Friday, March 10, 2017

The Hands of Time

The year was 1969 - Richard Nixon was sworn in as the 37th president of the United States, the Beatles gave their last live performance, four days of music in Woodstock, NY changed popular culture, man crossed space and stepped foot on the moon, Sesame Street hit the airwaves for the very first time, and the Chicago Cubs looked like a cinch to end their World Series drought.  Ultimately, in a year of historic developments and change, the Lovable Losers remained the same, faltering in September.  "The Miracle Mets" broke the hearts of Cubs fans around the Windy City, despite the best efforts of one Bill Hands.

Bill Hands just so happened to have the best year of his career during that infamous 1969 season.  The young workhorse won 20 games for the seemingly unstoppable squad, to go along with a sterling 2.49 ERA, 41 starts and 300 innings of toil.  In terms of WAR (8.4), only three pitchers have had a single better season than the man they called "Froggy," since then.  The great Fergie Jenkins may have been the de facto ace, but Bill Hands truly led the staff that year.

Hands had been acquired from the San Francisco Giants prior to the 1966 season as part of a long-overdue rebuild.  The competitive Northside squads of the late 60's and early 70's were built much the same way as the current Cubs machine, shrewd trades and a youth movement.  In exchange for aging reliever Lindy McDaniel and veteran outfielder Don Landrum, the Chicago franchise was able to acquire two core pieces of the "69-era" Cubs, in one fell swoop - Hands, as well as catcher Randy Hundley. 

Two of the other key components in that deal of December, 1965.

Afforded the opportunity to develop on a team with openings to claim, Hands worked out of the bullpen and rotation as a swingman for the next two seasons, where he impressed manager Leo Durocher enough to get a full-time starting assignment by 1968.  That season, the man with a little extra "hop" on his fastball blossomed, recording 16 wins with a 2.89 ERA.  Little did the National League know, at the time, "Froggy" was just hinting at the masterpiece season to come.

After that fateful collapse in 1969 and an 18-win campaign in 1970, Bill continued to provide a steady influence on the Cubs starting four.  Although he was never quite as sterling, he was always good for at least 11 wins and an ERA in the mid-threes, through 1972.  That's a top-notch, middle of the rotation arm, right there.

Unfortunately, while those Cubs teams of the late 60's, early 70's were in contention, they were never able to get over the divisional hump.  As a result, Wrigley ownership became frustrated with their club and began to jettison their veterans, especially those associated with the chokers of '69.

In November of 1972, the Cubs decided that a retooling of their pitching staff was necessary, swapping the consistent Hands and swingman Joe Decker with the Minnesota Twins for a bullpen arm in Dave LaRoche.  That's the same LaRoche who's sons Adam and Andy both eventually played Major League Baseball and who's grandson became the most controversial 14 year old in Chicgao sports history.

Dave was a 24 year old coming off of a 62 appearance season with a 2.83 ERA, who appeared to be on the rise.  Well, during his first season in Chicago, his ERA inflated over three full points and 1974 wasn't much better.  Meanwhile, in "The North Star State," mercurial and famously cheap owner Calvin Griffith immediately cut Bill Hands' pay by $4,500 and by spring of '73, "Froggy" was already demanding a hop-along trade.  Unfortunately for him, his request was roundly ignored and Hands performance suffered, eventually being claimed off waivers by Texas late in 1974.  He was done with professional baseball after one more mediocre season with the Rangers.

After his playing days had come to a close, Bill decided to return to his roots, opening up a gas station in Orient, NY, where patrons and locals would congregate to discuss the National Pastime and town happenings.  Contemporaries describe that atmosphere as being very similar to Mayberry (of Andy Griffith show fame), where townsfolk would gather to discuss the local goings-on with Gomer Pyle at Wally's Filling Station.

Furthermore, the moundsman maintained a rooting interest in his former club, often wearing a faded, blue Cubs cap while at work.  When the 2016 Cubs broke the curse of the Billy Goat last season, a longtime friend noted that Bill was absolutely ecstatic.  I think we can all agree that it's quite fortunate that "Froggy" was around to see it finally happen, to see the ghosts of '69 finally excised.

Sadly,  Bill Hands died Thursday in an Orlando, Fla., hospital after a brief illness. He was 76.

1969 was a year of cultural and political change and so much more has drastically changed throughout the ensuing 48 years.  However, one thing remains constant - time marches on and waits for no man, including our heroes of baseball past. 

RIP, Bill.


  1. Apparently, having a middle rotation man who pitches like an ace is a key to the Cubs' success. The situation of Jenkins being the ostensible ace while Hands leading the staff is reminiscent of this past year, when Arrieta was the ace but Hendricks was the best of the group.

  2. 11 wins and a mid 3's ERA probably gets a 100 million today.

  3. Hadn't heard. Glad he got to see the World Series. The Cubs heroes of my youth are slowly leaving us. Makes me sad.