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The Top 100 Cubs Of All Time - George Altman

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It's hard to fathom in this day and age, but there was a time at which the Cubs organization was at the forefront of signing and developing talented African-American players.

It started with Gene Baker and Ernie Banks, the first two black players on the Cubs, in late 1953, and continued through the 1950's, as the Cubs developed a good working relationship with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League, and their manager, Buck O'Neil, who became a scout for the Cubs in 1956, and eventually the first black coach in the major leagues in 1962.

Among the talented players O'Neil recommended to the Cubs was outfielder George Altman, who was born on March 20, 1933 in Goldsboro, North Carolina, and who signed with the Monarchs out of Tennessee State University in 1955. After a year there, he signed with the Cubs and both he and Billy Williams made it to the major leagues to make their debuts in 1959.

Altman, who was already 26 in making his debut, a little older than most rookies, was immediately installed as the Cubs' starting center fielder. He had a decent season, hitting .245/.312/.383 in 420 at-bats, and improved those numbers to .266/.330/.455 in 1960, but wound up playing all over the diamond, as the Cubs were wont to do in those days. They had acquired Richie Ashburn, typical for that era Cubs, a star past his prime, and wanted to install Ashburn in CF. Thus, Altman played first base for a time, and also all three outfield positions. While he was playing CF, on May 15, he made a leaping catch of a line drive in the 8th inning to help preserve Don Cardwell's no-hitter.

In 1961 Altman burst onto the national scene, at the age of 28 hitting 27 HR, driving in 96 runs, and bumping up his averages to .303/.353/.560. He was named to the NL All-Star team and finished 14th in MVP voting, for a team that lost 90 games and finished seventh in an 8-team league.

The following year, the Cubs brought up rookie Lou Brock, and with Andre Rodgers their SS, often started five black (not African-American, technically, since Rodgers was from the Bahamas) players, including an entirely black outfield of Altman, Brock and Billy Williams. Altman continued hitting for power, hitting 27 doubles, 22 HR, and finishing sixth in the batting race with a .318 average.

At the age of 29, Altman could likely have continued to produce these sorts of numbers -- a complementary player to Cub power hitters Banks, Williams and Ron Santo -- for another three or four years. Among present-day Cubs, he'd probably be roughly comparable to a Jacque Jones -- someone who'd be the fourth-best hitter on a good-hitting team -- although he walked more and had more speed than Jones.

And then, the Cubs did something so typical of the way the club was run under John Holland from 1957 to 1975.

After the 1962 season they traded Altman to the Cardinals, ironically, along with Cardwell, whose no-hitter he had helped save two years earlier. In retrospect, this trade helped the Cubs for many years to come, since they acquired pitcher Larry Jackson, who was eventually shipped to the Phillies for Ferguson Jenkins, and pitcher Lindy McDaniel, who eventually became part of the deal bringing Randy Hundley and Bill Hands to the Cubs. Both McDaniel and Jackson also had a couple of decent years for the Cubs, not that it meant anything in the final standings.

But for Altman, it sunk his career. His power vanished -- he hit only nine home runs for the Cardinals -- and they sent him to the Mets the next offseason for Roger Craig, who became a capable bullpen pitcher for the '64 champion Cardinals. Meanwhile, Altman got even worse in New York, his average dropping to .230, and the Cubs reacquired him in the offseason. He spent a couple of years as a spare-part outfielder, and his career appeared to be over in 1967 at the age of 34.

This was about the time when American baseball players of that age and ability started to head for Japan to play, and Altman was at the forefront. He spent eight years there, playing for the Lotte Orions for seven seasons and the Hanshin Tigers for one, hitting 205 HR and retiring after the 1975 season at the age of 42.

Since his retirement he has lived near St. Louis, but according to a letter he wrote to Bob Bavasi of Japanball.com in 2005, he still feels a Cub, nearly forty years after he last wore the uniform:

I am a Cub 'lifer.' Even though I live in the St. Louis area, the Cubs are my number one team. Yes, I bleed Cub blue and I was shocked at their lack of moves to shore up the bullpen last winter. I hope one day soon they will loosen the purse strings and go all out to bring us a World Championship.