MLB: Chicago Cubs-Workouts

Drill Instructors, Whammy Men, and Senseis: A Brief History of Cubs Gimmick Fails

Once Joe Maddon takes his perch at the edge of the dugout on Opening Day 2019, he will become the first Cubs skipper to manage five consecutive years with the team since Jim Riggleman (1995-99). That fact is at once astonishing for what it reveals about the franchise’s ineptitude and yet not surprising at all for the very same reason. 

For the most part, the Cubs have never had a good track record of managerial success at any point in their history. Besides Riggleman, the only other members of the “five years club” were Leo Durocher, Charlie Grimm, Frank Chance, and Cap Anson. And Anson only joined because it’s a club made up entirely of white people.

In Cubs manager terms, Maddon is a survivor. But what that also means is that since he’s been around for so long, familiarity has bred contempt with a sizable portion of the Cubs fanbase. And when said portion of the fanbase lists their grievances against the Cubs manager, they eventually complain about “the sideshows” and “the gimmicks” that are indelibly associated with his name.

Magicians in the clubhouse. Arriving to Spring Training in a shag-carpet-lined VW van. Themed road trips dressed as Pedro Strop. The anti-Maddon crowd is sickened by all of this and sees it as more evidence that he’s too concerned with self promotion and not enough with winning another championship.

Except Maddon has considerably pumped the breaks on his extracurricular activities as his clubhouse has matured and he and the team’s core have grown more familiar with one another. And even more importantly: it is impossible to make the argument that any of his attention grabbers has gotten in the way of the Cubs winning.

Which is a rather amazing thing to realize. Because Cubs history is littered with managerial and ownership gimmicks that have gone completely awry. The sideshows promoted by Cubs management over the years have led to clubhouse rancor and division, distracted from the mission of winning games, and played out like the fever dreams of a socially inept hermit who shouldn’t have been allowed within 500 feet of a ballpark.

In other words: PK Wrigley.

These are polar opposite outcomes from the Cubs under Joe Maddon. And every one of these epic gimmick fails serves a reminder that he knows what he’s doing.

PK WRIGLEY’S MAJOR MALFUNCTION

The most infamous Cubs management gimmick of all time, of course, was Wrigley’s College of Coaches in the early 1960s. This experiment could best be summed up by the question: “What if they made a Multiplicity reboot starring Mike Quade?”

From 1961-62, five different men were promoted to the position of “Head Coach” while several others rotated as underlings beneath them. And there is no bigger indictment of Wrigley’s system than this: Buck O’Neil was named one of the rotating coaches in 1962. The same Buck O’Neil whose statue now resides just inside the main entrance at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. And not once did anyone think to promote a man who would become an all-time baseball legend to Head Coach. 

By spring training of 1963, even Wrigley could see that his idea was an utter abomination. So what was his solution to the problem? Don’t get rid of the Head Coach, hire an Athletic Director! 

Maybe Wrigley hoped that if he gave his staff job titles like they were in college, he wouldn’t have to pay any of his players. Or perhaps he thought that the Cubs’ best shot at the .500 mark was getting relegated to Division III.

Somehow, his idea only got worse from there. Because who did Wrigley then turn to for advice on hiring baseball’s first ever Athletic Director?

His cousin.

There was only one way that scenario could possibly have turned out OK. And sadly, none of Wrigley’s uncles had ever even gotten to first base with Branch Rickey’s mom. 

Instead, Wrigley’s decidedly less than Cooperstown-worthy cousin introduced him to Air Force Academy Colonel Robert Whitlow. Wrigley hired him on the spot, apparently convinced that the best way to motivate his team was to bring in the equivalent of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket. Which explains Ernie Banks’ famous catchphrase: “Hey hey, holy mackerel, no doubt about it, the Cubs are… in a world of shit…”

So Colonel Whitlow became the Cubs’ new Athletic Director. But since no one had ever heard of such a position before, how much authority could he have? According to baseball historian Glenn Stout, the answer was: all of it. The man Phil Wrigley had just met was immediately promoted to a position created out of thin air and then put in charge of naming the Cubs Head Coach for 1963. Whitlow further promised that “I will be responsible for the playing end of the game… to make sure our basic plan of play is followed… I may sit on the bench, and in uniform.”

Unbelievable. Clearly this was a military man who deserved respect. Because what you want in an officer is someone who deserts his post at the first opportunity to engage in Ron Santo cosplay.

To the surprise of no one whose last name wasn’t Wrigley, the players didn’t take too kindly to the idea of an outsider taking over and running their team like a boot camp. Pitcher Don Elston remembered:

“We didn’t like what he was doing at all. He came out in the morning with calisthenics, jumping jacks, and all this jazz…‘This is what we did in the army [sic], this is what we’re going to do here.’ And we resented that. There was a lot of resentment about the Colonel.”

