As 2011 approaches, we should start preparing ourselves for the inevitable 50th anniversary tributes to the legendary Yankees of Mantle, Maris, Ford, Berra, Howard, Arroyo, Kubek, Richardson, and Hal Reniff. I realize the mere idea of Billy Crystal, Tim McCarver or Ken Burns taking us on more forced marches down baseball’s memory lane may prove to be a natural emetic, and for those readers made ill at the thought, my advice is to sit back, relax, and chew some Doublemint. Remember, as baseball fans, we are obliged to study and reflect upon the past.
After all, just like those lucky folks who follow the Yankees, Cubs fans also can look ahead to several important Golden Anniversaries in the coming weeks and months, commemorating events that run from the sublime to the ridiculous as products of phenomena that often defy description.
April 15, 1961 – The Al Heist Tax Day walk-off grand slam “Homer in the Snowin’” that beat the Milwaukee Braves 9-5. Like Gabby’s Gloamer in ‘38, this hit won a game that surely would have been called by the umps if another out had been made, in this case both because of darkness and the occasional snow flurry.
May 23 – Ernie Banks’ debut in left field. From Novikoff to Soriano – in the long and glorious tradition of outfielders allergic to bricks and ivy, one man stands out from the rest and, fortunately for Ernie, he returned to the infield on June 16th to play first base. Then, suffering from a knee injury, he took himself out of the lineup from June 23rd to July 1st, ending at 717 games his bid to break Stan Musial’s National League record for consecutive games played. Unfortunately, when Banks came back from this injury to play shortstop, he was no longer the superstar of the previous 6-1/2 years and, at age 30, he watched Williams and Santo become the team's most dominant players, an arrangement that would last for another decade.
May 28 – The Great Oscar Mayer Smokie Link explosion and fire that provided a Sunday afternoon crowd at Wrigley with the kind of sideshow that even Bill Veeck couldn’t script. What’s more exciting than a midget heading for the batter’s box? How about 40-foot flames from a hot dog cart scorching the bottom of the upper deck! In “the show must go on” tradition of those times, fans down the first base line just moved-in a little closer to home plate as the game continued, while the boys from Engine 78 put an end to the giant weenie roast.
July 17-18 – Cubs lose consecutive doubleheaders at St. Louis. Cards’ first baseman and future NL President Bill White goes 14-for-18 in this series, with six RBI.
August 11 – Spahnie’s 300th Win, a nifty six-hit complete game at Milwaukee good enough to defeat Cubs rookie left-hander Jack Curtis, who also notched a six-hit complete game. The Braves apparently were impressed enough with this effort by Curtis to trade Bob Buhl for Jack in early ‘62, a deal that ultimately paid major dividends for the Cubs.
September 10 – Lou Brock and Ken Hubbs arrive from the low minors to face Robin Roberts on a beautiful Sunday afternoon at Wrigley. The star-crossed duo was looking good at bat and in the field as the Cubs took a 6-1 lead into the seventh, before the last-place Phillies erupted for 13 runs. The final welcome-to-Wrigley score for the rookies was Phils 14, Cubs 6.
Of course, the most significant of all 1961 baseball anniversaries actually will occur this year, in a little over three weeks. It was on December 20, 1960 that Phil Wrigley gave us an early Christmas present with his announcement that the Cubs no longer would have a manager and, instead, play under a system of rotating “head coaches,” a plan that quickly became known as the "College of Coaches." From a baseball standpoint, the College was perhaps the single most damaging idea ever inflicted on a major league team but, as a publicity gimmick, it has endured.
Recently, I noticed Phil Wrigley’s Wikipedia entry cleverly assigns credit and/or blame for the no-manager concept to Cubs’ legend El Tappe, a prominent member of the College. To those P.K. Wrigley admirers who may be responsible for this vandalism, I say: Don’t be so modest – you’re not doing Phil or yourselves any favors.
The College of Coaches will be famous in baseball circles long after the ‘61 Yankees are forgotten, and the entire scheme bears the subtle hand of the master. I imagine Wrigley himself would be plenty upset to learn of this slight to his genius, and if a mysterious full-page ad on this subject appears in the Trib anytime soon, we may know for sure what Phil thinks in this semicentennial year.