The Forrest Gump of the Cubs

[NOTE: The following was written by Gaylon H. White, co-author of Handsome Ransom Jackson: Accidental Big Leaguer, for Waiting4Cubs, a Chicago Now blog: http://www.chicagonow.com/waiting-4-cubs/2016/08/the-forest-gump-of-the-cubs/]

 

Imagine a 90-year-old man sitting on a park bench in Athens, Georgia.

 

“Forrest Gump’s mother was right,” he says to a woman sitting nearby. “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”

 

Joe Garagiola (11) greets Ransom after one of the 19 homers he belted in 1953. Ransom Jackson Collection

Joe Garagiola (11) greets Ransom after one of the 19 homers he belted in 1953. Ransom Jackson Collection

The man explained in a Southern drawl that he didn’t play baseball or football in high school and, yet, he won three straight Southwest Conference batting titles and is the only player in history to appear in back-to-back Cotton Bowls for different colleges – TCU and Texas.

 

“Played in the same backfield as Bobby Layne, the great NFL quarterback.”

 

The Chicago Cubs signed him in 1947. A month into his first season in the majors in 1950, he was being compared to the legendary hitter, Rogers Hornsby, when he was a rookie.

 

“Didn’t know who he was.”

 

He went into a prolonged hitting slump and wound up with the Cubs’ Class AAA International League farm club in Springfield, Massachusetts.

 

“That’s where I met “Big Nose” Sam Cufari – a Mafia boss.  He invited me to play golf at his country club. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

 

In 1951 he spent the entire season with the Cubs, batting .275, driving in 76 runs and recording 14 stolen bases – better numbers than another rookie, Willie Mays.

 

After hitting only .232 with nine homers in 1952, he batted .285 and socked 19 four-baggers in 1953.

 

“That’s when Ernie Banks became the first African-American to play for the Cubs.”

 

He was named to the National League All-Star team in 1954 and 1955, sharing the field with such baseball greats as Stan “The Man” Musial, Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle.

 

“Got a hit off Whitey Ford and scored a run in the ’55 game.”

 

The Brooklyn Dodgers acquired him after the 1955 season to replace an aging Jackie Robinson.

 

“Batted clean-up between Duke Snider and Gil Hodges.”

 

The Dodgers won the National League pennant in 1956 and before the World Series he appeared on the Ed Sullivan television show with his teammates and the New York Yankees, the American League champions.

 

Ransom was one of five Cubs to clout a four-bagger against the New York Giants in a doubleheader June 8, 1953. Left to right: Eddie Miksis, Ransom, Ralph Kiner, Clyde McCullough and Dee Fondy. Ransom Jackson Collection

Ransom was one of five Cubs to clout a four-bagger against the New York Giants in a doubleheader June 8, 1953. Left to right: Eddie Miksis, Ransom, Ralph Kiner, Clyde McCullough and Dee Fondy. Ransom Jackson Collection

“Shook hands with President Dwight D. Eisenhower at one game, chatted with Governor Adlai Stevenson at another. They were running against each other for president.”

 

In 1957 he was the last Brooklyn Dodger to hit a home run but didn’t know it until 30 years later when it was a trivia question on the television show, Good Morning America.

“My son, Chuck, called to tell me, ‘Dad, the answer was you.’”

 

He was with the Dodgers in 1958 when they moved to Los Angeles.

 

“It was more fun watching the movie stars in the stands than the game on the field.”

 

In his last at bat with the Cubs in 1959, he pinch-hit for a rookie named Billy Williams.

 

“Billy has a plaque in the Hall of Fame. I’ve got to pay to get in to see it.”

Finally, the woman asks the man, “Who are you?”

 

The above conversation didn’t happen but every word of it is true.

 

Meet Ransom Jackson, the Forrest Gump of the Chicago Cubs.

 

Ransom played third base for the Cubs from 1950 through 1955 and again in 1959. In between, he played for the Dodgers and the Cleveland Indians. In 10 big-league seasons, he batted .261 with 835 hits, including 103 homers, and 415 runs batted in. He relives his Gump-like career in a newly-published book, Handsome Ransom Jackson: Accidental Big Leaguer.

 

Jackson was widely known as “Handsome Ransom,” a nickname bestowed on him by Jack Brickhouse, the Cubs’ play-by-play announcer.

 

“It rhymes and it’s catchy,” Ransom says.

 

It caught on with Cub fans, especially women.

