The 1963 Cubs were a curious lot.
The important thing to remember about that year’s team is that going into 1963, the Cubs had posted 16 straight seasons without finishing over .500, getting to that mark just once in that span (77-77 in 1952). They were coming off a club-record 103 losses in 1962 and had spent that year and the one previous under the “leadership” of the College of Coaches, acknowledged by almost everyone as a disaster. The franchise appeared in total disarray.
And then, in ‘63, they started winning, led by young sluggers Ron Santo and Billy Williams and the outstanding pitching of lefthander Dick Ellsworth. They were in first place briefly in early June and after a wild 12-11 win over the Giants August 2, they stood at 58-48, in fourth place but just 5½ games behind the first-place Dodgers. Could it be... ?
Well, no. From August 3-30 the Cubs went 10-17 and fell out of contention, entering the August 31 game against the Houston Colt .45s at Wrigley Field in seventh place, 12 games out of first. They probably weren’t going to catch the 99-win Dodgers that year regardless, but that was a pretty bad skid.
I mentioned the August 2 game, a win just before that swoon began. They’d trailed 6-5 entering the eighth inning. Three Cubs relievers served up five runs to the Giants, but the Cubs improbably came back with six (!) in the bottom of the inning to tie the game. Two of those runs came on a home run by Ellis Burton, who is the subject of this essay.
Burton had spent most of the previous eight years in the minor leagues after being signed by the Pirates out of high school in 1955. He’d played in their system and also in the minors for the Orioles, Cardinals, Braves and Indians, hitting for reasonable power and drawing walks, with a couple of brief MLB appearances for St. Louis in 1958 and 1960. He was 26 when the Indians acquired him in early 1963, and he hit just .194/.286/.387 in 26 games when the Cubs purchased him on May 27.
The Cubs installed him in their outfield as a more-or-less everyday player, sometimes in center field, sometimes in right. Burton hit all right until the beginning of August, when he started producing better. In 29 games from August 1-30, he hit .257/.349/.477 (28-for-109) with six doubles and six home runs, and while by 2020 standards that’s just “good,” in 1963 that was very solid production. It looked like the Cubs might have gotten a steal from Cleveland.
And then came the game of August 31 against Houston.
Starter Larry Jackson didn’t make it out of the second inning, allowing seven hits and four runs. The Colts tacked on a run in the fourth; the Cubs broke the shutout bid with an RBI single by Lou Brock in the fifth. Nothing much happened for either team in the sixth, seventh or eighth; a couple of hits and walks, just one runner to scoring position.
And so the game went to the bottom of the ninth with the Cubs still trailing 5-1. Merritt Ranew singled with one out, but Dick Bertell flied to right, so there was a runner on first with two out.
A bunt single (!) by Don Landrum advanced Ranew to second, where he scored on a single by Andre Rodgers to make the score 5-2. Landrum took third and Houston changed pitchers, bringing in lefthander Hal Woodeshick.
Woodeshick was not only Houston’s best reliever in 1963, he was one of the best in the National League. He posted a 1.97 ERA and 1.026 WHIP in 55 games covering 114 innings, back in a time when top relievers generally went longer than one inning per outing. He posted 4.6 bWAR, ninth-best among all N.L. pitchers that year and the best for any reliever.
But on that Saturday afternoon at Wrigley Field with just one out to go to nail down a win for Houston, Woodeshick walked Leo Burke, a righthanded hitter sent up to bat for the lefthanded-hitting Brock, to load the bases.
That brought up Burton.
Obviously, you know what’s coming, or this story wouldn’t have been in this series.
Burton hit Woodeshick’s first pitch into the left-field bleachers for a walkoff homer, an ultimate grand slam, giving the Cubs a 6-5 win. Along with David Bote’s in 2018, those are the only two ultimate slams in Cubs history. The Cubs are one of eight teams (Yankees, Angels, Reds, Indians, Pirates, Cardinals, Braves are the others) to have more than one player hit an ultimate grand slam.
It’s too bad WGN-TV wasn’t in the practice of saving video in those days, I’d love to show this one to you. I have a vague memory of watching this game live and Jack Brickhouse being tremendously excited, as you can imagine.
Burton hit 12 home runs for the Cubs in 1963 in just 93 games, hinting that perhaps he could become a mainstay in the Cubs outfield for years to come. Unfortunately, he hit poorly in 1964 and 1965 in brief stays in the big leagues, spent most of those two years in the Cubs minor leagues and left baseball after 1965. He passed away in 2013.
But he’ll be in the record books forever for that ultimate grand slam.