enjoyed taking those same trips to the Bronx with George.

“We always went to a ton of games at Yankee Stadium, me and him,” Mike said. “Those are the kind of memories you don’t forget.”

These days, the third baseman enjoys bringing his dad with him to Wrigley Field as often as possible. When Mike made his major league debut with the Rangers in 2012, George was in attendance, and his excitement was something Mike will never forget.

“Those are experiences that he’s going to be really proud of, and he’ll remember those forever,” Mike said. “I would do anything for him, anything for my family. To have him at the game and watching the highlights, seeing him and how happy he is, it does make me really happy. It’s kind of cool to see how excited he is for me and what’s to come.”

—Phil Barnes

From the Pages of Vine Line: Wrigley Field and the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League

Women-play-ball-at-Cubs-Park

The following article appears in the June issue of Vine Line. The Cubs will salute the girls of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League Friday at Wrigley Field.

With her glove in hand and her head on a swivel, a young woman from Cincinnati stood on hallowed baseball ground and awaited her big break in a steady rain.

Crack! A batter pummeled a fly ball that soared to her left, and the 22-year-old sprinted after it in the wet grass. Crack! Another ball sailed to her right, and she lunged. Crack! Yet another flew high over her head, and the gifted athlete took off once again.

“You had to run about a mile to get the ball,” said retired schoolteacher Betsy Jochum with a chuckle. “It was quite a thrill to try out on that field.”

That field, of course, was Wrigley Field, and those fundamental drills triggered a movement that would dispel the popular notion that girls were not cut out for sports. Jochum was among a group of women trying out for 60 spots in the newly formed All-American Girls Softball League, according to the Chicago Tribune.

It was 1943, and as big league baseball clubs ceded talent to the war effort, front offices scrambled to fill the void. Scouts were dispatched to the coasts, Midwestern cornfields and even Canada to mold a new league. The ballplayers—some still in their teens—came by train and were run ragged on the field. Dreams were made, hearts were broken, fans were entranced, and a rocketing 12-inch softball cracked the old boys’ club wide open.

“At the time, we were just having a lot of fun playing,” Jochum, now 93 years old, said in a telephone interview from her home in South Bend, Indiana. “Later on, they told us we were pioneers.”

* * * *
The plan was hatched for practical, decidedly unromantic reasons. Executives simply needed a way to fill stadium seats.

Chicago Cubs owner and team president Philip K. Wrigley, a business-minded numbers man, found himself staring at a deficit in 1942. The front lines of World War II were plucking MLB’s best and brightest from the rosters, and Wrigley knew that old-timers, nobodies, rookies and the 4-F would hardly excite his fan base. He worried postwar teams would be weaker or could possibly fold altogether, and large ballparks such as his, which stood empty for more than half the year anyway, would be history.

“[The league] came about not because he wanted to do the right thing,” said Cubs historian Ed Hartig. “Baseball shutting down was a very real fear.”

Organizations were just recovering from the Great Depression, and the war threatened to gut professional baseball so drastically there were fears it might never rebound.

As chief of a chewing gum empire, Wrigley had a knack for solving problems. Summer softball leagues, for men and women alike, were popular in Chicago, and the swelling interest in the sport got him thinking—why not start a pro league for women?

He and Ken Sells, assistant to the Cubs general manager and the new league’s future president, drummed up the idea of marrying softball with some of baseball’s rules. There would be nine players on the field rather than 10, and they would play a full nine innings instead of seven. But the league would also feature a shorter pitching distance, underhand pitching, a bigger ball and a shorter distance between bases. Wrigley pitched his idea to the other owners, but even with the dangling carrot of filling their parks, the idea went over like a lead rosin bag.

“The Wrigleys were a lot better off financially,” Hartig said. “They were a little more willing to experiment.”

With minimal support outside of his own office, Wrigley plowed ahead. He secured four cities that each agreed to pony up $22,500 in financing, which would be matched by Wrigley himself. In February 1943, the league’s formation was made public.

Based in Chicago, the All-American Girls Softball League—the name changed several times, eventually landing on All-American Girls Professional Baseball League—comprised four Midwestern teams and would do its own marketing, player recruiting, training, signing and allocating. The women were offered one-year contracts by the league, not their individual clubs.

Wrigley had never been short on cash, but his financial stake in the league was enough to send a tremor through even the deepest pockets. In addition to his initial investment, he ran the league as a nonprofit, redirecting all proceeds to the war effort. If any team was in the red, Wrigley made up the difference himself. Hartig noted that the Cubs owner spent between $135,000 and $200,000 on the venture by his tenure’s end.

