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.”
Sometimes the gap between perception and reality can be exceedingly wide. What’s visible from the outside is often much different from what is being experienced on the inside.
Case in point, there are essentially two Starlin Castros.
There’s the Starlin Castro the fans see and have a love-hate relationship with. The one who is perceived by some as uncommitted, unfocused and inconsistent.
Much of this characterization is, of course, informed by the 2013 season. After two All-Star campaigns from 2011-12, in which Castro compiled 390 hits and earned a seven-year, $60 million contract, things went off the rails a little last year. Castro slipped to a .245/.284/.347 (AVG/OBP/SLG) line, often looking lost at the plate, bereft of the trademark confidence that defined his early career. That regression, coupled with some defensive lapses, have placed the 24-year-old’s every move under the fan and media microscope.
But there’s another Starlin Castro as well—the player his teammates see. This is the Castro who is putting up remarkable early-career numbers, goes to the post every day, is eager to learn, and brings constant energy and excitement to the clubhouse.
“He’s one of those guys who’s the face of the team,” said Cubs catcher and longtime teammate Welington Castillo. “I know a lot of people got on him last year, but that’s in the past. We have to move forward. It brings a lot of confidence for the team when he’s playing like this, when you see Starlin on the field. That’s a guy that never wants to be out of the lineup. He wants to play every day, no matter what. So he brings a lot of energy and a lot of positivity to the team.”
Through his age-23 season—which, as we all know, includes one very off year—the Cubs shortstop had compiled 692 hits. To put that into perspective, by age 23, Hank Aaron had 718 hits, Cal Ripken Jr. had 569, Derek Jeter had 385, and all-time hits leader Pete Rose had just 309.
In other words, the guy can rake. It’s difficult to fluke your way into 700 big league hits before you’re old enough to rent a car.
And through the first month-plus of the 2014 season, Castro looked to be back to his early-career form. His aggressiveness is back, and that has Cubs personnel excited about the future. For the June issue of Vine Line, we talk to Castro’s teammates, coaches and the man himself to find out what has triggered the young star’s resurgence.
As part of our ongoing Wrigley 100 series, we also go back to the 1940s at the Friendly Confines, when a group of trailblazing women turned the baseball world upside down. With World War II rationing taking its toll on major league attendance and players being redirected to the war effort, Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley and other executives were desperate for a way to reinvigorate the game. Enter the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, popularized in the 1992 film A League of Their Own. We examine the role Cubs ownership and Wrigley Field played in the formation and life of the league.
Finally, with Father’s Day on the horizon, we get a little sentimental. Baseball is a tradition that has always been passed down from fathers to sons. To celebrate the holiday, we talk to current Cubs players about the impact their fathers have had on their lives and careers. Needless to say, when the Cubs take the field 162 times a year, there are some pretty excited dads out there.
For more in-depth stories about the Cubs organization, pick up the June issue of Vine Line, or subscribe for just $29.95. You can also find us on Twitter at @cubsvineline.
In the emotional last throes of the chewing gum magnate’s life, while the Great Depression dug its claws deeper into Chicago’s big shoulders, William Wrigley Jr. made his only son promise him one thing.
Do not sell his beloved Chicago Cubs to pay the inheritance taxes.
The elder Wrigley’s illness and subsequent death at age 70 in 1932 were swift and unexpected, a wake-up call to his 37-year-old heir, Philip K. Wrigley, who did not have his father’s passion for baseball but shared his shrewd business sense.
Wrigley had already accepted the mantle of president of his father’s chewing gum company, and now, by death and default—and a sometimes-troublesome sense of loyalty—he was the Chicago Cubs’ majority stockholder and owner.
“He liked baseball. He was around baseball. He just didn’t view himself as a baseball person,” said Chicago Cubs historian Ed Hartig. “I think if P.K. had his way, he would have been an engineer.”
