Big George Altman comes from North Carolina and was educated at Tennessee A&I, but he considers Chicago his home. He lives there and his best baseball memories are there. A strong straightaway hitter, he clubbed a total of 49 home runs for the Cubs in 1961 and 1962 and batted better than .300 each season. Then he was traded away to St. Louis for pitching help and got messed up trying to pull the ball over Busch Stadium's right-field fence, just 310 feet away. Last year with the Mets he suffered a dislocated shoulder, a groin injury and a ruptured batting average (.230). Now Altman is physically sound again and, more important, he is back in Wrigley Field. His presence gives Head Coach Bob Kennedy a fourth dangerous man in the batting order to go along with Ron Santo, Billy Williams and Ernie Banks. Santo, a stocky, handsome blond from Seattle and one of the National League's finest all-round players, is captain of the team even though he is only 25. He hit .313 last year, had 30 homers and 114 RBIs and tied for the league lead in triples. Williams was one point behind Santo in batting and three home runs ahead. Together they form as potent a pair of hitters as ever chased a pitcher to an early rinse. The amiable Banks is still predicting rosy things for his team, completely ignoring his failure as a prognosticator for the past 11 years, the length of his sentence in Chicago. He is undoubtedly over the hill from his Most Valuable Player seasons in 1958 and 1959, but Ernie over the hill is still worth 20 or 30 home runs.
Offensively the rest of the Cub lineup does not appear too frightening. Catcher Dick Bertell has hit only six home runs in the last two years and is not likely to better .240. Dominican rookie Roberto Pena, .303 in the Southern League last season, won the shortstop job with a good spring, beating out switch-hitting Jim Stewart. Neither of the right-field candidates, Doug Clemens and Len Gabrielson, has shown that he can hit big league pitching yet. Clemens missed part of last season with a broken finger. Gabrielson is built more like a full-grown Kodiak than a cub and hit some impressive drives in spring training, yet his home run totals in five years as a pro are not noteworthy.
It was pitching more than anything else that buried the Cubs in eighth place last season. They finished fifth in batting and fourth in fielding but eighth in earned runs allowed, eighth in low-run games pitched and a near booby-prize in hits allowed. It was unfortunate that Chicago could not pitch Larry Jackson every day. Jackson, who came to Chicago from St. Louis in the same deal that exiled George Altman, won 24 games, the most in either league. (Dean Chance, the Cy Young Award Winner, won only 20 for the Angels.) This year Jackson may get some help from left-handed Dick Ellsworth (14-18). who won 22 games in 1963. A year ago Ellsworth spent spring training working on his breaking pitches and neglected his fast ball. When the season started he reared back to throw his fast ball and instead delivered an unintentional changeup. This spring he concentrated on more and better fast balls and expects to regain his 1963 form.
Among the others, Ernie Broglio, a big right-hander who is another St. Louis refugee (and he was not happy missing last October's World Series payoff), might return to his Cardinal form (18-8 in 1963) after an off-season operation to remove bone chips from his elbow. Cal Koonce, who won three straight after his recall from the minors late last year, will be a starter. The Cubs are also depending on two aging veterans, Bob Buhl, 36, and fidgety Lou Burdette, 38, both ex-Milwaukee stars. Lindy McDaniel, still another ex-Cardinal, will head the bullpen crew.
The shortstop-second base situation is in a muddle. Last year's shortstop, Andre Rodgers, went to Pittsburgh, but the Cubs still have a seemingly endless supply of infielders of about equal—and not terribly impressive—ability. Pena will open at short, with Stewart, who also played second and center field last season, in reserve. Second base could be handled by rookie Glenn Beckert, a good double-play man who was a shortstop at Salt Lake City and batted .277, or Ron Campbell, another Salt Lake graduate who spent 26 games with the Cubs last year and hit .272.
Billy Williams has been moved from left to center field, where he will not be as good as Billy Cowan, who went to the Mets for Altman. Altman will play left, not too gracefully. Both Gabrielson and Clemens will have problems in right. Santo is splendid at third, and Bertell has a good arm behind the plate. Banks plays first base the way an old shortstop should.
Coach Kennedy can depend on several things: Santo, Williams and Banks will swing their bats with the same old effectiveness, Altman will hit better than last year's .230 and Jackson can be relied upon for another good year. But, sadly, Kennedy also can rely on the fact that seven other clubs in the National League look better than his. Right field, second base, shortstop and pitching are question marks. Some may turn into pleasant surprises, but not enough for the Cubs to step up in class.