New book ‘Ironman’ shows how Randy Hundley’s career goes far beyond catching for the Cubs and suffering 1969

His statistics do not jump out: 3,442 at bats in 1,061 games, 813 hits, 82 home runs, .236 batting average, 381 runs batted in. But baseball is more than cold numbers and Randy Hundley was more than a catcher for the Chicago Cubs.

It is not at all odd — especially in light of the ineptitude of our professional sports teams these days — to be drawn to baseball in these winter months. Baseball is the summer game and memories bring warmth and they bring enjoyment because the game is like an ongoing novel, filled with players (heroic and the flawed) and millions of characters who populate the city’s baseball history. We get sights and sounds, feel disappointments and joys, remember goats and black cats, bats juiced with cork, that lively chorus known as sports writers, fans, owners, coaches, managers, umps, broadcasters, vendors, Andy Frains and memorable quotes.

My favorite? “I’ve never played drunk. Hungover, yes. But never drunk!” from Cubs’ center fielder Hack Wilson a century ago.

And now I have “Ironman: Legendary Chicago Cubs Catcher,” in which Hundley writes, “I’ve always wanted to share the memories. … When I turned 80 years old in 2022, I figured it was getting to the ‘now or never’ point to tell my story.”

And so he does, across nearly 200 lively pages that take us to his upbringing in Martinsville, Virginia, and how his father taught him the method of catching a pitched baseball with one gloved hand, which would quietly revolutionize the catcher’s position. We fly through his minor league years and major leagues with the San Francisco Giants and his trade to the Cubs in 1966, his first full season. And, of course, those Cubs years sparkle.

I will admit that my favorite Cub of that youthful time was Billy Williams (and for the White Sox, Luis Aparicio) but this book gives me a new appreciation of Hundley, whose full name is Cecil Randolph Hundley Jr.

As his battery mate, friend and Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins writes in the complimentary introduction to Hundley’s fine book, “When you think of the thousands of players who have played in the major leagues, most of their names are forgotten, but there is one name — Randy Hundley — that will forever be remembered as the man who caught more games in a single season than any other catcher in the history of the game.”

Yes, he holds that record, more a testament to durability and work ethic perhaps than to talent but admirable nonetheless. In 1968 he was hunched behind the plate at Wrigley Field and elsewhere for 160 games in a 162 game season.

But more resonant, more memorable is what took place the next season, that famous, heartbreaking swoon of 1969. “Time has erased much of that glorious, yet bittersweet season when we set the world on fire,” he writes. Good for him but the pain of that season still lingers for me.

Hundley, then and still living in the suburbs, was eventually traded away before ending his career with the Cubs with a few games in 1976 and 1977.

He coached for a bit in the minor leagues and then inspiration struck. With the counsel of restaurateur and baseball fan Richard Melman, he created the first baseball fantasy camp, a weeklong experience during which middle-aged fans mingled and played with former pro players who returned to uniform to help coach. He employed such former teammates as Jenkins, Ron Santo, Williams and others to mingle and coach the potbellied amateurs.

With the slogan, “The place where lifelong dreams come true,” many people reacted enthusiastically to Hundley’s baseball fantasy camp idea. Among them was Tribune columnist and devoted Cubs fan Mike Royko, who wrote, that it was “one of the nuttiest ideas I’ve ever heard. It’s so nutty, I’m tempted to take part.”

Mike never did, sticking to 16-inch softball, but thousands of others signed up, helping spawn similar endeavors across the country. You’ll hear from some of the participants in the book. Two-time camper, comic Mark DeCarlo writes, “I just tried to fit in, but it’s an overwhelming experience for a Chicago boy … (One memory) is hitting two grand slams off a pitching machine, which is not as easy as it looks (at least that’s what I tell people).”

WGN radio’s Bob Sirott was a 1983 camper and called it “a legendary experience. Besides the aches and pains, foul tips and strains, I found myself in the presence of baseball royalty.”

This book was written in collaboration with John St. Augustine, an inexhaustibly creative guy as writer, radio host, producer and on and on. It was obviously a labor of affection and respect, since he tells of first meeting Hundley when he was a wide-eyed 8-year-old seeking autographs and getting a ride in Hundley’s Corvette. A couple of decades later, he traveled to and wrote about the fantasy camp for a bygone sports magazine. He hit a grand slam there but more importantly formed the foundation of what has become a deep friendship.

“We worked on the book over five and a half months,” he told me over the weekend. “We would meet for breakfast and then return to Randy’s house, all the time recording our conversations. There was nothing off limits and it was very emotional for him at times, especially when talking about his wife.”

The book is dedicated to Hundley’s late wife, Betty, and he is obviously proud of their children, including his son, former big league catcher/outfielder Todd Hundley. There are, inevitably, shadows here, as when he writes, “Nineteen players from the 1969 team have passed away … (but) my memories are solid gold. In my mind, we are locked in as we were back then — invincible young men, playing the game we loved.”

The book is only available through Winter has arrived but opening day for the Cubs at Wrigley comes on April 1, 2024. Hundley is 81 now and hopes to be there.


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