But he was first and foremost a Wrigley, and as a member of one of Chicago’s most powerful families, he had a duty to fulfill.
And that duty was to the Cubs.
* * * *
Simply put, Philip Knight Wrigley opened his eyes in the right crib. Born in 1894 at Chicago’s Plaza Hotel to a family of great wealth and influence, he never wanted for much.
“He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth,” Hartig said.
With that spoon came a secure job at the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company and leisure time to pursue his love of horses and boats, according to the Society for American Baseball Research. He was a low-level stockholder in his father’s baseball enterprise and stood to inherit Wrigley Field and the breathtaking Catalina Island off the Los Angeles coast. Even after the stock market crash of 1929 sunk the country’s economy, the Wrigleys fared well because they had avoided extensive dealings with banks, Hartig said.
Workers who lost their livelihoods in the meat, railroad and steel industries began to organize in the city, as hostility toward the wealthy swelled.
“Chicago was one of the major centers of left-wing agitation,” said Peter Alter, an archivist with the Chicago History Museum. “Socialists and communists were strong in Chicago.”
But the Wrigleys weren’t necessarily viewed as bad guys, Alter added. They were rich and powerful, but they still contributed to the city’s goodwill.
After all, the family had one of the few businesses that—though it did not necessarily flourish during the Depression—held on to its employees. The Wrigleys also owned the Cubs, a team that won pennants in 1929 and ’32 (and later in ’35 and ’38), often to half-capacity crowds thinned by hard times. But by 1933, the team and the company were under the direction of Philip K. Wrigley, a man who routinely veered from the trappings of coddled wealth.
“The way people viewed him was he was not your typical baseball owner,” Alter said. “He was not a Comiskey.”
Wrigley, despite his wealth, enjoyed a “normal” streak. He never went to college and eventually joined the military, where he became a mechanic. He got married, had three kids and plugged away at the family’s gum company, but he lacked pretense about his success. He was a loyal employer, even as competing businesses shuttered and sales slowed. He had a generous streak, giving great chunks of money to charities and interests and turning his father’s beloved Southern California island into a conservancy.
Wrigley’s father, William Wrigley Jr., wasn’t born a baseball fan but died the biggest Cubs booster around. He bought up shares of the team piecemeal until eventually he owned it outright. He also purchased the park, which the team leased from him.
As a sort of memorial to his father, Wrigley’s vow not to sell the team to pay inheritance taxes morphed into a blunt refusal to sell the team under any circumstances, despite some promising offers.
“He made a lot of decisions based on business principles,” Hartig said, “and not on sound baseball principles.”
Oftentimes that strategy worked; sometimes it didn’t.
* * * *
“Baseball is too much of a sport to be a business, and too much of a business to be a sport,” Philip K. Wrigley once said. This ambivalence showed in his leadership style and in how he kept the Cubs at emotional arm’s length.
When Wrigley started out as owner, he had the experienced Bill Veeck Sr. in his camp. Unfortunately, Veeck died only a year after Philip K. Wrigley took over, forcing the new owner to make his first big baseball decision—hiring a new president.
Wrigley chose longtime team investor and fishmonger William Walker, but it was a short and rocky arrangement. Though history looks back on Walker’s tenure more kindly, he sealed his fate with several questionable trades, for which he was vilified in the press. Wrigley bought him out, sent him packing and took over as president in 1934.
“God knows, I don’t want the job. If I could find another Bill Veeck, I’d put him in there in a minute, but he doesn’t seem to be available,” Wrigley said, according to an article published by the Society for American Baseball Research. “No matter who’s in there, if anything goes wrong, I’m going to get blamed for it, so I might as well take the job myself.”
While the team won three pennants in the ’30s, Wrigley was less occupied with Cubbie blue than ledger black.
“His father was at games a lot,” Hartig said. “P.K. very seldom went to games.”
This is ironic considering his marketing push early in his presidency, when he went to great lengths to sell “Beautiful Wrigley Field.”
