The 1973 Cubs: Swan Song of a Dynasty That Never Was

Not even the iconic Ron Santo and Billy Williams could win the Cubs a World Series (pics via Ron Cogswell).

Not even the iconic Ron Santo and Billy Williams could win the Cubs a World Series (pics via Ron Cogswell).

Typically, when a team has a cluster of future Hall of Fame inductees on the roster, that team has some postseason history to go with it. Examples include the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s, or the Oakland A’s and the Reds of the 1970s, or the New York Yankees during several eras.

Then there’s the Chicago Cubs from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. They had a Hall of Fame manager (Leo Durocher) through most of that era, and four Hall players (Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Ferguson Jenkins and Ernie Banks, who retired after the 1971 season but remained with the team as a coach for two more seasons). All those players  have had their numbers retired by the Cubs.

Of course, the Cubs’ absence from the World Series since 1945 is no secret. Since then, every team in the majors, except for two expansion franchises (Montreal-Washington and Seattle) has been there at least once. The history of the Chicago Cubs is pockmarked with underachievement and disappointment, but if you had to pick an era that crystallized their frustrations, the 1967-1973 era is quite instructive.

After winning the pennant in 1945, the Cubs embarked on two decades of sub-par baseball. From 1946 to 1965, they had only two winning seasons (82-71 in 1946 and 82-80 in 1963) and one .500 season (1952).

From 1948 to 1961, the Cubs finished last or next to last 10 times. NL expansion in 1962 presented them with an opportunity to beat up on two new teams. They didn’t take advantage of the situation, finishing in ninth place at 59-103. The fledgling Houston Colt .45s actually finished ahead of them with a 64-96 record. Admittedly, the new schedule was eight games longer, but it was the Cubs’ first 100-loss season.

After that 82-80 season in 1963, it was back to the minus side of the ledger the next two seasons with eighth place finishes (76-86 and 72-90). Then in 1966, the team finished at 59-103, as it had four years before. The difference was that this time that record was good for 10th, not ninth, place. The team had bottomed out but prosperity was just around the corner.

Throughout their travails, the Cubs did have their bright spots. Billy Williams came on board in 1959 and Ron Santo a year later. Ernie Banks, of course, had been around since 1953 and had won MVP awards in 1958 and 1959 despite the Cubs’ losing ways.

Also, the Cubs came up with such stalwarts as catcher Randy Hundley, shortstop Don Kessinger, and second baseman Glenn Beckert. Kessinger to Beckert to Banks didn’t inspire any poetry, as Tinker, Evans, and Chance had done, but they were a formidable trio. (With the addition of nine-time All Star Santo, the entire Cubs infield was named to the 1969 All-Star game.) In particular, Beckett and Kessinger were keystone companions for nine seasons, from 1965 through 1973. Also,  Bill Hands and Ken Holtzman would prove to be reliable starting pitchers. All of the above were on the roster in 1966, Leo Durocher’s first year at the helm.

Another newcomer in 1966 would make a big difference, but it was not apparent that season. On April 21, 1966, the Cubs traded Larry Jackson and Bob Buhl to the Philadelphia Phillies, who still fancied themselves contenders, just two years removed from their 1964 meltdown. In trade for the two veteran starting pitchers, the Phillies gave up Adolfo Phillips, John Herrnstein, and Ferguson Jenkins.

Herrnstein saw limited duty for the Cubs before he was banished to the Braves for more limited duty. After the 1966 season, his major league career was over. I think he fits the definition of “throw-in.”

Phillips gave the Cubs a few decent years as an outfielder, but the big catch, as it turned out, was Ferguson Jenkins. After a fair-to-middling 1966 (6-8, 3.31 ERA, 182 IP), he took a quantum leap forward: six 20-game victory seasons (127 wins total) from 1967 to 1972.

Jenkins’ first 20-game season coincided with the Cubs’ first appearance in the first division since 1946. They finished 14 games behind the Cardinals, but their 84-74 record – 25 more victories than the year before – was good for third place. The future looked bright indeed.

In 1968, the Cubs repeated their record of 84-78, as well as their third-place finish, but after an 11-1 start in 1969, the first year of divisional play, they appeared to be a team of destiny. In fact, the first five months of the season were like heaven on the North Side. Ironically, the quondam doormat Cubs were overtaken by a younger doormat franchise, the Mets, in September. The Cubs finished at 92-70 – their first 90+ season since 1945,when they won 98 plus the pennant – yet they finished eight games behind the Mets, who had won 100 games, something the Cubs had not done since 1935 – and something they have not done since.

