As they entered September of 1969, the Chicago Cubs could be excused for thinking that their long years of struggle were finally over. It certainly appeared that the interesting mix-of-youth-and-veterans team that Leo Durocher had whipped into shape over the preceding three years was on the verge of bringing the Cubs their first championship of any kind since 1945.
One terrible month later, they faced the bitter truth that 1969 was just another leaden link in the chain of frustration that burdened their every step. They had come so achingly far, but still, again, not far enough. This agonizing reality must have been the singular mode of thought for the Cubs as they faced 1970. Every team wants to win the pennant every year, of course, but likely few teams have ever had the burning ambition to finally win it this year that the Cubs must have felt going into 1970.
The Callison Trade
Their major off-season transaction can clearly be seen in that perspective: in November of 1969, the Cubs traded 25-year-old pitcher Dick Selma and 19-year-old outfielder Oscar Gamble to the Philadelphia Phillies for 30-year-old fading star right fielder Johnny Callison. Youth for experience, future value for current value, is a logical exchange for contending teams to make. On that score this trade was sensible for the Cubs. And on a pure talent-for-talent basis this trade was fair.
But there are two reasons to question this deal. First, while the Cubs needed help in the outfield, where they really needed it was center field. Callison, while for many years an outstanding defensive outfielder, was by this point in his career no longer capable of handling center; Callison in right field was good for the Cubs, but he didn’t address their primary problem. Callison’s presence would prompt the Cubs to shift 33-year-old Jim Hickman, their second-half-1969 power-hitting surprise, to center field. This, shall we say, didn’t promise to be a good defensive solution.
The second issue was that as much as Callison’s bat might help, the loss of Selma to the pitching staff would likely hurt very nearly as much. Pitching depth was a weakness of the ’69 Cubs; there was no plausible way to replace the important contribution Selma had made. This trade would be another in a sequence of deals over the next several years in which the Cubs made decent value-for-value exchanges, but their filling of one hole simply opened up another.
But in the wake of 1969, it’s easy to sympathize with the Cubs’ thinking that this was not the time to be choosy, not the time to wait for young players to mature, not the time to wait for the perfect deal to present itself. They needed help in the outfield, and Callison was available, and with that ponderous sequence of failures now dragging a quarter-century behind them, they can be excused for feeling they had to do something.
The 1970 Season
Just as in 1969, the 1970 Cubs started off the season red hot, winning 12 of their first 15. They were unable to sustain that kind of pace, of course, but on June 20, they were 35-25, leading the N.L. East by 4 ½ games. Then disaster struck: the Cubs lost their next 12 straight. In just 10 days’ time, they went from first place to fourth, and now trailed by 4 ½. Most aggravatingly, none of the defeats were by a margin of more than five runs, and eight were by three runs or fewer. The Cubs just seemed to be finding a way to lose the close games.
They recovered; at the end of July they were back in the thick of the race, at 54-49, in third place, two games behind the Mets, a game and a half behind the Pirates. Then came a very frustrating month: between August 1 and September 2, the Cubs would win games by scores of 17-2, 15-0, 13-2, 12-2, and 11-3. They would score 176 runs while allowing just 125 over this span of 32 games, giving them a Pythagorean record of 21-11 in these grueling Dog Days. Yet their actual record in this crucial stretch was just 16-16, leaving them still in third place, having inched a grand total of only one game closer to the lead. Again, the Cubs could do everything except win the close games.
Yet exasperating as the pattern was, they were still smack in the middle of the race. Things would get tighter still: on both September 3 and 4, the Cubs were just a half a game out of first. From then through the 19th, they were never more than two games out, and often as close as a single game – but they were never able to take over the lead.
The Cubs entered play on Sunday, September 20, in second place, a game and a half behind the Pirates. In Montreal, the Cubs took a 4-2 lead into the bottom of the eighth — and then surrendered five hits and four runs that inning, and lost 6-4. A day off and a rainout followed. Then on Wednesday the 23rd, the Cubs dropped both games of a doubleheader in St. Louis, both by excruciating 2-1 scores. In the ninth inning of the second game, Billy Williams, representing the tying run, reached third base with nobody out. Ron Santo, Jim Hickman, and Tommy Davis in turn left him stranded, allowing Cards’ rookie left-hander Jerry Reuss to complete his victory.