Yes, there was Cubs baseball to see, but the park was also an experience to behold and to be sold, win or lose. Wrigley began purchasing ad space in Chicago newspapers in the middle of winter, a practice that was decried leaguewide. But he was planting the seeds for interest in games and getting on fans’ radar long before tickets went on sale.
While Wrigley was a bottom-line kind of guy, he was not miserly. He relished spending money for the sake of the park and fan comfort. Wrigley brought in bigger, more comfortable seats at the expense of capacity, had the bleachers rebuilt to improve sight lines and laid plans to “green” up the park, which eventually led to the addition of the iconic ivy.
Yet in the final days of pre-war baseball, Wrigley’s loyalty to commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis got the best of him, and it wound up costing the Cubs. Wrigley was the only owner to go along with a plan hatched by Landis to keep minor league teams from folding during the war by making them independent entities that could sell their players to the highest bidder. It didn’t work.
“P.K.’s decision to dismantle the farm system put him back 10 years,” Hartig said.
He also resisted adding night games to the schedule, partly because he felt they were a passing fad and partly because the born innovator hadn’t been the first person to come up with the idea. In 1941, he reluctantly purchased the most advanced lighting system in baseball, but after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he promptly donated the materials to the war effort. After that, the idea remained dormant for decades.
One feather in Wrigley’s innovation cap was the creation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League during World War II, tryouts for which were held at Wrigley Field in 1941. However, he was woefully behind on the matter of integration, taking a back seat while Jackie Robinson first donned a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform in 1947. The Cubs signed an African-American player to their Los Angeles farm team in 1949, but Chicago was still an all-white club until Ernie Banks took the field in 1953.
In the ’60s, Wrigley devised the curious College of Coaches experiment, in which the manager was replaced by a rotating roster of head coaches who would assume the lead every few weeks. The intent was to create good all-around players who had access to a number of intelligent voices, but it just wound up confusing the team and encouraging favoritism.
Ultimately, it was television that made Wrigley’s legacy.
After World War II, he began pushing the idea of televising games. Just as his father had pioneered radio broadcasts amid criticism, the younger Wrigley was convinced that seeing was believing when it came to his beautiful ballpark, and that broadcasting games on TV would cultivate fandom. It worked, and the team’s relationship with WGN, which went on to become a “superstation” transmitted around the country, birthed fans for both the team and the park far from the Lakeview neighborhood.
* * * *
The promise to his father, at once bold and uncertain, remained steadfast. Philip K. Wrigley did not sell William Wrigley Jr.’s beloved team, nor the gum empire he built, during his 60-plus years steering both ships. Even when the team entered a dark period of losses and mismanagement, he largely did right by his father. And the family business, where his true talents lay, thrived.
Not every decision Philip K. Wrigley made was sound. There were mistakes and missed opportunities. But he gave freely of his significant wealth, created Cubs fans nationwide and made Wrigley Field a destination for fans around the world.
In the end, he kept his word.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and author George Will is probably best known for his conservative political commentary. But the Champaign, Illinois, native is also a huge baseball fan who has written extensively on the game. His newest book, A Nice Little Place on the North Side, is a deeply personal look at the Chicago Cubs, the team he has rooted for since he was a boy, and their iconic home, Wrigley Field.
Vine Line: You’ve now done three books on baseball. What keeps you coming back to the game?
George Will: I really only write about politics to support my baseball habit. I was just thinking I’ve published 14 books now, three of them on baseball, and I’m sure those three will sell more than the others combined. Baseball is fun. It’s endlessly fascinating. It has such a long history, unlike every other American sport. It goes back well into the 19th century and beyond.
VL: You grew up downstate, so you had a choice between the Cardinals and Cubs. How did you become a Cubs fan?
