Perhaps I should explain.
I have spent my entire baseball consciousness following the Cubs, and they have spent that entire time without a championship. That hardly makes me unique among the under-110 set, but as the Theo Epstein era dawns, I’m among the dwindling number who remember the Wid Matthews era.
If you don’t count a couple of short-term, interim placeholders, that was 10 general managers ago. (I know, they aren’t calling Epstein GM in the new bureaucracy, and Matthews was “director of player personnel,” but you get the point.) The Cubs had won the wartime pennant of 1945, lost the World Series, and saw their fortunes drop rapidly. They brought in Matthews in 1950, coming off two last-place finishes.
Matthews inherited a team with one semi-star (Andy Pafko, whom he would trade to the Dodgers in an awful fleecing of the Cubs), and just a few young prospects. As is the case with Epstein, the brightest of those was a shortstop entering his third season. His Starlin Castro was Roy Smalley.
Smalley was tall (6-foot-3 in the days when shortstops were nicknamed Pee Wee and Scooter) and had terrific range in the field. But…
Let me stop here to pay my respects. By all accounts, Smalley was a fine human being. He served his country in the Navy during World War II, his marriage to Gene Mauch‘s sister Jolene lasted a lifetime, and he fathered major leaguer Roy Smalley III. He was part of the first Cubs infield I remember, a fond memory.
The Cubs had signed Smalley as a 17-year-old. (And Castro at 16.) Smalley broke in just before his 22nd birthday, having lost a season-plus to military service. Castro was 20.
Smalley led the league in errors his first two seasons. He also didn’t hit. Then came 1950, year one of the Matthews regime. Smalley made 51 errors, leading the league again. No one has approached that number since. But such was the state of the seventh-place Cubs that he started at shortstop in every one of their 154 games.
Smalley also struck out 114 times. Now, that doesn’t seem like many in the age of Drew Stubbs (205 Ks in 2011), but that was a different time. The shortstop of the NL champion Phillies, Granny Hamner, struck out 35 times in 685 plate appearances. Phil Rizzuto, shortstop for the World Series-winning Yankees, fanned 39 times in 735 plate appearances. His teammate, Yogi Berra, playing nearly every game, struck out 12 times all year!
It didn’t get any better. Smalley slipped to part-time play with the Cubs after that year, lost his job to Ernie Banks in late ’53, and played out his major league career in Milwaukee and Philadelphia, never reaching a .250 batting average in 11 seasons. Final line: .227 batting average, .300 on-base percentage, four stolen bases in his career.
The new guy’s guy at shortstop, over two seasons: Second and first in the league in errors (27 and 29), .304 average and .343 OBP at the plate in two pitching-leaning years, 32 stolen bases, lots of expectations.
Matthews lasted until 1956, his Cubs teams never finishing out of the second division. When his manager, Cubs icon Phil Cavarretta, told owner P.K. Wrigley during spring training one year that his players weren’t very good, Matthews fired him. (Be careful what you wish for, Ryno.)
And Smalley? His major league days over, he went back to Triple-A ball in Minneapolis. His team wound up in the Junior World Series, American Association champs versus International League winners, Smalley’s team playing at Havana. Accompanied by a posse armed with machine guns, a bearded man appeared in the visitors’ dugout.
References and resources:
Statistics from Baseball-Reference.com
Biographical details from the Green Valley (Ariz.) News and Sun