The 1966 Cubs were a horrific team, at least as noted by their won-lost record. They went 59-103, the second time in five seasons they'd lost 103 games, a total that still stands as the franchise record. They'd had just one season in the previous 20 in which they'd had a winning record, and then just barely -- 82-80 in 1963.
Leo Durocher, on taking over the eighth-place Cubs as manager in October 1965, famously said, "This isn't an eighth-place team." He was right. In Leo's first year as manager, the Cubs finished 10th of 10. Part of the reason for that was Durocher's tinkering with the roster. In that era, field managers had much more sway over personnel than they do now, and Durocher was given much leeway in choosing players. 49 men played for the Cubs in 1966, which stood as the club record until 2012, when another new management group, this time in the front office, took over.
Durocher was going through bench players and relief pitchers so quickly you couldn't keep track of all of them. Ever heard of these guys: Ron Campbell, Bob Raudman, Arnold Earley, Don Bryant, Carl Warwick, Ty Cline, Dave Dowling or Len Church? They all passed briefly through Chicago as Leo almost was holding open tryouts. Former stars like Harvey Kuenn, "the other" Frank Thomas, Chuck Estrada, Wes Covington, Robin Roberts and Bill Hoeft had cameos with the 1966 Cubs.
But Durocher was also engineering trades, and made two excellent ones. In the 1965-66 offseason, the Cubs traded Lindy McDaniel and Don Landrum to the Giants for Randy Hundley and Bill Hands. And in April 1966, just nine days into the season, they acquired Fergie Jenkins, Adolfo Phillips and John Herrnstein from the Phillies for Bob Buhl and Larry Jackson.
Setting aside the fact that Durocher's rough handling ruined the career of the sensitive Phillips, that brought two rotation starters and a starting catcher to a team that had two hitters entering their primes in Ron Santo and Billy Williams. Ernie Banks, getting older, was still productive, though Durocher tried pretty much everything to get rid of him, trying Herrnstein, John Boccabella and Lee Thomas at first base before realizing none was as good as Banks.
As bad as the 1966 Cubs were, they could have been worse. On July 31 they lost to the Mets 2-1 to fall to 32-71, a .311 winning percentage which would have left them at 50-112 had they continued winning at that pace.
But the Cubs then began winning, a little. They went 27-32, not too far from .500, for the rest of the year and were 17-19 from August 24 through the end of the season, a period which exactly coincides with Durocher's decision to move Jenkins into the starting rotation to stay. Jenkins had started three games earlier in the year but once placed in the rotation for good he made nine starts covering 72 innings -- averaging eight innings per start, try doing that today! -- and posted a 2.13 ERA and 0.917 WHIP with just 14 walks. That included this four-hit shutout of the World Series-bound Dodgers on September 24, a foretelling of great years to come for Fergie.
The Cubs began 1967 muddling around .500. After getting swept in a doubleheader in Philadelphia on June 6, they were 24-24, 8½ games out of first place.
But then they went on an incredible 22-5 run that included a pair of seven-game winning streaks that were interrupted by a single loss to the Phillies, or they'd have won 15 in a row. Their 4-1 win over the Reds in front of a raucous sellout crowd at Wrigley July 2 put them in first place -- the first time they'd been there that late in the year since 1945. I wrote about that game two years ago in the Game from Cubs History series.
Well, you know how that year ended up. The Cubs couldn't quite keep up with the Cardinals and finished third with 87 wins, their best win total in 22 years.
Now what does this have to do with 2015? Before I continue, let me acknowledge that the way teams are put together now is quite different than it was in 1967. Free agency, megamillion-dollar contracts and MLB/MLBPA contract rules make things quite different for team front-office executives, who now put together clubs and field managers have less influence on roster construction, and so it's harder to make parallels to a team that took the field nearly 50 years ago. (That said, I do believe Joe Maddon will have some say on who he'll be managing come April 5, at least more so than Rick Renteria or Dale Sveum did.)
The 2014 Cubs, as you know, played near-.500 ball for four months, going 60-62 after a poor start. They took a brief slide after the early-July trade of Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Athletics, but after a 1-0 loss to the Cardinals July 27, they actually played over .500 ball for two months: 31-29.
Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have made some very good acquisitions by trade over the last three years, much as Durocher did when he first started getting involved in Cubs transactions. The most significant of those were the deals that brought Anthony Rizzo from the Padres for Andrew Cashner and Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop from the Orioles for Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger. Both Rizzo and Arrieta had breakout years in 2014 and another trade, the one that sent Matt Garza to the Rangers for Justin Grimm, Neil Ramirez, Mike Olt and C.J. Edwards, helped pay dividends by producing a far superior bullpen than any the Cubs have had under the current regime.
To that base, the Cubs brought back Hammel via free agency, traded for a good-hitting, good-pitch-framing catcher in Miguel Montero and added a top starting pitcher in Jon Lester.
Do I expect a playoff team in 2015? Well, no. That would require too many things to go right, which isn't to say that can't happen. What I do want to note is exactly how the Cubs improved by 28 wins in 1967 over 1966. In 1966, the Cubs scored 644 runs, a bit below league average (662) and ranked sixth in the 10-team N.L. Their pitching, though, was awful: 809 runs allowed, most in the major leagues (and it wasn't close: the Mets were second with 761).
The Cubs' offense improved in 1967, ranking first in the National League -- but their 702 runs would have been 80 behind the 1966 league leader, the Braves. Scoring was down across the entire league in 1967, presaging the Year of the Pitcher in 1968. N.L. teams averaged 4.09 runs per game in 1966, 3.84 in 1967.
The real advance in 1967 was in the pitching staff, where the Cubs went from worst to middle-of-the-pack, reducing that 809 number to 624, 185 fewer runs, or 1.14 per game. That huge jump was the single biggest factor in the 28-win improvement. Much of that was from Jenkins having the first of his six straight 20-win seasons, but 22-year-old Rich Nye burst on the scene with a fine rookie year (13-10, 3.20 ERA, 1.127 WHIP) and might have been a rotation mainstay for years to come if he hadn't blown out his rotator cuff.
Now, I'm certainly not saying the Cubs can or will improve by 28 wins in 2015. That would be awesome, but 101 wins in 2015 isn't even remotely likely to happen. However, with the addition of Lester, the return of Hammel and Montero behind the plate, the pitching staff should improve from the 707 runs allowed in 2014. That ranked 13th in the National League.
So even if the Cubs stand pat offensively -- they ranked 12th in the N.L. in 2014 with 614 runs scored -- they could make a significant jump in wins with better pitching.
The 2015 Cubs could make a run at first place much as their 1967 counterparts did, if things go right for everyone currently on the squad and someone like Kris Bryant steps up and does what we hope he'll do. That said, I certainly don't expect this team to jump into the 90s in the win column, but they could play over-.500 ball, and that gets you into the second wild-card conversation.
It's an exciting time to be a Cubs fan.