To be fair, the idea of making baseball players exercise was not the worst innovation in Cubs history. But hiring an Air Force Colonel to do it at the same time that the team had essentially become a rudderless ship was. Elston allowed that “the Colonel might have been a better idea than the College of Coaches… if we had accepted it. But after the College of Coaches, maybe we were less likely to accept any new idea.”

Wrigley’s gimmick had made his players despise the very idea of getting in shape, and it quickly led to friction between the Athletic Director and Head Coach Bob Kennedy. After enduring the ignominy of rotating coaches, the last thing the Cubs needed was someone from the outside undermining their leader’s authority. After two years of continued mediocrity, Whitlow was let go.

The College of Coaches experiment set the Cubs back several years and stunted the growth of prospects like Santo and Lou Brock. And after that debacle, PK Wrigley somehow topped himself by deciding that early 1960s Cubs were going to be run the exact same way as the military. 

Somebody tell Ken Burns that I think we just figured out what went wrong in Vietnam.

THE CUBS BOTCH A HEEL TURN

The Colonel Whitlow years were hardly the first time that PK Wrigley opted to invest in gimmickry over doing the right thing to improve his team. And Colonel Whitlow was far from his most embarrassing hire. For that coveted title, we have to go back in time to the late 1930s and the era when a young Bill Veeck was employed by the Cubs and tasked with planting ivy on the outfield wall.

In his autobiography, Veeck related an incident where he was called to Wrigley’s office one day out of the blue. Upon entering, he was introduced to a man described as “a ferret-faced, wizened little guy in a checked suit.” Things did not improve from there. Immediately, Veeck wrote, the ferret-faced fellow “jumped out of the chair, fixed me with an awesome and terrible glare, and began to circle around me, making cobralike passes at me with one hand like Bela Lugosi.”

Honestly, the only surprise about all of this was that Wrigley didn’t immediately proclaim “Meet our new trainer!”

Instead, Wrigley explained that this uncomfortably bizarre man was being hired as an “Evil Eye” and that he would function similar to a wrestling manager, putting a hex on the Cubs’ opponents. Now, to be as fair as possible to Wrigley, if the Cubs of my youth had announced they were firing Lee Elia and replacing him with Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, I’d have nominated Dallas Green for Executive of the Year. And the only noticeable difference would have been the manager referring to Wrigley Field as “a f*king playground for the ham-and-eggers.”

Being a man who was always on the lookout for the next great promotional stunt, Veeck immediately saw the genius underlying Wrigley’s idea. Finally, he thought, the Cubs were doing something outlandish to get people talking and bring more fans to the ballpark. Maybe stodgy Phil Wrigley was more fun than he had assumed. A couple of days later, Veeck could hardly contain himself and told his boss that wanted to leak the story to the newspapers and play up the humorous angle as much as possible.

Whereupon he was stopped dead in his tracks by a deadly serious PK Wrigley. “There’s nothing funny about this,” declared the Cubs owner, “This man may help us.” In other words, the Cubs’ strategy for competing in the National League was going to be centered around the idea that their owner thought pro wrestling was real.

Honestly, it’s a shock that a mark like Wrigley didn’t get suckered in by other works of athletic fiction. Because I could totally see him trying to help the Cubs beat the Yankees by convincing Moose Moryn to sell his soul to Satan.

After Wrigley proclaimed his loyalty to this con man, the Cubs brought the Evil Eye with them to every game for the rest of the season. According to Veeck, “At home, he sat directly behind the plate, gesturing furiously at opposing pitchers, none of whom seemed disposed to enter the spirit of the thing at all. (He was, I must admit, able to cast his strange spell over the customers sitting nearby, most of whom could be seen edging cagily away from him…)”

And to think, all the Evil Eye had to do to win over the Wrigley Field fans was to start yelling “woo.”

For this service, Veeck revealed that Wrigley was paying the Evil Eye “a flat $5,000 fee plus an additional $25,000 if we won the pennant.” Which sounded like a perfectly harmless way for a rich and stupid man to throw away money he’d never need. Until you realized this: for the entire decade of the 1930s, Phil Wrigley was dead set against investing in a farm system. So at around the same time that he was investing five grand in baseball’s most expensive Evil Eye, the Cardinals went out and signed Stan Musial.

It was enough to make you wish Veeck had hit the Cubs owner with a folding chair.

TAE BO DON’T KNOW BASEBALL

Painful Cub gimmick fails were not all a relic of the distant past either. Everyone who cheers for this team has lived through more than their share and perhaps the most prominent example of a recent gimmick that ended up tearing the team apart took place in 2001.

