Cubs mourn death of beloved clubhouse manager Tom ‘Otis’ Hellmann

Longtime Cubs clubhouse manager Tom “Otis” Hellmann died this week at the age of 67. He spent 41 years in the Cubs organization.

Courtesy of the Cubs

Longtime Cubs clubhouse manager Tom “Otis” Hellmann saved what had started out as a disastrous first day around the major-league team for a young Ian Happ. 

It was 2015, and Happ was the Cubs’ first-round pick that year, just promoted from short-season Eugene to Single-A South Bend. The plan was for Happ to stop by Wrigley Field for batting practice on his way. But when he arrived in Chicago, his bag — which held his bat, batting gloves and shoes — was headed to South Bend. 

“Having someone like Otis who was so welcoming, and he made me feel like I belonged there, for a 20-year-old kid at the time, that was just pretty incredible,” Happ said.

Hellmann led Happ through the old clubhouse at Wrigley Field, to the bat room. He outfitted the wide-eyed and travel-worn young player with everything he needed for batting practice. And, drawing on their mutual ties to Cincinnati, he welcomed him with a, “Go Bearcats.” 

Generations of players, coaches and support staff have examples of Hellmann’s outsized presence over a 50-year career in MLB. It began in Cincinnati, where he was a Reds assistant clubhouse manager,  followed by over four decades in the Cubs organization. 

Hellmann ran the visiting clubhouse when he first got to Chicago in 1983, then was the home clubhouse manager for 23 years, before taking on an emeritus title this past season. Besides putting together a long and decorated career, Hellmann was a husband and a father. He died Wednesday night, the Cubs said in a release.  

“The world’s not a better place today because he’s gone,” former Cubs pitcher and current analyst Ryan Dempster said over the phone. “But it’s a better place because of how he acted in it and how he treated the people around him.”

“A wealth of stories and knowledge”

Happ always revered Hellmann’s experience in MLB.

“Otis is such a legend of the game,” Happ said. “ … Just a wealth of stories and knowledge. And some of my favorite memories were being able to sit down with him away from the field and get to hear some of the stories and some of his experiences.” 

Those ranged from how Johnny Bench gave Hellmann his nickname, to the days when Hellmann would scramble eggs and make breakfast sandwiches for the team before 1:20 p.m. games at Wrigley Field. 

“I don’t know how many people know this,” Dempster said. “When Hank Aaron tied Babe Ruth’s record and hit that home run [against the Reds] before he broke the record, [a teen-age] Otis was a bat boy and a ball boy down the line in Cincinnati and played catch with Hank Aaron and when he went out to the left-field line.”

Just as Hellmann could have filled a book with his experiences, the players he worked with could collaborate on volumes of anecdotes about him. Many, including former Cubs, took to social media this week to honor him. 

“Mourning alongside my Cubs family this evening after hearing about the passing of Otis,” Jon Lester posted to X, formerly known as Twitter. “Otis was as loyal and dedicated as the day is long. He had a welcoming demeanor and a big heart. He was funny, he was kind, he was my friend, and I’m going to miss him. Rest easy buddy.”

Mourning alongside my Cubs family this evening after hearing about the passing of Otis. Otis was as loyal and dedicated as the day is long. He had a welcoming demeanor and a big heart. He was funny, he was kind, he was my friend, and I’m going to miss him. Rest easy buddy.

— Jon Lester (@JLester34) February 2, 2024

Carlos Zambrano posted to Instagram: “This gentleman was the greatest to me in my 11 years with the [Cubs. Many] people don’t know that because of him we look good on the field.”

When Dempster joined the Cubs in 2004, Hellmann was a familiar face from the visiting side. Then they got close to a decade together in the home clubhouse. 

“He always wanted for you as the player to not have to worry about anything when it came to your equipment, your clubhouse, your family — whatever you need so that you could go out there and perform your best,” Dempster said.

When he needed a pick-me-up after a tough game, Hellmann was there with kind words. When emotions were boiling over and he needed space, Hellmann gave him that moment.

 “He was a big, integral part of a lot of winning teams,” Dempster said. “Everybody focuses on the players — which, they do play — coaches, but that environment that you have in that clubhouse, that’s your home every day. You spend more time in that clubhouse than you spend anywhere else. And so when you have a leader in the clubhouse, somebody who did it for as long as he did, in a way you’re managing a team, in a different perspective.” 

Dempster has already received “countless” texts and phone calls from former teammates and coaches around MLB since Hellmann’s passing, he said, a reflection of Hellmann’s reach.

“I’m grateful that I got to spend as much time with him as I did get to spend with him,” Dempster said, “whether that was at the field, whether that was at a bar after a game, whether that was going to watch football in the offseason, whether that was coming down in spring training early in the mornings and seeing him. All those things, they all add up to these incredible memories that nobody will be able to take away from me.”

Mr. Enthusiasm

The outpouring from Cubs alumni struck a chord with closer Adbert Alzolay.

“It’s crazy how consistent this guy was from Day 1,” Alzolay said. “He gave his all to this organization.”

The Sun-Times reached out to a handful of players and coaches from the most recent chapter of Hellmann’s career, those still with the team, and received swift and heartfelt responses mourning his passing and extending sympathies to his family. It was a testament to the impact he made through the length of his career.

“Otis was always working and always with a smile on his face,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy wrote back. “He treated everyone the same no matter how long you had been in the game and was someone that was extremely easy to talk to. … He was a terrific human and someone we will dearly miss.”

Hottovy, a Kansas City Chiefs fan, always enjoyed the back-and-forth with Hellmann, a Cincinnati Bengals fan, over the NFL. 

“He was a great man, but a pretty bad fantasy football manager,” second baseman Nico Hoerner said, fondly recalling Hellmann’s ill-fated partnership with Happ, who isn’t much of an NFL fan and would be the first to admit it. “Ian could never reach him.”

But everyone knew where Hellmann would be after a Cubs win. He’d post up in the tunnel, serving as the finale of the handshake line, saying “Way to go players! Way to go coaches, way to coach them up!”  

“Otis would be by far the most joyous and outspoken, and would be yelling, ‘Cubs win! Cubs win!’” Hoerner said.  

Hellmann’s enthusiasm would continue into the clubhouse. 

“He’d say, ‘Alright, boys, we’re on a winning streak. We’re on a winning streak,’” Cubs third base coach Harris said. “It could be two games, three games.”

Harris connected with Hellmann on their mutual love of fishing. He kept photos and video of an early-morning fishing trip they took in Atlanta last season, Hellmann reeling in a fish and posing with his catch.

Then there was Hellmann’s avid biking. It started in spring training, when he would arrive at the Cubs’ Mesa complex before the sun rose. He always sat on the same stationary bike, a towel around his neck, with his tablet set up in front of him for a long ride. When Jonathan Mota, a former Cubs minor-leaguer, became a coach, he made it his mission to beat Hellmann to that bike.

Mota had known Hellmann since the mid-2000s, when Mota was playing the late innings of spring training games and Hellmann was in charge of making sure he had the right jersey and hat, greeting him with, “Hello young man.” 

Now, Mota was moving up his arrival time at the complex — from 4:45 a.m. to 4:30 am — to claim Hellmann’s stationary bike. One day he actually did.

“He says, ‘Oh you got me, huh?’” Mota recalled. “‘OK, that was the last time.’ And sure enough, that was the last time.” 

In the regular season, Hellmann’s window of down time came during games. And every game, he’d be wearing the same blue tracksuit, riding the same stationary bike, for the same length of time. 

“Just a level of consistency from him that was really amazing,” Hoerner said.

Consistency through the years, and day to day.

“Even the times when I was doing well or not doing well,” Hoerner said, “I felt like he really believed in me and liked how I played. And he made that clear, which meant a lot to me because I’d known he’d seen thousands of players.”

Beyond Hellmann’s heroics when something went awry — like a bag being sent to South Bend instead of Wrigley Field — the players and coaches who knew him will miss his constant enthusiasm, commitment, and ability to make everyone feel special. 

When Alzolay first cracked into the big-leagues, primarily as a starter, he’d be up for a few outings and then be sent back down to the minors. 

Hellmann would reassure the young pitcher: “I know you’re gonna be one of the good ones. Your time is going to come.”

Last year, Alzolay solidified his role as closer. After every save, Alzolay would pump his fist, pound his chest, greet his teammates, and give Hellmann the ball to be authenticated. 

“He would always get fired up as soon as he saw me throwing the ball to him,” Alzolay said. “It was really hard when I heard the news.” 

Said Dempster: “It hurts a lot, to be honest with you. I struggle with it. I have struggled with it. And it’s not right. But that’s the journey of life we’re on, and it happens like that. We’re all really lucky that we did get to share as much time with him as we did.”

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