Sixty men have held the job of field manager in the 141-season history of the Chicago Cubs (though four of those men weren’t officially “manager,” as they held the title “head coach” during the infamous College of Coaches in 1961 and 1962).
Since modern postseason play was invented in 1903, just 11 of those men have led the Cubs to a postseason berth, and just two, Frank Chance and Joe Maddon, have been the manager of a Cubs World Series winner.
I’ve put together this list of who I think the best 10 managers are among those 60. In reality, the top two stand far above the rest, who could go in almost any order behind No. 2. I’ve limited this ranking to post-1900 Cubs managers. Cap Anson, who was the field manager of the Cubs from 1879 to 1897, is kind of in a separate class because the duties of a manager were so different pre-1900.
Here’s my ranking, from 10 to 1.
10) Leo Durocher
This might be a somewhat controversial selection, as Durocher did not manage a Cubs postseason team. Nevertheless, the man has to be given some credit for bringing the Cubs out of a two-decade slumber and into contention, despite the somewhat nasty way that it all ended. Only Charlie Grimm (14 years) and Frank Chance (eight years) managed the Cubs for more seasons than Durocher, who also ranks third in Cubs managerial wins.
9) Don Zimmer
Zimmer’s methods were often bizarre, but there’s no doubt the man knew baseball; he spent his entire adult life in the game, playing, coaching and managing. The 1989 Cubs N.L. East title was his only postseason appearance as a manager. In 1991 with the team muddling around .500 when expected to contend after some high-priced free-agent signings, Zimmer wanted a contract extension. Instead, the Cubs fired him.
8) Dusty Baker
Baker’s tenure ended with him being mocked for his “walks clog the bases” mentality and his inexplicable usage of players like Neifi Perez, Jose Macias, Enrique Wilson and Rey Ordonez far past their sell-by dates. But there is no doubt that Baker, like some others on this list, brought the Cubs out of bad times and into contention. He’d have ranked higher if he’d been able to get the team to the World Series. His failure to come out to the mound, replace Mark Prior, or do anything after the “incident” in Game 6 of the NLCS is his singular failure as a manager.
7) Jim Frey
Frey, like Baker and Durocher, helped bring the Cubs back to contention (and, in fact, a N.L. East title) after years of mediocrity. Injuries helped do him in as a manager and he was dumped after fewer than three seasons. He belongs on this list not only because of the Cubs’ first postseason appearance in 39 years, but for his belief that Ryne Sandberg — who’d been considered nothing more than a speedy singles hitter his first two years — could do better. Sandberg credited Frey’s coaching as one of the biggest reasons he became a Hall of Famer.
6) Lou Piniella
Like some others on this list, Piniella’s tenure ended badly. But Lou, also like some of the others here, helped to bring the Cubs back to contention after an awful season. His tirade on June 2, 2007 about a play he was almost certainly wrong about was thought to have helped jump-start his team; their 63-46 mark after that date gave them the N.L. Central title. Piniella was the first manager since Frank Chance to bring the Cubs to successive postseason appearances. He’d rank higher if the Cubs had won the World Series under him.
5) Frank Selee
Now there’s a name you’re probably not familiar with, and Selee managed the Cubs for only four seasons (1902-05) with no postseason appearances. But he’s the man responsible for putting together the juggernaut that crushed the National League for the five following seasons. Johnny Evers, Joe Tinker, Frank Chance and Johnny Kling were all first put into their positions by Selee, and in an era when managers were responsible for trades, he sent 20-game winner Jack Taylor to St. Louis for Mordecai Brown, one of the best deals in franchise history. Selee fell ill with tuberculosis in 1905 and had to resign his position; otherwise he’d have likely been the manager of the team that won four pennants in five years. Selee died young at age 49, in 1909. His tenure as manager in Boston in the 1890s, when he won six pennants, gained him induction into the Hall of Fame.
4) Charlie Grimm
Grimm is the only man besides Frank Chance to win multiple pennants as Cubs manager; he had the helm for the 1932, 1935 and 1945 Cubs N.L. championship teams, the first of which happened after Rogers Hornsby was fired with the team 53-46 and five games out of first place. Freed from the irascible Hornsby, the amiable Grimm (known as “Jolly Cholly”) led the Cubs to a 37-18 finish and the pennant. His 946 wins as a Cubs manager are the most for any post-1900 Cubs manager. Grimm, who was a pretty good player, too (2,299 career hits and a .290 BA in 20 seasons), probably would be in the Hall of Fame if any of his Cubs teams had won the World Series.
3) Joe McCarthy
The one that got away, McCarthy led the Cubs to the 1929 pennant, and came achingly close — just two games out of first place — to repeating in 1930. That wasn’t good enough for owner William Wrigley, who thought the Cubs should have won that second straight N.L. title, so he fired McCarthy (with four games left in the season, no less!). Big mistake: McCarthy went on to win eight pennants and seven World Series in 16 years managing the Yankees. You’ll say that talent was the difference, and to some extent it was, but that era’s Cubs were nearly as talented. Perhaps McCarthy would have made the difference. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1957.
2) Joe Maddon
It might seem strange to see Maddon ranked this high among Cubs managers after only two seasons. Consider, though, the enormous change in clubhouse culture that Maddon instituted. His methods might at times seem odd, but they are designed to help every player give his best on the field, and they work. The 200 wins in consecutive seasons are the most for any Cubs manager since Frank Chance, and if the Cubs can win 100 games again in 2017, Maddon will rank tied for 10th all-time on the Cubs managerial list — after only three seasons. Winning the World Series, given the crushing pressure to do so had felled many of the men lower on this list, is the accomplishment that ranks him this high. Do it again and not only would Maddon top this list, that would probably punch his ticket to the Hall of Fame.
1) Frank Chance
768 wins in eight seasons — that’s an average of 96 wins a year, in an era of 154-game seasons. Four pennants in five years — only a handful of other managers in major-league history have done that. McCarthy is one of them, Casey Stengel another, John McGraw a third. In recent times it’s been done only by Joe Torre. So Chance’s achievement as a manager is nearly unparalleled. He might have won five straight pennants had catcher Kling not decided to hold out the entire 1909 season in a contract dispute. Kling’s replacements were awful; even so the 1909 Cubs won 104 games, the most ever by a second-place team (matched by the 1942 Dodgers).
Chance had been beaned numerous times as a player — he likely suffered many concussions as a result and lost much of his hearing, and he was let go as Cubs manager after 1912 for one of the silliest of reasons:
Incredibly, he was released by the Cubs as both a player and a manager while hospitalized for brain surgery in 1912 after a heated hospital room argument with Cubs owner Murphy over Murphy's releasing good players to save the team money.
It is remarkable to look at Chance’s record as both a player and manager of the Cubs and to realize he managed the team to all those pennants and two World Series titles when he was younger than Ben Zobrist is now. It was a different time.