“It was pretty much guaranteed not to be a moneymaker,” Hartig said. “But [Wrigley] was pleased with what he had done.”

* * * *
On that dreary mid-May day in 1943, Betsy Jochum and the other invited talent swung bats and shagged balls at Wrigley Field, trying to nab one of the 15 coveted spots on each club. Days were spent sweating on the field, while evenings found the women knee-deep in etiquette training, which was designed to teach them the finer points of being “ladies.” This included the art of walking in high heels, applying make-up and sitting in a proper, ladylike manner.

The women were chaperoned on any social outings, and they were forbidden from smoking and drinking hard liquor in public. They were to wear dresses outside of the ballpark (and inside the park, thanks to their fashion-forward belted tunic uniforms).

Tryouts wrapped up on May 25, and the season began just five days later. The Racine Belles, Kenosha Comets, Rockford Peaches and South Bend Blue Sox, where Jochum played for six seasons as an outfielder and pitcher, were officially playing professional ball.

Games drew about 2,000-3,000 fans initially, with one July 4 doubleheader in South Bend bringing in close to 10,000, Jochum recalled. Though the league was formed in part to fill major league ballparks, the women’s teams had their own fields and played in the big stadiums only for special events.

The Racine Belles clinched the ’43 title, and the 108-game season (54 games per team) wrapped with attendance reaching nearly 176,000 leaguewide, according to the AAGPBL.

Wartime games had an especially patriotic bent, with the women lining up in a V formation (for victory) before play began. Servicemen and -women were admitted free of charge, and exhibition games were often played to benefit the armed forces or the Red Cross.

Etiquette training was ongoing, as was extensive promotion of the women as ladylike girls next door. The average age of the players hovered around 21, and they earned between $45-85 per week, a decent living in those days. In the offseason, they were likely to stay in their team’s town, taking on a factory job or something similar, said Jeneane Lesko, a former player and the president of the AAGPBL Players Association.

Competition was intense, with rivalries almost guaranteed given how infrequently the teams were able to socialize with one another. Lesko recalled clearing both benches when she nearly beaned an opponent with a wild pitch, but the managers broke up the scrum before it got physical.

“Oh, it was major league,” said the 79-year-old Lesko. “The competitiveness was there.”

As the seasons progressed, the game looked less and less like softball. The pitching distances increased, the ball size decreased and overhand pitching was instituted. Certain players emerged as powerhouse fan favorites, and clubs even reported to Spring Training in Florida and Cuba. After Wrigley divested himself and Arthur Meyerhoff took over operations as the war drew to a close, the league expanded to 10 teams. In 1948, attendance reached 1 million.

“After they saw we really could play,” Jochum said of the fans, “they knew.”

* * * *
Over the run of the league, there were 15 different teams—the dismal Chicago Colleens even graced the Windy City for one season in ’48. But changes in leadership, the end of wartime rationing and the incursion of television sets into American households dealt the AAGPBL a fatal blow. The organization had been decentralized, and team owners were feeling the sting of dwindling attendance.

The league quietly folded after the ’54 season—so quietly, in fact, that by the following April, many players still assumed they would be on the field again in a month, Lesko said. As the teams disbanded, some women went back to their hometowns, some stayed in their affiliate towns, and others headed to college and pursued careers. Jochum quit after the ’48 season when she learned she had been traded, but opted to stay in South Bend.

Lesko, a southpaw, was still active when the AAGPBL dissolved and then joined a traveling league that played barnstorming games in the U.S. and Canada. She quit after two years, taught school overseas, and returned to the States to play in the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour. She eventually married, had three sons, worked in real estate and became involved in the AAGPBL Players Association. The Seattle resident is currently serving as the association’s president, and she is active in the organization, formation and promotion of women’s professional ball leagues. Up until this year, she was still playing softball.

“Our purpose is to promote the AAGPBL and to promote women’s baseball,” Lesko said. “To ensure our place in history, and to help other girls have an opportunity to play sports.”

Lesko has made the league’s legacy her mission, traveling around the world for tournaments, organizing AAGPBL yearly reunions and assisting with other high-profile gigs, such as the salute to the AAGPBL that will take place at Wrigley Field on June 6. Of the 600 women who played in the league, roughly 150 remain, and just a handful will head to Chicago to be honored before the Cubs take on the Brewers. “Sockem Jochum” has been asked to throw out the ceremonial first pitch on the field where her career began more than seven decades ago.

“Well, I’m going to attempt it,” Jochum said with a chuckle. “I’ll just bounce it into the catcher’s mitt.”

—Kerry Trotter

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