Growing Up With The 1950s Cubs
This article was published in the Spring 2011 Baseball Research Journal.
For a youngster passionately devoted to baseball and living on the north side of Chicago during the 1950s, every summer revolved around the fortunes of the Chicago Cubs and getting to Wrigley Field as often as possible. There, in a ballpark that dominated the immediate neighborhood, we were always swept up by the most colorful and exciting surroundings our young imaginations could handle.
Even though we were neither sophisticated followers of baseball nor willing to easily accept the many Cub losses, we soon learned that the excitement and agonies of pennant races were usually something to be suffered by fans of teams like the Dodgers, Braves, and Giants. For us, dreaming of a possible first-division finish and following the day-to-day affairs of the Cubs were all the rewards we needed from baseball during the years of our youth.
For me it started one day in June 1952 when my dad took the family to Wrigley Field for a game between the Cubs and New York Giants. Emerging from the stairway to the first-base grandstand, I was at once overwhelmed by the colorful scene unfolding before me as the players in their grey or white uniforms warmed up on the greenest grass I had ever seen in my young city life. I had no idea who the various Cubs players were except for Bob Rush, their top pitcher, and big Hank Sauer, on his way to an NL MVP award that season, but Sauer sent everyone home happy when he slugged a home run to pace a 6–2 Cubs win. I was hooked. For the next few seasons it seemed like Sauer was almost always good for a round-tripper when I was there.
In 1954 I had the good fortune to go to the Cubs home opener against the power-hitting Cincinnati Reds. Sauer and “Handsome” Ransom Jackson each slugged a home run, but the Reds finally broke things open with a grand slam by Jim Greengrass for an 11–5 win.
That day was especially historic, although few realized it at the time, as the Cubs started a pair of young African-American players, their first ever, as their keystone combination. Ernie Banks and Gene Baker had been brought up at the tail end of the 1953 season and both were given starting spots for 1954. Banks, batting sixth in the lineup, unimpressively went hitless for the day while also making two errors at shortstop. While keystone partner Baker was not bound for glory, Banks wouldn’t be out of the Chicago lineup for nearly two decades.
During the 1955 season the Cubs challenged for a first-division spot all season long and attracted much larger crowds. In late May the Cubs hosted the talented Milwaukee Braves, and in the third inning Banks came to the plate against Lew Burdette with the bases loaded. At this time in his career Banks had a reputation for always taking the first pitch thrown to him, no matter what, standing there like a statue as pitchers merely fired the first one right down the middle for a strike. That’s what everyone, including Burdette, expected as the Braves hurler threw a fast ball right down the middle.
This time though, Banks jumped all over the first pitch and rocketed a blast into the left field bleachers for a grand slam—one of five bases-loaded shots he hit that season as my dad, my uncle, and I joined the large Wrigley Field crowd in going crazy. The next time at the plate Banks went right back to his first-pitch statue routine and the Cubs continued on to a 9–6 win.
For the 1957 season the Cubs had come up with a pair of impressive young pitchers in fireballer Dick Drott and the pride of Ozanna, Poland, Moe Drabowsky. Early that summer a bunch of us headed to the ballpark for a doubleheader against the Phillies which featured the Drott/Drabowsky duo handling the pitching chores. In the opener Drott fired a three-hitter with eight strikeouts for a 9–0 Cubs win, and then in the second game Drabowsky outlasted Robin Roberts for a 4–3 victory and the sweep, helped along by a pair of home runs from outfielder Walt Moryn.
After the second game, when I attempted to get my first baseball autograph ever from no less than Drott himself, the young pitcher brushed past us and just walked off. This taught me that baseball stars were not necessarily nice guys. Minutes later, though, I did get that first autograph, when journeyman pitcher Dick Littlefield (in his only year with the Cubs in a career that included nine different major league stops) patiently stood and signed for everyone there. I had another hero.
A short time later we were hanging around inside the ballpark waiting for my mom to pick us up; we were the only ones there except for the grounds crew. As we stood down along the low brick wall that separated us from the field and with nobody else in sight, my friends challenged me to hop the fence and run out on the field.
Well, I was over the short wall in a flash and dashed the short distance to home plate where I turned and gaped at the double-deck grandstand towering over me behind the plate. I can still see this view clearly in my mind. At the time it didn’t occur to me to think of all the great legends of baseball that had stood in that same spot...and all too quickly a voice boomed out, “Hey kid, get off the field!” Quickly I dashed back to the seats where my friends greeted me like a conquering hero.