GW: I’m not sure I remember how. The funny thing is I remember the Cardinals’ radio broadcaster annoyed me—some guy named Harry Caray, who left St. Louis, went to Oakland, went to the South Side of Chicago, and, of course, wound up being an iconic figure in Cubs history. What annoyed me when he was with the Cardinals was how much he supported the Cardinals. I didn’t mind him supporting the Cubs.
VL: From your book, I take it you’re a reluctant modernist. You like Wrigley Field the way it is, but you see the need for change.
GW: This ballpark is older than the Supreme Court Building, the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, Mt. Rushmore, Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge—it’s old. And like a lot of old things and people, it needs maintenance. So, first of all, you have to spend on maintenance. Second, every major league team’s ballpark is a revenue producer, and it helps them put a better product on the field. And third, the Cubs need certain things like weight rooms and video rooms and batting cages they can use during games. The modern athlete demands more and deserves more.
VL: What compelled you to devote a book to Wrigley?
GW: I just wanted to know all the interesting things and, frankly, the fun things that have happened. Not many Cubs fans know that Jack Ruby, the guy who shot Lee Harvey Oswald after Oswald shot Kennedy, was a vendor in Wrigley Field. Not many people know that Ray Kroc, before he founded McDonald’s, was selling plastic cups to the vendors here to serve soft drinks in. Not many people really know the story, sad and glorious at the same time, of Hack Wilson, who has one of the records that has resisted breaking more than almost any other—191 RBI in one season. So it’s an enormous amount of history just concentrated in this one little spot on the North Side.
By the numbers alone, the start of Rick Renteria’s first managerial season with the Cubs looked much like the start of the 2013 campaign. The rotation was solid, but the record left something to be desired, and the bullpen struggled to find consistency. Still, there have been many positive signs in 2014, including the phenomenal start of staff ace Jeff Samardzija. We sat down with Renteria during the Crosstown Classic in early May to talk about pitching, Wrigley Field’s 100th birthday party and going home again.
To read the full interview, pick up the June 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.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
Cubs starter Jason Hammel is enjoying his first season on the North Side. The 31-year-old is 4-1 with a 2.43 ERA in six starts. He’s also enjoying his opportunity to pitch at Wrigley Field, something the veteran hurler had never done prior to this season. The following can be found in the May issue of Vine Line.
Everyone has a wish list—places they want to see, things they want to do. For pitcher Jason Hammel, that list has always included pitching at Wrigley Field. That’s part of the reason the veteran free agent wanted to sign with the Cubs this offseason.
Remarkably, in eight previous major league campaigns, including three with the Colorado Rockies, Hammel made only 21 starts against NL Central opponents and never threw a pitch at the Friendly Confines. Now, he hopes he gets the chance to throw a lot of them.
“I love the fact that it’s a stadium in the middle of a highly residential area,” Hammel said. “I’ve never been to Lambeau Field [home of the Green Bay Packers], but I’ve heard so many things about it. That’s why they have such a great following, because it’s so accessible. Wrigley’s the same. It’s a neighborhood.
“The Cubs have so much history in their own franchise, going way back. There are so many stories about so many big names and Hall of Famers who have come out of this franchise, it’s a bucket list [item] for players. You want to go there at some point. Now I get to go there, and it’s a dream come true.”
The right-hander, who signed a one-year, $6 million contract in February, knows there’s a chance he could be traded this season. He also knows Cubs history doesn’t include many World Series championships. But that doesn’t concern him. His goal is to help turn the franchise around and have a long, successful run on the North Side.
“Obviously, we haven’t won in a long time,” he said. “But we’re going to change that.”
Hammel brings some much-needed experience to a relatively green starting staff. He joined Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson, Travis Wood and Carlos Villanueva in the Cubs Opening Day rotation, and, at 31, he’s the oldest of the bunch.
“And I’m longer off the tee than all of them,” he said, laughing.
Over the years, golf has been a good way for Hammel, now with his fourth major league club, to get to know his teammates.
