Cubdom’s great lost opportunity

About a dozen years ago I came across a T-shirt in a Wrigleyville store proclaiming the Cubs the 1908 World Champions. I thought it was cute, a way to show support for the team I’ve always rooted for while also mocking it for its all-too-well-known ineptitude. A few years later a website sold another shirt, this one proclaiming: “Any team can have a bad century.”

Well, now here we are—100 years since the last Cubs championship. Suddenly, these jokes ain’t so funny anymore. I know there’s no logical reason to be considerably more annoyed at 100 years instead of 99. Damn base-10 numeric system—on Planet Alfonseca I’d have another 44 years before I would get annoyed.

How in Hades could a squad go 100 years without winning it all? What were their best, lost hopes? These questions are hardly original, but they keep filling my mind this year. But I want to look back at some of their wrong turns.

At first, I intended to write a column looking at the entire century, but it went on too long and most of it was regurgitating conventional wisdom. More importantly, one particular path not taken caught my attention. It’s one never discussed because they never even came close, but because it’s so ignored I find it especially fascinating.

Could the 1964 Cubs, who were an underwhelming 76-86, have won it all? I know it sounds stupid. OK, that’s an understatement. It sounds deranged. That was during their two-decade death spiral from 1947-66. But bear with me while I make my case. First, some background info.

The futile years: 1946-56

Conventional wisdom has a ready-made and perfectly reasonable explanation for the darkest 20-year stretch in franchise history—the failure to integrate. Though Jackie Robinson took the field with the Dodgers in April 1947, the Cubs didn’t follow suit until September 1953, when they debuted the middle infield tandem of Ernie Banks and Gene Baker.

Clearly, the non-integration hurt them. While only three NL clubs—the Dodgers, Giants and Braves—integrated before Sept. 1, 1953, those squads combined to win every pennant save one from 1947 to 1959. This explanation, however, masks a broader problem.

Not only did they not have a Roy Campanella, Willie Mays or Hank Aaron, but the Cubs didn’t have a Johnny Antonelli or Bobby Thomson, let alone a Gil Hodges or Duke Snider. They couldn’t produce any good players regardless of race, creed or color. Bereft of a Spahn or Sain, all they could do was pray for rain. Even when Banks hit his prime, they were still lucky to approach .500.

The great, lost opportunity, 1957-66

This dormant player developmental program finally began to prove its worth in the late 1950s, kicking off an opportunity for the Cubs that has been almost completely overlooked in the ensuing decades. It’s not surprising it’s been overlooked. The team remained wretched. When looking for chances to win it all, you’re not supposed to spend much time on 90-loss teams, yet something quite interesting happened in these years.

The fun began on Aug. 7, 1956 when a 20-year-old Moe Drabowsky made his major league debut by striking out a pair in an inning of relief. The best pitching prospect to come out of their farm system in quite some time, he proceeded to post a 2.54 ERA in over 50 innings of work that season. He was the youngest man to throw more than 30 innings for the Cubs in over 30 years.

The next year, Drabowsky kept expectations high. His ERA remained comfortably below league average while he pitched a full load. Though he had control problems, he was tied for second in the league in strikeouts with 170. The future appeared rosy for him.

Yet incredibly, Drabowsky was outshone that year. The man who tied him with 170 strikeouts was his teammate, Dick Drott. A rookie, Drott had one advantage over Drabowsky. At age 20 in 1957, he was a tad younger.

In fact, that year Drott and fellow rookie Don Drysdale became the first 20-year-olds to throw 200 innings in a season since Bob Feller lo those many years before. Admittedly, Drott was born July 1, and thus was only a day away from being classified as a 21-year-old, but you could count on your fingers the number of men who had pitched 200 innings at that tender age in the previous two decades.

And Drott didn’t just fill a space; he was good. Not only was he one of the best strikeout artists in the game, but he had a superior ERA. Most pitchers, even most star-caliber hurlers, aren’t ready to pitch full-time that young, let alone pitch successfully. In Drabowsky and Drott, the Cubs had a pair who did so.

And the pitcher production didn’t stop there. Next year the Cubs broke in Glen Hobbie, who was just a few months older than Drott. Though not a flamethrower like the Killer Ds, Hobbie posted an ERA slightly better than league average while working as a swingman. The next year, he continued his performance as a 23-year-old full-time starter with a record of 16-13 for the fifth-place Cubs in 1959.

