Don Kessinger

July 21, 2009

Don Kessinger 79A couple notable anniversaries have come up recently that made me think of Don Kessinger and distance. The more recent and much more widely celebrated anniversary occurred yesterday, the fortieth anniversary of the first time humans walked on the moon. For most of human history to that point, the moon had seemed so impossibly distant that it stood as a kind of symbol of the unreachable. As pointed out in an enjoyable post at wezen-ball.com, the bridging of this distance had the power to stop the baseball world. The most solemn and reverential of the stoppages occurred in the third inning of the second game of a doubleheader between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Chicago Cubs, when the announcement of the landing was followed by both teams lining the foul lines and bowing their heads in silent prayer. When play resumed, the Cubs went on to complete a sweep of the doubleheader, which increased their division lead over the second place New York Mets to five games. Don Kessinger was the star of the day, knocking in the only run in the first game and collecting three hits and scoring two runs in the nightcap.

Three days later, Kessinger would be the starting shortstop for the National League in the 1969 All-Star game, one of five Cubs on the team, a notable number especially considering that it didn’t include two future Hall of Famers, Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins, who were both having customarily strong years. It seemed that practically every regular on the Cubs was a star, and that the distant goal of a World Series championship, which the team had not won for sixty-one years, was looking like a distinct possibility.

I’m not an expert on how the bridging of that distance collapsed, but from what I understand as the summer pressed on the team relied on its stars with no relief from the bench until the stars just ran out of gas. This seems to be a common theme in collapses. I know the 1978 Red Sox stumbled in large part because of a lack of depth, and a side-by-side look at the statistics of the Yankees and Red Sox teams of the late 1940s and early 1950s shows that the team that won every time was not the one with more stars but rather the one with the far superior depth. In the last couple years, the fading of the Mets has seemed to offer another lesson in what happens to a star-studded team with a shoddy bench.

In 1969, the Mets played a different part in the proceedings, of course, and with a deep, nearly star-free team, every man on the roster with a significant role, they kept coming in waves and eventually blew past the Cubs. The Mets, who had until that year been synonymous with futility, won the pennant and the World Series and forever after became baseball’s parallel to the reaching of the moon.

The moon? The Mets?!? There seemed to be no limit to what distances humankind could reach.

And the thing is, if the Cubs, who at that time were already the longest suffering franchise in American sports, had been able to hang onto their summertime lead, they would have been the team most closely associated with the miraculous closing of distances.

The Cubs would not come close again during Don Kessinger’s tenure with the team. At the end of 1975 Kessinger was traded away to the Cardinals, and in 1977 he came back to Chicago, to the White Sox, in the middle of a promising summer for both Chicago baseball teams, but both teams faded out of the pennant race, and the prospects of a long-awaited World Series win again moved off into the far distance for years to come. In 1979, Kessinger was named player-manager of the White Sox, but he was unable to lead the team anywhere beyond their usual earthbound status in the standings.

By then, the hopes of the space program were literally crumbling. The Apollo program of manned space flights to the moon had ended years earlier, and NASA’s subsequent flagship project, the Skylab space station, had been abandoned not long after. A few years later, on July 11, 1979, the abandoned space station lost orbit, reentered the atmosphere, and, in fiery pieces, pelted the earth.

The very next night, in Chicago, Don Kessinger managed one of his final games (within a couple weeks he’d be fired from managing and never play another game) and then, after the first game of a doubleheader that would never be completed, looked on as teenaged hellions stampeded all over the field, whipped into a frenzy by the explosion of a pile of disco records.

The fortieth anniversary of the moon landing and the thirtieth anniversary of Disco Demolition night make me think of Don Kessinger and of distance and of a sky so clogged with the smoke of exploded disco and pot that you couldn’t see the moon even if you weren’t too wasted to even try.


  1. Loved this (as usual), Josh.

  2. Great stuff, Josh. The Mets as the Apollo space program, eh? Not a bad comparison. They did start at the same time and achieve their greatest accomplishment in the same year. The Mets did require a miracle, though. Apollo was much more coordinated – there was very little miraculous about it, just hard work.

    Still, I love the idea…

  3. Hey wezenball,
    I actually had a tangent that I cut out of this post that related the popular perception of the moon landing to the idea about deep teams prevailing over star-studded teams. Most recountings of Apollo 11 don’t go much farther than the star (Neil Armstrong), and if they do they probably only include the two lesser known stars (Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins); in truth–and the astronauts are always the first to point this out–the enterprise was all about a ton of bright, extremely hard-working people working together (which is, compared to the way things usually go, a miracle in itself). NASA was a team with some depth, to say the least.

  4. When you mention the Yankees of the 40s and 50s and their depth it reminds of my father, who grew up as a rabid Brooklyn Dodgers fan, telling me that the Yankees would always go out and get seasoned veterans (i.e.- Johnny Mize) that would help put them over the top. It was a double whammy with Mize, because he also played with the Giants and would kill the Dodgers then as well. I know that Mize also played with the Dodgers at one point as well.

  5. thundefan24:
    Yeah, and on top of adding veterans like Mize, I think they also always had plenty of major-league caliber players stashed in the minors to use when necessary, and twice as many decent starting pitchers as any other team in the league, and–most progressively–an actual bullpen (rather than a last stop of the damned) anchored by an ace reliever (Page, Murphy).

  6. Kessinger looks like just about the least athletic person imaginable on that card. Hard to imagine him on an All Star team.

    I wonder how much of the Stengal-era Yankees success was due to the fact they were the first team to realize the value of a relief ace? I believe Page is generally thought of as the first one.