“All the teams I’ve played on before, all the guys say, ‘Oh, I love golf, we’ll play,’” Hammel said. “You come into the season and go on the road, and most of the guys sleep. I’m getting to that stage in my life where I need to get up and get moving, go do something to get the body moving, and it’s always been golf.
“All the guys—Jeff, Woody, [James Russell]—play a little. It’s fun having guys around with the same common interest and also goes to the baseball side of it. They’re all pushing in the same direction. They want to win. We want to continue to get better. Winning seasons are based on starting pitching.”
Though he’s the newest member of the rotation, Hammel has worked hard to forge a bond with his fellow starters.
“It’s a new team for him, and, as the new guy, he wants to get to know everyone. A lot of times that’s what the conversation is about,” Samardzija said of their talk on the golf course. “Ham’s great. He’s a great dude.
“He enjoys talking baseball, which is always an important attribute for a ballplayer. You learn so much more from talking than playing sometimes.”
So who’s the best golfer? According to Hammel, it’s Russell.
“He just bangs it out there,” Hammel said of the lefty reliever. “He’s really good with his irons.”
The Cubs are hoping Hammel can provide the kind of veteran leadership the club has been lacking since the departures of players like Ryan Dempster and David DeJesus. And Hammel knows a thing or two about winning. He was on the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008 when they reached the World Series (though he didn’t pitch), and was part of the 2012 Baltimore Orioles team that shocked the baseball world by winning 93 games and reaching the American League Division Series.
A 10th-round pick in the 2002 draft by Tampa Bay, Hammel was traded to the Rockies in April 2009 for Aneury Rodriguez, and then traded to the Orioles in February 2012 along with Matt Lindstrom for Jeremy Guthrie.
“I’ve always wanted to be a one-team guy—that’s everybody’s dream,” Hammel said. “I’ve learned about the business side of baseball through [my transactions]. As much as it’s tough and sad, it’s also more opportunity. Every team I’ve gone to, I’ve had a better experience than the last.”
He’s also gotten the opportunity to learn from different pitching coaches and players, and discovered new things about himself and how to be a big leaguer. Now, he’s taking that accumulated knowledge and using it to mentor the Cubs’ young players.
“His first year with us in Baltimore was 2012,” said Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta, who was Hammel’s teammate with the Orioles. “My first impression was that he was turning into that veteran-type guy, a guy who really understood himself. He understood what it takes to be successful at a high level on a consistent basis and [was] a guy who exuded a lot of confidence. I really liked that and respected that and those aspects about the way he carried himself. It really showed, especially in 2012.
“I think he’d agree that he had a down year [last year] and wasn’t happy with it,” Arrieta said of Hammel’s 7-8 record and 4.97 ERA with Baltimore. “In 2012, we got a good look at what type of guy he really can be. It was fun to watch. He brings a lot to the table. He’s got a lot of insight and knowledge that a lot of guys in the clubhouse can utilize. I think he’ll have a good year for us.”
In that magical 2012 season for the Orioles, Hammel went 8-6 with a 3.43 ERA in 20 starts, including a one-hit shutout of the Braves on June 16. Though he struggled last year, Hammel certainly knows how to bounce back from adversity. In his first big league season in 2003, he was 0-6 with a 7.77 ERA in nine starts with the Rays.
He also knows what’s ahead of him in Chicago. He’s seen teams rebuild—and rebound—beginning with Tampa and then again with the 2012 Orioles.
“[The rebuilding] was something I was able to learn and go through, and it helped give me my personality in baseball,” he said. “You see a lot of that here with the Cubs—a lot of young guys finally starting to reach their peaks. They’ve got, from what I can see, the right amount of veteran leadership and the right amount of young guys who are really starting to pull their weight and getting an idea of how to be a big leaguer, and the guys in the middle who are doing well. There are a lot of positive things.”