After that 1969 season, the Cubs were stuck in “wait till next year” mode, and Leo Durocher was no longer the toast of the town. Fans were split into two factions, those who asserted “Leo Must Go” and those who believed “Leo Must Stay.”   The Cubs finished second (84-78) in 1970, fourth (83-79) in 1971, and second (83-70) in 1972. The “Leo Must Go” crowd got their wish when Durocher was dismissed in July of 1972, but the veteran team was still largely intact.

Under new manager Whitey Lockman, the Cubs went 39-26 the rest of the season. So in 1973, it was time for the team to put up or shut up. Whether or not Durocher had been a problem, he could no longer be used as an excuse.

At first, it looked as though the Cubs were going to put up. They were 12-8 in April, 18-11 in May, and 17-13 in June. That 47-32 record was good for first place by the dawn of July.   Not only that, there was no serious competition. The Cubs had the only winning record in the NL East. The Cards were playing .500 ball, but they were 7.5 games behind. The last-place Mets were 11 games off the pace. To that point in the season, Jenkins had an 8-5 record. Another 20-win season was not out of the question, but it would take a good second half.

That first half of the season also featured an interesting footnote in major league history. On May 8, Whitey Lockman was ejected in the third inning of a Tuesday night game in San Diego. He left Ernie Banks in charge. The result was a 3-2 Cubs victory in 12 innings. Not wanting to jeopardize his perfect managerial record, Ernie did not suggest playing two that day.

So Banks went into the books as the first black man to manage a major league team. True, Frank Robinson was the first to be specifically hired for that purpose two seasons later, but Ernie’s modest achievement deserves mention. If nothing else, it is amusing to note that the first black man to manage a game in the majors took over for a guy called Whitey.

There were no such feel-good stories in the second half of the season. The Cubs went 8-19 in July, 9-18 in August (highlighted – or lowlighted – by an 11-game losing streak). The lowest point of that stretch was the ninth game in the streak, an Aug. 14 contest against the Braves at Wrigley.

The free-fall Cubs needed a stopper, and Jenkins usually filled the bill. Along with the rest of the team, however, his record had deteriorated badly over the previous six weeks. He had gone 2-6 over that time for a composite 10-11 log. The Cubs had dropped to fourth place with a 56-61 record and Jenkins’ shot at a 20-win season was all but over.

The Cardinals weren’t burning up the league, but they were three games above .500 (61-58), and that was good enough to set them atop the NL East. The Mets were still in last place, but now they were only 7.5 games behind with six more weeks to go in the season.

But on Tuesday Aug. 14, 1973, Jenkins just didn’t have it. When he was pulled with one out in  the fifth inning, he had given up seven hits, five walks, and five  earned runs. Accustomed to pitching complete games, Jenkins had found out Lockman had a relatively quick hook. There was not much he could say about his early exit on this day, but Jenkins found a non-verbal way to express himself. In front of 25,553, Jenkins put on a show. One by one, he hurled four bats out of the dugout towards home plate. The normally mild-mannered Jenkins was just venting his frustration. His teammates could identify with his situation.

Jenkins somehow avoided a suspension, but Lockman did not start him for a week. The results on Aug. 21 were no masterpiece, a 6-4 victory over the Reds, but a definite improvement. He was 11-12 at that point, but was of negligible help the rest of the year, finishing at 14-16 with a 3.89 ERA, the highest of his career to that point.

After melting down in July and August, the Cubs went13-15 the rest of the way, finishing at 77-85, their worst showing since 1966. And yet….

Parity, thy name is the 1973 NL East. A sub-.500 division champion was not out of the question, so as dismal as the Cubs had been, they were still in contention the last weekend of the season. In fact, it was mathematically possible for a five-way tie at weekend’s end. What could have been a postseason scheduling nightmare was averted when the Mets, who had been in last place on Aug. 30, took over first place on Sept. 21… with a .500 record. They remained there till the end, finishing with a record of 82-79. I wouldn’t use the term “surge,” but they won more games than they lost.

The other teams in the NL East must have looked at the Mets and wondered, “What have they got that we haven’t got?” But it was an especially bitter pill for the Cubs to swallow, given their first half of the season. If they had played as well as they did in any of the six previous seasons, the division would have been theirs. In fact, if they had played .500 ball, or at least close to it, the second half of 1973, the division would have been theirs. But they weren’t even up to that. The would-be dynasty went out not with a bang, but a whimper.

Another sore point was the fact that once again it was the lowly Mets breezing past the Cubs, as they had in 1969. That the Mets were able to beat the powerful Reds in the NLCS and extend the World Series to seven games against the defending champion A’s only rubbed salt in the wounds.

