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He's thumb kind of hitter

Far ahead in the National League batting race while he was still swinging, the Cubs' injured Bill Madlock overtook the AL leader from the sideline

The pitch from Cardinal righthander Bob Forsch was on its way, a hard slider over the outside corner of the plate just as Bill Madlock had anticipated. But the National League's leading batter, a first-ball hitter who likes to go to all fields, made no attempt to swing. Even for a .362 hitter like Madlock, it is tough to make contact when you are confined to the Wrigley Field box seats with a hot dog in one hand and a badly bruised thumb on the other.

However, the injury may have its advantages. Madlock was struck by a Bruce Kison fastball in Pittsburgh last week; his average would freeze at .362 if he were unable to return to the lineup. That figure should easily win the National League batting title for the 24-year-old Cub third baseman, and might also prevent Minnesota's Rod Carew from taking his third consecutive major league championship. St. Louis Catcher Ted Simmons is far behind at .342, and by week's end Carew's average had dropped down to .359.

Coming to the Cubs two years ago from the Texas Rangers in a trade that involved perennial 20-game winner Ferguson Jenkins, the no-name Madlock was greeted with about as much enthusiasm as the Russian wheat deal. Cub fans recalled with horror the Lou Brock-for-Ernie Broglio trade of 1964, and were convinced that this transaction would turn out no better. Until they got a glimpse of Madlock with a bat in his hands, that is.

After hitting .351 in 21 games for the Rangers in 1973, the Cub rookie batted .313 for the entire 1974 season to finish fifth in the National League. The Cubs did not do nearly so well, winding up 30 games below .500, and Madlock was overlooked as even a good hitter on a last-place club can be. His first real taste of nationwide attention came this July when Henry Kissinger congratulated Madlock for winning the All-Star Game in Milwaukee with a two-run, ninth-inning single. But by that time his hitting binges were a matter of record. For example, in four games against the Reds and Phillies in June, Madlock hammered out 14 hits in 18 at bats, including seven in succession. His six-hit game against the New York Mets two weeks later is still the only one in the majors this year and he has had four four-hit games as well.

A right-hand hitter who is 5'11" and a muscular 180 pounds, Madlock has nevertheless beaten out 13 of 14 bunts for base hits. He is also a savvy hitter.

"It would be very tempting for me to go for the long ball in this park," says Madlock, who has hit just 16 home runs in two seasons with the Cubs, "but what I do best is get the bat on the ball, and I'm going to stick with it."

It has been said that a typical Madlock hit is either a searing drive to left field, a looping double up the power alley in right center, a Texas Leaguer behind first base, a hard smash to the right or left of the shortstop or one of those perfect bunts in front of an embarrassed third baseman. "Whatever he's been doing, he should keep doing it," says Cub Pitcher Steve Stone. "Wrigley Field can be a real Jekyll-Hyde park for the hitters as well as the pitchers, with the wind blowing in one day and out the next. The way Bill hits the ball, it doesn't matter."

If Wrigley Field has a split personality, then no one is more suited to playing baseball there than Bill Madlock, a happy-go-lucky bear cub off the field who can turn into a grizzly once the action on the field gets hot. The kind of gritty I-won't-give-an-inch competitiveness Madlock exudes is a quality that the talented but passive Cubs could have used in recent years when pennant races were being lost in August and September. It is also a trait that has gotten Madlock into considerable trouble of late.

Ejected from a game in Philadelphia on Sept. 5 for arguing too long over a third strike, Madlock became so enraged with Umpire Jerry Dale that it took a small battalion of Cubs to subdue him. In the fracas he managed to shove his own manager by accident, at which point Madlock's wife Cynthia got up and switched off her television set back in Chicago. League President Chub Feeney fined Madlock $250 (he had just paid a $200 fine for an altercation in Houston two weeks earlier) and suspended him for three days. True to his nature, Madlock lodged an appeal and, ironically, that is why he was in the lineup a few nights later facing Kison instead of sitting angrily but safely on the bench.

Supporters and critics of Madlock's hell-bent style of play tend to divide along the lines of their own disposition. Says the Cubs' easy-going shortstop, Don Kessinger, "Bill is already an exceptional hitter. He's going to find a way to stay away from that collar every day. But he will also have to be careful about his temper. I don't know what he had on his mind the other day, but if you hit an umpire up here they could suspend you for life." Al Hrabosky, the Cardinals' fiery relief pitcher, says, "He's exactly the kind of competitor I'd like to have on my team."

On his way to buy that hot dog at Wrigley Field last week, Madlock made the mistake of trying to wade through a swarm of young Cub fans freed by the Chicago teachers' strike for one last fling at the old ball park. A boy wearing a DRACULA FOR PRESIDENT T shirt recognized him first, shoved a baseball in his face and yelled, "Hey, Madlock, will you autograph this?" Rejecting what might have been the Mike Marshall response to such a request, Madlock turned and smiled, pointed to his right thumb and said politely, "I'm sorry, but if I could sign my name I would be out there playing right now."