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The Time The Cubs Started 4 First Basemen

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This was not a signature moment in team history.

Bill Buckner's look says it all about the 1980 Cubs (as do the empty seats)
Bill Buckner's look says it all about the 1980 Cubs (as do the empty seats)
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Joe Maddon likes to have his players be versatile and play multiple positions all around the field. This could be something he'll do even more in 2016 with the addition of Ben Zobrist and the fact that Javier Baez is playing the outfield in winter ball.

But 35 years ago, the Cubs were so bereft of talent in the waning days of the Wrigley ownership era that manager Joey Amalfitano (who'd replaced Preston Gomez 90 games into 1980) was, at times, forced to play several first basemen... all in the same game.

The 1980 Cubs got off to a decent start and in early June, were still a .500 ballclub (22-22), about where they'd finished the previous three seasons. When power-hitting left fielder Dave Kingman went down with a bad shoulder and center fielder Jerry Martin stopped hitting, the team went into a tailspin. From June 4 through the end of August, the Cubs went 29-55, a pace that would produce 107 losses in a full season.

Kingman returned in August, but could barely even play first base, and not every day. By this time Martin, even though he had a career-high 23 home runs, was playing only against lefthanded starters, because his hitting vs. RHP had gotten so bad (.217/.261/.409) and overall his bat had disappeared in August (.176/.301/.376 in 103 PA). Jesus Figueroa began playing some center field, but he couldn't hit either.

Thus it was that on September 1, 1980, Amalfitano submitted a lineup to face the Atlanta Braves at Wrigley Field that had, essentially, four first basemen in the starting lineup.

Cliff Johnson, who by 1980 had no business playing anywhere in the field, started at first base. He had actually started both games of a doubleheader against the Cardinals in June in left field. I remember it as being a day of hilarity watching him try to surround the ball when it was hit near him. Johnson later went on to have several good years as a DH for the Athletics and Blue Jays.

Bill Buckner, who had bad ankles and hadn't played any outfield at all in four years, started in left. (Buckner's ankles were so bad that he insisted his pitchers cover first base on just about any grounder to him, one reason he routinely posted over 100 assists a year.) With the injuries to Cubs outfielders in 1980, Buckner wound up playing 42 games in left field and 12 games in right field. Let's charitably say he did his best hobbling after baseballs. It didn't seem to affect his hitting, as he led the National League in batting average that year (.324).

The other two first basemen who played the outfield that September day were Larry Biittner and Scot Thompson, who actually did have some outfield experience. Biittner, who was 34 in 1980, played more games at first base than in the outfield that season. Thompson, the youngest of this bunch that year (24), was decent as a corner outfielder, but didn't have the speed or instincts to play center field. Thompson's primary claim to fame is that he's Rick Reuschel's brother-in-law -- Reuschel married Thompson's sister.

But the Cubs really had no choice at that point. With a roster depleted by injuries and a farm system producing nothing, Amalfitano played this trio in the outfield more than once (also August 29 and August 30 against Houston with Kingman at first base, a slightly -- just slightly -- better option than Johnson). The Cubs lost all three games, and the September 1 game, with Tim Blackwell catching, Steve Dillard at third base and Mike "Not The Boxer" Tyson at second base, might have been one of the worst Cubs defenses in history. Amalfitano fared better, as he wound up his baseball career spending 16 years as a respected third-base coach for the Dodgers.

Less than a year later, the Cubs were sold to Tribune Company, and things began to improve. But the 1980 season, which still stands as fourth-worst in Cubs history with 98 losses, reached its nadir with those four first basemen in one lineup.

Joe Maddon will have better players, being more versatile, in 2016.