On another day in 1957 a few of us were sitting in the first row of the left-center bleachers next to the fence that screened off the dead center-field seats to provide a backdrop for the hitters. These were the days when it cost a mere sixty cents for a bleacher seat, which were all unreserved. On weekdays at sparsely attended Wrigley Field we had our choice of seat locations. That day Banks crashed a home run that landed in the second row, maybe two feet just inside the screened off area next to us. It might as well have been in another ballpark though, as none of us could reach the precious ball, no matter how hard we tried.
That summer held one more disappointment for us. With a day off in late August, my dad decided to take us to see the great Stan Musial play against the Cubs on a Friday afternoon. My dad never did care for too many of what were then considered the modern-era players, but Musial was a big-time exception that he felt we just had to see in person. That afternoon we sat among the first few rows of the right field bleachers, all set to watch “The Man.” It turned out, unfortunately, that Musial was not in the Cardinals lineup that day, and over fifty years later I have no way to adequately describe our disappointment.
Yet our spirits were soon picked up as we found that we were among colorful characters who must have been the models for the famous 1970s play “Bleacher Bums.” These folks were gambling on most everything happening in the game and arguing about all things pertaining to baseball as cigar smoke drifted over all of us. (To this day the smell of cigar smoke instantly reminds me of being at a ballgame). Above all, the bleacher fans took plenty of time to taunt Cubs right fielder Walt Moryn.
I had always thought that Moryn was not too bad of a player: no gazelle on defense, but I liked the occasional home runs he unloaded. The cigar-smoking men around me apparently didn’t agree with my views, as they continued their razzing. Finally, by about the seventh inning, Moryn had heard enough, and while standing at his position he simply raised one arm in the air and gave the right-field bleachers behind him the universally recognized obscene gesture—heck, even I knew what it meant—which, of course, drew a howl from the bleacher crowd, along with plenty of laughter.
By the 1958 season I was in high school and the summers began to include a lot of other things besides the occasional trips to Wrigley Field. One afternoon a group of us went to watch the Cubs host the newly minted San Francisco Giants, expressly for the purpose of seeing the great Willie Mays. The Giants outfielder
had recently signed a contract that paid him an average of about $500 per game, and we all sat there and marveled at how anyone could be paid so much money for playing baseball.
That afternoon Mays showed that he was worth it all, first clubbing a home run into the left field bleachers in the first inning. In the seventh inning Mays leaped up near the top of the center field wall to haul in a towering blast by Cubs catcher Sammy Taylor; at first I thought the drive was going to hit the center-field scoreboard, a near impossibility. Yet, with Banks and Tony Taylor each hitting a pair of home runs, along with two hits each from former Giants stars Alvin Dark and Bobby Thomson, the Cubs had enough for a 9–5 win.
The 1958 and 1959 seasons both produced excitement around Wrigley Field as the Cubs finished in fifth place both years, narrowly missing the first division both times by a mere four games. Banks was named the National League MVP both years.
A trade livened up the 1960 season, as newly acquired Don Cardwell threw a no-hitter against the Cardinals at Wrigley Field in May in his first Cubs start. But for me 1960 is most remembered for the almost two weeks I spent hanging around Wrigley Field with my younger brother. My parents had gone on vacation and, amazingly, left the two of us with my grandmother, an old Cubs fan who lived three blocks from the ballpark.
Fortunately the Cubs were in town for a long home stand, and nearly every day my brother and I haunted Wrigley Field. The thing that made this financially possible is that after every game we would stay, along with a lot of other kids, and each pick up a bag of trash from the stands or flip up the seats. For this fairly easy work we would receive a free general admission ticket for the next game.
This practice was a link to Cubs history and to my family’s past, as my dad had told us about doing the same thing as a kid back in the late 1920s and early 1930s when he saw all the great Cubs teams of that era. What made our stay with my grandmother even better is that we collected a lot of autographs from the players; my brother got signatures from nearly the entire Cubs roster and still treasures his collection to this day.
This long home stand was, in some ways, the end of my childhood. By the summer of 1961 I was off to college, followed by a stint in the Army, and so missed a number of years at Wrigley Field. When I finally returned the club had a new manager, Leo Durocher, and some exciting pennant races were beginning to unfold for the Cubs. But no matter how much I would enjoy those winning times around Wrigley Field, nothing would replace the colorful and exciting memories I have from my days growing up with the Cubs in the 1950s.
RAY SCHMIDT, a retired systems programmer, now lives in Southern California. He is the author of "Two-Eyed League", a book on 1890s minor league baseball, as well as an article on early Chicago semi-pro baseball that appeared in "Chicago History" magazine.