The Cubs won 7-1 on Thursday night, but then went to Philadelphia, and lost on both Friday night and Saturday afternoon to the lowly Phillies. A too-little, too-late win on Sunday the 27th wasn’t enough to avoid elimination.
So Little from So Much
The 1970 Cubs experienced a most perplexing season. They were a team with multiple extraordinary strengths. Williams had a great year, one of his very best. Hickman proved unable to handle the defensive challenge of center field, but his hitting was spectacular, vastly better than anything he had ever done before. In June he was shifted to first base, as Ernie Banks sat out most of the rest of the year with an arthritic knee. Santo didn’t have one of his better years, but he was still outstanding. Callison and mid-season pickup Joe Pepitone – who took over center field for the final two months – provided good pop in the back of the order. The Cubs were second in the league in runs scored, and while their raw numbers should be understood in the context of an excellent hitters’ park in an unusually high-scoring season, there’s no reason to doubt that this was a formidable offense.
Moreover, Don Kessinger was awarded the Gold Glove in 1970 for his defensive work at shortstop, and he was flanked by Santo at third and Glenn Beckert at second, both who had been Gold Glove winners as recently as 1968. Yet the team’s strongest asset was its starting pitching; here the performances were better than the raw numbers might suggest. Ferguson Jenkins was brilliant, and Ken Holtzman very nearly as good. Bill Hands was very solid, and Milt Pappas, picked up for a song from the Braves in late June when it appeared he might be washed up, was scintillating through the second half.
This balance of run-scoring and run-preventing talent gave the 1970 Cubs a Pythagorean record of 94-68 – the best in the National League, three games better than that of Cincinnati’s vaunted “Big Red Machine” that ran away with the West Division. Yet all the Cubs could muster out of this statistical bacchanalia was an actual record of 84-78, five games behind the division-winning Pittsburgh Pirates.
How could this happen? Were the 1970 Cubs a remarkably bad “clutch” performing team? Almost certainly not. Cub teams in the years surrounding 1970, with primarily the same key members, didn’t tend to perform significantly better or worse than their Pythag record, nor does Leo Durocher through his long and highly impressive managerial career display any pattern in this regard. The primary explanation for the 1970 Cubs’ (or any team’s) variance from its “expected” won-lost record is undoubtedly just random chance: the 1970 Cubs were just a very unlucky ball club.
They Couldn’t Get No Relief
But in this case I think there’s another factor that shouldn’t be dismissed. Alongside all their strengths, the 1970 Cubs had one glaring, horrendous weakness: the bullpen. As we saw last time, the Cubs in ’69 didn’t have a strong relief corps, but it wasn’t really a weak spot. In 1970 it most assuredly was. The 1970 Cubs’ combined bullpen ERA was 4.63 – 10th in the 12-team National League. This contrasts dramatically with their starting staff ERA, which was 3.55, second-best in the league, behind only the Seaver-Koosman-Gentry-Ryan Mets in pitcher-friendly Shea Stadium. This huge discrepancy between the effectiveness of their starters and the ineffectiveness of their relievers was extremely unusual; no other team in the league had anything close to this 1.08 difference (the 1970 NL combined bullpen ERA was 4.17, and starter ERA was 4.01).
The contrast between the Cubs’ starter/reliever ERAs and those of the rest of the league means that the Cubs greatly outscored their opponents in early innings, but not so at all late in games: this is a recipe for winning the laughers and losing the heartbreakers. (It might be worth noting that the 1970 Big Red Machine — who, in distinct contrast to the Cubs, overperformed their Pythagorean record by 11 games — featured perhaps the best front-end bullpen in baseball, in Clay Carroll, Wayne Granger, and Don Gullett.)
