The Top 100 Cubs Of All Time - #15 Frank Chance


Chicago Daily News negatives collection, SDN-056427. Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society. Taken at West Side Grounds in 1910.

The "deadball era" is a perennially popular subject among baseball historians. Little of it has survived into the modern game, and its aficionados admire, and perhaps romanticize, its intensity, multiplicity of skills, and strategy. Not stressed enough, perhaps, is how brutal, savage, and gratuitously dangerous it was. Very few players, the greatest stars included, came away from it unscathed. It cost many men their health, and shortened more than a few lives. Frank Chance epitomizes the deadball era as few players do.

Frank Leroy Chance was born in Fresno, California on September 9, 1877, the son of a bank vice-president. A reprise of an old story, the athletic son of a prosperous family forsakes a respectable career for sport, to the chagrin of all concerned.

Chance apparently attended a medical college (records are unclear), while playing semipro ball for California teams. He was a big man from the earliest days of his career (6ft, 190lbs), but possessed of great speed. He began as a catcher, though barely adequate. The other qualities he brought to his game were impressive, and attracted attention and recommendations.

Cubs president John Hart heard about Chance from his network of west coast managers (and also, if the stories are to be believed, then-Cubs outfielder Bill Lange), and Frank joined the team as a backup catcher in spring training, 1898. His defense was clearly inadequate at the major-league level, he especially could not handle foul balls, and suffered several broken fingers during his catching days. His skills at bat and on the basepaths kept him on the team, but he seemed destined to play out his career as second-string. He appeared in less than seventy games each of his first four seasons.

In 1902, Frank Selee was appointed manager, and suddenly things began to break for Chance as if ordained. In July, Selee moved Chance to first base, though still not as a full-time starter. Chance's 38 games at first that year were most on the team, but the position was fluid, and he was not seen as the ultimate solution. His 75 games overall were the most he had played to that point.

The first base problem was apparently solved for 1903, one Bill Hanlon was signed to be the new man. But Hanlon was a miserable failure, playing in only eight games and quitting the team. Chance was installed as the regular as a last resort, and almost immediately performed like the Hall of Famer he would become.

The Tinker-Evers-Chance infield, transiently together at the end of `02, was now a fixture for the next eight years. By common consent, Chance was the best player of the three, 1903 was the first of his great years. He batted .327 and stole a league-leading 67 bases, still the team record (since 1898, when SBs began to be scored in the modern manner).

Chance's playing style was also on full display, and he became the team leader at once. Unrelentingly aggressive and intense, he made his teammates fall into line through intimidation and, if necessary, physical force. Chance, late in his career, once famously whipped teammate Heinie Zimmerman in a fistfight, even though giving away a decade in age.

Chance would crowd the plate while at bat, and used the hit-by-pitch as an element of his batting strategy, a daring but not uncommon ploy of the time. It would have lasting consequences, pitchers were not adverse to using the ball as a weapon, or a player's head as a target.

In 1904, Chance's position as a star and a leader became formal, he was named team captain; a position which, in those days, was virtually an associate manager. It would become literally so, as Selee's health began to fail. Among Chance's highlights that season were hitting for the cycle June 13, and taking five hit-by-pitches in the doubleheader of May 30.

By 1905 Selee was seriously ill with tuberculosis, and could not travel with the team. Chance acted as player-manager on the road. Selee resigned August 1, and Chance was elected manager by player vote, a result ratified by Hart. The vote was close, Chance was admired for his play and strategy, but disliked for his combative personal style. The team won 40 of the 63 games played under Chance's control, finishing third. After years of mediocrity, the Cubs were seen as a club on the rise, but no one foresaw that the golden age of the team's history was about to dawn.

The next five years in the National League belonged to the Cubs as to no team before or since. Their combined record for the span was 530-235, a .693 percentage, highest in history for a five-year period. They won four NL pennants, three consecutive; and won two World Series, the only such titles in club history. Chance was the focus of the team's fame, and also of the abuse that came with it. It was an abusive era, on the field and in the stands. Chance thrived on it, but it was a short as well as brilliant run. It ended with Chance in broken health, and damaged esteem.

In 1906, the Giants, who won 96 games, stayed in striking distance until August, when the Cubs pulled away. Never hitting a slow spot, the Cubs shattered the old mark of 106 wins (Giants in `04), with a record of 116-36, a twenty-game margin of victory. The 116 wins remain a record (tied once, in a season eight scheduled games longer), and the .763 percentage is still the record for a schedule of 150 games or more. Chance batted .316, and led the NL in stolen bases (57), and runs (103). He lit the fire under the season with a stellar dead-ball era feat, stealing home with two out in the ninth to win a 1-0 game against Cincinnati on April 28. Chance took advantage of an argument on the field to score the game-ending run from third base.

