Baseball Way Back: Chicago baseball spring training tragedies
Pitchers and catchers reporting.
A magic phrase for a young baseball fan bogged down in schoolwork and daydreaming of the lazy summer days at the ballpark ahead.
Just the idea of another approaching spring training is enough to distract the mind from February freezes and slushy streets.
On one of those February days I spotted the headline. It hit me like a punch in the gut.
The Saturday paper lay flat on my Aunt Sadie's kitchen table in her Chicago apartment, with the letters staring up at me in bold, big type. "CRASH KILLS SOX PITCHER EDMONDSON."
The subhead read, "Companion Also Dies in Accident On West Coast."
Beside a picture of Paul Edmondson smiling beneath his Sox cap ran the column unraveling the grim details. My stunned eyes wandered down the column, beginning with the date, Feb. 13, 1970, and the Santa Barbara, Calif., dateline, as I learned how Edmondson, who had just turned 27, and an unidentified woman were killed in a car that crashed and burned 20 miles northwest of Santa Barbara on U.S. Highway 101.
Edmondson had borrowed the car two weeks before from a friend for a trip to San Luis Obispo. On the return trip, the car skidded on the rain-slicked highway and crossed into the opposing lane. It then sideswiped an oncoming car, spun off the road, flipped over, and burst into flames.
My mind flashed back to the previous year, my first as a baseball fan, when I watched Edmondson on a pregame interview on Channel 32.
The lanky 6-foot-5 right-hander met instant success, winning his first major league game in his very first start, June 20, 1969, a 9-1 complete game two-hitter against the Angels. The Halo hits were by future Sox Jim Spencer, who scored on a fielder's choice, and Rick Reichardt.
Edmondson chipped in two hits, including an RBI single off Hoyt Wilhelm, and scored two runs, both on hits by Luis Aparicio.
The Sox brought up Edmondson from the Columbus, Ga., farm club, where his record was 7-3, shortly after he tossed a no-hitter May 23 against Southern League rival Montgomery, a team that included future Sox skipper Gene Lamont.
Little did he know his sparkling big-league debut would mark the peak of his short career.
With the exception of a two-week stint in the Marine reserves, he spent the remainder of 1969 with the Sox, finishing with a 3.70 ERA but an unspectacular 1-6 record in 14 games, including 13 starts.
He pitched brilliantly in three September starts but suffered from the lack of run support. In a Sept. 13 game against Oakland, he pitched nine scoreless innings. But the A's won 4-0 in the 10th, the big blow a three-run Dave Duncan homer off Wilbur Wood.
Edmondson's death was not Chicago baseball's first tragedy to occur before or during spring training.
Popular Cubs broadcaster Jack Quinlan was lost in the prime of his career at only 38 years old on March 19, 1965, near Mesa, Ariz., when a rented sports car Quinlan was driving failed to negotiate a curve on Arizona Highway 87 and slammed into a parked truck 2½ miles from Mesa. He was returning to his motel from a golf game. Quinlan, who began calling Cubs games in 1956, was supposed to usher in WGN's radio baseball season March 21. He had recently been named the outstanding Illinois sportscaster by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association.
Ernie Banks and Ron Santo attended the funeral in Evanston.
My first contact with Quinlan's voice, eerily, was on a record, "Jack Brickhouse Presents Great Moments in Cubs Baseball," which contained Quinlan's call of the Cubs' Kenny Hubbs setting a major league fielding record for consecutive errorless games by a second baseman. Hubbs was killed prior to the 1964 season in a plane crash, on the same date when Edmondson died, Feb. 13.
Today, Quinlan's voice is as enjoyable as when it first boomed through transistor radios. A Facebook page started as part of Quinlan connoisseur Ron Barber's quest to enshrine the broadcaster in Cooperstown is a treasure trove of audio and captures his friendly and good-humored but precise style, somewhat reminiscent of Milo Hamilton.
Quinlan tended to emphasize the action by lengthening his vowels, as when he describes a "swiiing" and a miss. He sometimes left spaces of airtime for you to hear the crowd.
It is a pleasure to journey back in time listening to a Cubs-Dodgers game at Wrigley Field from April 24, 1962.
Quinlan encourages fans to "Light up a White Owl (cigar) and live" as Lou Brock steps up to the dish in the bottom of the 8th to face Sandy Koufax, who has already struck out 14 Cubs en route to a record-tying 18 strikeouts. The North Siders are down 8-1.
After the action moves to the ninth, Quinlan's voice rises to a crescendo to exclaim, "Look out for this ball!" as Duke Snider hits a towering homer to right.
The clip fades soon after, when he asks broadcast partner Lou Boudreau to pass over some White Owls.
I still have the album of Cubs broadcast voices standing on a shelf with other neglected vinyl.
In a storage space, I also have boxes of baseball cards I bought at Budlong Drugs near Lincoln and Foster in Chicago from 1969 to 1971.
It has been a while since I opened the boxes. I'm still haunted by the image from one of the cards from 1970 -- Paul Edmondson, his arms frozen above his head in the middle of a windup, his eyes gazing into a tragically abbreviated future.