Faced with this wearisome circumstance, which only grew in severity as the season progressed, the actions taken by the Cubs’ front office to address it are curious. They had dealt away Selma in the offseason, so they went into 1970 with pitching depth already a concern. Here are their in-season bullpen-related transactions:
- April 8: Released veteran knuckleballer Ken Johnson.
- April 23: Signed sore-armed veteran lefty Steve Barber as a free agent.
- May 29: Traded dependable reliever Ted Abernathy to the Cardinals for backup infielder Phil Gagliano.
- June 23: Purchased marginal right-hander Roberto Rodriguez from the Padres; the Cubs were Rodriguez’s third team of the season.
- June 30: Released Barber.
- July 6: Released veteran LOOGY Hank Aguirre.
- July 9: Traded marginal 24-year-old right-hander Archie Reynolds to the Angels for veteran lefty Juan Pizarro, the one-time star who was now in the nomad phase of his career; the Cubs were the 33-year-old Pizarro’s sixth major league team (in addition to two minor league stints) in two years.
- September 1: Purchased veteran right-hander Bob Miller from the White Sox; the Cubs were the 31-year-old Miller’s fourth team since the previous December.
- September 21: Purchased ageless star knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm from the Braves.
One the one hand, you can’t say they were inactive. On the other hand, until the very last 10 days of the season, the only relievers the Cubs acquired were scrap-heap castoffs – and meanwhile they traded away one of their only reliable firemen (Abernathy) in order to acquire an extra utility infielder; Gagliano backed up backup Paul Popovich, and found his way into only 26 games and 40 at-bats for the Cubs.
Meanwhile, 33-year-old erstwhile ace Phil Regan, who had been great in 1968 and so-so in 1969, was terrible in 1970: by the end of June he had five losses and a 4.44 ERA, and had (understandably) lost Durocher’s confidence — yet he remained on the roster to the season’s bitter end, pitching less and less effectively. The fact that Abernathy pitched very well over the second half of the season for the Kansas City Royals, and Selma was brilliant all year as the Phillies’ relief ace, added insult to injury.
In the bittersweet lore of Cub fandom, 1969 is the season nearly always seen as the tragic defeat, the golden missed opportunity for glory. But in truth, 1970 is the one that deserves such status. Unlike 1969, the NL East Division in 1970 didn’t present the Cubs with a really strong competitor: the title was there for the taking, 90 wins would be adequate. And unlike 1969, the Cubs of 1970 didn’t achieve the approximate win total their talent reasonably suggested: they significantly underperformed against their Pythagorean projection. To whatever extent it was a case of the Cubs’ front office being ineffectual in dealing with the team’s one flaw, or to whatever extent it was just plain bad luck, the 1970 Cubs remain one of the darkly haunting “might have been” cases in baseball history.
The Ennui of 1971
If the Cubs were frustrated following 1969, they had to have been devastated following 1970. One would think they would be more motivated than ever to get it right this time. Yet their sequence of off-season transactions was bizarre, almost insane. In October they traded promising young defensive shortstop Roger Metzger to the Astros for utility infielder Hector Torres – why they felt the need to immediately acquire yet another utility infielder is baffling, and moreover whatever it was that Torres would be able to contribute in that role that Metzger couldn’t is equally inscrutable.
Then on November 30, 1970, the Cubs made two trades that confused me at the time, and have puzzled me ever since. On that day they traded veteran pinch hitter/backup man Willie Smith to the Reds for 28-year-old minor league catcher Danny Breeden, and they also traded relief ace Hoyt Wilhelm back to the Braves for 26-year-old minor league first baseman Hal Breeden. I had never heard of either Breeden at the time, and was completely confused as to which was which, and to this day I can’t fathom what the Cubs’ purpose was in giving up veteran role players for whom they had a need, in exchange for two obscure career-minor-leaguer brothers for whom they had no role — and both on the very same day, to boot.