During Spring Training, Hammel got a glimpse of the Cubs’ future watching top prospects Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Albert Almora make their mark on the Cactus League. Hammel said he would like to stay and see those players develop.
“Staying with the same group of guys, that builds winning teams,” Hammel said. “If you have guys coming in and out, it’s tough to gel and mesh and find that comfort zone with everybody around you.”
Hammel is also well aware of what’s happened with the Cubs roster over the last two years at the trade deadline. In 2012 and again in 2013, the Cubs front office dealt two of their starting pitchers by July 31. One of those was Scott Feldman, who was traded to Baltimore for Arrieta and Pedro Strop.
“When he came over at the trade deadline last year, I immediately liked him, and we meshed well,” Hammel said of Feldman. “He said it was a great experience over here, and he had a lot of fun being part of the Cubs franchise. He said they treated him very well. It was very family oriented and just a bunch of great guys.”
Feldman gave Hammel a little advice when he became a free agent this past offseason.
“[Feldman] said, ‘Give [Chicago] a good thought, and I bet you’ll like it if you end up there,’” Hammel said.
Hammel listened, but he also understands he could be gone at the deadline, like many veteran pitchers before him. The Cubs are still trying to stockpile young talent in the minor leagues, and if a team is out of contention coming into the All-Star break, moving veteran players is one of the fastest ways to accomplish that task. Previous trades have yielded prospects like C.J. Edwards, Mike Olt and Arodys Vizcaino.
“Anybody can be flipped during the season, whether you have a long-term contract or you’re just a rookie,” Hammel said. “I’ve seen it all happen. It’s part of the game, but my job is to come over here and win baseball games, and it doesn’t matter what uniform I’m wearing. I’m excited to be here, and I want to win here. If further down the road, something happens, it happens. I can’t be thinking about that.”
Instead, he’s focused on finally pitching at Wrigley Field. Prior to the season, Hammel’s teams had come to the ballpark, but it was never his turn to pitch. He thought he’d be the starter for the home opener on April 4, but Travis Wood landed that assignment
Even before he threw his first pitch at Wrigley, Hammel already knew about the quirkiness of the wind. But he said it shouldn’t bother him too much because he’s a sinkerball pitcher.
“I want to get ground balls, so I’ll try to stay in the bottom of the zone,” he said. “Sometimes my four-seamer will end up [in the zone], but if you make good pitches, you should get the product of the pitch that you want. I’m not going to worry about what the wind is going to do. Yeah, the wind can dictate certain ways to pitch guys. It will tell you if you want to challenge a guy who’s a pull hitter, and he’s going to hit right into the teeth of the wind. That’s fine. Overall, it’s not going to change my game plan.”
Despite the fickle winds, Hammel knows his wife, Elissa, and 2-year-old son, Beckett, are excited to be in Chicago. Elissa was a social worker and was associated with an adoption agency when the couple was in Tampa. It’s something she wants to pursue again onceHammel’s baseball career is over. Right now, the couple is expecting their second child, a girl, around mid-September.
“Hopefully, she’s a playoff baby,” Jason said.
Fans can stay connected with Hammel through his blog, HammelTown, on cubs.com. He started it a year ago to promote some of his off-the-field activities and recently posted a photo from Opening Day at PNC Park in Pittsburgh.
“It won’t be an everyday thing, but it’ll be something we’ll go in and out on,” he said.
While on the golf course, Hammel has talked to other Cubs pitchers about the direction the team is headed and what they want to accomplish this season. He sees a lot of similarities between his career and Samardzija’s, as both have moved between the rotation and the bullpen.
“He throws a lot harder than I do, but there are similarities,” Hammel said. “We talk. I’m not a guy who’s going to force myself on someone. I try to make that feeling for young guys that if they want to approach me, I’m there.”
Arrieta and Hammel became close through their wives, and both have sons about the same age.
“He’s a good friend of mine,” Arrieta said. “I’m glad to call him a teammate again.”
And Hammel is glad to call Wrigley Field his home.