 

A West Chicago woman wrote Ransom that her four-year-old son, an avid Cubs fan, heard on the radio that he wasn’t married. “So my youngster said to me, ‘Mommie, why don’t you marry Handsome Ransom and, then, I’ll have a Daddy again.’”

 

After interviewing a group of women in 1955, the Chicago Sun-Times reported Ransom had “soft, brown eyes, a chiseled face and the kind of ‘little boy’ stuff that adds up to swoon stuff. He is the top glamor boy to the lipstick set and they either want to ‘mother’ him or ‘date’ him – according to their ages.”

 

On the field Ransom was second only to Banks in home runs (44 and 21) and runs batted in (117 and 70). Both were on the 1955 National League All-Star team.
“It took about a week for me to realize Ernie was going to be great,” Ransom recalls. “He was a natural hitter who with just a flick of his wrists could generate amazing power.”

 

Nineteen days before Christmas 1955, Ransom got a telephone call from a sportswriter.

 

“You’ve been traded,” he said.

 

“What team?” Ransom asked.

 

“Take a guess.”

 

“Don’t do that to me.”

 

The one team in the National League consistently worse than the Cubs at the time was the Pittsburgh Pirates. Going to Pittsburgh was the equivalent of being shipped to Siberia.

 

“Pittsburgh.”

 

“Guess again.”

 

The Cincinnati Redlegs usually wound up in the second division so expecting the worse, Ransom said, “Cincinnati.”

 

Ransom nearly fainted when he found out he was traded to the world champion Dodgers in exchange for third baseman Don Hoak and outfielder Walt “Moose” Moryn. The deal was finalized a few days later, the Dodgers sending pitcher Russ Myer to the Cubs for Don Elston, another pitcher.

 

“The Dodgers traded two men, Don Hoak and Walter Moryn whom they didn’t need for one man they can use to advantage,” wrote John P. Carmichael, a sports columnist for the Chicago Daily News. “In pure paper second-guessing, the world champions packed their already power-laden lineup with a deft, experienced third-baseman and a real, live man at the plate.”

 

Wid Matthews, the Cubs’ director of player personnel, went to the top of Ransom’s Christmas card list.

 

Ransom drapes himself over the rail at the Polo Grounds in New York City trying to catch a foul ball off the bat of Willie Mays. Ransom Jackson Collection

Ransom drapes himself over the rail at the Polo Grounds in New York City trying to catch a foul ball off the bat of Willie Mays. Ransom Jackson Collection

“The gag in baseball circles is that Brooklyn Dodger fans are not sending their Christmas letters to Santa, but to Wid Matthews of the Cubs,” one columnist quipped.

 

When Matthews defended the trade by saying the scrappy Hoak would give the Cubs “a little more life and holler,” St. Louis Cardinals general manager Frank Lane joked: “I suppose I’ll have to get rid of Stan Musial. The guy just isn’t the holler type…”

 

The needling didn’t stop there.

 

 “Cub fans must look on December 6 as a dark day,” one man lamented in a letter to a Chicago newspaper. “That’s when Wid Matthews bought the Brooklyn Bridge by trading Randy Jackson for Hollerin’ Hoak and Waitin’ Walt Moryn.”

 

To another fan protesting the trade, Matthews replied:  “Please remember that we finished last, seventh and sixth the last three years with Ransom Jackson in the lineup.”

 

  “The Dodgers not only thought I was worth three players, they were giving me the best chance I’d have to play in a World Series,” Ransom explains.

 

If Ransom was going to start at third base for the Dodgers, he had to beat out Jackie Robinson. “What Jackie did better than anybody else was beat you. And he could do it with a glove or bat as well as his throwing arm, legs and head.”

 

The news media smelled blood and treated Ransom’s competition with Jackie like it was a prize fight against another famous Robinson, Sugar Ray, the reigning world middleweight champion. It was, take your pick: Robby vs. Jackson, Ransom vs. Jackie or Jack vs. Jackson.

 

They each started half the spring exhibition games. Shortly before the season opener at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, Dodger manager Walter Alston called Ransom into his office. “Jackie has been here a long time and deserves to start,” he said.

 

Ransom agreed. “Jackie had done everything for the Dodgers; I had done nothing.”

 

Ransom’s situation with the Dodgers was similar to an actor, a star in some circles, getting a chance to be in a movie with far bigger stars like John Wayne, William Holden, Burt Lancaster, Gary Cooper and Marilyn Monroe. He imagined a conversation with the director that went like this:

 

“You’re going to be the sheriff that shows up once during the movie and you get shot at the end.”

 

“Great, man, that’s fine with me.”

