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The Cubs should have won the N.L. pennant in 1930

The teams of that era were great, but could have won even more pennants than they did.

Joe McCarthy, Cubs manager from 1926-30
Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images

The Cubs should have won the 1929 World Series, as I wrote here Tuesday. In that article, I included this quote from team owner William Wrigley:

We did the best we could and that wasn’t enough. But already we’re thinking of next year. We’re going to strengthen, and fight and stick like anything. And you can put the loud pedal on that word strengthen. The Cubs are not going to sit around and figure what might have been in the series this year. They are going to figure out what is needed to prevent a recurrence next year.

I promised Chicago a pennant and we all plowed through disappointments till we got one. I now promise Chicago a world championship, and I hope and believe we have gone through all the disappointment required to effect this purpose. I have but one instruction for those two able men, Bill Veeck and Joe McCarthy. It’s ‘strengthen for 1930.’”

Wrigley was correct in stating that Veeck (father of future White Sox owner Bill Veeck Jr.) and McCarthy were “able men.” They had helped bring the Cubs back to contention from nearly a decade of failure, and McCarthy had two straight 90+ win seasons and a N.L. pennant on his resume at age 43. It seemed as if the Cubs had their manager for the next decade.

But that’s before Rogers Hornsby, the team’s power-hitting second baseman, began to undermine McCarthy. Hornsby had been acquired by the Cubs before the 1929 season — his fourth team in four years. That should have been a red flag; Hornsby was a legitimately great player, a future Hall of Famer, but a lousy human being. He hit .380/.459/.679 with 39 home runs and 156 runs for the ‘29 pennant winners and was named N.L. MVP.

This gave him some standing with management and ownership and he began to undermine McCarthy. From a biography of McCarthy, “Joe McCarthy and the Yankee Dynasty,” by Alan H. Levy:

Like everyone, Hornsby knew that Wrigley remained upset about the 1929 World Series. He implied to Wrigley and Veeck that McCarthy had let the team celebrate too much after securing the pennant, with the obvious implication that he would not have allowed such a lapse to occur.

This went on through most of the 1930 season. The Cubs started slowly, but a 12-2 run put them in first place at the end of June. They fell out of the top spot, but another run, this one 15-5, put them back in the lead by late August.

Hornsby continued to undermine McCarthy in private conversations with Veeck and Wrigley. Even so, the Cubs continued to win. After a crazy 19-14 win over the Pirates September 6 (where they trailed 12-9 going into the eighth inning), the Cubs were 80-55 and led the N.L. by four games, with a magic number of 16 over the second-place Giants.

Hornsby had suffered a broken ankle in late May which limited him to just 42 games in 1930. Nevertheless, per Levy’s book:

Hornsby conveyed to Veeck and Wrigley that McCarthy needed to play him more, especially in the crucial September games when the team faded from first place.

But on a bad ankle, Hornsby could barely play at all — he appeared in just 14 games after May, starting just five of them and going 6-for-24 with no home runs. Hornsby’s absence wasn’t the reason the Cubs faded, as they’d roared into first place mostly without him, but after that win over the Pirates, the Cubs lost nine of 13 and fell out of the top spot, a collapse not unlike the one the team had in 2019.

The Giants didn’t pass the Cubs for the pennant, either — the Cardinals did, by going on an incredible 44-13 run through August and September. The Cubs were responsible for four of those 13 St. Louis losses in those two months, but didn’t face them at all in September.

With four games remaining in the season and the Cubs trailing by three, the team announced that Hornsby would replace McCarthy for the 1931 season. McCarthy told the Tribune he was not bitter about being let go, and decided not to manage those four games:

“I have nothing to complain about and nothing to explain,” said McCarthy after he had convinced his former employers that it would be best for him not to carry the club through to the finish. “As proof that our relations were pleasant right to the end I want the world to know that despite my withdrawal I am receiving the second place bonus called for in my contract. They dealt with me in a big way at the start five years ago and concluded in the same way.”

Sounds a bit like Joe Maddon last September, no?

McCarthy took the high road, but it was a colossal mistake. Hornsby was so disliked by most of the players he managed (as a player-manager) that the team had to fire him in August 1932. Charlie Grimm led the Cubs to a 37-18 record the rest of that season and to the pennant.

As for McCarthy? The Yankees hired him in 1931 and he won eight pennants and seven World Series titles in 16 years as their manager. Would he have brought the Cubs that kind of success? We’ll never know, but they certainly weren’t any good under Hornsby.

And as for the 1930 season? After spending 55 total days in first place that year, the Cubs wound up second, two games behind. A healthy Hornsby would have helped — but so would have winning just one more game against the Cardinals, against whom they were 11-11. That would have forced a tie and what would have been the first-ever playoff for a pennant. This 20-inning 8-7 loss on August 28 comes to mind as that one possible win.

And for sure, all the behind-the-scenes intrigue between Hornsby and McCarthy didn’t help at all.