Don Baylor’s managerial career in Chicago arrived with much fanfare and anticipation based on the respect he’d earned as a former MVP but got off to an extremely unpromising start in the 2000 season. During his first year, he clashed with Sammy Sosa, had his authority undermined by Andy MacPhail, and ended up losing 97 games. Clearly, changes would have to be made to improve things in year number two. So who did Baylor choose to add to the Cubs roster in order to jolt them out of the doldrums?

His fitness guru. Baylor was apparently the only person on planet Earth whose first thought upon looking at Sosa in the locker room was “Do you even lift, bro?”

Enter Mack Newton, a bizarre combination of Billy Blanks and Tony Robbins whose main selling point was that he had survived jumping from a helicopter in Vietnam. Which, Baylor must have decided, gave Newton the authority to tell his players how to  stand in the box against a Randy Johnson fastball. Because in both cases, the best advice was “Try not to do that.”

When Spring Training opened in 2001, Baylor gave Newton a Cubs uniform and told him to inflict his martial arts-based fitness program on the assembled roster. It looked similar to Tim Buss leading the current group through daily stretching in Mesa. Only instead of trying to make things as lighthearted as possible, Newton maxed out the difficulty level on the exercises and tried to blow the players’ minds with pearls of wisdom like “Don’t try hard, try easy” and “Which teams expect to go to the World Series? Would the Cubs be as upset if they didn’t get there?”

Perhaps the best way to sum up the program was this: Mack Newton was what would happen if you taught a Mitch Albom book how to kick someone in the face.

Trying to appease their manager, the players put a positive spin on Newton’s team morale building for the media. But when the Cubs jumped out to surprisingly good start as the season got underway, it immediately became clear that like most new age gurus, Newton’s biggest talent was promoting himself.

The 2001 Cubs managed to hang on to first place until August 18. But as the season wore on, it became clear that every time Newton took credit for instilling a new mindset in the team, it turned most of the roster against both him and Baylor. Finally, as the Astros and Cardinals surged ahead in September and a playoff berth slipped further and further away, the Cubs’ discontent broke out into open rebellion.

Baylor had clashed with ultra-intense pitching coach Oscar Acosta for much of the year and Newton’s presence was one of the chief catalysts for their mutual disdain. When Acosta resigned in a huff during the final week of the season, the players made their contempt for both Newton and Baylor public.

With a few games remaining, Kerry Wood dismissed Newton as nothing more than a huckster who did nothing for the team, snidely remarking “I’m not sure what Mack Newton hit this year, [and] I don’t know how many guys he drove in.” And while Wood could be criticized for relying on outdated stats like batting average and RBI, a quick bit of research reveals that Newton was worth precisely 0.0 WARP in 2001. He couldn’t even motivate himself above replacement level.

Matt Stairs clarified the roster’s chief complaint: “It got so blown out of proportion. We got tired of hearing it. Fox Sports the other night said Don Baylor and Mack Newton had the Cubs in first place the whole year. No. The players had us in first place all year.” And in the worst possible news for Newton, it turned out that Sosa was a big supporter of his. So that guaranteed the other 24 players would hate his guts. At least no one hit him with a bat after the final game.

Baylor’s great motivational experiment ended up costing him the clubhouse and eventually his job. He further buried himself by promising that Newton would be back the next year but the Cubs eventually decided that the only snake oil salesmen they wanted on the team were in upper management. The 2002 Cubs got off to a listless start and Baylor was eventually fired on July 5 with a 34-49 record.

But thankfully the human equivalent of a “Hang in there” cat poster was only a phone call away.

BACK TO PRESENT DAY

So when Joe Maddon has tried to lighten the pressure on his players by bringing a magician into the clubhouse or a petting zoo onto the Wrigley Field grass, it’s actually not as outlandish as it might first appear. Maddon is actually joining a longstanding Cubs tradition of trying out motivational gimmicks during the baseball season.

The only difference is that to this point, Maddon’s gimmicks have never impeded the Cubs from winning. And of all the “innovations” management has tried over the years, making the postseason every year and actually winning a World Series are far and away the best.

Lead photo courtesy Rick Scuteri—USA Today Sports

 

Sources

Golenbock, Peter. Wrigleyville: A Magical History Tour of the Chicago Cubs. St. Martin’s Press, 1996. p. 373

Shea, Stuart. Wrigley Field: The Unauthorized Biography. Potomac Books, 2004. p. 223-224

Stout, Glenn and Richard A. Johnson. The Cubs: The Complete Story of Chicago Cubs Baseball. Houghton Mifflin, 2007. p. 175, 241-242

Veeck, Bill with Ed Linn. Veeck–As in Wreck. Ballantine Books, 1962. p. 38-39

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