In fact, the loveable-loser syndrome, which the Mets had all but invented, had now become the province of the Cubs. Before the Mets arrived on the scene, the Cubs were losers but not particularly loveable. After the 1973 season, the next decade would be largely forgettable on the field, but Wrigley was still a great place to spend a day off (Ferris Bueller would readily concur), catch some rays, chug a few Old Styles, kick back, and enjoy another Cubby summer.

That 1973 season was the last hurrah for most of the Cubs’ core players. At the end of the season, Beckert, Hundley and Santo were peddled away (to the Padres, the Twins, and the White Sox, respectively). Beckert played two more years for the Padres, while Hundley went from the Twins to the Padres, and returned to the Cubs for limited duty in 1976 and 1977. Santo played one forgettable season before retiring. Actually, the Santo trade was not a bad one for the Cubs, as it brought Steve Stone into the fold.

Santo did return to the Cubs as a broadcaster – and was partnered with Steve Stone. After Santo’s death in 2010, his ashes were scattered at Wrigley Field.

Jenkins was sent to the Rangers (exiled was more like it, given the Rangers’ record their first two seasons in Arlington), but he had the last laugh, leading the AL with a 25-12 record and winning the Comeback Player of the Year Award (Catfish Hunter won the AL Cy Young Award with an identical won-loss record) while the lowly Rangers actually contended under manager Billy Martin.

Jenkins never came close to duplicating that season, but he had enough left in the tank to win 110 games from 1975 through 1983. He never did pitch in the postseason, however. By the way, the Cubs didn’t get rooked in the Jenkins deal, as it netted them Bill Madlock, who won a couple of batting titles in the ensuing years.

Don Kessinger was traded after the 1975 season and played the next four seasons for the Cardinals and the White Sox before retiring at age 37. He never did make it to the postseason.

Famously, Ernie Banks holds the record for most games (2,528) without a postseason appearance. One suspects that the stigma was contagious.

One player, however, developed some immunity to the contagion. Billy Williams was traded to the A’s at the end of the 1974 season. The A’s had just won three World Series in a row (and former Cub pitcher Ken Holtzman had won 59 games in three seasons), so he probably had mixed emotions about this change of scenery toward the end of his career. The A’s would lose the ALCS to the Red Sox in 1975, but at least it gave Williams a chance for a few at-bats in the postseason.

While the Cubs were on the wane, the White Sox were on the rise, and the attendance figures reflected that. No one would ever call Comiskey Park the “friendly confines,” or anything close to that, but the White Sox meant business on the field and fans were paying attention. After drawing just 495,355 (less than half the AL average) in 1970, the Sox started improving and attendance rose accordingly. After the Cubs’ 1973 meltdown, the Sox actually bested them in attendance (1,149,596 to 1,015,378) the next season.

Before the Cubs’ late-60s surge, the White Sox had outdrawn them by wide margins. In 1960, for example, one year after the Sox won the AL pennant, they had more than double the Cubs’ attendance (1,644,460 to 809,770). Even as late as 1967, they were still in the lead (985,634 to 977,266).

While attendance was down at Wrigley, it didn’t really plunge. The Cubs had reached a point where they did not have to win to draw fans. Thanks to the spate of multi-purpose stadiums that had sprung up around the league, Wrigley Field was looking more attractive than ever. The Wrigleyville environment of saloons, restaurants and street vendors made every trip to the ballpark like a trip to the state fair. Even when the Cubs lost, a festive atmosphere prevailed. That was certainly not the case with the White Sox and their dismal surroundings on 35th Street. The Sox had to win to draw fans.

Actually, comparisons between the Cubs and the other Sox (namely Red) were also appropriate. For the most part, the Cubs and the Red Sox were on parallel tracks until 2004, when the Red Sox finally started winning titles. Before then, the Cubs and Red Sox were storied teams that played in boutique ballparks. To be sure, there have been worse teams in baseball history (the Browns and the Phillies were dynastically bad), but very little was expected of them. The Cubs and the Red Sox had some good seasons, but even when they had the pinata right in front of them, they just couldn’t break it open, no matter how many whacks they took at it.

There are losers and there are losers. There is a special place in the hearts of sports fans for teams that can’t seal the deal. Until they won their only title in 1955, the Brooklyn Dodgers filled that niche. The Red Sox, despite their disappointing 2014 season, have not been classified as such in the last decade. The Cubs maintain their status.

Since 1973, the Cubs have played seven postseason series. They have won but one (the NL Division Series against Atlanta in 2003). I saw the first two games of that series in Atlanta, and the influx of Cubs’ fans was astounding, Immediately after the Cubs clinched, planes from O’Hare to Hartsfield were full. If you had to make a trip to Atlanta on short notice, better call Greyhound.

