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Cubs history: The time they swapped starting pitchers with the Cardinals 116 years ago

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... and the deal helped win many pennants for the Cubs.

Mordecai Brown Of The Chicago Cubs Photo by FPG/Getty Images

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of an offseason series looking at past Cubs trades from the perspective of the time they were made.


It is December 12, 1903, and the Chicago Cubs have just made a trade.

Unless you’re new to Bleed Cubbie Blue, you’re likely quite familiar with club pitching ace Jack Taylor. Or, at least, he was the club’s ace until getting swapped down river today to the Cardinals. Memories of him tantalizing National League batsmen in 19-aught-two will be hard to forget. Take your pick. Will you most remember his eight shutouts that season? Perhaps his 1.29 ERA. Obviously, his 206 ERA+ will forever go down in team annals. Now, though, it’s time to ring in the Mordecai Brown era.

Brown, nicknamed Three-Finger due to a misshapen hand stemming from an injury, was the Redbirds’ second-most used pitcher in the most recent campaign. As usual, don’t be swayed by a rather poor win-loss record. His ERA+ (126) was fantastic for a rookie campaign. Brown is 27, for what it’s worth. Taylor is 29.

The other pieces in the exchange are prospecty/reserve catchers (Larry McLean going to St. Louis, with Jack O’Neill being returned). The Cubs seem committed to Johnny Kling. At 27, and with no signs of slowing down, if an exchange of reserves there will get your knickers in a bunch, I have nothing for you. The Cubs still need to upgrade their outfield, and locate a third baseman, but this trade won’t help or hinder that.

How good will Brown be? Adding less-experienced talent will always be a risk. As you well know, the Cubs had three 20-game winners this past season (Taylor with 21, Jake Weimer and Bob Wicker with 20) and their top six innings guys all had an ERA+ over 100. Looking at the bench bats, not much is there. For the Cubs to elevate above third in the National League, retaining the pitching quality and depth will be in equal measures with adding a bit better craftsmanship at the plate.

This trade boils to assessing talent, and the front office had better be more effective at it than I am. It’s really brassy trading your best pitcher for a player that doesn’t look like a right-handed pitcher. Hopefully this works out. At the very least, the rotation just got younger.

*****

Brown was phenomenal with the Cubs. After a two-year incubation period, where he was “limited” to 212 and 249 innings, Brown ran off six 20-win seasons in a row. His innings totals were 270 or higher in five of the six campaigns. In only his last season did his bWAR sink below 4.8 of the six.

Kling was a very reliable catcher, and was an above-average offensive catcher until 1910. The loss of McLean, who would become a long-time starter for the Reds, was muted. O’Neill, the back-up the Cub received from St. Louis, was flipped later to the Boston Beaneaters for Pat Moran, who would serve as Kling’s reserve from 1906-1909.

This trade went well beyond what could have been hoped for, even as Taylor pitched well for St. Louis in 1904. He scuffled in 1905, and was reunited with the Cubs mid-season of 1906 in exchange for Fred Beebe, Pete Noonan, and cash.

This trade didn't make the Cubs the best team in the National League, but it got them much closer. They had a tendency, with their defense, to get more out of pitching than the team they acquired a hurler from. They had two very important trades to make to start their World Series run. One involved a pitcher. The other upgraded a spot on the infield.

While recent trades are likely more your speed, the old-time trades deserve a few looks, as well. I’ll be spending a few articles in the silent-movie era, I think. Requests are invited, but I won’t necessarily do all of them.