Bill Campbell, a relief pitcher who passed away last week at the age of 74, will always occupy a special place in my treasure chest of baseball memories.
To understand why, we’ll need to time-travel back to May 1983. The scene is Chicago’s iconic Wrigley Field, but it’s a version of the ballpark much different than the comfy and commercial Friendly Confines of the Ricketts era in 2023. Wrigley Field had no suites, few amenities, and no video boards. The ballpark was still five years away from having lights, which meant that every home game was an afternoon event televised nationwide on the WGN network.
The optimists would say that this was about as close as you could get to a Field of Dreams (a phrase that would not enter the popular vocabulary until 1989). The cynics would consider that version of Wrigley to be more of a Field of Nightmares, a sentiment that triggered Lee Elia, the Cubs manager at the time, to launch one of the all-time great tirades in Major League Baseball history. In his office after a game two weeks earlier, Elia exploded 33 f-bombs while ripping Cubs “fans” for their chronic lack of support.
But let’s get back to the moment with Bill Campbell, who was in his second year with the Cubs after nine seasons with the Twins and Red Sox.
Back in 1983 I would occasionally get on-field press passes to cover Cubs games. I was the sports editor of the student newspaper at the University of Chicago, and as long as my colleagues and I published a feature on a regular basis, the Cubs would offer us full press credentials.
After one game, I was walking across the field to the Cubs’ clubhouse, which was tucked into a cramped room in the left field corner under the grandstand.
Campbell came up next to me and said “hey, stop.”
After I did, he slowly waved his arm from left to right across the outfield. A little bit of ivy showed on the weathered bricks of the outfield wall. The large hand-operated scoreboard towered over centerfield, and the modest neighborhood buildings filled in the background beyond the bleachers.
“This is really something special, isn’t it?” he said.
He was right. For a brief moment, I literally lost track of time. It could have been 1943 or 1953 for all I knew.
We walked the rest of the way into the clubhouse, where he popped open a beer, then folded the pull tab onto a chain of pull tabs that hung on his stall. He raised the beer to me in a silent toast, then began talking to a few reporters gathered near his locker.
That moment took place during a series against the Philadelphia Phillies, the team that would reach the World Series that season but lose to the Baltimore Orioles and their MVP shortstop Cal Ripken. Campbell earned his first save of the 1983 season during that series. That’s the scorecard below. In the ninth inning, he struck out Mike Schmidt swinging, surrendered a single to left by Tony Perez, and then retired Bo Diaz and Garry Maddox to seal a 6-3 win for the Cubs. The winning margin was a three-run homerun by former Phillie shortstop Larry Bowa in the 7th inning, one of only two homers that Bowa hit in 147 games that season.
In 1983 Campbell would lead the National League in appearances with 82. He would finish his career with the Expos in 1987 after pitching in exactly 700 Major League games.
Campbell began his career with the Minnesota Twins in 1973 after serving in the Vietnam War. His was one of the first Topps baseball cards I recall owning when I began that collecting cards in 1975. In 1977 he became a free agent and joined the Boston Red Sox, where he pitched for five seasons.
RIP Mr. Campbell, and thank you for all your service.
Frank Luby is co-founder and CEO of BluesBackroadsBaseball LLC and the author of the book “Blues Flashbacks”