Card Corner: Glenn “Bruno” Beckertby Bruce Markusen
September 25, 2009
It’s funny how the baseball mind works. I was recently watching an MLB Network airing of one of its classic games, a 1981 affair in which Carlton “Pudge” Fisk played his first game at Fenway Park after signing as a free agent with the Chicago White Sox. During the broadcast, one of the Chicago announcers (it was someone other than Harry Caray or Jimmy Piersall) offered his assessment of White Sox first baseman Mike Squires. In discussing Squires’ line-drive swing and lack of traditional power, the broadcaster likened him to Glenn Beckert, a former second baseman with the Chicago Cubs. I’m not sure what the broadcaster’s intentions were, but Beckert’s bat would have been pretty light as a first baseman, so perhaps Squires should not have taken the comparison as a compliment.
Long before Ryne Sandberg made second base hallowed ground at Wrigley Field, Beckert occupied that position with a lower level of glory. When I was growing up with the game in the late '60s and early '70s, Beckert seemed to own second base on the north side of Chicago. In fact, Beckert played the position for the Cubs every year from 1965 to 1973, coinciding with the first eight years of my life.
The fulltime successor to the late Ken Hubbs, who was killed in a 1964 plane crash, Beckert became a solid player for the Cubs and a particular favorite of old-school manager Leo Durocher. In an era lacking in hallmark National League second basemen (other than a fellow named Joe Morgan), Beckert made four All-Star games during his Cubs tenure. An underrated fielder, Beckert played a very good second base. As a batter, he rarely struck out and usually hit for high averages, often in the .280 to .290 range. In his best season, he batted .342, challenging Joe Torre for the National League batting title in 1971. But that’s where Beckert’s offensive value started—and ended. He drew few walks (never more than 32 in a season), had no power (as evidenced by a career high of five home runs), and lacked the speed to steal bases.
The steady (if unspectacular) reality of Beckert’s eight seasons in Chicago gave way to the harsh developments of the 1973 offseason. In November, the Cubs traded an aging Beckert and minor league infielder Bobby Fenwick to the San Diego Padres for utility outfielder Jerry Morales, clearing the way for 24-year-old speed merchant Vic Harris, the son of a former Negro Leagues star, to begin a new era at second base.
At the time, the Topps Company typically reacted to such maneuvering by airbrushing the colors of the new team onto an old photograph of the traded player. Topps decided to break that trend with the 1974 cards for Beckert and Morales. Morales’ card indicated his new team—the Cubs—along the top and bottom of the card, but continued to show him wearing the logo and colors of the Padres. Similarly, Beckert’s card featured his new team—the Padres—at the top and bottom, while the photograph showed him wearing the blue pinstripes, stirrups and helmet of the Cubs.
Given the often slipshod quality of airbrushing techniques, I liked Topps’ decision to show Beckert wearing his old colors on an unaltered photograph. Photos generally look better when they’re not retouched, especially given the limitations of photo technology in 1974. Additionally, Topps’ decision allowed Cubs fans to take one more look at an old favorite wearing their preferred pinstriped uniforms.
After the Cubs traded Beckert to the Padres, he never made his way back to the organization. But in the new millennium, Beckert succeeded in making a far more remarkable comeback. In September of 2001, Beckert fell down a flight of 15 concrete stairs while visiting his aunt’s home. The nasty fall left Beckert with two skull fractures and two blood clots, necessitating emergency surgery and a long rehabilitation process. In spite of some scary moments, Beckert eventually fought his way back to health. In 2002, he received his discharge from the hospital. He made so much progress from his injuries that year that he delivered a keynote address at an old-timers banquet in Indiana, his home state.
A different kind of setback to Beckert’s health in arrived in the summer of 2006, when doctors diagnosed him with lung cancer. The news might not have surprised those Cubs fans who remembered Beckert as a heavy smoker. Thankfully, the diagnosis came early in the cancer’s development, sparing Beckert rounds of chemotherapy and improving his long-term prognosis.
Beckert remains a survivor, not only from his fall and his bout with cancer, but from his own playing style. During his heyday in Chicago, Beckert played so aggressively in the field that he earned one of the game’s more creative nicknames. On pop flies that traveled anywhere near his position at second base, Beckert liked to make the catch whenever possible, so much so that he sometimes knocked down other fielders who were pursuing the ball. Paul Popovich, a utility infielder with the Cubs, started calling Beckert by the name of “Bruno,” a reference to pro wrestler Bruno Sammartino, who was also known for his celebrated “takedowns.”
So hang in there, “Bruno.” It took us awhile to get to you, but we finally did, thanks to the MLB Network, an old White Sox announcer, and a singles-hitting first baseman named Mike Squires.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.