—Carrie Muskat, MLB.com
It’s shockingly easy to overlook the familiar. I have two small children at home, and as far as I can tell, they never grow. That’s because I see them every day, so I don’t notice the incremental changes. In reality, they’re growing at an alarming rate. At least, they’re eating enough that I figure they must be.
I’m also fairly certain every time Bradley Cooper walks onto the Paramount Studios lot, he doesn’t think about how amazing the place is or bask in the eerie glow of the Psycho house. When you see something every day, the details run the risk of getting overlooked.
Yes, this is all a long, apologist’s way of saying I am occasionally guilty of taking Wrigley Field for granted.
I, of course, am aware of the beauty of the Friendly Confines and am extremely excited to celebrate this centennial season with legions of Cubs fans around the globe. But I work at the facility, so it’s easy to just think of it as my office. And, trust me, there are some unique challenges to sharing your office space with 40,000 people or trying to do interviews in a cramped clubhouse before an important game.
But occasionally I get a shock to the system that reminds me of where I am—and how lucky I am to be there. Sitting up in the small media cafeteria at the home opener and eavesdropping on Ernie Banks, Randy Hundley, Fergie Jenkins and Billy Williams reminiscing about the game at the table next to mine was one of those moments. Talking to Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts on the field about the upcoming season was another.
Ultimately, the thing that really reminded me how special it is to work at Wrigley Field was reading Carrie Muskat’s article on Jason Hammel in this month’s issue. The 31-year-old right-hander, who signed a one-year deal with the team this offseason, talked to Vine Line about how excited he is to finally get a chance to pitch at Wrigley Field.
Amazingly, in eight previous seasons—including three in the National League with the Rockies—Hammel had never pitched at the Friendly Confines prior to signing with the club. It’s easy to believe major league ballplayers are unfazed by such things, but Hammel called pitching in front of the ivy a “dream come true.” Hearing his excitement about the storied ballpark reminded me to value all the little moments—cramped clubhouse or no.
We also time travel back to the 1930s this month to examine the impact of longtime—and somewhat reluctant—Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley. Though Wrigley ran the team for more than 40 years following the death of his father, William Wrigley Jr., even he’d admit he never fit the mold of the typical baseball executive. During his tenure, he had many ups and downs with the team, but through moves like beautifying Wrigley Field and televising games, the understated owner had an outsized impact on modern Cubs history.
Finally, starting this month, our minor league coverage gets a boost. We begin by bringing back the Minor League Notebooks, in which we keep tabs on all the Cubs’ full-season minor league affiliates. We also delve into perhaps the next frontier of scouting—the mental game. Now that most teams are using advanced statistics and data to influence decision making, everyone is looking for new ways to gain an advantage on the competition. The more organizations can understand about what makes a player tick, the better decisions they’ll make in the draft and the international market.
If you’re looking for a psychological edge, make sure to check us out on Twitter at @cubsvineline. We cover all the action, from Low-A to Wrigley Field.
And we promise to take nothing for granted.
Rick Renteria definitely hit the ground running in the first month of the season. The rookie major league manager was the first to use expanded instant replay and the first to be ejected from a game in 2014. He’s also shown a propensity for playing the matchups and an unfailingly positive disposition. For the May issue of Vine Line, we talked with Renteria about playing at Wrigley Field, using platoons and fighting for the name on the front of the jersey—not the one on the back.
To read the full interview, pick up the May 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.
The following Q&A appears in the April edition of Vine Line magazine.
Cubs manager Rick Renteria has certainly paid his dues. After 30 years in professional baseball, he’ll feel like a rookie again this season as he takes the managerial reins for the first time. Though the 51-year-old is unfailingly positive, he’s also tough, and he hopes to bring a new attitude to a Cubs franchise that is brimming with young talent. We sat down with Renteria during Spring Training to ask about running his first big league team and his expectations for the season.