In their first modern World Series, and the only subway Series in Chicago history, the Cubs were stunningly upset by the White Sox in six games. Chance was typically agressive on the field, earning eternal South Side enmity, but freely admitted that the Cubs had been outplayed.

The machine continued rolling in 1907, 107 wins and a 17-game margin over Pittsburgh. Chance's playing time now began a decline, 111 games, hitting .293. In the 1907 World Series, the Cubs swept the Detroit Tigers in five games (one tie), a team with Cobb and Crawford playing in the prime of their careers.

The Cubs won their third straight pennant in 1908, and their last World Series title to date. In the pennant-deciding makeup game necessitated by the Merkle fiasco, Chance had three hits, and a key double in the Cubs' only scoring inning. The Tigers were again the World Series victims, this time in five games (this time, no ties). Chance hit .421 and stole five bases in the Series.

By this time Chance was becoming notorious for non-playing incidents. He once slugged Giants pitcher Joe McGinnity at the Polo Grounds. In the most famous incident, July 8, 1907, he threw a bottle into the stands in Brooklyn (responding in kind to bottles thrown at him), injuring a boy. This began a near-riot, and he had to be driven from the park in an armored car. He was suspended eight days by the league.

Chance had been dubbed the "Peerless Leader" by Chicago sportwriters in 1906, and began to demand to be paid like it. At some point, new team owner Charles Murphy had allowed Chance to purchase a ten-percent interest in the team, and it later became an excuse not to increase his salary. Chance: "The years we won pennants and when we set a record 116 games won, I was getting $5500 a season. At the same time John McGraw (Giants) was getting $18,000 and Fred Clarke (Pirates) $15,000. I had to threaten to quit to get my salary lifted to $10,000. Murphy would argue that I had some stock in the club and ought to be satisfied with that. Well, I bought that stock had to work hard for it."

Pittsburgh took the 1909 pennant with 110 wins, the only team in NL history other than the `06 Cubs to win 110 games. The Cubs set a still-standing record that season, 104 wins in a second-place finish. Chance broke his shoulder that season, and played only 93 games.

1910 was Chance's last pennant, another 104-win campaign. The Cubs lost the World Series to Philadelphia in five games. Chance batted .353 in the Series, and finished with a lifetime Series batting average of .310 over twenty games.

Chance, and his team, were aging and wearing down. He had played only 88 games in 1910, and in 1911 Vic Saier became the regular first baseman. The Cubs finished second in 1911, third in 1912, and Chance and Murphy feuded publicly and viciously over the direction of the team. Chance labelled Murphy a "cheapskate", then as now one of the worst insults a manager can level at his owner, and the tone of his exchanges with the front office cost him some respect in the public eye.

Chance's health began to break down seriously. He was hit by pitches 137 times in his career, not especially high on the all-time list, but was prone to beanings. He had begun to wear padded cap linings by 1908, to little avail. By 1912, he was deaf in his left ear, and had diminshed hearing in his right. His disability caused him to speak in a high-pitched, whining tone of voice irritating to his listeners. He began suffering bleeding episodes in his brain, and had multiple surgeries to remove blood clots within his skull. He endured crippling headaches for the rest of his life.

On September 28, 1912, Murphy announced Chance's release effective at the end of that season. Chance's record as Cubs manager was 753-379, a .665 percentage, by far the highest in team history.

The Reds claimed Chance, but relinquished the claim when the New York Yankees announced a desire to hire him as manager. Chance spent 1914-15 in New York, unsuccessful and unhappy years. He also made his last token big league appearances in the field, finishing with 1273 hits, and a .296 lifetime average.

Chance sold his Cubs shares to purchase an interest in the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League, serving as manager 1916-17, and even playing in a handful of games. He sold out for a hefty profit and became a gentleman of leisure. His spread in Glendora, Califonia was called the Cub Ranch, and contained (yes) an orange grove.

Chance returned to the majors to manage the Red Sox in 1923, and when that famously talent-depleted team fulfilled his prediction by finishing last, he was fired. Chance accepted an offer to manange the White Sox for 1924, but was unable to serve. Asthma and tuberculosis killed him on September 15, 1924, in Los Angeles, at 47. He left an estate of $250,000, not at all bad for the banker's son who went his own way.

Chance was elected to the Hall of Fame, in tandem with Tinker and Evers, in 1946.

Frank Chance's career stats at baseball-reference.com

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