If you came of age as a Cubs fan in the late ’60s and early ’70s, like I did, you probably have a soft spot in your heart for “Gentleman” Jim Hickman, the tall, lanky slugging outfielder and first baseman who died on Saturday at the age of 79.
My favorite player of that era was Randy Hundley, mostly because he shared my first name and responded to my letter to him with a signed photo.
But in 1970, Hickman came in a close second – even ahead of future Hall-of-Famers Billy Williams and Ron Santo. Hickman batted clean-up between those two greats, and had a career year in 1970, crushing 32 home runs while driving in 115 and batting .315. He posted an impressive 1.001 OPS and earned his first All Star game appearance, during which he solidified his place as one of my favorites when his 12th inning RBI single at the Cincinnati Reds’ newly opened Riverfront Stadium drove in hometown favorite Pete Rose for the winning run. That year Hickman’s heroics won him Comeback Player of the Year and an 8th place finish in the NL Most Valuable Player balloting.
Of course, being just 9 years old, I thought that Hickman would keep putting up such prodigious numbers for years to come. It never occurred to me that he had a baseball career before being a Cub. But he did.
Hickman came to the Cubs in the spring of 1968, along with reliever Phil “The Vulture” Regan, who would become the Cubs closer, in a trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers for light-hitting outfielder Ted Savage and minor-league pitcher Jim Ellis. It was a decidedly lopsided trade in the Cubs’ favor but it was easy to see how the Dodgers were eager to dump the right-handed Hickman after he batted just .168 in 65 games in 1967. Before that, Hickman had played five years for the expansion New York Mets, from 1962 to 1966, averaging just 12 home runs a year and never batting above .257.
Hickman was the proverbial late bloomer. Maybe it was The Friendly Confines or the confidence that Cubs manager Leo “The Lip” Durocher showed in him, but he found his groove with the Cubs. In 1969, at the age of 32, Hickman had his most productive year to date, hitting 21 homers. He saved his best for the month of August when the rest of his teammates were slumping. Despite hitting .315 with 10 homers and 25 RBI that month, Hickman couldn’t carry the team on his own. The team eventually surrendered an 8 ½ game lead to Hickman’s former team, the New York Mets, who would go on to win the World Series.
Hickman continued his hot-hitting through 1970 but perhaps his age caught up with him as his numbers began to steadily decline after that remarkable season. In 1971, his home run total fell to 19 and his batting average dropped to .256, more consistent with his production when he played for the Mets. He put up similar totals in 1972 with 17 home runs and a .272 average. But after hitting only three home runs in 1973, the Cubs gave up on him and traded him to St. Louis, where he would play just one forgettable year before his career came to an end.
All but one year and one month of Hickman’s 13-year major league career were mostly undistinguished. But for a 9-year-old boy that one year and one month left quite a strong impression.
Randy Richardson is the author of the Wrigleyville murder mystery, Lost in the Ivy, and a regular contributor to Wrigleyville Nation.