Vine Line: You’ve had a long coaching career, but you’re a first-time major league manager. What was your opening message to the team?
RR: That we should place high expectations upon ourselves to compete and to win. We shouldn’t be afraid to raise the bar and expect ourselves to attain that bar. If we go about doing our business with the fear that we won’t attain it—and thereby not set expectations—what’s the goal? We need to have goals, and I think they’re going about their business a certain way right now. I’m very excited about the club.
VL: Is it nice to finally get your eyes on some of the top prospects like Javier Baez, Albert Almora and Kris Bryant?
RR: It’s extremely exciting to see all the young guys that are in camp, with Almora, Baez and all the guys that are here. It’s important that we put our eyes on them to see where they end up ultimately fitting into the scheme of things. I think the skill sets are very high. Experience has to continue to play into it while they’re developing and playing in the minor leagues, so we make sure that once they get here, it’s not overwhelming.
Some guys may not make the splash that everybody expects, but that’s OK. You can work through those things. Some guys will make a big splash, and that’s great. But the reality is you’ve got to stay even keel, and that’s where we as a coaching staff and as an organization have to make sure these guys feel comfortable.
VL: You were aggressive with stealing bases, bunts, etc. in the spring. Is that an indication of how you expect the team to play?
RR: I think every skill set the players bring has to be taken into account when you’re determining what you’re going to do with them. But we do expect these guys to be able to do many things—to be able to steal a base, be able to hit and run, be able to sac bunt, be able to squeeze. If we lay the foundation right now in the spring that those are the expectations we have for them, anything is possible.
Once the season starts, the bell rings, you’ve got 40,000 people in the stands, and the lights are on, we expect that the transition to the regular season shouldn’t be as hard for us because we’re expecting to do a lot of things, and we’re doing them from Day One.
VL: You’ve talked about your coaching staff and the players sharing a family feeling. Why is that important?
RR: I think being a family-like team is extremely important. You feel like you have each other’s back. You’re willing to go out and fight for your teammate. You’re willing to defend anything that they do. You may be in the clubhouse, and you may be getting on each other, but nobody else can come in and say the same thing that you can as a teammate. That’s the family feel, you know? I grew up in a large family of nine, and maybe we could get on each other, but if somebody else came in from the outside and wanted to do the same thing, “Hey, not going to happen.”
VL: A lot of people are saying this team can’t compete this year. What do you say to that?
RR: We can compete this year. I think we have the ability to go out there and play the game. Anybody can do whatever it is they choose to do. The question is: Who do we choose to believe we are? Do we choose to believe what everybody else says—the naysayers, the doubters, whatever the case might be? Do they have a reason? Sure, but that’s not our reason. Our reason to go out here is to perform, to do well and expect to do well.
VL: There’s a new wrinkle this year with expanded instant replay. Do you have a system in place for how you’ll handle that?
RR: If my eyes tell me I should challenge something, I’m going to challenge. It’s not necessarily like I’m going to take every opportunity to go ahead and challenge every single play just because I can. … I don’t want to do it just for the sake of doing it. I think there should be a purpose. I should develop my skill set, and the bench coach and all of us on the bench should develop our skill sets.
After nearly two months of preparation, Cubs spring camp is coming to a close, and the team is getting ready to head north to Pittsburgh for the season opener.
In the final installation of our Cubscast Mesa video series, we asked Cubs players to state their definition of success for 2014. Though most pundits don’t expect much from the team, the players are definitely setting their sights high.
Check out the other videos from our Spring Training series:
Cubscast Mesa: Positive Energy in Cubs Camp
Cubscast Mesa: Inside Cubs Park
Cubscast Mesa with Rick Renteria and the 2014 coaching staff
Cubscast Mesa with the top prospects
Cubscast Mesa: Meet the new guys
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part One
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Two
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Three
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Four
Cubscast Mesa: The lighter side of the Cubs, Part Five