The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Chicago Cubs

         Carrie Muskat, who started covering the Chicago Cubs in 1987, has written The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Chicago Cubs (Triumph Books 2021; $16.95).

         “Really there are more than 50 moments because it was hard to limit them so it’s 50 plus,” Muskat tells me in an early morning phone interview. “I always say I’m bad at math.”

Totally immersed in baseball and the Cubs, Muskat’s latest book has an introduction by Anthony Rizzo, the first baseman for the Chicago Cubs and a three-time All-Star who in 2016 helped the Cubs win their first World Series title since 1908. Her other books include Banks to Sandberg to Grace: 5 Decades of Love & Frustration with Chicago Cubs.

Carrie Muskat

Described as “the perfect primer for new Cubs fans and an essential addition to a seasoned fan’s collection,” the book recounts the living history of the team and features such greats as Ryne Sandberg, Ron Santo, Anthony Rizzo, and Ernie Banks among others.

 Muskat, who has conducted numerous interviews with players, at times takes a different approach in her book by not only relying upon her own interactions but also by talking to people who worked behind the scenes about the moments included in  The Big 50. It was a way to gain a new perspective on some of the players such as Sammy Sosa that she knew so well.

“I talked to broadcaster Craig Lynch about Pat Hughes, the radio play-by-play announcer for the Chicago Cubs and got his insights,” she says, as a way of giving an example.

In some ways, the those decades covering the Cubs was like being part of a large family.  In her time writing about Major League Baseball—she started in 1981—Muskat says she’s watched players like Kerry Woods, the two-time All Star former Cubs pitcher who is now retired, grow. The same goes for Anthony Rizzo.

“I’ve enjoyed talking to people’s families, like Anthony’s, just talking about things,” she says. “I covered Shawon Dunston and then his son.”

In her book, Dunston shares his insight on Andre Dawson in Moment 16 of  titled “The Hawk.” Dunston recalls having a locker between Dawson and Ryne Sandberg, who he describes as the quietest guys in the world. “Combined, they didn’t say more than 20 words a day, and I’m not exaggerating.”

At the time, Dunston says he was “talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk.” But by being between them, he learned to be quiet and think about the game before the game. “I learned how to be a professional because of Andre Dawson and Ryne Sandberg.”

These scenes from the book support Muskat’s contention that players are really just people.

“That’s one of the biggest things,” she says. “Even if they’re superstars, they’re just people when you get to know them.”

There have been changes. Reporters used to sit in the dugout but not anymore.

“It’s not as relaxed,” she says. “My favorite time is spring training which is more relaxed.”

Muskat is freelancing now but she still is on the sports beat.

“There’s always a story, every player has one,” she says.

Let’s Play Two: The Life and Times of Ernie Banks

“People couldn’t see beyond his optimistic outlook and took him to be naïve and have a simplistic outlook on life,” says Wilson. “But Banks was a very deep thinker, he’s someone who overcame a lot of obstacles but never said anything bad about people.

              A college baseball player whose batting average was lower than his grade point average, Columbus, Indiana ophthalmologist Doug Wilson turned his passion for the sport to writing about the iconic players he admired in his youth.

              His latest, Let’s Play Two: The Life and Times of Ernie Banks (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers 2019; Amazon price $23.95), tells the story of the first African American to play for the Chicago Cubs. Recruited from the Kansas City Monarchs and raised in a segregated community in Texas, Banks was always positive and had a good word to say about everything. These characteristics often led to people underestimating the man who would become known as “Mr. Cub.”

              “People couldn’t see beyond his optimistic outlook and took him to be naïve and have a simplistic outlook on life,” says Wilson. “But Banks was a very deep thinker, he’s someone who overcame a lot of obstacles but never said anything bad about people. If reporters asked him about someone who had said something negative about him, Banks would change things around so that he deflected the question without being rude.”

              But in the end, it was Banks good natured spirits that won the day says Wilson, recounting the rocky relationship between Leo Durocher and Banks.

              “You couldn’t have come up with two different kind of guys,” says Wilson. “Durocher, well…the title of his book Nice Guys Finish Last says it all and Banks was the ultimate nice guy. Durocher hated Banks’s guts and tried everything he could to run him out of town but there was no way PK Wrigley was going to let that happened. And all the time Durocher was trying to get rid of him, Banks just smiled. When Durocher would talk to reporters about how Banks was ruining the Cubs, they’d run to him and ask him about that, and Banks would just say “Leo Durocher is the best manager ever. He always took the high road.”

