Basket cases at Wrigley Field
Sunday is the 50th anniversary of the first home run hit into the then-brand-new wire contraption hung in front of the outfield bleachers. Consider this a celebration of one of baseball’s true oddities.
On July 16 of last year, Cubs bopper Kyle Schwarber won a game with a 10th-inning home run off Reds closer Raisel Iglesias at Wrigley Field.
The first walk-off homer of Schwarber’s career landed in the left-field basket in front of a pair of youngsters, who strained their little bodies as they reached with all their might into the basket to retrieve the ball. With a cold quickness, though, a bearded ballhawk in a blue throwback jersey with “Mai Tai Guy” stitched on the back reached down and swiped the ball with his left-handed glove. One of those controversies that lasts a news cycle or two, but really amounts to nothing in the end, was born.
The Cubs — an ill-fated lot, as it would turn out — had a 4-3 victory and a 2½-game lead in the National League Central.
“Whoever thought about that basket, whenever that occurred, tell them ‘Thank you,’ ” said manager Joe Maddon (speaking of the ill-fated).
Thank you, E.R. “Salty” Saltwell. According to the book “Ten Innings at Wrigley” by Kevin Cook, the outfield basket at Wrigley was Saltwell’s idea. Saltwell worked for the Cubs for three decades, a longtime chief of concessions who would spend one disastrous year as the team’s general manager. Wielding all that power in the mid-1970s, he traded third baseman Bill Madlock and first baseman Andre Thornton, got rid of shortstop Don Kessinger and let pitcher Steve Stone get away, too. The returns were, you know, not great.
Saltwell — whose main idea for the basket was to “keep bleacher bums from sitting on the walls or jumping onto the field,” according to the book — died Tuesday at 96. Bless his soul.
But the basket? Fifty years since its debut on May 7, 1970, it lives. The first batter to benefit from it was — and how perfect is this? — future Hall of Famer Billy Williams, who lofted one into the basket on May 10, 1970.
“You’ve got to like the basket as a hitter,” Williams said. “Without that thing, the ball wouldn’t have been out of the ballpark.”
Over half a century, Wrigley has seen far too many basket cases to count. But we’ve got some more of them here.
SCHWARBER HIT HOMER No. 37 last Sept. 16, a three-run shot into the basket in center off Reds starter Kevin Gausman that tied him for the most long balls by a Cubs lefty since Williams launched 37 in 1972. The wind was blowing in that night.
“Help from the wind doesn’t matter,” television analyst Jim Deshaies said as Schwarber rounded the bases. “Away we go.”
The Cubs, their offense on fire, won 8-2 and ended the night two games behind the division-leading Cardinals — and solidly in wild-card position — with 12 games to go. Schwarber would break Williams’ mark on the next-to-last day of the season, but not before a crushing eight-game losing streak that started the day after he took Gausman deep.
Ah, well. Some Cubs basket stories live on more gloriously — none more so than the homer by Javy Baez off the Giants’ Johnny Cueto in Game 1 of the 2016 postseason. It came in the eighth inning of a scoreless affair and sent the crowd into what looked and sounded like an all-time frenzy.
FS1 play-by-play man Matt Vasgersian called the towering blast — the first highlight on every reel of the eventual World Series champions — as if it was long gone, a no-brainer bound for Waveland Avenue.
“It was,” color analyst John Smoltz said. “The wind was blowing that ball back as much as it possibly could.”
Williams doesn’t recall the details of the maiden basket voyage; it has been 50 years, after all. But it came against Reds right-hander Wayne Simpson, a 21-year-old rookie who came into the game with a 5-1 record and 1.35 ERA and would make his first and only All-Star team that season. In the fifth inning — two frames after a Ron Santo blast to center — Williams pulled career homer No. 260 to right. We don’t have to remind you where it landed, do we?
“I didn’t know I hit the first home run into the basket,” Williams said. “How about that?”
HALL OF FAMER FERGIE JENKINS figures he gave up about 12 homers into the basket during his years as a Cub. One he’s sure he remembers was swatted by Astros second baseman Tommy Helms in 1972. A funny thing about Helms, whose modest power yielded only 34 homers in a 14-year big-league career, is that he took four Hall of Famers deep — including Jenkins twice.
Anyway, this one came with two outs in the ninth inning of a 2-2 game — ouch.
Jenkins was pitching for the Red Sox in 1977 when, in late June, Helms signed on as a free agent for what would be the last string of games of his career.
