The good news: Each of the Cubs’ 10 worst seasons have occurred in transitional years, when either a new administration was experimenting with wholesale roster changes, or when a failed management team was marking time or dumping salaries while waiting for the axe to fall.
The bad news: Although Mike Quade’s crew is likely to claim its rightful place somewhere in the middle of this exclusive list and join the 2006 Cubs as the only post-1982 entries on the Bottom 10, there are few signs that either Mike or Jim Hendry are in danger of losing their jobs, a reality that may put the 2011 Cubs in a special category: Better than Houston, and Plenty Good Enough for You!
When reviewing these 10 historically-bad seasons, don’t be surprised to spot the names of certified baseball geniuses like Leo Durocher, Dallas Green and Frankie Frisch, along with the usual suspects like El Tappe, Wid Mathews, Charlie Metro, and Phil Wrigley who even today, 34 years after his death, remains a major player in team operations.
Durocher and Green are on this list only because of the turmoil they caused by rapidly rebuilding the Cubs in 1966 and 1982 while sifting through the debris of systems they inherited from the Wrigleys. In both cases, once they were done working their magic, each man had transformed the Cubs into contenders.
Maybe the best example of the rock-bottom worst in Cubs baseball is the 1966 squad, known to some as the greatest 103-loss club in baseball history, and to others as simply the worst team ever to wear the Red and Blue. Examining that terrible year in perspective, it’s easy to see that it was a predictable short-term setback, the clear result of Leo blasting through decades of Wrigley inertia and burning away the oil slick left to him by Phil Wrigley and John Holland.
During that dreadful first year, Durocher in his own words “backed-up the truck” to make trades that brought Randy Hundley, Bill Hands, Adolfo Phillips, and Fergie Jenkins to the Cubs. At the same time, Leo and his staff used their Year One to give first and second year players from the Cubs’ system a chance to develop. Some, like Don Kessinger, Glenn Beckert, and 20-year-old starting pitcher Ken Holtzman, ultimately became All-Stars.
The ’66 Cubs were set at only two positions, with Ron Santo and Billy Williams as the club’s building blocks, and the team’s record reflects this upheaval, both at the 90-game mark (a franchise-worst 29-61), and at the end of the year (a 59-103 last place finish that tied the 1962 squad for the worst-ever Cubs season.)
As our 2011 Cubs enter the All-Star break with a 37-55 record after 92 games, it may be a good time to take a look at those Bottom-10 Cubs squads that completed 90 games with 36 or fewer wins. A full-season record is shown below for each of these memorable clubs and, if you can stand it, a capsule description of each team appears after the standings.
At 90 games Full-Season
1981........32-58 38-65 (103-game season)
1901........35-55 53-86 (139-game season)
1966 – Tied with the 1962 squad for the Cubs’ worst-ever full-season record, this crew had four and – assuming Ronnie gets in – possibly five Hall of Famers. Sometimes referred to as the most talented club ever to lose more than 100 games, four of these five Hall-of-Famers would travel with Leo on the road to Hey Hey, Holy Mackerel and the unforgettable 1969 season.
1957 – Phil Wrigley cleaned up at both ends of his baseball empire during the 1956-57 off-season, first by selling his AAAA Los Angeles Angels to Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley for more than $3,000,000, then by moving his LA management team to Chicago to help him run the Cubs. New faces with the Cubs included former Angels President John Holland as general manager, and PCL pennant-winning LA manager Bob Scheffing as the Cubs’ new skipper. Holland moved quickly to clean house, while Scheffing experimented all season with jerry-rigged lineups that often had Ernie Banks playing third base. To his credit, Scheffing eventually had the Cubs playing nearly .500 baseball over the last two months.
1981 – “God Help Us” read the sign held up by bleacher fans, in letters large enough to be read from any low-flying aircraft. These were the Last Days of Wrigley, and the fire sale was on to reduce payroll, presumably at the Trib’s request. Once salary-dumping operations were completed by mid-June, the media giant that had long held a financial stake in the team bought the Cubs outright from Bill Wrigley for $20.5 million and, likely, a promise to keep the Wrigley name on the ballpark.
A player strike that started that same month saved this Cubs team from a probable 52-110 final tally, along with the infamy that goes with any “Worst-Ever” title. Now, Joey Amalfitano, Joe Strain, Tim Blackwell, and Steve Dillard are left only with thoughts of what might have been.
1949 – This was the season when Phil Wrigley realized that the old ways of doing business simply would not work, which made him even more determined to keep using them – with a couple of notable exceptions. Although he still had no intention of playing night games at Wrigley Field, or bringing black players to the Cubs, by 1949 he was willing to spend money building a farm system. Along with this important change, Phil also reached beyond his usual list of cronies to hire a new manager and general manager. Unfortunately, his choices of Hall of Famer Frankie Frisch as field manager and Wid Mathews as general manager proved to be disastrous.
