RIP, Heinie Massman (1927-2007)
Longtime Employee Present at Defining Moments in Cubs History
I am saddened to report that one of the most historically obscure, yet significant members of the Chicago Cubs family has passed away. Although very few are familiar with the name, Heinie Massman held a unique place in Cubs history, with an up-close view of some of the defining moments in Cubs lore. I had the distinct privilege of interviewing Heinie last summer, at his home in Bluffs, Illinois (population 748). Due to his position inside the Cubs organization and the sometimes remarkable nature of his claims to Cubs fame, he asked that I not release the content of his interview until after his death. That interview, along with the press clippings he saved from the now defunct Bluffs Sentinel and Belgium Standard newspapers, are testimony to a life intertwined in almost unbelievable ways with Cubs history.
The Massman family emigrated from Weimar Germany when Heinie was just four years old, in 1931. Arriving in America, Heinie’s father, Helmut Massman the IVth, found a country hostile to immigrants and holding lingering suspicions about Germans in particular. To help Heinie assimilate, Helmut learned about the game of baseball, and began teaching it to the young Heinie.
Heinie and the Babe The first of Heinie’s lifetime of serendipitous interconnections with Cubs destiny arrived on October 1st, 1932. As Heinie told it to me, his father had earned World Series tickets through work, and they attended game 3 of the series, against the Yankees. You may recollect that this is the game of Babe Ruth’s supposed “called shot,” the home run off of Charlie Root where the Babe allegedly pointed to the center field fence, predicting his own home run. The event is shrouded in uncertainty even today, with no definitive video or audio account, and conflicting eye witness testimony. However, several reports from fans sitting in the center field bleachers mentioned a young boy who spent much of the game playing with his father’s shiny pocketwatch. According to some, Ruth’s pointing to centerfield was not a prediction, but a complaint; a request to the umpire to do something about the child who was blinding him with light reflected off of the watch. According to Heinie, he was the kid with the pocketwatch. Ruth was pointing at Heinie. Heinie’s testimony is supported by the Bluffs Sentinel clipping that Heinie has kept with him for over 70 years now. According to the article, a local reporter interviewed Helmut the following day. “Yes, it seems clear that the Babe was pointing at my Heinie.” (BS, 10-2-32) It would not be Heinie’s only brush with history. As a young adult, Heinie’s love for the Cubs led him to Wrigley again, this time as an usher. In 1940, as Germany invaded Belgium, so did the Massmans. Helmut moved the family to Belgium, Illinois (pop. 466) in order to escape the growing anti-German sentiment in Bluffs. Heinie dropped out of school as a result of the move, and wound up staying with relatives in Chicago. There he began a lifetime of employment with the Cubs, starting out as an usher.
Heinie and the Billy Goat It was in that capacity that Heinie’s modest, normal life again intersected with Cubs baseball lore in October 1945. On the sixth, working as an usher in game four of the World Series, Heinie was called over by a group of fans at the edge of his area. As Heinie told it to me, the fans were upper-class gentry sorts, and complained about the foul smell wafting their way from a location further down the row. Upon investigating, Heinie recognized the smell as belonging to William Sianis and his billy goat. All Cubs fans know by heart the story of how Sianis and his goat had two tickets to see the game, entered, but then were removed for the game’s completion, and the subsequent curse. But who had to report Sianis to the head usher, who then reported it back to P. K. Wrigley? Heinie Massman. Heinie, reminiscing about the incident, described Wrigley as a bottom-line owner, imperious, temperamental, interested in people over profits. “If he saw a house on fire and was near a pay phone, he’d ask for your quarter before calling 911,” said Massman. Heinie, who was with the head usher when Wrigley got the report, said Wrigley was livid that the well-heeled customers had been subjected to such an indignation. “Haul it out! Out! Him and that damn goat, now! It's time to haul, Heinie!” are the words Heinie recalls Wrigley shouting at him.
