Sunday, June 16, 2013

Forgiving Baseball's Scapegoats: Leon Durham

Don't forget to check out the other articles in the "Forgiving Baseball's Scapegoats" Series: Fred MerkleHack WilsonJohnny Pesky and Ralph Branca

Writers can be very competitive creatures.  They all need to come up with the headline that captures your attention.  Through this competition many of the great plays in history become known by a specific name.  Bobby Thomson's Home Run became the "Shot Heard Round the World".  Enos Slaughter's run around the bases became known as "Enos Slaughter's mad dash".  The focus of this week's article has come to be known simply as "Bull's Ole".

It had been quite some time since the Cubs had been in the post season.  39 years to be exact.  In fact, they had not reached the postseason since 1945 when the owner of the Billy Goats Tavern had been asked to remove his goat from the 1945 World Series and cursed the team.  So when the Cubs won the National League East over the heavily favored Cardinals and Phillies as well as the improving New York Mets, Chicago came alive.

Chitown saw this as a team of destiny.  They were well built from the parts of dismantled dynasties at most positions and young budding stars at others.  Ron Cey had come from the Dodgers.  Larry Bowa, Gary Matthews, Keith Moreland, Warren Brusstar, Ryne Sandberg and Bob Dernier had come from the Phillies.  Dennis Eckersley was acquired from the Red Sox for first baseman Bill Buckner.  Davey Lopes came in a late season trade from Oakland and Rick Sutcliffe came in a late season trade from Cleveland. Leon Durham had come from the Cardinals.  Very little talent was home grown but it somehow all worked together.

They took over first place on August 1 and never looked back, winning the division by 8 1/2 games.  The first two games of the NLCS were in Chicago and it looked certain that the curse had been nothing more than a joke.  Wrigley Field was a madhouse as the Cubs won the first game 13-0 and the second game 4-2.  The NLCS was a best of five until 1985 and the Cubs needed just one more win to advance to their first World Series since ten years before Disneyland existed.  They needed to win just one of the last three games against the San Diego Padres, another collection of fallen dynasties.  The Padres had Steve Garvey of the Dodgers and Graig Nettles and Goose Gossage of the Yankees.

When the Cubs jumped out to a quick 1-0 lead in the second inning of Game 3, the Padres were expected to fold up and just be satisfied with having made the playoffs for the first time in team history.  Dennis Eckersley had allowed only 4 hits through the first 5 innings and really had no trouble to this point.  Then the bottom of the 5th came and  the Padres exploded for three runs on 4 hits.  A 4 run 6th inning finished the scoring for a 7-1 win.  It was a disappointing loss but the Cubs needed to win just one of the next two.  The Cubs again jumped out to a lead and were tied at 5 heading into the bottom of the 9th when Steve Garvey hit a two run Home Run to win the game and force a final deciding game.

Now Cubs fans were worried and talk of the curse ramped up again.  Their fears seemed to be put to rest when Leon "Bull" Durham hit a big two run Home Run in the first and Jody Davis hit a solo Home Run in the second.  Another three run lead and the Cubs were relaxed.  There was no curse.  The Cubs took the three run lead into the 6th.  San Diego scored one but couldn't get any closer

Then came the moment everyone was waiting for:  the curse roared out.  Carmelo Martinez walked to start the inning.  He was sacrificed to second base.  Tim Flannery hit a ground ball right to Durham at First base.  It moved quickly but it should have been routine.  Durham missed.  It went right through his legs.  It was a play the two time All Star had made a thousand times but for whatever reason on this ground ball it went right past him.  Martinez scored from second and the game was tied.  A single, a double, another single and three runs followed.  The Padres led 5-3.  The Cubs put runners on in each of the last two innings but none of them scored and the Padres celebrated the greatest moment in franchise history while Cubs fans pointed to Durham's error as the reason they were headed home for another cold and windy winter.

There are many reasons you cannot blame Leon Durham for the series loss.  Here are just a few:
1.  A few years ago Bob Ibach, the PR Director of the Cubs at the time, gave an interview discussing the series.  He revealed that while the Cubs were at bat in the 7th a Gatorade cooler toppled over on the Cubs bench.  One of the victims of the Gatorade was Durham's glove.  The equipment staff did their best to dry the glove using hair dryers, towels and whatever else was available.  Apparently the glove oil, tobacco juice, dirt and leather along with the sugar of the Gatorade created an adhesive.  The Cubs equipment managers did what they could to fix the glove but it was barely serviceable.  Instead of trying to break in an unfamiliar glove, Bull took the familiar glove with him out to the field.  According to Ibach Durham looked down to see if the glove would even open and that was when he lost track of the ball.

2.  The Cubs had only 5 hits in Game 5 and only 2 after the second inning.  For an offense that won 13-0 in game 1 it was a very quiet deciding game.  One of those 5 hits was a two run Home Run by Durham himself.  If it hadn't been for Durham the Cubs wouldn't have been in the game at all.

3.  The Cubs lost three straight after winning the first two games of the series.  In each of those three games they had a lead and in one they were tied late in the game.  In the final 2 games Durham hit Home Runs, one of the few Cubs players hitting.  Although he only had three hits in the five games he made them count.

4.  Durham's error allowed only one run to score.  The two singles, double and three runs that came after had nothing to do with Durham.


  1. The Durham error and scenario is so much like Buckner's WS error it is uncanny. Both led to a run but there were other hits in the inning, that led to the many runs.
    Even though Durham did have problems with his glove, he should have been looking at the ball not his glove. Crazy circumstances concerning his glove. The baseball gods live.
    My first thought when i read about game # 5, Well if Durham would not have hit a home run they the Cubs would have lost 5-1..
    Am really enjoying these articles.


  2. I'm glad you're enjoying the articles. There are a few more in this series to come. I definitely agree that the circumstances are similar to Buckner's. Stay tuned over the next few weeks. Bucknner will be featured soon.

  3. I thought of Buckner too because the ball went through his legs too, right?

    Gatorade. I knew it wasn't good for you and this article proves it! ;)

    1. Correct. The Buckner play was very similar but for many different reasons. Next week's article will explore Donnie Moore and the Angels' loss to Buckner's Red Sox but the Buckner play will also make our list.

  4. "He revealed that while the Cubs were at bat in the 7th a Gatorade cooler toppled over on the Cubs bench."

    all other accounts of the incident state that Ryne Sandberg accidentally spilled Gatorade on Durham's glove BEFORE the game!!

    1. Thanks for reading the blog and thanks for the additional perspective. I had not heard the version that the Gatorade spill happened before the game. Here is the link to the version I used for the article.

      Regardless of when the Gatorade spilled I still believe that Durham has accepted too much of the blame for the loss.


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