The new decade brought yet another first-rate prospect to the Cubs’ rotation, Dick Ellsworth. In nearly 30 starts in 1960, he posted a league-average ERA. Normally league average is nothing to get excited about, but at that age, it’s a sign of a potentially spectacular future. Someone who is adequate at that age has the potential to be great by the time he’s 30.

A comparative study on an unwritten rule of baseball.

Ellsworth improved on his work in 1961, only to falter badly the next year. Then, in 1963, he had a season for the ages. He went 22-10 with a miniscule ERA of 2.11 (second only to Sandy Koufax) in 290 innings pitched. His 32 win shares were the most any Cubs pitcher had recorded since Pete Alexander‘s 36 in 1920. Ellsworth was only 23 years old.

And he wasn’t the end of the Cub pitcher assembly line. When Ellsworth had his off year in 1962, the Cubs debuted Cal Koonce. Though not great, he was good enough to go 10-10 for a 102-loss team. Only 21, he posted an ERA+ of 104.

In six years, the Cubs had produced a fearsome fivesome who had all proven to be major league-quality pitchers at ages 20-22. I once did an extensive investigation on pitcher aging patterns at another website. From that, I concluded pitchers peak at ages 26-29. Anyone good enough to be adequate around age 21 has a tremendous shot to be excellent by age 28. With that gold mine on the mound, the Cubs had a chance for greatness.

Didn’t happen. Didn’t even come close.

To a man, they crapped out. From age 21 onward, Drott was terrible. He had a 5.38 ERA the rest of his career and was done by age 27. Hobbie also fizzled, though in less dramatic fashion than Drott. Well before his 30th birthday, his MLB career was also over. Koonce never approached his rookie campaign. He lasted scarcely longer than Hobbie in the majors.

Dick Ellsworth clearly screwed up his arm in his big ’63 season. He lasted longer than the other three but had his last effective season at age 28. By then he wasn’t on the Cubs anymore anyway.

Moe Drabowsky had the most successful career, which is rather surprising given that he’s fairly well known as a flame out (and a flake). He had an up-and-down career as a reliever that kept him in the game until his mid-30s. Combined, these five men had more win shares from ages 20 to 24 than the rest of their careers combined.

Look, pitchers get injured. Happens all the time. Young pitchers in particular get hurt. It’s part of the game. But you’re not supposed to have a 100 percent washout rate. As a rule of thumb, 80 percent of your best and brightest ain’t pumping gas by their early 30s. It’s one thing if some of a team’s prospects fall by the wayside, but when they all collapse—and so swiftly and at such young ages—you have to seriously wonder about the team’s ability to handle, develop and take care of its charges.

That fact has been brought home to me by another source. A friend of mine named Anthony Giacalone has, for his own bizarre reasons, figured out MLEs for a slewload of minor league prospects from this time. He mentioned to me that the Cubs had a pronounced bunching of players who looked like they could’ve been productive—not stars, but productive—who literally did nothing. It’s a failure of player development.

Alternative history: what might have been

So, getting back to the original point of possible Cub championships, could the Cubs have ever done it in these years? Well, let’s examine.

So you know, I’m not going to offer any detailed projections on how these guys could have done. That’s a fool’s errand as some would’ve prospered, but I don’t want to assume all would have. What I can say is that with this solid core, the Cubs would’ve had a much stronger pitching staff than they did. That’s especially notable because during 1958-66, they generally had worse pitching than hitting.

With a staff led by Drott and Ellsworth, the Cubs would’ve needed only a league-average offense to be competitive, provided that there was no historically great team in the National League that year. The Cubs actually had a very good offense in 1958, but that was the apogee for the Aaron-Mathews Braves.

Next year, 1959, raises an interesting possibility. The Braves underachieved their way to a 88-66 record, tying for first with an underwhelming Dodgers squad, who won the pennant in a playoff. The Cubs had an OPS+ of 99, and nearly went .500 that year anyway.

I don’t see it happening, though. Ellsworth and Koonce were still teens in the minors. Glen Hobbie had the best year of his career as was, and the Killer Ds were only 22. It’s a bit of a stretch. That’s a damn shame, because it would’ve set up a Crosstown Classic against the AL champion White Sox.