“Tommy came over to me and said, ‘You remember me, right? I know you remember that home run,’ ” Jenkins said. “I said, ‘Unfortunately, I do.’ ”
Stone took the mound for the Cubs on July 9, 1974, and surely regretted it. Back then, Stone lived on the 26th floor of a Pine Grove Avenue high-rise and could see the flags on top of the stadium. A high-fastball pitcher, Stone knew flags pointing toward Waveland and Sheffield meant bad news. That day, with the Reds in town and the wind blowing out, he gave up five homers — to Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, Cesar Geronimo, Dan Driessen and Johnny Bench — in 2⅓ innings.
“Two or maybe even three of them were hit into the basket,” Stone said. “[Former Sun-Times baseball scribe] Joe Goddard came up to me after and asked about it. I said, ‘The wind was blowing out.’ He said, ‘Oh? I didn’t notice.’ ”
“If you’re a pitcher, you remember many more in the basket than went over the basket,” Stone said. “And if you’re a hitter, you think it’s the greatest invention ever because you can hit a home run without the ball actually leaving the ballpark.”
FORMER BRAVES STAR DALE MURPHY slugged 398 career homers, including “a few, for sure” that landed in Wrigley’s basket, but the seven-time All-Star outfielder gives two thumbs down to the wire contraption.
“The wind at Wrigley, when it’s blowing in, the ball comes back to you and you get an angle on the ball that you don’t get in other ballparks — it almost comes straight down,” said Murphy, now 64 and living in Utah. “I think most balls that go into the basket that way would be caught if it wasn’t there.
“Just think of that [playoff] homer by Javy Baez against the Giants. He crushed that ball. He was jogging. But it ended up in the basket. That pitcher had to live with losing a playoff game even though he kept the ball in the ballpark.”
Get rid of it, Murphy says — or just make it smaller and less obtrusive.
“I mean, the ball doesn’t leave the field of play and it’s a home run? I know the ground rules, but I think the basket’s time has passed. I love Wrigley Field, the uniqueness of its construction, its lines, but it’s like putting a basket on the Green Monster [at Fenway Park in Boston]. It changes the game. I’ve benefitted from it, but it kind of contradicts a big rule of hitting a home run.”
Longtime broadcaster Tim McCarver was about halfway into a 21-year playing career, most of it with the Cardinals and Phillies, when the basket went up.
“I remember it very vividly,” said McCarver, 78. “One of the things I remember is hearing Ferguson Jenkins taking a couple of verbal shots at it, saying, ‘The wind’s blowing out, the dimensions of the park are already small, and now they put up a basket to help the hitters? Are you kidding me?’
“For the most part, players, you’ve got to understand, they don’t care about stuff like that. Put a basket up, put whatever you want — let’s just play the game. But I’m sure for some guys, it was more of an issue. It definitely was for Fergie.”
ANDRE DAWSON CALLS RIGHT FIELD at Wrigley the toughest outfield spot to play in the big leagues.
“By far,” said the Hall of Famer, who spent 19 of his 21 seasons in the NL and six of them (1987 to 1992) patrolling right for the Cubs. “The elements can really play havoc, especially if the wind is blowing in. If it’s blowing out, you’ve got to play very deep. The sun, too, of course.”
The basket only makes it more . . . unusual.
“I never had any personal encounters with it beyond getting [mad] at some balls that landed in it when I was out there,” he said.
As a hitter, Dawson thinks back to Oct. 4, 1992, and his final home run — No. 399 of his career — as a Cub. This one came against his old team, the Expos, a three-run shot off Mark Gardner that brought home Ryne Sandberg and Mark Grace. It wasn’t like so many of his homers that soared higher than the average slugger hit them.
“It was a day when I think the wind was howling in, but it was a line drive,” he said. “I hit it through the wind. It made it to the basket. Either it dropped in or went into the first row because a fan reached over and grabbed it. Either way, it was right there.”
Either way, it was just enough. Same as the homer he hit in June 1991 off Dodgers star Orel Hershiser. That one barely made it out to left, after which the pitcher squawked at Dawson about it having been aided by the wind. Eleven months later at Dodger Stadium, Dawson gave a Hershiser pitch a much farther ride.
“You know what I said to him?” Dawson recalled with a laugh. “ ‘I wonder where that would’ve landed at Wrigley.’ ”
Not in any basket, that’s for sure.