Sports Illustrated's cover of June 11, 1984, featuring Durham and the Cubs
For a man who spent only seven full seasons in a Cub uniform, Leon Durham is part of more Cub lore than some others who played here for a decade or more.
The first time we became aware of him, and he entered that lore, was on his acquisition from the Cardinals on December 9, 1980 (along with the eminently-forgettable Ken Reitz and Tye Waller) for Bruce Sutter. Sutter was, of course, a great closer even then, and was traded by the Wrigleys -- the last major deal they ever made -- because a year before, he'd received what was at that time, the largest arbitration award in history, and the cash-poor Cubs couldn't afford that.
How much was that? $700,000.
My, how times change. That won't even buy you a backup infielder these days.
Durham, who had been highly touted as a Cardinal prospect (he was their first-round draft pick in 1976, out of Woodward High School in his hometown of Cincinnati, where he had been a high school All-American), was immediately installed as the Cubs' right fielder in 1981, one of the most miserable seasons in club history. His .290/.344/.460 numbers portended a greater future, as he was only 23 years old. Ten home runs didn't seem like much, but that was a strike year and Durham played in only 87 games, just a little more than half of a full "regular" season. He was given the predictable nickname "Bull".
Durham came into his own in 1982, hitting 22 HR and driving in 90 runs, while hitting .312/.388/.521 and stealing 28 bases. It was on July 4 of that year that he did something significant -- not in his career, as it was only one of 147 career HR, but in my life, as in a 7-2 Cub loss to the Cardinals in St. Louis, he hit the one and only game home-run ball I have in my collection, one that bounced to me in the right-field bleachers at old Busch Stadium.
Twenty-four years ago, and countless games in the Wrigley Field bleachers, and that's all I've got, just that one.
In '83 Durham was hurt and missed significant time and regressed; it appeared in 1982 that he was going to become one of the better power/speed/average hitters in the National League, but going into 1984 there were question marks.
And then an acquisition the Cubs made at the very end of spring training 1984 set in motion the events of that year, many of which swirled around Leon Durham. The Cubs acquired Gary Matthews and Bob Dernier from the Phillies, after losing thirteen straight games in spring training; Dallas Green rightfully "panicked" and made a bold move.
This had the snowball-effect of moving Keith Moreland, who might otherwise have played left field, to right field, and Durham to first base, leaving Bill Buckner, who had been the club's first baseman since 1977, to be a pinch-hitter, something he was ill-suited to do. That led to the trade of Buckner to the Red Sox in June for Dennis Eckersley, and of course, all of those acquisitions played key roles in the Cubs' division title year in 1984.
I'm not going to dwell here on the little ground ball that went under Durham's glove in the fifth game of the 1984 NLCS, or the rumors that Ryne Sandberg had accidentally spilled Gatorade on his glove before that fateful inning, making it "sticky" and thus Durham less able to field that ball properly. That play will forever be one of the things we'll always remember as one that prevented us from reaching the Promised Land.
Durham had three more reasonably productive years as the starting first baseman, though his RBI totals declined from 96 in that NL East title year to 75 and then 65 and then 63; his defense also suffered.
When he got off to a miserable (.218/.297/.403 in 45 games) start in 1988, Durham was quickly dispatched to the Reds in return for a mediocre middle reliever named Pat Perry. Rumors of drug use preceded the trade, and Durham quickly washed out of the majors, finishing with a 1-for-18 stint at age 31 with his original team, the Cardinals.
It's a shame, really; Durham had 143 career HR at the age of 29 and perhaps could have been the Cubs' first baseman well into the 1990's, and maybe hit 300 or so HR. After several years of trying to get back to the majors, he became a coach in the Angels' organization in 1996 and since 2001 has been the hitting coach at Triple-A Toledo, the Tigers' affiliate.
Durham is one of ten players to have worn uniform #10 since Ron Santo retired as a player (the whole list: Billy Grabarkewitz, Mike Sember, Dave Kingman, Durham, Lloyd McClendon, Luis Salazar, Steve Lake, Scott Bullett, and Terrell Lowery; manager Bruce Kimm also wore it in 2002, with Santo's blessing -- Kimm was the last to wear it before it was retired).