Book review: Cubs By The Numbers

Cubs By The Numbers, by Al Yellon, Kasey Ignarski and Matthew Silverman, Skyhorse Publishing, $14.95.

It seems a flimsy premise for yet another Cubs book: uniform numbers. The players who wore No. 1 on their backs, followed by a chapter on the players who wore No. 2 and on and on to Todd Hundley‘s No. 99. (Put a one in front of that uniform number, and you have Randy’s kid’s batting average during his unfortunate sojourn with Chicago.)

On the other hand, there are just so many new ways to massage old material. Go to Amazon and enter “books” and “Cubs baseball” and you get 2,143 responses. In a world beset by strife, climate change, economic collapse and octuplets, that may seem a trifle excessive in the brainpower commitment department, but we’ll save that debate. We’re here to tell you whether this one’s worth adding to your collection of Cubs books.

Verdict: A qualified yes, meaning I wouldn’t build another bookcase for it, but it’s kind of fun. The writing is sprightly, and it’s the sort of book that you can peruse in small chunks—during pitching changes, say—without losing the thread.

For longtime followers of the team, the book’s main virtue is that it drags up old familiar names, players you’d forgotten you remember. Here’s Boots Day (No. 20). Remember John Boccabella (No. 12)? Doug Strange (No. 1)? Doug Dascenzo (29)? And, ah, here are the worthies of my youth: Dee Fondy (40), Hank Sauer (9), Roy Smalley The Elder (39). This is Mom’s tuna casserole—comfort food for Cubs fans.

The book is helped—that is to say, shortened—by the fact that numbers on baseball uniforms don’t go back to the beginning of the major leagues. The Cubs debuted them in 1932, the earliest ones assigned more or less on the basis of the players’ positions in the lineup (leadoff man Woody English No. 1, etc.). Over the years, unlike, say, NFL numbers, the system became more random, though you usually assume that the No. 67 you see taking grounders in spring training isn’t your shortstop and MVP candidate this year.

The format gives the authors a new chance to tell old stories, some of them probably apocryphal and almost all familiar to collectors of Cubophilia. There’s the time Jose Cardenal (No. 1) said he couldn’t play because chirping crickets kept him awake all night. There’s Tuffy Rhodes (25) hitting three home runs Opening Day… and five the rest of the season. There’s Rick Monday (7) capturing the flag in Los Angeles and Moose Moryn (another 7) making an improbable catch to save a no-hitter in Don Cardwell‘s first start in a Chicago uniform (43).

The forward is by Cubs radio announcer Pat Hughes. I’m guessing he may have had a part in some of the book’s snarkier observations, the kind that don’t make club-approved broadcasts: Sixes Ted Sizemore as a malcontent, Sonny Jackson as a do-nothing coach, Willie Wilson sulking on the bench.

Nice gimmick: Each chapter ends with “Guy you never thought of as a Cub” who wore number so-and-so. The Cubs have a long history of picking up players who were very good once upon a time in a land far away. Check out some of these brief-tenured Cubs: Bobby Murcer (7), Bobby Thomson (9), Mickey Owen (10), Jimmie Foxx (16), Robin Roberts (36), Davey Johnson (31)…. All had the experience of playing in the World Series.

But not, of course, for the Cubs.

Joe Distelheim is co-author, with Joe Hoppel, of one of the 2,143. It’s Cubs: From Tinker to Banks to Sandburg to Today, published by The Sporting News in 2005. It remains a worst-seller even today.

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Joe Distelheim is a retired newspaper editor whose career included stints as sports editor of The Charlotte Observer and Detroit Free Press. He co-authored Cubs: From Tinker to Banks to Sandberg to Today.

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