Heinie goes to College Occasional tantrums of the boss notwithstanding, Heinie described a happy life as a young man, working in a beautiful ballpark for his adopted favorite team in his adopted favorite sport in his adopted country. What he lacked, however, was an education; the absence embarrassed him, especially when in the presence of the higher-ups at Wrigley. Even in his advanced age, Heinie showed the youthful enthusiasm, curiosity and quick wit of a scholar. Having missed the opportunity to complete high school as a youth, Heinie worked to receive his equivalency degree in 1955, and contemplated enrolling in a Chicago-area community college. While chatting with the other ushers in an off-season meeting in December 1960, Wrigley walked in, and overheard Heinie discussing his plans to go to college. Wrigley had been pondering drastic changes to the system of coaching and instruction throughout the organization, trying to find a way to cycle the best coaches throughout all the minor teams as well as the major league club, in order to at once bring some standardization to instruction while also breathing new enthusiasm into the sputtering major league team. As Massman described it to me, “Wrigley barged in as I was talking about going to college. He dropped his notepad that he was always carrying around, muttered something to himself, then walked back out, without every saying anything to us! Walking away, we all heard him say “college, college” a couple of times, to no one in particular!” Of course, next year, the Cubs instituted the notorious “College of Coaches” experiment. Was Heinie the unwitting inspiration here, as well? It’s a tantalizing, but inconclusive, bit of conjecture.
Heinie and Hubbs The College of Coaches was a strategic disaster, but Heinie also experienced more than his fair share of personal disasters in a lifetime of involvement with the Cubs. As he established greater seniority as an usher, Heinie, much like Yosh Kawano, came to know and befriend many of the Cubs players. Heinie became especially close to the young Cubs second baseman, Ken Hubbs. When we talked, Heinie struggled to keep his eyes dry while talking about Hubbs, who viewed Massman as an adopted father, almost. Hubbs’ tragic plan crash on February 13, 1964, hit Heinie especially hard. Heinie explained that he had grown interested in psychology, in the earliest days of what eventually would be known as the “self-help” movement. Hubbs, he claims, had several conversations with him about taking control of one’s fears; Hubbs greatest fear, of course, was flying. Hubbs had spent two weeks as a pilot, before the crash. Massman still keeps the press clipping from the Belgium Standard (like the Bluffs Sentinel, this newspaper too is now defunct) from September 31, 1964. The short clipping, “Loss of Cubs Star Second Basemen Still Felt by Friend Massman” includes a reference to Massman’s sense of guilt. “It should have been me,” Heinie moans. “I had encouraged Kenny to conquer his fear of flying, when I myself was just as scared. He wanted me to learn to fly, with him, to let go of all my fears. Just a few days before the crash, he had phoned me and said “Let it loose, Heinie!” (BS, 9-31-64)
Heinie and the Black Cat By 1969, Heinie Massman possessed enough Cubs memories to last a couple of lifetimes. He had worked as an usher for almost thirty years, and at the relatively young age of 42, his body began to give out on him. In order to ease the strain from decades of ushering, where Heinie was exposed to the hot Chicago sun, he began to take on some equipment management responsibilities, under Yosh’s supervision. One of Heinie’s new responsibilities was to watch over the luggage and other belongings of Cubs’ family members when they accompanied the team on road trips. Heinie told me that in 1969, one player – who Heinie refused to name – had a wife who insisted on bringing her prized cat along on road trips. Not content to leave the cat unattended in the visitors’ clubhouse, it became Massman’s personal responsibility to sit with the cat during games. According to Massman, he was in the stands at Shea Stadium attending to the Very Important Feline on September 9th, when it began to suffer a severe case of gas. “Like it was belching rotten eggs,” Heinie told me. Eventually, the stench coming from the flatulent puss caused Heinie to gag, and thereby lose his grip. The cat, as black as the midnight sky, raced down onto the field, in front of the Cubs dugout. You know the rest of the story, from there. To the end of his life, Heinie felt responsible for the Cubs’ infamous collapse in the 1969 pennant race. News of Heinie’s involvement in the black cat fiasco stayed a well kept secret for several years, until a decade later, when both the Bluffs Sentinel and Belgium Standard ran short articles about Heinie’s involvement with the 1969 club. Each used the same quotation from Yosh Kawano to explain why the background to the black cat had been concealed: “I loved Heinie like he was my brother, and I knew that he’d be in danger of dismissal if news got out. I knew the stakes were high, that it was my Heinie on the line.” (BS and BS, 9/6/79)