    The ten years between the hope of the moon landing and the pathetic Chicken Little act of Skylab is stunning. NASA was collectively heroes to the world and ten years later everyone was wondering if molten globs of NASA failure and humiliation would scream from the sky and destroy cities. That’s quite a fall (double meaning intended!)

  7. I love that analogy, Josh. There really was no better example of a team that succeeded because of its depth than Project Apollo. I suppose it’s more of an organizational depth, but still.

    (oh, and sorry for the name change here… was playing with my account settings after registering)

  8. sb1902:
    Kessinger actually made SIX all-star teams! Good glove, a slightly better hitter than a lot of shortstops of the day (the era of Belanger/Harrelson/Metzger, etc.).

    As for bullpen guys, Firpo Marberry had some renown as a reliever in the ’20s. Also, Johnny Murphy preceded Page as the head Yankees bullpen guy.

  9. This is one of my favorite posts.

    As far as the Star vs Depth debate, the Indians tried to go a different way. The experiment of trying to win with almost no stars and zero depth was probably doomed to failure from the start. But somebody had to try it, right?

  10. Good points about Murphy and Marberry. I totally forgot about Marberry (who I first learned of from my APBA cards). I seem to recall that Page was the first guy who got some respect as a reliever, that is, who was viewed as a weapon in the role whereas others before him were sort of seen as guys who came in after disaster struck. Am I imagining that? Any old-time Yankee fans out there? Maybe I’m just remembering old Red Sox quotes bitching about Page and how they had nobody to match him.

  11. I have the same perception of Marberry and Murphy–in my mind they’re kind of like the New York Mammoth reliever (and morally dubious “stinker”) Horse Byrd in Mark Harris’s novels: crafty and useful but more an option of last resort than a dominating strategic weapon.

    It’s been a long time since I read it, but I think Halberstam’s “Summer of ’49” probably had something to do with why I view Page as a cut above his bullpen predecessors.

  12. “Oh, the 1969 Cubs.” All those many stars can ask for is that you say the “Oh” part as Ron Santo does, quite loudly and then tailing off into a plaintive sigh.

    Being too young to remember them myself, they were always held out to me as “The Best Baseball Team That My Father Had Ever Seen.”

    The objective, reasoning part of my mind wants to argue that Mets had good pitching and an absurd amount of good luck. I want to sift through the historical record and find reasons why the Mets won the division that year…Don Young dropping that flyball, the black cat thrown into the on-deck circle, Durocher playing his starters every day, or those same starters having to suffer through so much sunshine.

    But it just doesn’t make sense. Billy Williams was a better baseball player than Cleon James. Kessinger was better than Bud Harrelson. Hundley was better than Grote. Banks over Kranepool. Beckert over Boswell. Hands and Holtzman were both better than Koosman as well as the rest of the slop that sufficed for the back end of the Mets’ rotation. Talk about depth all you want but the Cubs were better at almost every position and that advantage told for 155 days – the late Mike Royko always used to lament that the Cubs were in first place for 155 consecutive days in 1969, until the 10th of September.

    The Mets had the better bullpen and the better bench but shouldn’t the overwhelming superiority of the entire Cub team have won out in the real standings, rather than just run differential?

    1969 was always held up to me as the ultimate example of Life Being Unfair. The Cubs, and all of us who’ve supported the them through all those 70-92 seasons, will never be rewarded for our devotion. Meanwhile, the fans that were too scared to venture into the “bad” neighborhoods around Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds and, thus, deservedly lost their teams, are blessed with a “miracle”? Yes, life’s not fair. The moon landing was just an interesting aside to that larger lesson.

  13. zernialophile:
    Always good to hear from you. Thanks for your thoughts on Oh, the 1969 Cubs.

    I don’t agree with the claim that New York national league fans “deservedly lost their teams” (in comparison to the Cubs). I just took a quick look at attendance figures in the years leading up to the move of the Dodgers and the Giants to California, and it looks like in ’55, ’56, and ’57 the Cubs drew just slightly more fans than the Giants and drew decidedly fewer fans than the Dodgers.

  14. Thanks for replying Josh. The late 60s/early 70s Cub teams have an almost mythical ethos about them, among Chicago fans. There’s an entire generation of Cub fans that absolutely loathes the Mets, just for 1969. I’m not part of that group but I was raised by one of them and, as a result, I’m prone to late night rants.

    The attendance figures, by themselves, are rather misleading. The Giants and Dodgers both won World Series during the mid-50s whereas the Cubs were abjectly awful during that period. Also, the attendance triumphs of both the Braves and Orioles helped to convince both Stoneham and O’Malley that moving their franchises would be a wise decision. Plus, they both were seduced by the glittering sunlit prize of California.

    I’ve often wondered why the Giants chose San Francisco, before the Dodgers followed them to the coast. Maybe the population trends weren’t as evident as they now seem, with hindsight…was the stadium deal in SF (ultimately, a rip off) guaranteed when the club moved? What aspect of the NY market was so repulsive as to blind both O’Malley and Stoneham to the fact that if either of their teams had stayed in NY, that club would’ve become a financially dominant force? Like the success of the ’69 Mets, it doesn’t make sense.

    So Josh, assuming that you’ll read this, is there another glittering sunlit city out there, where a moribund franchise could relocate and realize riches inconceivable in their current location? I’d say that there is one within the US (and, like the old NY/SF/LA debate, it depends upon which franchise is moving) as well as a few huge jewels out there that will require a bit entrepreneurial imagination to find.

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