#CardCorner: 1984 Topps Leon Durham
Durham’s first-inning home run in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series – which sailed almost directly over the Cubs logo on the outfield fence – put Chicago ahead 2-0. By the bottom of the seventh, the San Diego Padres had cut the deficit to 3-2 but had only eight more outs to work with.
That’s when Leon Durham once again took center stage. And this time, a ground ball between Durham’s legs led to the tying run and a San Diego rally that sent the Cubs home for the winter.
It marked the high and low points of a career that saw Durham become one of the game’s most consistent power threats.
Born July 31, 1957, in Cincinnati, Durham was a schoolboy star at Woodward High School, playing first base and the outfield and showing uncommon strength with his 6-foot-1 frame that translated into left-handed power. Also a successful pitcher, Durham – who grew up rooting for the Reds – earned all-American honors as a senior.
Taken with the 15th overall pick in the 1976 MLB June Draft by the Cardinals, Durham was described as a “John Mayberry-type hitter” to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch by St. Louis scout Mo Mozzali.
Two weeks after being drafted, Durham signed with the Cardinals and was assigned to St. Louis’ rookie ball club in the Gulf Coast League, where he hit .224 in 44 games. He began the 1977 season with Gastonia of the Western Carolinas League, where he hit .368 in 63 games before earning a promotion to Class A St. Petersburg of the Florida State League, where he batted .287 in 63 more games.
In 1978, Durham – already tagged with the nickname “Bull” – continued his ascent through the Cardinals’ system at Double-A Arkansas, where he hit .316 with 12 homers and 70 RBI in 102 games to earn the first base spot on the Texas League All-Star team. The Cardinals invited Durham to Spring Training in 1979, but he was sent back to the minors toward the end of camp, this time landing with Triple-A Springfield.
With Springfield, Durham hit .310 with 23 home runs, 88 RBI, a .400 on-base percentage and 16 stolen bases to stamp himself as one of the game’s top prospects. He was named the American Association’s Rookie of the Year and was also selected to the league’s All-Star team as an outfielder.
Padres manager Dick Williams sent up Tim Flannery to pinch hit for pitcher Craig Lefferts, and Flannery hit a ground ball right at Durham – who was in perfect fielding position but could not prevent the ball from going through his legs. Martínez scored to tie the game, and a single by Alan Wiggins, a double by Tony Gwynn and another single by Garvey chased Sutcliffe and gave the Padres a three-run lead.
Durham’s fly out off Goose Gossage was the first out of the ninth inning that ended with San Diego winning 6-3 to advance to the World Series.
“I was anticipating a hop and it just stayed flat,” Durham told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “It didn’t come up or nothing.”
But despite the heartbreaking playoff result, Durham’s career still appeared to be on the rise. Entering his age-27 season, Durham asked for a record $1.1 million in arbitration but settled for $800,000 when the arbitrator ruled in favor of the Cubs. In a career-high 153 games in 1985, Durham hit .282 with 32 doubles, 21 homers and 75 RBI to go along with an NL-best 24 intentional walks. But the Cubs fell to 77-84 and fourth place in the NL East.
In January of 1986, Durham and the Cubs agreed to a three-year contract worth a reported $3 million. Over the next two seasons, Durham produced consistent numbers – hitting .262 with 20 homers and 65 RBI in 1986 and then following that with 27 homers, 63 RBI and a .273 batting average in 1987. But the Cubs were unable to replicate their 1984 magic in either of those seasons.
On May 19, 1988 – with Durham hitting .219 with three home runs and six RBI in 24 games – the Cubs sent their first baseman to the Reds along with an undisclosed amount of cash in exchange for pitcher Pat Perry. By the time the deal was made, Durham – who at the time ranked eighth in Cubs history with 138 home runs – had been reduced to a pinch-hitting role.
“I had some good years, and I had a great time here,” Durham, who still lived in Cincinnati during the offseason, told the Chicago Tribune. “But it’s a blessing trade for me. I’ll tell you, these last few days (of not playing regularly) have been tough.
“I’m going home now.”
The trade opened up a spot for a young Mark Grace in Chicago, and the Reds had visions of Durham providing protection in the batting order for Barry Larkin and Eric Davis. But ongoing back problems and limited Durham to just 21 games with the Reds – and Cincinnati did not bring him back when his contract expired at the end of the season.
Durham returned to his original team when hooked on with the Cardinals in 1989, and he spent the first part of the season with Triple-A Louisville before being recalled in June. But after appearing mostly as a pinch hitter and posting a .056 batting average in 29 games, Durham was suspended for 60 days in September for failure to comply with MLB’s drug policy.
Durham would play in the minors in 1990 and 1995, the Mexican League in 1991 and 1994 and the independent St. Paul Saints in 1993-93. But he would never again appear in a big league game.
After going through substance abuse rehabilitation, Durham returned to the game as a minor league hitting instructor in the late 1990s. He made it back to the majors as a hitting coach with the Tigers in 2017.
Over 10 big league seasons, Durham hit .277 with a .356 on-base percentage, 147 home runs, 530 RBI and 106 stolen bases. For a generation of Cubs fans, he was part of a team that returned hope to Wrigley Field.
“Leon’s got the drive of Pete Rose,” Cubs general manager Dallas Green told the Tennesean in Spring Training of 1983. “He’s that kind of ballplayer. You build your ballclubs around the Leon Durhams.”
Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum