Goatriders of the Apocalypse

Cubs 101

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Cubs 101 - Gloamin' Gabby

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Decades before Johnny Bench and Carlton Fisk redefined the catcher's position as one of offense, the Cubs had a player who was perhaps the first real great hitting catcher. It's only fitting for the Cubs that he was also their last.

Gabby Hartnett - nicknamed as such out of pure irony - started with the Cubs wide-eyed and fresh-faced in 1922, and he proceeded to give the team a reliable bat for better than a decade. As a 29-year-old in 1930, Gabby hit 37 homeruns, drove in 122 RBI, and was shockingly the third most productive hitter on the Cubs behind Kiki Cuyler (134 RBI) and Hack Wilson (191 RBI). But the story I always heard about Gabby as a kid that stuck with me the most was the legendary Homer in the Gloamin'. The 1938 Cubs were an unlikely pennant winner as they had an amazing September run in which they won 19 games. But the exclamation point of that month - and that season - came against the Pittsburgh Pirates off the bat of player-manager Gabby Hartnett. With a tied score in the 9th inning, as darkness settled on Wrigley, Hartnett hit a game-winning homerun into the haze probably minutes before the game would've been called due to darkness and replayed on another day starting from the first inning. The Cubs would clinch the pennant a few days later before charging into the World Series only to be swept.

Hartnett's 1938 Cubs would really be the last of the Double Bill era, five years after Wrigley and Veeck had died. After that the inept management of P.K. Wrigley began to really take full effect and the Cubs became better known for their look rather than their performance.

One easy example - and believe me, we're going to be exploring a lot of examples while we cover the barren decades of the 50's, 60's, and 70's - is the replacement of Harnett. Think about it like this: Gabby Hartnett's first season with the Cubs was 1922. Nearly 90 years later, he remains the offensive leader among all Cubs catchers ever. Amazingly enough the catcher with the second-longest service time is Jody Davis, whose first year with the Cubs was 1981 - almost 60 full years after Hartnett's. And even Davis has barely half the service-time as Hartnett, though, and played just 22 more games than Randy Hundley, who came to the Cubs in 1966.

In other words, the Cubs had a Hall of Fame catcher in Hartnett from 1922 until 1939 - and really, his last year as a regular was 1937 when he played in 110 games. The Cubs went through 16 different starting catchers between Gabby and Randy, with only two providing more than two-years service as starters (the forgettable Clyde McCullough who was the starter for 5 seasons between 1941 and 1953, and Dick Bertell who started for four years and was essentially out of baseball before he turned 30). Since Hundley, the Cubs have gone through 15 more starting catchers, and that includes a 7 year block in which Jody Davis loomed behind the plate. And by the way - Hundley started his career with the Giants and Davis was drafted by the Mets.

If you think about it, the team's inability to have a single reliable catcher come up through their system is probably almost as unlikely as their inability to reach the World Series. Maybe that's changing now that Geovany Soto is the catcher, although his sophomore start hasn't exactly been comforting.

We used to talk all the time about the Curse of Santo and how the Cubs were never able to adequately replace the legendary third baseman -- at least until Aramis Ramirez joined the team in the middle of the '03 season. But the Cubs have other droughts too - they're still trying to replace Rick Monday (if not Andy Pafko!) in center, and the Hartnett drought is, as mentioned, almost unbelievable. But the worst drought of all began in 1945 - or was it 1908 - and continues to this day. We'll talk about that one next.

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Cubs 101 - The Double Bills

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Throughout the long, painful history of the Cubs, perhaps the most important single event with the greatest impact on the organization was the slow sale of the team to William Wrigley starting in 1921. The team had previously changed ownership in 1914 when Albert Lasker bought the team and brought in lunchable legend Charles Weeghman (whose greatest contribution to the team was Weeghman Park, later known as Goat Curse Stadium).

William Wrigley - a chewing gum magnate (heh, magnate) - bought up the majority of the team's shares and had control by 1925. Consequently the Cubs would put together an incredibly strong team and remained competitive for years.

The only problem is that Wrigley's purchase of the team - initially an apparent godsend - would eventually fade into the worst ownership in baseball. But that's a story for another article. Instead let's look a little closer at a Cubs franchise that would reach the World Series 4 times in a 10 year period.

Thank Bill Veeck
Baseball must be genetic because the Veek family has been heavily influencing the game since William Veeck Sr. became the Vice President of the Cubs in 1917. Veeck's brilliant baseball mind was responsible for the formation of a Cubs team that would win pennants in 1918, 1929, and 1932 before he passed on in October, 1933. Veeck was also indirectly responsible for the planting of ivy along the brick walls at Wrigley as it was done by the product of his loins (Bill Veeck, legendary baseball owner) who'd do it in 1937.

Veeck would directly be responsible for the acquisition of legends Hack Wilson, Gabby Hartnett, Rogers Hornsby, and many, many more. For a time because of Veeck and Wrigley - known as the Double Bills - the Cubs were one of the best built organizations in baseball.

Probably my favorite stories center around Hack and Grover Cleveland Alexander (who was known as "Pete"). Alexander and Wilson are proof that drinking was always a part of Chicago Cubs baseball, as both men were raging alcoholics who would put up Hall of Fame-worthy numbers. They'd be influencing bleacher bums for decades after their final games with the Cubs.

And as somebody who obviously missed this era of Cubs baseball by about half a century, the thing I appreciate most in having the stories recounted to me is the cleverness of Veeck. Veeck was a wheelin', dealin' son of a gun who did things like acquire the previously mentioned Alexander for peanuts after he returned from the Great War a shell-shocked shadow of his former self (who'd still be able to outpitch pretty much anybody in the game) and Wilson, who Veeck cleverly stole from the Giants due to some General Managing shennanigans.

The only problem is that the Double Bills died within about a year of each other and the team was ill-prepared to exist without them. While Chicago was able to reach the Series three more times after they were gone, Wrigley was replaced by his inept son and Veeck was replaced by Wrigley's inept son's inept general manager. So. Should we be thankful for William Wrigley, who gave us Wrigley Field? Should we be thankful for Veeck, who gave us the aesthetical look of the ballpark? Or should we always wonder what it would've been like if the team had never been owned and operated by the Double Bills?

After all, a decade of brilliance hardly makes up for a century of losing, and as respected as William Wrigley is, his son P.K. should be loathed by Cub fans now and forever.

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Cubs 101 - The Only Cubs Dynasty

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Remember what it was like to be a kid and a Cubs fan?  It's basically baseball without weights, fandom with no crushing sense of reality.  I can remember being nine and having a fight with my best friend - a Yankees fan - because it was 1989 and the Cubs were a better team than New York.

I won't assume that everybody else is like me, but you can probably describe my personality as being "slightly obsessive."  Looking back on my childhood, I can see that I always had that trait because as the Cubs put on one of the best seasons of my young life I became a fanatic about their history.  And that was how I learned about the only Cubs dynasty.

After the Cap Anson era petered out, the Cubs changed names a few times (from Orphans to Colts and finally in 1903 to Cubs).  But between their period of Anson's racist-fueled greatness to the first NL Pennant won by Frank Chance, they experienced a Cubsesque 19-year drought between first place finishes.  Imagine that for a second - the Cub fans of the early 20th century probably had some idea as to what it was like to be the Cub fans of the early 21st.

Then in 1905 the team's 28-year-old first baseman, named Frank Chance, took over as the manager mid-season.  He'd lead those Cubs to a .625 winning percentage, almost 60 points better than the douche he'd replaced. 

What would follow was a five year run in which the Cubs reached the World Series four times, set a still-unsurpassed record of 116 wins in a single season, and they actually won the Series twice! 

That's right, our favorite baseball team had perhaps the first great dynasty of the sport. 

It's hard to say how much of an impact Frank Chance actually had on the team.  After all, do we not believe that a manager may only have a direct influence on a handful of games each year?  But his attitude, scrapiness, and talent cannot be contested.  Probably my favorite story about Chance centers around how, as a player, he used to dig in over the plate and was consequently regularly beaned.

This was to be expected, even though they didn't wear helmets back then, but there was one pitcher who apparently hit Chance one time too many (I think this was Jack Harper, but even if I'm wrong I do know that whoever it was was a 20-game winner at some point in his career).  And so Chance did the one thing he could do to gain revenge - he traded for the guy and never played him, essentially ending his career. 

Frank Chance.  Rugged, career-wrecking, game-winning bad-ass, and the only manager in the history of the Cubs to win a World Series title. 

It was armed with the knowledge of the 116-win Cubs, the first great dynasty, that as a nine-year-old I fearlessly explained to my dejected, idiot friend about why the Cubs were better than the Yankees.  Because while I was obsessed with the history of my favorite ball club as a kid, I was still apparently too stupid to realize that "1908" and "1989" had a whole bunch of numbers between them, while the Yankees were running around with an entirely different number back then - 22 World Series titles.

In the next article we'll take a gander at the Wrigley Influence on the Cubs, the introduction of Wrigley Field, and the roaring 20's. 

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Cubs 101 - Cap Anson and the bar bet

True story - I have a friend who, back in the 90's (when things were their roughest for us hapless Cub fans) used to take Cardinal fans for their money by making a simple bet.

He would take their money by betting them that the Cubs had won more NL pennants. Any Cardinal fan with half a brain - admittedly that's asking a lot of them - would spring at that opportunity for "easy money." After all the Cubs went nearly 40 years without so much as reaching the playoffs, and in that span the Cardinals had won four World Championships and lost three more. The only problem is the stuff that happened before the turn of the 20th century - while the Cardinals were pissing around in the American Association, the "White Stockings" were perennial contenders who'd finish first six times before they became the Colts in 1890.

A lot of this had to do with player manager Cap Anson. As a kid, my easiest point of reference was comparing him with Mark Grace. Both were first basemen. Both exhibited displays of leadership. Both racked up hits like crazy. But there were at least two major differences between the first baseman of my boyhood and the first baseman who built the first Cubs dynasty - Cap Anson didn't burn out and lose his skills before he turned 40, and Mark Grace wasn't a cross-burning racist who was hugely responsible for keeping blacks out of baseball for more than half a century.

Anson was a guy who did not keep his displeasure quiet when it came to African Americans. On more than one occasion he'd refuse to take the field if a black player was with the opposing team. Consequently the baseball owners elected not to allow African Americans into the sport by a vote of 6 to 4 and, karma being the ultimate bitch, Anson would eventually retire from baseball and lose all of his money on one poor business venture after another.

As a further sign of karma having it out for Anson - who was also renowned for having hairy finger nails* and for having grown a tail late in life** - when he retired from the sport he was recognized as having collected 3,000 hits. But intense record scrutiny has reduced that total to 2,995 throughout the years. Then again, the bastard died in 1922 so it's pretty unlikely that he cared.

Anyway, Anson is a keen example of this dichotomy we experience as Cub fans. I want to feel proud that the Cubs had such a solid organization early on, and that Anson was a legendary player and manager. But he's also tainted because of his life of prejudice. (Then again, find me one star player who was a saint ... eh, besides Roberto Clemente.)

Nevertheless, up until 2004 the Cardinals had 15 NL Pennants and the Cubs had 16. Unfortunately the Cardinals have since made two trips to the World Series, winning once, leaving the Cubs in their dust again. And in one final fitting example of how nothing is ever easy for Cubs fans, Chicago and St. Louis actually met each other in the second-ever played World Series ... and counting a Game Two forfeit, the Cubs won. Of course naturally the Cardinals claimed that Game Two didn't count, and they won Game Seven, so the teams split the bonus money.

Such is the life of a Cubs fan. Up next, the first "modern era" Cubs Dynasty.

Cubs 101

This is not going to be a series in which we list the 101 best players in Cubs history, including 20 guys who suck, 30 more who were entirely unmemorable, and 51 who are seemingly listed with neither rhyme nor reason to our picks.

No, this is going to be a little different. Consider it an education on heartbreak. A history of misery. An introductory course - a 101, if you will - on the history of the Cubs in this, their 101st season without a championship.

Mostly we're going to provide you with the personal stories of our fandom, but for starters we'll be reflecting back on all the stuff that happened before we were born. You may ask - much as we did - how can we write our personal reflections on growing up under the ownership regime of P.K. Wrigley - the worst owner in the history of the game - when many of us weren't even alive for most of it? How can we tell tales of Cap Anson and the Chicago White Stockings when we clearly weren't around to see them play?*

(*Well, in this case we have the fortune of relying on the first-hand account of Albert Pujols, who served as a batboy for the Stockings in his youth)

The answer is that whether we were there or not, we've benefited from a shared experience. We certainly won't dwell on the olden days the way we will on the past 30 or 40 years of Cubs baseball, so don't worry about that. But many of us have heard stories of the days of the 1908 Cubs, and of the drunken master Grover Alexander, of William Wrigley and his legacy, and of Jack Brickhouse and his golden voice. We've heard the stories from our friends, or our parents, or our grandparents, and those tales shaped our Cubdom the same way that our personal experiences have.

Therefore please understand this one thing: this isn't a simple history. This isn't the dry retelling of the years or the games or even the game-changing plays. This is instead a series about the events that shaped our identities as Cub fans - and if you have already forgotten that part of "101" ends with the words "years of losing," then you might guess correctly that it won't all be flowers and glory.

So sit back. Read and enjoy. If you want to share your own Cubs 101 then you are more than welcome to. This series is going to be a team effort because none of us have experienced the same things the same way. Odds are that we'll be tagging on to each other's stories, adding our own spin, and perhaps even contradicting one another at various times.

Also, I'd like to thank our sponsors for the series Coast to Coast Tickets. They're in a class to themselves and their ticket prices are shockingly affordable. If you're going to a Cubs game in 2009 and haven't gotten tickets then do us a favor and check out their availabilities.

And as Jason might be inclined to write ... go Cubs!

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