Glenn Beckert, RIP: “The closeness is real”

2020-04-13 GlennBeckertRonSanto

Glenn Beckert (right) and Hall of Fame third baseman Ron Santo display their 1968 Gold Gloves. Rawlings presented the award, but Beckert preferred the Wilsons that Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins broke in for him every spring.

When the 1969 Cubs sputtered down the stretch as the Miracle Mets heated up for keeps, Glenn Beckert wasn’t quite as exhausted as several teammates. That’s what missing a month on the disabled list—with a badly jammed thumb after a collision tagging Reds pitcher Tony Cloninger to start a double play—can do for a fellow who was as reliable at second base as the season was long.

Beckert died at 79 Sunday morning. Decades after the 1969 collapse and before his death, he wasn’t unaware of the toll manager Leo Durocher’s whiplash style took on several Cub regulars and especially their bullpen. But he thought those Cubs—enjoying celebrity to levels previously unknown to them, in and out of Wrigley Field—were drained more in the brain than the body.

“Tired? I don’t know, we came up short,” Beckert told Peter Golenbock for the oral history Wrigleyville: A Magical History Tour of the Chicago Cubs. “More than anything, I think we were emotionally drained. None of us were accustomed to the crowds and the intensity. An awful lot of what happened was mental. The whole thing was a sobering experience, but we were young.”

Not that Beckert ignored the physical side. Durocher’s unwillingness to use his decent enough bench or to trust his bullpen deeper than Phil (The Vulture) Regan flattened the Cubs—a team with four Hall of Famers (Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams, and Ferguson Jenkins)—into burnout that September.

“Leo had stuck with his horses, and maybe that hurt us the last month of that season,” Beckert told Golenbock. “Who knows? That’s second-guessing now. But there was no platooning with Leo. I knew I was somewhat tired, and I had an injury before that. [Shortstop Don Kessinger] was getting a little weary, not only physically, but mentally. Ron and Randy [Hundley, stubborn everyday catcher] were hurting.

“We were playing banged up, and maybe that was the time when we could have used a couple of days’ rest,” Beckert continued. “We had a good bench. Papa [Paul Popovich] was the best utility infielder in baseball, the greatest hands, and he could have come in for a week. But that’s looking back. It’s history.”

Mets manager Gil Hodges went the other way completely. “As well as any manager in the game,” Wayne Coffey wrote in last year’s They Said It Couldn’t Be Done, “Hodges understood the importance of making every player feel involved, keeping every player fresh, giving everyone on his club a slice of ownership in what the collective team was doing.”

Durocher “brought us closer to a pennant than anyone else had in a generation,” said Santo in due course, even though he’d been the Cub above all who could be counted on to give Durocher the benefit of the doubt. “But he also brought disruption and chaos.”

“For Durocher’s part,” wrote David Claerbaut in Durocher’s Cubs: The Greatest Team That Didn’t Win, “his feuds, his attempts at intimidating young players, particularly pitchers, and the general tension he generated must have worn on the players.”

And the wear was more severe because of his unwillingness to rest his players and to use his entire roster more wisely. Despite the occasional protestations to the contrary, the team was tired. One need only look at the statistical crumbling, evident in the records of individual players, to draw that conclusion. Only [pitcher] Bill Hands and Billy Williams averted a season-closing freefall . . .

. . . Durocher compounded the fatigue factor by daring his players to admit they were tired . . . in August, when asked by a writer whether he planned to rest some of his regulars, Leo exploded. Cursing at the writer, Durocher called an impromptu team meeting to embarrass him. “Are any of you tired?” he hollered. “Anybody want to sit down for awhile? This man wants to know. Go ahead—anybody who’s tired just speak up.” Not wanting a quitter label and knowing the answer Leo wanted, the players were mum.

Beckert and Kessinger are remembered as a formidable double play combination; Beckert turned 71 double plays in 1969 (he’d turned 107 the year before, arguably his best individual season) but he also committed 24 errors and had a fielding percentage nine points below the league average while being worth five defensive runs above the league average at second base.

He earned his only Gold Glove in 1968, and for his career he did have range factors slightly above the league average. Also in 1969, Beckert found himself on the first of four straight National League All-Star teams.

Yet Durocher’s rejection of the fatigue factor hurt Beckert and Kessinger down that crucial 1969 stretch. Which might be seen through strange eyes, considering Durocher once smiled admiringly when told Beckert was native to a portion of Pittsburgh “where they hit first and ask questions later.” No matter.

“The fact is that when it counted most,” William Barry Furlong wrote in Look during the offseason (in “How Durocher Blew the Pennant”), “both Don Kessinger at short and Glenn Beckert at second were letting ground balls by them that they’d have gobbled up earlier. And what Santo says about it now is, ‘Next season I’m sure Leo will rest the regulars from time to time’.”

As a hitter Beckert was a tough strikeout (he walked seventeen more times lifetime and, after 1966, never struck out more than he walked in any season), which may explain the number one reason why he was made a number two hitter. That was a time when middle infielders were often thought to “belong” at or near the top of the batting order, almost regardless of their actual batting skills.