              Wilson whose previous books include Fred Hutchinson and the 1964 Cincinnati Reds, The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych which was selected by the Library of Michigan as a Michigan Notable book for 2014, Brooks: The Biography of Brooks Robinson (2014) and Pudge: The Biography of Carlton Fisk, not only read every interview he could find with Banks dating back to 1950 as well as endless newspaper accounts and books, says he also was able to located several friends from Banks’s youth including those who knew him when was seven years old and another who played bay with him in high school.

              “I also found three guys who played with Ernie in the Negro League when he was with the Kansas City Monarchs,” says Wilson. “They said he was shy around people. But his persona changed after he became comfortable in Chicago.”

              By interviewing friends from his boyhood, Wilson says it helped him see how overwhelming it must have been to be confined to segregated schools and neighborhoods and the challenges that Banks faced in becoming a player at a time when African Americans were just beginning to be allowed to play in the major league. Amazingly, Banks would be honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a place in the Hall of Fame and he would always remain optimistic.

              “Years later, Leo Durocher had a change of heart, perhaps surgically induced, in 1983 a very contrite 78-year-old Leo, recovering from a recent open heart procedure, perhaps seeing his own mortality at last, spoke at a Cubs reunion and tearfully apologized to the team in general and Ernie Banks specifically for how he had behaved,” writes Wilson.

              In other words, says Wilson, “Ernie won.”

              Ifyougo:

              What: Doug Wilson has several book events in the Chicagoland area.

              When & Where: Saturday, February 16 at 2 pm at Anderson’s Bookshop, 5112 Main St, Downers Grove, IL. This event is free and open to the public. To join the signing line, please purchase the author’s latest book, Let’s Play Two, from Anderson’s Bookshop. Call Anderson’s Bookshop Downers Grove (630) 963-2665.

              When & Where: Saturday, March 2 at 6 pm at the Book Cellar, 4736-38 N Lincoln Ave Chicago, IL. Free.  (773) 293-2665.

              For more information, visit dougwilsonbaseball.blogspot.com/

The Joe Maddon Story: “Try Not to Suck”

In a Zen-like move that baffled many in the sports world, Joe Maddon, then the new manager of the Chicago Cubs, enacted a “less is more” philosophy by almost completely eliminating  batting practice. What went against a long time baseball tradition as well as causing intense angst among the Cub fans and head scratching from pundits, now is credited with being one of factors helping the wonderful losers win their first World Series in 108 years.

“For over a century of baseball, the belief was if you’re struggling then the answer was to work harder,” says Jesse Rogers, who with Bill Chastain, authored Try Not to Suck: The Exceptional, Extraordinary Baseball Life of Joe Maddon (Triumph Books, March 2018) with a foreword by Ben Zobrist.

Maddon’s beginnings in baseball weren’t promising. A Minor League catcher for Los Angeles, after four seasons, with only 180 times at bat and three home runs, he hadn’t advanced further than Class A. Obviously it was time for a change and so he segued into management, working in a variety of positions for the Angels including minor league manager, scout and roving minor league hitting instructor, bench coach and interim manager.

“His 31 years in Anaheim were an apprenticeship,” says Rogers, a television, internet and radio reporter for ESPN since 2009 who was  an insider covering the Cubs in 2016 (Chastain, who covers the Tampa Bay Rays for MLB.com and knew Maddon from his days there). “He saw a lot of things there that he thought should be done differently, but he couldn’t challenge it. But he was able to take what he learned to Tampa Bay where he could put some of that in place. He very much believes in less. If you’re struggling, don’t work more instead cut back. ”

One of the positives from that strategy is players retain more energy as the long season progresses—an advantage over other teams who hew to conventional wisdom.

“Joe’s surprised that more people aren’t doing this after seeing how successful he’s been,” says Rogers.

But though he upended some traditions, Maddon has his superstitions just like most of those in the business.

When rain called a temporary halt during Game 7 of the Series  with Chicago and Cleveland tied at 7-7, Maddon headed to his office and, spotting his bag, recalled thinking “it was time for my dad.” Grabbing his dad’s hat which he kept in the bag, he stuffed it down the back of his pants.

“I said to myself ‘Let’s go’,” he is quoted saying in the book. “I took him back there with me and during the course of the next inning I kept touching it back there.”

The title of Chastain and Rogers’s book s from one of Maddon’s oft-quoted maxims. Others include “don’t let the pressure exceed the pressure” or “do simple better.”

“Probably my favorite one in general is ‘Embrace the target,’” says Rogers. “Joe says he’s really a big believer of running towards the fire as opposed to running away. I think that’s a good lesson for all of us.”

 

 

 

 

 

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