Tarzan didn’t like it out west

“Tarzan” Joe Wallis played for the Cubs at exactly the right time. He was a September call-up at the end of the 1975 season, when I had my first brush with the ivy and the day games at Wrigley Field. Then he played regularly during the 1976 season, which was my first full season as a Cubs fan. He wasn’t really a starter, but more of a pinch hitter and defensive replacement.

His playing time dropped during the 1977 season, when the Cubs had an early season run in first place, and by 1978 he was deemed expendable. Early in the season, he was involved in a trade that sent him first to Cleveland and then to Oakland. Tarzan didn’t take to the trade very well, hitting only  .237 for the rest of the season. In 1979, he began the season as an everyday player in right field, but struggled mightily at the plate, finishing the season with a .141 average.

There is a second Tarzan card in an A’s uniform, for the 1980 season, but he was cut in spring training that year, and never played in the majors again. It’s fair to say that his days in Chicago were the high water mark for Tarzan Joe Wallis, and his trade to Oakland sped his departure from the game. But he is still remembered fondly, by this writer at least.

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Madlock took it away

1976 was the first full year that I considered myself a Cubs fan. Watching the games on WGN every afternoon was something of an elixir for the eight-year old that I was at the time. The games were always in the sunshine at Wrigley Field, and the away games must have happened, but they were never quite the same. Baseball looked better in the daytime, then and now.

The emergence of Bruce Sutter as a go-to reliever was the biggest surprise of the season. The pitch he threw, the split-fingered fastball, looked like a magic trick the way it dropped out of sight. Sutter learned to throw it after having surgery on his arm to revive a flagging minor league career, and I suppose you could say that it worked. 1977 was the best it ever got with him, as far as I was concerned, but the end of 1976 showed what was in store for the future.

The best storyline of the season, though, unfolded on the very last day. Some of this I remember, and some of this is computer-aided. The value of using the internet to assist with personal memories is discussed here. It was a Sunday at Wrigley Field, the Bears were playing the Redskins at Soldier Field, and fewer than 10,000 fans had come out to watch two baseball teams who were collectively 64 games under .500.

The reigning National League batting champion, Bill Madlock of the Cubs, trailed Cincinnati’s Ken Griffey (Sr.) in the league batting race. To make matters worse, Griffey planned to sit out his team’s last two games against the Braves. The Reds were defending world champions, and their playoff date with the Phillies was already set. If Madlock wanted another batting title, he was going to have to earn it.

On the mound for the Expos that day was the late Woodie Fryman. Madlock’s first at bat was a bunt to third base, which he beat out for a hit. Madlock came up again in the third, and beat out an infield hit to key a 5-run Cubs rally. Madlock wasn’t going down without a fight.

Madlock came up again in the fourth, and became one of the last batters to face Expos reliever Chip Lang, who at age 23 might have believed a long big-league career awaited him. Madlock singled in Tarzan Joe Wallis (I love that name) from third base, and things got even more interesting in the batting race. Madlock now stood at .3372, which was just an eyelash behind Griffey at.3375. I remember hearing Madlock’s average articulated out to four decimal places, and thought it was strange, but I understand it now. Madlock still needed another hit.

In the bottom of the sixth inning, Madlock came up against the Expos’ Dale Murray. He would pitch in other big-league games, if you’re wondering. Madlock lined a single to right on the first pitch he saw, lifting his average to .3385. Madlock had taken the lead in the batting race away from Griffey. The fans at the game that day will probably never forget what they saw.

But everything wasn’t over yet. Madlock’s turn in the order came up again in the bottom of the eighth. A hit would have raised his average even higher, but an out would have dropped him back behind Griffey. So Madlock “pulled a Griffey” when Rob Sperring, a utility player with one more big-league season ahead of him, took the at-bat instead. Madlock’s work was done for day.

When word of the events in Chicago spread to Cincinnati, Griffey interrupted his planned weekend off to try and counter Madlock. He pinch hit in the bottom of the seventh, and again in the eighth, but struck out both times, effectively handing the batting title to Madlock. It was the first time a Cubs’ player had repeated as the league’s hitting leader.

Madlock would try for a third hitting crown the next season, but in someone else’s uniform. Cubs ownership balked at paying a two-time batting champion what he was worth, and so they traded him to San Francisco for Bobby Murcer (more on him later). In the years since, Bill Buckner and Derrick Lee have won batting titles for the Cubs, but neither one in such dramatic fashion. And the young kid that I once was–who was watching the game on WGN–had another reason to follow his new favorite team.

Tarzan’s rookie card

I have already written about Jim Hendry’s ouster here, and I am excited that a new course for the Cubs will be charted soon. There’s no way that Mike Quade can survive, since the new GM will want to put “his people” in place. Does Quade finish out the season? Probably, but I think he better enjoy the last few weeks of this season.

The crowd at Wrigley Field today was the biggest one since Opening Day of 1978. Part of it was the Cardinals being in town, part of it was the perfect weather we had in Chicago, but part of it also had to be a catharsis for fans who had gone away in disgust. Now that Hendry’s out, let’s celebrate by–what else?–going to Wrigley to see a game. Makes sense to me. This weekend will see more huge crowds if the weather holds up.

So what happens to the #DoubleTriple countdown? I was enjoying it, and learning about baseball history in the process, but I can’t continue to root against my team. The only reason I was doing so was to force the hand of the Ricketts family in sending Hendry out the door. Now that it’s been done, and the team has improved to the point of only needing seven more wins to avoid 100 losses, I’m going to end the countdown at this time. It’s time to focus on more uplifting topics, anyway.

I also found out today that I will be getting a 1976 rookie card for “Tarzan” Joe Wallis, thanks to the Diamond Topps giveaway. I first heard about Joe Wallis when I watched a short video of him on WGN back in 1976 or 1977. There was some sort of drum music playing as Wallis went back to catch a flyball at Wrigley Field. He then ran through the outfield door and out onto Sheffield Avenue, where he made the catch. It was staged, of course, but I remembered the name Tarzan Joe Wallis forevermore.

I have two of his other cards already, but the rookie card is something I didn’t even know existed before today. Now that card collecting is a business–it definitely wasn’t when I was a kid–players don’t share their rookie cards with other players. And rookie cards are clearly labeled with an “RC” so that all collectors know that it’s valuable. I’m not a fan of the practice, since these things aren’t valuable to me in a monetary sense, but then again I don’t get to make decisions like this.

In the great scheme of things, none of the four players shown on this card amounted to very much in the majors. But at least they all made it to the majors, which is more than most people can say. And they will always be immortalized on little pieces of cardboard, for people like me to collect and write about for whoever else might be interested.

I’m reminded of the Peanuts special where Lucy declares that “Beethoven wasn’t so great.” When Schroeder challenges her on this, Lucy replies “He never got his picture on bubble gum cards, did he?” Tarzan Joe Wallis must have been great, since he did get his picture on bubble gum cards, and I will soon have at least three of them. That’s something worth writing (or reading) about, isn’t it?