And that was it. Other than shuffling around a few other minor leaguers and bench players, the Cubs made no other moves for 1971. They went into the new season with essentially the same roster as in 1970, having done nothing of any substance to address their glaring need for bullpen help (worse, they had dumped Wilhelm), and for a bona fide center fielder. It was as if the Cubs were just exhausted from the grinding letdowns of 1969 and 1970. They acted as though resigned to their fate; why bother to try any more?
The 1971 Cubs’ season then played out with exactly that sense of tired, depressed listlessness. They started slowly and were effectively never in the race, as the Pirates ran away with the division; the Cubs were a flaccid 83-79, tied for third place. Their familiar pattern of strengths and weaknesses was present again, of course, only this time the roster was another year older and not quite as good anymore. Only Jenkins, who was in spectacular Cy Young Award-winning form, and Williams, who had another outstanding year at age 33, remained front-line stars. Santo, though just 31, was clearly beginning to fade. Holtzman slumped badly. Hickman and Pepitone both hit well, but showed their age, being nagged by injuries. Callison fell apart. Banks, in his final season, played sparingly and not well. Catcher Randy Hundley, the Iron Man of 1966-69, was out with injuries virtually all year. And the bullpen, still anchored by Regan, was once again among the very worst in baseball.
“Rub a Dub Dub, Same Old Cubs,” read a taunting Shea Stadium banner that season, and by August of 1971 the team was in an extremely sour mood, openly quarrelling with Durocher. Edgar Munzel in the Official Baseball Guide for 1972 describes what happened next:
Owner Phil Wrigley was prodded by the press as to just what he was going to do about the obvious friction and he finally responded in a unique way. He bought advertising space in each of the four Chicago daily newspapers to publish his statement.
He backed Durocher and slapped down the players. As a matter of fact, one interpretation of the Wrigley statement was that it was the first time a major league owner ever actually threatened to fire a ball club and keep the manager.
Novel though Wrigley’s approach may have been, it hardly resolved or improved the situation. The team lost nine of its next 11 games. The Durocher Cubs’ moment as a team with real possibilities was long dead and gone, and Durocher and Wrigley appearered to be the only ones left who didn’t grasp this reality.
The Shakeup of 1972
Yet 1972 provided some reason for new hope. Rookie right-hander Burt Hooton had been extremely impressive in three September 1971 starts. In contrast to the previous off-season, the Cubs in November/December of 1971 took bold action to shake the team up: Holtzman was traded to the Athletics for Rick Monday, and young pitchers Jim Colborn and Earl Stephenson, along with journeyman outfielder Brock Davis, were traded to the Brewers for Jose Cardenal.
The additions of two bona fide regular outfielders, strong both offensively and defensively, decisively addressed the Cubs’ problems in center and right field. Both Monday and Cardenal would prove to be strong Cub assets in the seasons to come. The issue was that the deals repeated the pattern shown in previous Cub trades, which were fair in terms of talent exchanged, but solved one problem while exposing another. Holtzman’s departure left the Cubs without a dependable left-handed starting pitcher (and they wouldn’t find another until the arrival of Steve Trout in 1983). And Colborn and Stephenson could have come in very handy in the Cubs’ bullpen, which in 1972 would be, once again, extremely vulnerable.
Still, the 1972 Cubs were a better team than the ’71 edition. They finished at 85-70, a distant second to the once-again-runaway Pirates. They performed their best following late July, when Wrigley finally fired Durocher, and replaced him with the far more laid-back Whitey Lockman. Williams, at age 34, had the best season of his career. Santo, 32, was limited to 133 games by nagging injuries, but hit better than he had in several years. Hooton proved to be a solid major league starter, as did mid-season callup Rick Reuschel. But the late-season perk-up was too late for the team to mount a serious challenge for the division title.
In the following off-season, for the first time in several years, the Cubs finally made some major transactions aimed at improving their weak bullpen. Speedy young outfielder Billy North was sent to Oakland in exchange for veteran right-handed reliever Bob Locker. And veteran starter Bill Hands, along with young pitcher Joe Decker, went to the Twins in return for standout young left-handed reliever Dave LaRoche.