1953 – A forgotten year, yet certainly one of the five most significant in Cubs history, almost entirely the result of Boston Braves owner Lou Perini moving his young and talented team to brand-new County Stadium in Milwaukee at the end of spring training.
With a contending National League team just 85 miles north of Chicago, thousands of Cubs fans either rode commuter lines or made the short drive up Route 41 to instantly transform the Braves into one of Chicagoland’s two favorite teams, second only to the Go Go White Sox of Minnie, Chico, Billy, Jungle Jim, and Little Nell. By early summer, the Cubs could say “We’re Number Three,” as Wrigley Field attendance fell by 250,000 in a year when the NL average was only 927,000. As the Cubs operated in red ink for the first time under Wrigley ownership, Phil moved decisively to cut costs and change direction in several ways.
His first, and likely most damaging move, was to dismantle the Cubs’ farm system from Springfield, MA to Visalia, CA, while restoring his valuable Los Angeles franchise to its previous status: not a farm club, but instead a self-contained enterprise, no less important to the Wrigley empire than the Cubs.
By September, Wrigley at last was ready to bring black players to the Cubs, finally promoting Gene Baker from LA and purchasing Negro League star Ernie Banks from the Kansas City Monarchs for $35,000, partly on the recommendation of Buck O’Neil.
Perhaps the most substantial legacy of this seminal year was Wrigley’s rollout of his famous “Beautiful Wrigley Field” radio and TV advertising campaign, a subtle product of his promotional genius that was reinforced daily by Cubs announcers who used the phrase repeatedly during all game broadcasts. In time, this campaign would lead to the longstanding phenomenon of Wrigley Field as a ballpark that may be more important to the financial health of the Cubs franchise than the team itself.
1960 – Genius though he was at grabbing free publicity, Phil Wrigley still was no Bill Veeck, and when master showman Veeck returned to his hometown in 1959 to lead the Sox to their first pennant in 40 years, Cubs attendance took another hit. Right before the 1959 World Series, Wrigley’s response was to fire Bob Scheffing, the best Cubs manager since Charlie Grimm, before announcing that the new Cubs manager would be… Charlie Grimm. Unfortunately, by 1960 Charlie was five-years into semi-retirement as one of Phil’s ever-present baseball advisors. At age 61, he decided to call it quits as manager after 17 games, which inspired a legendary publicity stunt by Wrigley when Phil replaced Grimm in the dugout with Cubs announcer Lou Boudreau while moving Charlie upstairs to take Lou’s spot in the WGN broadcast booth.
1962 – In the wake of the massive publicity coup Wrigley engineered with his Grimm-for-Boudreau swap, Phil decided to go all-in for 1961 with an even more audacious reach for free news space as he launched his incredible College of Coaches scheme. Just when great players like Santo, Williams, Dick Ellsworth, Lou Brock, and Ken Hubbs began to produce for the Cubs, the club became baseball’s laughingstock as “the team without a manager.”
For 1962, in the spirit of “too much ain’t enough,” Phil decided to ignore the near-universal demand that he end the farce and hire a manager. As a result, in Year Two of the College, the 1962 Cubs would set an ongoing franchise standard for failure at 59-103. Like their counterparts four years later, this team also had Hall of Fame talent, including Banks, Williams, Brock and Santo.
1901 – In this last year of the Chicago Orphans, Frank Selee arrived from Boston to build and manage the nucleus of the 1906-1910 Cubbernaut. By the end of 1902, the first year of the “Cubs,” Selee had recruited rookie Joe Tinker to play short, moved rookie Johnny Evers from short to second, moved Frank Chance from catcher to first base, and installed Johnny Kling as his first-string catcher.
2006 – In what may always be known as the Year of Neifi, Jim Hendry survived a final-game purge that sent Andy MacPhail and Dusty Baker job-hunting, as new team President John McDonough apologized to fans for a most-disappointing 66-96 season. In season-long slow-motion fallout similar to this year’s Cashner-Wells double-whammy, management seemed unable or unwilling to fully-compete after D. Lee’s early-season wrist injury. Listening to Ron and Pat describe Lee’s collision with Rafael Furcal was more than enough to let Cubs fans know this would be one more season lost before it really began.
1982 – Left to his own devices, there can be little doubt that Dallas Green would have led the Cubs to more than one World Series, and very likely to a World Championship. Unfortunately, as a true “baseball man” not suited to working with Trib execs, his six-year career with the Cubs ended before he could complete the job. Like Durocher, the trademark of his first year was an immediate full-scale assault on Wrigleyism that included several deals, including his most famous: Ivan DeJesus for Larry Bowa and Ryne Sandberg. The positive effects of Green's approach can be seen in the team's final record of 73-89, which reflects the Cubs 37-35 record to close-out the year under manager Lee Elia.