 

Ransom figured people would be talking about who shot the sheriff and perhaps even the sheriff. “With the Cubs, I was one of a sprinkling of stars with a small ‘s.’ The Dodgers had a dozen Stars with a big ‘S.’  I didn’t know when my time would come but I didn’t mind sitting on the bench and watching an all-star cast until it did.”

 

When Ransom got his chance in June, he made the most of it. During one stretch, he went 19-for-49 to boost his batting average to .351. He was driving in a run per game.

 

Speedy Sam Jethroe of the Boston Braves beats the tag by Ransom in a close play at third base. Ransom Jackson Collection

Speedy Sam Jethroe of the Boston Braves beats the tag by Ransom in a close play at third base. Ransom Jackson Collection

The highlight of the month and the season was a game against the Philadelphia Phillies June 29, 1956 at Ebbets Field. “Just say that it will go down in the annals of Dodger history,” a press box attendee said to a sportswriter looking for the right words to describe what happened in the bottom of the ninth inning.

The Phillies were leading 5-2 entering the ninth. Jim Gilliam walked. Pee Wee Reese struck out.

 

Up to the plate walked Duke Snider. Boom! The ball sailed over a screen in right field.

 

The Phillies changed pitchers, replacing junkman Stu Miller with hard-throwing Jack Meyer.

 

Ransom watched the first pitch go by for a ball. On the next pitch he let it rip – boom! The ball shot into the left-centerfield seats to tie the game with Gil Hodges coming to bat.

 

Gil swung at the first pitch. Boom!

 

Only once before in nearly 100,000 major league games had any team belted three successive homers in the ninth. Never had it been done by the last three batters in a game.

 

“Three home runs in a row on four pitches,” Duke said. “Wow!”

 

“Then I’m sorry I took that curve for a ball,” Ransom said in jest.

 

 Going into the three-day break for the All-Star game, Ransom was hitting 294. With runners on second and third, his scoring position average was a lofty .359.

 

Taking a shower at home one night, Ransom suffered a bad gash on his left thumb when the porcelain faucet knob snapped off in his hand as he turned off the water. He missed the next 13 games. One sportswriter suggested Ransom stay out of bathrooms instead of barrooms.

 

Long after the thumb healed, he had trouble gripping a bat. He hit only four more homers to give him eight for the season and his batting average slipped to a season-ending .274. Jackie returned to third base and finished with a .275 average and 10 home runs.

 

“We were competitors, not rivals,” Ransom says.
“Jackson may very well be the game’s Forrest Gump, as he always seemed to be around the biggest names and starring in their monumental moments,” sportswriter Jordan D. Hill observed recently in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

 

Sixty years ago this October Jackson watched from the Dodger bench as the New York Yankees’ Don Larsen pitched a perfect game – the only one in World Series history.

 

“Twenty-seven guys up; twenty-seven guys down,” Jackson says. “It was a masterpiece, like the Mona Lisa and the Seventh Symphony. It also was a fluke.”

 

Jackson compares the masterpiece/fluke with “Bobo’s No-No,” the name given the no-hitter tossed in 1953 by a Cub reject, Lee “Bobo” Holloman, of the St. Louis Browns in his first big-league start.  Bobo won two more games in the majors and didn’t complete another game.

 

Ransom was playing third base for the Cubs when “Sad Sam” Jones became the first African-American to throw a no-hitter in the major leagues – a 4-0 gem against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field May 12, 1955. Like Sam, who always had a toothpick in his mouth, the no-hitter was different.

 

Sam walked the first three batters in the ninth inning to fill the bases for the Pirates’ best hitters – Dick Groat, Roberto Clemente and Frank Thomas. A home run not only spoiled the no-hitter, it tied the game.

 

Ransom hurried to the pitcher’s mound, followed by the rest of the infield. “We were huddled around Sam and catcher Clyde McCullough when manager Stan Hack popped out of the dugout.  We looked the other way.”

 

Stan Hack, left, managed Ransom twice in the minors and two years in the majors with the Cubs. Ransom Jackson Collection

Stan Hack, left, managed Ransom twice in the minors and two years in the majors with the Cubs. Ransom Jackson Collection

Hack managed Ransom two years in the minors plus two with the Cubs. He was looking for help. “I didn’t want any part of removing Sam from a no-hit game.”

 

“How do you feel?” Hack asked Sam.

 

“Fine.”

 

Hack turned to Clyde. “How’s his stuff?”

 

 “Okay. Leave him in the game.”

