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Cubs historical sleuthing: ‘God help us’

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It was a low time in Cubs history.

First of all, credit where credit is due. I found this photo on the blog of Jerry Pritikin, once known as the “Bleacher Preacher.” He was a fixture there for most of the 1980s and 1990s.

What stands out, of course, is the large “GOD HELP US” sign unfurled in the right-field bleachers. The player is obviously a visiting player, because there’s a name on the back and the Cubs didn’t have those until the mid-1990s on home uniforms.

What solved this one for me was another photo from that same blog post:

The image file name says “Opening Day 1980” but that isn’t right. The Cubs did play the Mets for their home opener in 1980, but won that game 4-1.

These photos are from Opening Day 1981, April 9, 1981 at Wrigley Field. The Cubs had traded Dave Kingman to the Mets in the offseason and, coming off a 98-loss season, seemed particularly feckless that year. I mean... look at that lineup. Ken Reitz, who had been acquired along with Leon Durham in the Bruce Sutter trade, went 3-for-3 that day with two doubles, but would hit just .215 that season and complained mightily about just about everything connected with the Cubs.

The fans who unfurled the “GOD HELP US” banner that Opening Day didn’t know just how prescient that would be. The Cubs defeated the Mets in the season’s second game to be at .500 at 1-1... the only time they’d be there all year. They then lost 12 in a row and at various points of the season had records of 3-17, 5-27 and 10-36. They managed to win five of six before the strike hit and were 15-37 at that point. I have almost no doubt that they would have set a franchise record for losses if not for the strike. A 23-28 second half made the final record of 38-65 seem almost reasonable, but that’s still a .368 winning percentage which would have translated to 103 losses in a full season.

“GOD HELP US” indeed. The team’s sale to Tribune Company was finalized in September 1981, and fans that year would likely never have dreamed that a 96-win division title season was only three years away.