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Cubs historical sleuthing: Late 1970s edition

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There’s a story beyond the sleuthing, too.

Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images

I cropped this photo of Cubs infielder Rodney Scott so it would look better on the front page. For sleuthing purposes, here’s the entire photo:

Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images

This one’s pretty easy. Scott played just one year with the Cubs, 1978. The Cubs are hosting the Phillies and No. 47 is pitching for Philadelphia. That’s Randy Lerch, who had an 11-year career with the Phillies, Brewers, Expos and Giants from 1975-86. Lerch made exactly one start at Wrigley Field that year, Saturday, July 1. The Phillies won the game 4-2.

Now here’s the rest of the story about Rodney Scott.

Scott had been acquired from the Athletics just before the 1978 season began for righthander Pete Broberg. Scott had played fairly well for the A’s in 1977 (33 stolen bases, among other things), but for some reason the Cubs shipped him to Triple-A Wichita, where he played until late June. So he’d been with the big-league Cubs for only about a week (called up June 24) when this photo was taken. There are a lot of posed photos in Getty’s archive like this one of Cubs who were fairly new to the team.

Scott played well for the Cubs. He hit .282/.403/.313 (64-for-227) in 78 games, with 27 stolen bases. Now, in modern baseball you’d lead a guy off with that kind of OBP, but the Cubs in 1978 were still operating like it was 1940, so they batted him first... sometimes. He led off 18 times and batted second 33 times, while Ivan De Jesus, with a decent .356 OBP, led off most of the time.

Scott became just the fourth Cub to steal at least 27 bases in a season since 1930. The others: De Jesus stole 41 that year, Jose Cardenal had 34 in 1975 and Adolfo Phillips 32 in 1966.

Useful player, right? Keep this guy around? He was just 24 years old in 1978.

Well... nope, and this is where a bit of casual racism might have been operating in the Cubs front office in the late 1970s. The ‘78 Cubs had acquired Jerry White from the Expos in June for pitcher Woodie Fryman. White, a center fielder, played good defense and hit .272/.373/.338 (37-for-136) in 59 games for the Cubs. He was 25 years old.

These two players got on base well, had some speed and played good defense.

The Cubs traded both of them to the Expos in December 1978 for Sam Mejias, an outfielder who played in just 31 games for the Cubs — starting none, he was used strictly as a pinch-hitter and defensive replacement — before he was sold to the Reds in July 1979. There was simply no need to swap two useful players like this for a guy who did almost nothing for the Cubs, unless racism was involved. Beyond that, Mejias hadn’t accomplished anything in the big leagues up to 1978 that would have made anyone think he was a good player. He hit .219/.245/.315 (39-for-178) with the Cardinals and Expos from 1976-78 and his minor-league numbers weren’t anything special.

The Cubs had acquired Scott and White for almost nothing, and then gave them away for something that was worth even less than what they had acquired them for (although Fryman became a decent reliever for the Expos for the next few seasons).

Scott and White played well for the Expos and both were part of their 1981 playoff team. They weren’t great players, but I can’t help thinking that if they had been on the 1979 Cubs, when Dave Kingman hit 48 home runs, perhaps that team might have scored a few more runs and perhaps finished better than 80-82.

Such were the Chicago Cubs in the late 1970s.