Chicago Cubs fans are good at tilting at windmills.
It is in our DNA.
Monday, April 8 marks my 41st consecutive Cubs home opener. I spend a few weeks before opening day combing through my Cubs archives and scorecards, retouching the past. There's a reality show in there somewhere.
I came across a 1978 letter I wrote to Cubs general manager Bob Kennedy after he traded "Tarzan" Joe Wallis, one of my favorite players. I complained about the Cubs giving up on the speedy, switch hitting center fielder--as if my small punky opinion would matter.....
......Wallis got his nickname because he liked to jump off of cliffs and out of hotel windows. "Make sure you clear the cement," he once told The Sporting News.
Kennedy wrote me back in a style that you would never see today. He told me how manager Herman Franks couldn't find Wallis in the club house and how Tarzan Joe broke his finger riding a motorcycle.
Kennedy was so disgusted about Wallis he couldn't even see straight, typing in Cubbie blue that he was discusted.
I'm all about fan and team relations, but this was really impressive.
Born on Jan. 9, 1952, Joe Wallis attended Southern Illinois University, back when it was full tilt hippie. According to "The Hardball Times," during one Spring Training game Wallis tried to catch a ball behind his back. He figured no harm no foul since Franks had left the ballpark. Franks had already drifted into semi-retirement when he was at the helm of the Cubs, concentrating more on his real estate deals. But Franks got pissed off when he heard of Joe's hot dogging.
The Wallis story gets even better because he came up through the Cubs system when the Cubs had a Class A team in Key West, Fla.
Key West is the home of all kinds of renegades and free spirits.
Professional ball in Key West never floated above the Class A Florida State League (FSL). In 1974 Key West became affiliated with the Cubs as the Key West Conchs.
The '74 Conchs finished in last place in the FSL with a 37-94 record. And this was despite the fact the team included future major leaguers Bruce Sutter (for half a season), Donnie Moore, Mike Krukow and Wallis.
In 1977 Conchs manager Jack Mull told the Miami Herald that his '74 summer in Key West was the "most depressing experience of my life."
The Conchs wore heavy old fashioned wool uniforms. Other teams in the league wore light double knits. The Conchs wilted in the summer.
In a 2005 interview for Key West magazine, Sutter told me of a 1974 game in which Wallis hit a fly ball to right field that disappeared. Some observers thought the ball was carried out to sea in the Key West "trade winds." Garry Templeton was the shortstop for the St. Petersburg Cardinals and in 2003 he told the Times of Northwest Indiana that a UFO snatched the ball.
"The stadium wasn't the best and the lights weren't the best," Sutter said with a laugh. "Wallis hit the ball by the lights. And nobody ever saw it come down. So they gave him a home run. What else are you going to do? It was one of the strangest things I ever saw."
Or didn't see.
The Conchs played in the now-razed Wickers Field, constructed in 1951. A metal canopy covered the home plate area, everything else was open. In 1974 a total of 17,489 people came out to see the Conchs play throughout the season. In 1975 the team name was changed from Conchs to Cubs. In plodding Cubs style, they finished 65-69. That team drew 18,088 fans for the season. Conversely, St. Pete led the league in attendance with 132,666 fans.
By 1976 professional baseball left Key West for good.
By 1979 Joe Wallis had played his last major league game, hitting .141 in 78 at bats for the bearded Oakland Athletics.
Long live the free spirit. Happy Opening Day y'all.