That lone postseason series win for the Cubs qualified them for the NLCS against the wild card Miami Marlins, who had dispatched the Giants. As the Cubs were on the cusp of winning the NL Championship Series, the baseball world was introduced to a fellow by the name of Steve Bartman, and another chapter in the Cubs’ woeful history was written.

But it all goes toward the making of a loveable loser legend. When they lose, they lose; and when they win, they always end up losing their last game of the postseason.

With no titles to show for their efforts since moving into Wrigley, the Cubs inspired the slogan “Any team can have a bad century.” During spring training this year, I saw a tshirt with the familiar logo of Coke, but with the letter “h” interposed between the “C” and the “o.” Underneath it was the phrase, “The Official Soft Drink of the Chicago Cubs.”

So while Wrigley Field celebrates its 100th anniversary season, it is difficult to disguise the fact that the Cubs have never won a title there. Not so for the ballpark’s original tenants, the Chicago Whales, who were champions of the Federal League in 1915, the second and final season for that circuit.

After that, Weeghman Field (Wrigley’s original name) became the home of the Cubs. So while one should not discount the Curse of the Billy Goat, invoked in 1945, perhaps one should also consider the Curse of the Whales. Apparently, there was no “Save the Whales” movement in 1915, so perhaps the team put a curse on the ballpark before they vacated the premises. On April 23 of this year, the Cubs played one of those turn-back-the-clock games while wearing Federal League uniforms. So far, it hasn’t released the curse.

Since the Cubs didn’t start playing in Wrigley (known as Cubs Field after the Federal League folded) until 1916, there is still time to win a title before the team’s centennial year at the facility elapses. Who knows? Perhaps as I write these words, another clutch of late 60s-early 70s type stars is taking shape. The Cubs were not able to bring a title to Wrigley Field during its first 100 years, but they still have a chance do so during the franchises’s first 100 years there. That appears to be out of the question in 2014, but 2015 – the team’s 100th season at Wrigley – is still up for grabs. Admittedly, it is the longest of long shots.

And if the Cubs can’t do it next season… well, get ready for another Cubby century.

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Comments

  1. Marc Rettus said...

    About the Billy Goat “curse.” The Cubs had not won a World Series in 37 years at that point. Obviously, there is something else going on here.

  2. Mr Punch said...

    The Red Sox/Cubs comparison is, I think, poor – and not just because nobody ever regarded the Sox as lovable. From 1967 on the Red Sox were pretty consistently better than .500, and often contenders. Losing in the postseason is, after all, a different kind of losing. And a lot of it was bad luck. In four consecutive World Series appearances, 1967-1975-1986-2004, the Sox faced the best NL team by record in each decade – and went 13-12.

    Where there is real similarity, I think, is in not really trying hard enough; but that’s a function of the markets, not the ballparks. Both Chicago teams, Boston (in fact both Boston teams), and San Francisco were in big markets but didn’t win for a long time before ’04; the Phillies won once.

  3. Ray Miller said...

    Lifelong Cubs fan here. Very nice article! I will say, however, that I think 2003 finally drove all that “lovable loser” crap out of us–now we Cubs fans are just twisted and bitter, like White Sox fans, only without that 2005 championship to revel in. Also, I moved to New England over 40 years ago, and have rooted for the other Sawx off and on ever since. I can’t agree with Mr. Punch above: I’ve always seen the similarities (pre-2004) between the two teams that Frank J points out. True, losing in ghastly fashion in the post-season is different/better than flaming out spectacularly right before the post-season, but both created similar pathologies in the respective fan bases. One big difference is that Red Sox fans have always been much more self-conscious about their “suffering” than Cubs fans have been–just a little too grandiloquent, maybe a wee bit too smug. Actually, here is where I agree with Mr. Punch–I mean, do Red Sox fans really think that Jim Burton in 1975 comes anywhere close to the Collapse of ’69, or that Bill Buckner in 1986 trumps Leon Durham and Ryne Sandberg in Game 5 in the NLCS?!? I TELL them and TELL them–you have NO @#$^% IDEA WHAT SUFFERING IS!!! . . . Okay, I better stop here. I’m getting kind of wound up and upset . . . The valium will help, like it always does . . .

  4. alex said...

    Nice article. I am Cubs fan, also. I started becoming a fan in 1976, first game —Mike Schmidt’s 4 home run game. Been a fan ever since. I don’t think any fan will know the pain of Game 5 in the NLCS in ’84, or the 2003 NCLS game 6 and 7 vs. Marlins. Cubs are unique and due time, maybe in the next 5 years we can celebrate a World Series or two.

  5. John S. said...

    Great article! I think the current regime is going about the most recent rebuild the right way and one of these years tha Cubs will follow the Red Sox and win a title.

    Please, though, it’s Tinker to EVERS to Chance, not Evans!

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