These moves were reasonable talent-for-talent exchanges, and unlike previous Cub trades, they didn’t leave the team exposed. North, promising though he was, wasn’t needed in the Cubs’ outfield, and the emergence of Hooton and Reuschel (and another promising young right-hander, Bill Bonham), gave the Cubs the capacity to expend Hands and Decker.
The Final Flop of 1973
After having been through the pain of the 1969 and 1970 seasons, it would be difficult to imagine another year of equal agony for this particular Cub team. But 1973 just might have managed to do it. Under the refreshingly relaxed management style of Lockman, the veteran ball club seemed to find new life. With strong pitching as the foundation, the ’73 Cubs started out well and sustained their good play through the month of May, and then through the month of June. On June 29, 1973, the Cubs were at 47-31, in first place by a margin of 8 ½ games.
Then suddenly, everything went horribly wrong. The staff ERA had been 3.40 through June; it ballooned to 4.59 for July, and 3.92 for August. The hitters had whacked 61 home runs in May and June; they chipped in with just 28 in July and August. From the end of June to the beginning of September, the Cubs’ won-lost record was a ghastly 17-37. But here – for once, at last! – the never-catch-a-break Cubs were the recipients of great good fortune. In the 1973 NL East, no one else seemed to know how to win any games, either. As they entered September, despite their horrific, dreadful two-month slump, the Cubs were still in third place, just 3 ½ games out of first.
So it was down to yet another September dogfight. Alas, this long-in-the-tooth hound didn’t have much fight left. The Cubs arrested the free fall that had ruined July and August, but could put up just a 13-14 month of September, batting .235 as a team. Most humiliatingly, they lost the last two games of the season, at home against who else but the hated Mets. The Cubs couldn’t prevent the Mets, who had been in last place as late as August 30, from claiming their second division title within five very frustrating years — and celebrating their victory on the Wrigley Field turf.
The Sad End
The roller-coaster ride of the Williams-Santo Cubs was plainly and finally over. This group of players was never going to achieve a championship of any kind. That offseason, the Cubs began a youth movement; Santo, Jenkins, Beckert, and Hundley were all traded for younger players. Williams would be kept on for one more season, before being sent away as well.
The question of whether this particular core was the most talented to never win a flag remains one of the most hotly debated topics among all fans, Cub and otherwise. My own feeling is that they probably weren’t quite as good a complete ball club as we thought they were at the time, and certainly not as good as wistful Cub fans might like to remember them. But there’s no question the late 1960s/early 1970s Cubs were a highly talented bunch, and if they weren’t the very best team that never won a thing, they were close.
References & Resources
Props here to a few of my very dear old friends:
Major League Baseball 1971, by Brenda Zanger and Dick Kaplan (Pocket Books, 1971).
The Complete Handbook of Baseball, 1971 Edition, by Zander Hollander (Lancer Books, 1971).
The Complete Handbook of Baseball, 1972 Edition, by Zander Hollander (Lancer Books, 1972).
Okay, this isn’t a reference or a resource or anything, but it’s just fun …
The Cubs in this period went through about a gazillion backup catchers, few of them of much note. But a couple of these combinations are just too wild to ignore.
Billy Heath, 1969
AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG 32 1 5 0 1 0 1 12 4 .156 .378 .219
J.C. Martin, 1970
AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG 77 11 12 1 0 1 4 20 11 .156 .333 .208
Heath 1969 + Martin 1970
AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG 109 12 17 1 1 1 5 32 15 .156 .348 .211
Frank Fernandez, 1971
AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG 41 11 7 1 0 4 4 17 15 .171 .414 .488
Elrod Hendricks, 1972
AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG 43 7 5 1 0 2 6 13 8 .116 .321 .279
Fernandez 1971 + Hendricks 1972
AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG 84 18 12 2 0 6 10 30 23 .143 .368 .381
All Four Combined
AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG 193 30 29 3 1 7 15 62 38 .150 .357 .285