Heinie’s Flirtation with Perfection Heinie remained employed with the club, but mishaps continued to follow him, and thereby, the Cubs, wherever he went. Furthering his duties as an assistant equipment manager, Massman’s work soon included supply the umpires with new baseballs between innings. Massman related to me one particularly memorable event he encountered by working in this capacity. At a home game on September 2nd, 1972, Heinie ran out to supply home plate umpire Bruce Froeming with some fresh balls to start the ninth inning. It was only his first week working this job, and Heinie remembers being especially anxious this afternoon, as Milt Pappas was working on a perfect game. In his haste to get the baseballs to Froeming so the ninth inning could commence, Massman claims that he stumbled over his own two feet as he neared Froeming. “Never was much of a dancer,” he jokingly explained to me. The stumble, he said, caused him to kick up a lot of chalk and dirt from the batters’ box, getting some in Froeming’s right eye. Two quick outs later, with Pappas one strike away from a perfect game, a blinking, squinting Froeming called “Ball” on two consecutive, borderline pitches to Larry Stahl, ruining the bid at perfection. According to Massman, neither Pappas nor Froeming ever forgave him.
Heinie in Recent Cubs History The fowl-ups would only get more tragic with time. After I interviewed Heinie, he contacted some of the former Cubs with whom he still kept up contact, and gave them permission to discuss some of his other past misadventures with me, after his death. Lee Smith emailed me to reveal that it was Heinie who spilled the Gatorade on Leon Durham’s glove on October 7th, 1984 – game 5 of the NL Playoffs. In his email, Smith explained that Durham would never point the blame for his costly error at Heinie, because, according to Smith, “The Bull really loved Heinie.” Similarly, Lance Johnson wrote me to reminisce about the time that Brant Brown jogged out to left field, unaware that Heinie had handed Brant the wrong glove – a not yet broken in infielder’s glove. The game was September 23rd, 1998 in Milwaukee. Some say that on still Milwaukee nights, you can still hear the faint echoes of Ron Santo’s scream. Finally, Heinie was central to two of the most infamous events in recent Cubs history. Massman confirmed to me the veracity of the wide-spread rumors regarding the Sosa corked bat game of June 3rd, 2003: Indeed, Massman confirmed to me that it was he who accidentally added the corked bat to the cubbyhole containing Sosa’s game-bats. That Sosa would take such a hit to his public persona, without fingering Heinie in the incident, might force us to reconsider our view of Slammin’ Sammy. Said one source knowledgeable of the situation, “think what you will about Sosa, but he’s always stood up for Heinie.” Although no one would come out and say it, the unspoken behind-the-scenes consensus was that Heinie’s faculties were beginning to erode, and that had caused the slip-up with the corked bat. And indeed, Heinie abruptly retired that August, citing fatigue, and moved back to the village of Bluffs. Instead of assisting Yosh, he watched the chase for the wild card from the seats that the Tribune had awarded his family as season tickets, in perpetuity. In worsening health, Heinie reluctantly agreed to doctors' requests that he not attend the October 14th, 2003 Game 6 of the NLCS playoffs at Wrigley. With few relatives and friends to turn to, Heinie offered his ticket – in the first row, down the left field foul line – to his grand-nephew, Steve. Heinie is survived by his wife, Fannie. Fannie, who was present at the interview, took me aside at the end of the interview. She was charming, with a kind, pretty smile, and earnestly expressed her gratitude to me for getting Heinie to share these remarkable stories. He had always been a very private man, she explained, reluctant to share his fateful connections to Cubs history, even when prodded by reporters or friends. “Thank you,” she said, “for pulling all of these stories right out of my Heinie.”