Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0057613. Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society.
Profile by BCB reader Clark Addison
Quick quiz: Who was the first Cub to win the National League MVP award, and when? If you named Gabby Hartnett in 1935 you qualify as a knowledgeable Cubs fan. If you named Rogers Hornsby's League Award in 1929, you're a Cubs historical whiz. But you'd be wrong.
The first Cub MVP was Frank "Wildfire" Schulte in 1911. OK, technically it was called the Chalmers award in those days. But instead of a plaque, the winner received a Chalmers automobile. In these days of free agency, the MVP is usually worth about a million bucks in incentives, but during the depression years, I'm sure Hartnett looked at his plaque and wished for the 1911 version instead. Not only was Schulte the first Cub, he was the first ballplayer to win an MVP award because that was its initial year. The American League winner that year was Ty Cobb. Cobb developed staying power and if the Chalmers award had lasted more than three years, he would have had a garage full of vintage cars. Schulte never again attained the heights of his career year, but 1911 was a vintage season for the Cubs' right fielder.
He led the league in home runs with 21, and in RBI's with 107. During the dead ball era that was a momentous achievement. It was the first time in the 20th century that anybody hit 20 home runs. Four Cubs (Ned Williamson, Fred Pfeffer, Abner Dalrymple, and Cap Anson) had hit over 20 in 1884, but that was a result of a freakishly short fence in the White Stockings' home park that year, so Schulte's achievement is even more impressive in that context. Schulte wasn't just a one dimensional player in 1911. He hit .300 with 30 doubles, 21 triples, and stole 22 bases. It wasn't until 1957 that Willie Mays became the second player to achieve a quadruple 20. Four of Schulte's homers were grand slams, which set another major league record that wasn't broken until Ernie Banks hit five in 1955.
But Wildfire wasn't just a one-year wonder. He was a keystone of the historic Cubs' championship teams of the early 1900s, and the last of Frank Chance's players to leave the team. For most of that time, he was the starting right fielder and cleanup hitter. Let's look back on the origins of the first Cubs' slugger of the 20th century.
Frank was born on September 17, 1882 in Cohocton, NY, and as a teenager began playing ball for town and factory teams. In 1899 he signed to play in Lestershire, New York. His father, a German-born contractor, had hopes that the lad would follow in his footsteps and offered Frank a thousand dollars to give up baseball. The future Cub turned him down, and in 1902 signed his first real professional contract with Syracuse of the New York State league. He was in his third season when Cubs scout George Huff saw him while scouting another player and in August, 1904 his contract was purchased by the Cubs.
On September 21, manager Frank Selee wrote Schulte's name in the lineup for the first time, leading off and playing left field. In the first game of a doubleheader he had three hits, including a triple, then added two more in the nightcap. It wasn't long before the nucleus of a dynasty came together. Jim Slagle, Schulte, Jimmy Sheckard, and Art "Solly" Hofman roamed the outfield for most of the next decade. The infield of Tinker, Evers, Chance, and Steinfeldt, Johnny Kling behind the plate, and the pitching staff of Brown, Reulbach, Pfiester, Overall, and Lundgren formed the most dominant Cubs team of all time. Selee, who put most of that team together, contracted tuberculosis and was forced to retire in midseason 1905. Twenty-eight-year-old Frank Chance took over as player-manager and the rest, to reiterate a cliché, is history.
At 5'11" and 170 pounds Schulte was more adept at the small ball of the era during the Cubs' glory days. He never hit more than 7 home runs until 1910, and his average hovered around the .270-.280 mark for most of the decade. But he had good speed, stealing over 20 bases nearly every season, and stole home 22 times during his 15 year career. In four world series he hit .309, getting hits in all but two games. His 13-game World Series hitting streak was a record, and still ties for fourth all time.
In the 1906 World Series against the White Sox, Schulte was involved in a play that was a haunting precursor of a similar one that would occur 97 years later. In the first inning of the sixth game, with the Cubs ahead 1-0 and two men on base, George Davis of the White Sox hit a long fly to right field. Schulte drifted back to the edge of the overflow crowd, settled under it, was pushed by somebody, and missed the ball. Chance claimed fan interference, but the umpires weren't buying it. Two runs scored, the Sox won the game 8-3, and with it the World Series.
Frank's nickname was a result of his admiration for actress Lillian Russell. He watched her perform in a play called "Wildfire" in Vicksburg, Mississippi during spring training, and was so impressed he named one of his racing trotters "Wildfire." When word of it got back to Chicago sportswriters, they hung him with his nickname.
One of his buddies in the writing fraternity was Ring Lardner. They closed many a Chicago bar together, and developed a mutual admiration. The Cubs' outfielder provided the writer insights into the lives of ballplayers that the beat writers couldn't match. Schulte appeared as a character in many of Lardner's "You Know Me, Al" stories, and a few of Lardner's poem's carried Wildfire's byline.
Although he never again attained the heights of 1911, Schulte remained the Cubs' regular right fielder through 1915, ranking in the top three in home runs in 1912 and 1915, with 12 each season. In the last couple of years his average fell under the .250 mark, so in midseason 1916 he was traded to the Pirates. He was the last remaining link to the glory days of the Tinker to Evers to Chance Cubs.
After drifting to the Phillies and the Senators, Wildfire was finished as a major leaguer in 1918. He played in the minors another five years, finishing with Oakland of the Pacific Coast League. In 1921 at the age of 39, he returned to Syracuse and had enough left in the tank to hit 39 doubles, 12 triples, and 16 home runs.
Schulte settled down in Oakland and died on October 2, 1949 at the age of 67. Through the years, the Cubs continued to feature historic home run hitters, from Hack Wilson to Sammy Sosa. But let's not forget that the major leagues' first big banger of the 20th Century was Wildfire Schulte.