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What if the Cubs had been placed in the N.L. West in the 1969 expansion?

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That season might have turned out differently.

Wrigley Field as it looked in 1969
Diamond Images/Getty Images

Here’s something that’s always puzzled baseball fans who weren’t around for Major League Baseball’s first foray into divisional play when the leagues expanded for the 1969 season.

Why were the Atlanta Braves and Cincinnati Reds, teams located in the Eastern time zone, placed in the N.L. West, while the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals, teams definitely located west of Atlanta and Cincinnati, wound up in the N.L. East?

The answer is television. Even as late as 1969, very few teams televised the majority of their games, as the Cubs had begun doing in 1968. The Cubs planned 144 televised games on WGN-TV in 1969, all the home games plus 63 road games, and they didn’t want to have 27 West Coast games instead of 18 under the new divisional schedule. That would have given them as many as nine more games they wouldn’t have wanted on WGN-TV. Back in those days, most night games started at 8 p.m. local time, so West Coast night games began at 10 p.m. CT. WGN didn’t televise weeknight games from the West Coast until 1974.

So that’s the primary reason the Cubs wanted to stay East — and they had enough clout in National League circles at that time to make it happen. They also had enough clout to bring the Cardinals along, to keep that rivalry at 18 games a year instead of 12.

In addition, the Mets, who had always drawn well for games involving the Dodgers and Giants, who still had a lot of fans in New York, were going to lose home dates with them as they headed into another division. So the Mets also lobbied for the Cardinals, then defending league champions, to be in their division to have more home games against them to draw fans in an era when gate receipts were far more important to front offices.

In fact, Richard Dozer of the Tribune, in a July 11, 1968 article about the leagues expanding and creating divisions, wrote:

Warren Giles, National league president who joined [Commissioner] Eckert and the American league’s president, Joe Cronin, cautioned newsmen that the new divisions had not yet been formally named “Eastern” and “Western” in his league.

Geography notwithstanding, the Cubs and Cardinals heading “east” meant two other teams had to move “west.” Since the Dodgers, Giants, Padres and Astros were already located west of the rest, that left the Braves and Reds.

TV coverage didn’t mean as much to other teams in 1969. Among N.L. teams, only the Mets carried close to the number of TV games as the Cubs did, 120. No other team had more than 60 TV games (Phillies), and the Braves televised just 20 games a year in 1969 and the Reds 35. So for Atlanta and Cincinnati purposes, the move just meant more flight hours and jet lag.

A comment posted in my article about John Boccabella and Randy Hundley got me wondering: What if the N.L. divisions had, in fact, been divided geographically? What if the Cubs and Cardinals had agreed to go West and the Braves and Reds had wound up in the East with their time-zone mates?

That would have meant more Cubs games against the Padres, Giants, Dodgers and Astros and fewer against the Mets, Phillies, Pirates and Expos.

We obviously cannot know what would have actually happened with a different schedule in 1969. One caveat is that the Cubs, playing all day games, still would have had that as a disadvantage to teams that played more games at night.

Here are the Cubs’ actual results against all their N.L. opponents in 1969:

Astros: 8-4
Braves: 9-3
Cardinals: 9-9
Dodgers: 6-6
Expos: 10-8
Giants: 6-6
Mets: 8-10
Padres: 11-1
Phillies: 12-6
Pirates: 7-11
Reds: 6-6

That’s 46-26 against N.L. West teams and 46-44 against N.L. East teams.

Aha! It’s obvious! The Cubs would have blown away N.L. West competition and not had to face the “superior” N.L. East quite as much.

Clearly, it’s not quite that simple. First, under our scenario we’re moving the Braves and Reds to the East and Cubs and Cardinals to the West. So the N.L. West Cubs would have played the same number of games as listed above against the Cardinals (18), Braves (12) and Reds (12), but a different number of games against the other eight teams. Instead of 18 games vs. the Mets, Phillies, Pirates and Expos they’d have had 12; against the Astros, Dodgers, Giants and Padres they’d have had 18.

For the sake of argument — even though the actual schedule would surely have been entirely different — let’s look at how the Cubs would have played every one of those teams if they’d have had the winning percentage against them (or as close as possible) as they did in real life.

That leaves us with the following:

Astros: 12-6
Braves: 9-3
Cardinals: 9-9
Dodgers: 9-9
Expos: 7-5
Giants: 9-9
Mets: 5-7
Padres: 16-2
Phillies: 8-4
Pirates: 5-7
Reds: 9-9

That’s a 98-64 record, 55-35 against the “new” West, 43-29 against the “new” East. The Cubs had trouble in the Astrodome for most of the 1970s, but in 1969 they were good against Houston, winning four of six there in real life. And they did much better against the expansion Padres as opposed to when they faced San Diego’s first-year Montreal brethren.

The real N.L. West in 1969 was won by the Braves with a 93-69 record. The Giants finished second with 90. Atlanta won that division with a great 17-4 finish — as late as September 8 the Reds led it with a 76-61 record and the top five teams were all within 3½ games.

With the Cubs in the N.L. West in 1969, they wouldn’t have been playing the Pirates in September. They lost five of six to Pittsburgh in that critical month. The real 1969 Cubs played their final 24 games against their divisional foes, so in our fictional world they’d have had another West Coast swing. Those killed the Cubs during the 1970s, but in 1969, playing the Padres would have been considered a break, and the Dodgers were just barely over .500 at 85-77 that year. Then they’d probably have had a September trip to Atlanta, Cincinnati and Houston — teams they went 23-13 against in real life.

There’s one more factor that could have been important in a division switch like this: Night games. The real-life 1969 Cubs played 120 day games and 42 night games in a time when teams were trending toward more games at night. 61 percent of all N.L. games in 1969 were played at night. None of those, obviously, were in Wrigley Field. Here are the scheduled number of home night games for all N.L. teams in 1969:

Astros 66
Braves 57
Cardinals 57
Cubs 0
Dodgers 64
Expos 44
Giants 19
Mets 36
Padres 60
Phillies 58
Pirates 55
Reds 55

So the Cubs would have been swapping the Expos, Mets, Phillies and Pirates (194 total home night games) for the Astros, Dodgers, Giants and Padres (210 total home night games). Against the Braves and Reds, still in the opposite division, and the Cardinals, still a divisional opponent, we can assume the Cubs would have played a similar number of night games. But with more night games on the West Coast, perhaps the Cubs might have played 8-10 more night games overall in 1969 as an N.L. West team. Maybe just a bit more rest helps them, even with the longer flights.

Now, of course we don’t know how the real Cubs would have done as an N.L. West team in 1969, and by 1970 the Dodgers and Reds were becoming powerhouse balllcubs. They probably wouldn’t have won 98 games.

But in a division weaker than the East, and not having to face Mets pitching quite as much, perhaps the Cubs would have come out on top.

And then they’d have had to deal with that Mets pitching in the NLCS.