Ransom Jackson is 89, Dave Hillman 88, Bob Speake 85 and Hy Cohen 84. None of them thought they would live long enough to see their old team, the Chicago Cubs, play in the World Series again.
Jackson, the oldest of the ex-Cubs, was 19 in 1945 the last time the Cubs were in the World Series and lost to the Detroit Tigers. Of course, none of them were around in 1908 when the Cubs last won baseball’s ultimate prize.
The 2015 edition of the Cubs won 97 games during the regular season, beat the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League wild card playoff game and, then, ambushed the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Division Series (NLDS), winning the best-of-five series three games to one.
True, Cub manager Joe Maddon looks like Spencer Tracy, the renown actor, and the movie Back to the Future II predicted in 1989 that the Cubs will win the World Series in 2015. There also has been some great theatre produced by a bunch of no-name players. But these are still the Cubbies, lovable losers who inspired the t-shirt asking, “What did Jesus say to the Cubs? Don’t do anything until I come back.”
“They could be unconscious, asleep but whatever, I hope they keep on going,” said Hillman, winner of 21 games for the Cubs from 1957-1959.
“It’s a fun thing to see,” said Cohen, a promising young pitcher for the Cubs in 1955.
“Go Cubbies, go!” said Speake, an outfielder-first baseman for the Cubs in 1955 when his 10 home runs in the month of May had Cub fans chanting “Speake to me” each time he came to bat. “They played real good, solid baseball for as young as they are. It’s amazing. We’ll follow them all the way to the World Series.”
“They’re too young to know they’re not supposed to be doing that,” added Bob’s wife, Joan, referring to Cub rookies Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler and Javier Baez who played like old pros against the Pirates and Cardinals.
A two-time all-star for the Cubs in the 1950s, Jackson wasn’t following the Cubs until the fourth game of the NLDS when they pounded three home runs to eliminate the Cardinals.
“When I watched the game and looked at the names of the guys playing, I’ve never heard of any of them,” he said.
Schwarber got Jackson’s attention with a monster shot in Game 4 that appeared to soar over Wrigley Field’s new scoreboard in right field. “It was hard to follow on TV,” Jackson said. “And nobody knew where it was. I thought it went over the scoreboard.”
Jackson was interested in knowing how far the ball traveled because in 1954 he belted a homer over the left-field bleachers and Waveland Avenue, bouncing off the third floor of an apartment building overlooking the ballpark. There was no way to accurately measure home run distances in those days so Jackson has come up with his own estimate of 450-475 feet.
It was finally announced that Schwarber’s blast went 419 feet, a number Jackson questions. “That doesn’t sound right. It’s 400 feet just to the centerfield wall. It’s got to be 900 feet.”
“When he hits the ball, it really goes,” Cohen said of Schwarber. “He swings from his a-hole. They go out of sight.”
Speake likened Schwarber’s swat to those hit by the Sultan of Swat of the old Pacific Coast League (PCL) – Stout Steve Bilko.
With the 1956 Los Angeles Angels of the PCL, Bilko slammed 55 homers. Speake watched in awe as Bilko smashed balls out of Wrigley Field in Los Angeles even when he was fooled by a pitch. He wonders what Bilko would’ve done playing his entire career at Chicago’s Wrigley Field like Ernie Banks, who hit 512 homers to become known as Mr. Cub. “If you had put Bilko in Wrigley Field where Ernie hit his 500, man, I don’t know.”
Cohen praised Jake Arrieta, the ace of the Cub pitching staff with 22 victories. “He is what I call an artist. His arm action and everything is so smooth.”
Cohen had a 5-0 record, best in the PCL, when the Angels sent him to the lower minors in 1956. In eight minor-league seasons he won 100 games.
“My philosophy on pitching is the same as his,” Cohen said of Arrieta. “He just throws the ball down the middle of the plate because whatever pitches he’s throwing move anyway.”
“I don’t know where they got all these kids,” Hillman said, “but it’s all falling together for them.”
Speake recalled his home run streak in 1955 that had the Cubs in second place behind the Brooklyn Dodgers going into June. “I was so excited to have a Cubs uniform on that the adrenalin just carried me.”
Over the next two months the Cubs were 23-39 and finished the season in sixth place, 26 games behind the pennant-winning Dodgers. “As we were preparing for our second road trip, the atmosphere just sank. Now, I’m a rookie. I don’t know what to expect about anything. These guys are talking about the road trip and saying, ‘Oh, dear!’ And we fulfilled prophecy.
“There’s a lot to be said for the history of the Cubs losing. These kids, they are not losers. They didn’t put that uniform on as a loser. The adrenalin is really flowing and that’s good if you’re basically a good ballplayer. They walk up to the plate and they have the confidence. There’s an aura around them.
“Winning…there’s nothing like winning. We experienced it in L.A. It was triple-A, it was West Coast major leagues, call it what it is. The camaraderie that was on that ball club can only be experienced by being on a winner. We experienced it. These kids are experiencing the same thing.”
The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.
The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:
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