 

That’s what Hack wanted to hear.

 

“Settle down,” he said to Sam.  “Just get the ball over and make them hit it.”

 

Sam got the ball over like Hack said except nobody hit it.

 

Three fast curves mesmerized Groat who didn’t swing at any of them.

 

 Clemente, in his rookie year, fouled off two pitches before striking out.

 

Thomas, the Pirates’ biggest threat to hit a home run, was next. The first pitch was a strike, the second a ball. He missed a high curve and, then, took a called third strike.

 

“It has to be the most dramatic ending to a no-hitter,” Ransom says.

 

Cub owner Philip K. Wrigley rewarded Sam with a gold toothpick and a $1,000 bonus.

 

Only 2,918 fans were at the game although Brickhouse, the Cubs announcer, said he met 20,000 people who claimed to be there.

 

Last October Ransom was watching on television when the Cubs pounded three home runs in the fourth game of the National League Division Series to beat the St. Louis Cardinals and advance to the championship round.

 

Ransom immediately thought of Ernie Banks, his sidekick at shortstop who died just before the Cubs started their magical ride in 2015. “Ernie would be delighted because he deserved it. He’s watching.”

 

The monster shot by Kyle Schwarber that appeared to soar over Wrigley Field’s new scoreboard in right field got Ransom to thinking about a home run he belted in 1954 that sailed over the left-field bleachers and Waveland Avenue, bouncing off the third floor of an apartment building overlooking the ballpark. There was no way to accurately measure home run distances in those days so Ransom has always wondered how far the ball traveled.

 

He’s still wondering what it’s like to play on a winning team in front of sell-out crowds at Wrigley Field. There were far more empty seats than fans during Ransom’s seven years with the Cubs. They were doormats for the other seven National League teams, never winning more than they lost or finishing higher than fifth place.

 

“There was nothing like this back in my day,” he says. “I’m kind of jealous that I can’t be there to experience it.”

 

At least he has the memories. His book, Accidental Big Leaguer, is one man’s memories of a bygone era when baseball was really the national pastime and the nicknames of its stars could stand on their own – Stan the Man, the Splendid Splinter, Mr. Cub and, of course, Handsome Ransom.

 

”The fifties changed baseball forever and for the better,” Ransom writes. “Going into 1950, only four of the 16 teams were integrated. By 1960, black players were on every club’s roster.”

 

He ticks off the names of several black and Latino stars that emerged in the 1950s –Aaron, Banks, Clemente, Mays, Minnie Minoso, Orlando Cepeda, Curt Flood, Frank Robinson, Elston Howard, Willie McCovey and Billy Williams.

 

“Many of the stars from that era are gone,” Ransom says. “I was lucky to be on the same field with them and still be around to talk about it.”

 

When Ransom returned to the Cubs in 1959, one of his teammates was Bobby Thomson, best known for the homer he hit to win the National League pennant for the New York Giants in 1951. Next to Thomson, far left, is Jim Marshall, Ransom and Cal Neeman. Ransom Jackson Collection

When Ransom returned to the Cubs in 1959, one of his teammates was Bobby Thomson, best known for the homer he hit to win the National League pennant for the New York Giants in 1951. Next to Thomson, far left, is Jim Marshall, Ransom and Cal Neeman. Ransom Jackson Collection

Fans keep the memories alive by writing Ransom to ask for his autograph. He always obliges.

 

Letters received soon after his last game in 1959 typically started, “I remember seeing you play.”

 

 Later on, it was, “My father said you were a really good player.”

 

Now, the letters begin, “My grandfather used to watch you play.”

 

One writer touched all the bases: “I grew up a Cubs fan hearing stories from my Grandpa and Dad about their favorite players. My Grandpa idolized your play.”

 

Ransom’s favorite is a letter from a fan that confused him with “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, the Chicago White Sox star banned from baseball after he was accused of helping fix the 1919 World Series. Shoeless Joe died in 1951, long before Ransom received the letter. So he answered: “You’re going to have to go to a higher power than me to get an autograph.”

 

Ransom and his wife, Terry, live in Athens, Georgia – 219 miles from the park bench in Savannah, Georgia, where Forrest Gump told his story for the movie by the same name.  At 90, he’s the 64th oldest living major league player and eighth oldest Cub.

 

“Keep the cards, letters, photos and scraps of paper coming,” he urges fans in his book. “When I’m no longer around to answer, you’ll be re-directed to the same higher power handling matters for another ex-ballplayer named Jackson – Shoeless Joe.”

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