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Chicago Cubs history: Cal Koonce and the 1962 Cubs

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Koonce was a shining light in an otherwise unimpressive season.

Wrigley Field as it would have appeared in 1962
Photo by Diamond Images/Getty Images

Things continued to look grim for the Cubs in the early 1960s as they experimented with management and saw glimmers of greatness from some men who would go on to become Cubs legends. One of the best players of the 1962 season, though, was a young pitcher who managed a .500 record in a very bad year.

1962 Cubs

Record: 59-103
Standing: 9th in the National League
Manager: El Tappe, Lou Klein, Charlie Metro

1962 saw the Cubs continue their College of Coaches experiment, in which the team was managed by committee through the season, with El Tappe and Lou Klein taking the fewest games, and Charlie Metro carrying the bulk of the load. Obviously with 103 losses on the season, none of the men had a winning record, but Klein’s 12-18 came closest. This was the first time in Cubs history they lost more than 100 games.

This was also the first season for teams to play 162 games, so it was also the beginning of the modern baseball season as we know it. 1962 saw new teams enter the National League, including the Houston Colt .45s and the New York Mets. It’s worth noting (though probably not to Mets fans) that the 1962 Mets hold the record for the worst season in the 162-game era, at 40-120.

While the Cubs didn’t have a great season, some of their players did. Billy Williams hit .298/.369/.466, and Ernie Banks led the team in home runs with a whopping 37. There were definitely some quality moments for a team whose record was nothing to cheer about.

Cal Koonce

1962 wasn’t just the debut of the New York Mets, it was also the rookie year for right-handed pitcher Cal Koonce, who was arguably the most consistent pitcher the Cubs had that year. Koonce easily pitched more in 1962 than in any other season of his career, with 190⅔ innings of work. It amounted to a 3.97 ERA with 10 wins and 10 losses.

Koonce spent six seasons total with the Cubs, before being sold to the aforementioned Mets in August 1967. He was with the Mets for four seasons before going to the Red Sox for the last two seasons of his career.

In his time with the Cubs he had a 3.89 ERA, 3.94 FIP, and 1.410 WHIP. He was never singled out for any award accolades, and never made an All-Star appearance, but his overall career numbers can safely be defined as being consistent, bordering on pretty good. After the 1965 season he was used less as a starter and more regularly in relief, with a move to the closer role with the Mets, during which he had the best numbers of hie career for 1967-68. In 1969 the Mets won the World Series, but Koonce did not play in that postseason series.

An interesting note on Koonce’s success was that he admitted to using an augmented “wet” ball. Thought the spitball had been banned for over 40 years, Koonce — and he claims many other pitchers — used a “sweatball” to help give their pitches movement. “A lot of pitchers did,” he said. “But nobody would admit it because the spitball has been illegal since 1920. It was getting ridiculous, so I admitted it.”

By the early 70s as Koonce moved into the American League, he was seeing less and less play, and when he was released by the Red Sox in 1971 he knew his major league career was over at age 31.

He went on to run the baseball program at his alma mater, Campbell University in North Carolina, where he remained until 1986. He had much better luck as a coach than a player, with the all-time best win record for the university: 174-123.

He returned to professional baseball as the general manager for the Detroit Tigers Class A farm team, the Fayetteville Generals. He stayed with the team for two years before bouncing around among other baseball pursuits including coaching a high school team, and then finally as a scout for the Texas Rangers.

Koonce remained in baseball for as long as he was healthy enough to do so. In 1993 he passed away from lymphoma, a disease he’d been battling for years. He left behind his wife, Peggy, and four children, a son and three daughters. He was only 52 when he died.