The Cubs had an OPS+ of 102 in 1961, by which time Ellsworth was a full-time starter. The Reds won only 93 games for the pennant, but that’s not the point. This isn’t about getting to the Series, but winning it. (They still got 37 more years until they hit the century without a pennant marker.) They would have little chance against the 1961 Yanks, who won 109 games, the most of any Yank squad since the 1927 Murders Row. Eh, forget 1961.

There’s one more possibility, and it’s the most intriguing of all.

The real chance: 1964

In 1964, the Cards won the pennant with a 93-69 record. That’s nothing great for a pennant winner. In fact, during 1903-72 only one NL pennant winner had a worse winning percentage than St. Louis’ .574 that year. The Cubs went 76-86, one of their best seasons of that era, behind an effective offense led by Billy Williams and Ron Santo.

The Cubs were held back by their pitching staff, which had an ERA+ of 91. From 1947-66, they were below that mark only twice. Drott, Drabowsky and Hobbie had all moved on. Koonce threw only 31 innings. Ellsworth, worn out by his performance the year before, could only muster a pedestrian ERA of 3.75. The fab five combined for 22 win shares on the year, only 17 of which went to the Cubs.

Unlike 1959, these guys should have been at their prime. Drott was 27. Hobbie and Drabowsky were 28. These are the men who contributed nothing to the North Side. Ellsworth might have been only 24, but he also may have been the most talented of the bunch.

Instead of having their arms carry them to glory, they held the team down. The bats were strong enough to keep them in the race, though. As late as June 12 the Cubs were only four games out of first. But it was their pitching that was the problem. So the Cubs moved to solve that dilemma three days later when they traded their talented but underachieving outfielder Lou Bro—

I don’t have to finish that sentence. I don’t even have to type in the last two godforsaken consonants in that man’s last name. You know exactly what the trade was. It’s one of the most infamous and disastrous ones in history.

What was the damage done? After the trade, Lou Brock had the second half of his life, picking up 22 win shares, carrying St Louis to their first pennant since 1946. Ernie Broglio, with an ERA+ of 92, didn’t help the staff at all. And the Cubs had to replace Brock in the lineup with something called Len Gabrielson, who hit .246/.298/.357 the rest of the way.

That trade might’ve cost them four or five wins by itself. That means the Cubs are a .500 squad, and the Phillies and Reds tie for the pennant at 92-70. The Cubs themselves went exactly 6-12 against the Phillies, Reds and Cards. If they Cubs were better, they could pick up a few more wins there, putting the pennant a bit more within reach. If their arms hadn’t flamed out, the Cubs don’t have to make it. If a properly cared for staff containing effective versions of Ellsworth and Drott and Drabowsky could’ve given them another 10-12 wins, they’re in the thick of things.

Oh, I know—if, if, if. Plenty of things would have to break right for this scenario to play out. That’s the nature of alternative history. Though the contingencies exist, for a team that finished 17 games out, the 1964 Cubs have a surprisingly plausible argument for winning the pennant.

Simply put: They had a good offense that year, and their mass phenom flame-out killed them. With a good staff, Brock for Broglio almost certainly never would’ve happened. Heck, I’ll even throw in another if—since their staff was so strong, instead of trade for pitching, if they needed to they could’ve packaged Koonce or Hobbie or another pitcher for another bat, perhaps a center fielder. God knows it couldn’t have gone worse than he trade they did make.

And if they do that, maybe they do win the Series. After all, the NL did take it that year. The Yankees had a much better record, but were on a downward trend. They won the 1962 Series by the thinnest of margins, got swept decisively by the Dodgers in ’63, and in 1965 would finally have the empire collapse, finishing below .500 for the first time in 40 years.

I know you’re not supposed to conclude a team that went 76-86 had one of its best shots to win it all. Factually, it’s murky and has too many what-ifs. (And yes, as a keen eye might note, I totally glossed over the fact that they may not have traded for staff ace Larry Jackson if the young guns prospered. My reply: Well, maybe they would’ve made that trade. Can’t argue with “logic” like that, eh?)

Regardless of the endless what-if labyrinth of counter-factual history, the Cubs’ failure to develop their young hurlers was an important chapter in their century of dread.

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