Like former Yankee second baseman Bobby Richardson, another tough strikeout whose career wound down as Beckert’s began, Beckert’s on-base percentages (1969: .325; lifetime: .318) weren’t really the kind you needed from your top two lineup slots. (Kessinger’s—1969: .332; lifetime: .314) But once he did reach base Beckert was as intelligent as it got; he’d score 90+ runs in a season three times in his eleven-year career and led the National League with 98 in the Year of the Pitcher 1968.

In his rookie season 1965, alas, Beckert had the honour of looking at a Sandy Koufax curve ball for strike three and flying out to right field twice during the Hall of Famer’s perfect game that September 9. According to Koufax biographer Jane Leavy, Beckert’s roommate Santo called back to him after the strikeout. “Hey, Rooms,” Santo asked, “what kind of fastball does he have.”

“So-so,” Beckert answered—right before Williams looked at a similar curve ball for strike three to end the Cub first.

In 1971 Beckert heated up at the plate enough to threaten for the National League batting title—until he ruptured a thumb tendon trying to make a play on a bouncing infield grounder. A few more injuries to follow turned into a trade to the Padres after the 1973 season. Beckert played two more seasons and retired when he realised an arthritic ankle had sapped what remained of his play, though he ended up collecting back pay from the Padres for their releasing him while he was on the disabled list.

It’s not that Beckert was all that sorry to go. “The Padres had the world’s ugliest uniforms, puke yellow and brown,” he’d say later, “and it was a bad experience, going from . . . Scottsdale in spring training to Yuma, Arizona . . . It was like where they filmed Lawrence of Arabia. The sand and the wind. It was like Stalag 17.

He was originally a Red Sox draft who was left exposed to the minor league draft from which the Cubs plucked him. When National League Rookie of the Year (1962) second baseman Ken Hubbs was killed in the crash of his Cessna plane in spring 1964, the Cubs finally settled on Beckert as Hubbs’s successor, bringing him up in ’65.

“A hardscrabble player who sometimes seemed eager to join in collisions at second base,” Bill James wrote in The New Historical Baseball Abstract, “Beckert was the Billy Herman of the 1960s, a pretty good second baseman, and the best hit-and-run man in baseball.”

Beckert made a successful second career as a grain futures trader. His Cub teammates remember a fellow with a fine, dry wit and a friendliness that was priceless. Twenty-seven years after they first met behind a minor league batting cage, Beckert stood as best man at Jenkins’s second wedding.

“Just knowing Glenn was a player who wanted to play every day and knowing he was behind me defensively, that always gave me a good feeling when I pitched,” the righthander told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Jenkins also gladly broke Beckert’s new gloves in for him every spring, something the Sun-Times said wasn’t one of Beckert’s more pronounced abilities. “He’d just hand me his Wilson A2000s, and I’d take care of it,’’ Jenkins said. ‘‘I’d pound a fungo bat into the pocket, put hot water into it, put a ball into it and wrap it nicely overnight. I broke in at least a few gloves for Beck.”

Hitting in front of Williams did Beckert more than a few favours, though whenever Williams fell into a rare slump Beckert would needle him by telling him to start hitting again so the second baseman might reunite with some badly-needed fastballs.

“I was happy to have him up there in the lineup and happy just to have him as a teammate,” Williams told the Sun-Times. “He was a great teammate and a fun guy to be around. He was quick-witted. He and Santo and myself, we used to go out and really enjoy life.”

As often as Beckert dealt with injuries during his playing career, they were nothing compared to the fall he took down fifteen concrete steps in 2001. He was hospitalised long and rehabilitated hard. Then he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2006. It cut down on the frequency with which Beckert usually attended Cubs conventions and games at Wrigley Field.

“I’m thinking about the good times,’’ said Williams, himself now caring for his wife who battles late-stage dementia. ‘‘That’s what you do when something like this happens, when a person you spent a lot of good times with passes away. We had a really good group of guys on the Cubs back then. Unfortunately, there aren’t a whole lot of us left.”

The departed among the 1969 Cubs now include Beckert, Santo, reserve catcher Gene Oliver, right fielder Jim Hickman, starting pitchers Hands (who had a career year as a ’69 Cub) and Dick Selma, relief pitchers Hank Aguirre and Ted Abernathy, and especially the irrepressible Banks.

Those Cubs experienced two more pennant races with the same results, before Durocher was finally fired in favour of the sometimes-indifferent Whitey Lockman. Most of the team bonded personally as well as professionally, showing up in annual droves after Hundley first established fantasy camps that enabled frequent reunions.

“What you see with us in [the fantasy camp] is just the way it was in the clubhouse when we really played,” Beckert told Claerbaut. “Some guys are outgoing, some more inward. But the closeness is real, maybe because we played together so long.”

He’d had the habit of calling and meeting his old teammates and friends frequently before his accident and illness. Missing those calls will be nothing compared to how much they will miss Beckert himself. But that will be nothing compared to how much his daughters, grandchildren, and longtime companion Marybruce Standley will miss him.