Who's on first? For Cubs, often a star, Part 1

First of 2 parts


Some Major League teams have had remarkable continuity at certain positions.

The Boston Red Sox,for example, had 6 regular left fielders over a span of 72 seasons: Ted Williams (1939-60), Carl Yastrzemski (1961-74), Jim Rice (1975-89), Mike Greenwall (1985-96), Troy O'Leary (1995-2001) and Manny Ramirez (2001-08).

Other teams have run through dozens of players at a specific position.


The Cubs have used 292 players in center field. Only 5 did so for at least 500 games, and 2 of those did so more than 75 years ago: all-time leader Hack Wilson (781, in 1926-31) and No. 5 Jimmy Slagle (511, in 1902-08).

The others: Andy Pafko (721, in 1943-51), Rick Monday (640, in 1972-76) and Corey Patterason (528, in 2000-05).


Nine Cubs have played more 500 games at third base, including 3 that topped 1,000: Ron Santo (2,087, in 1960-73), Stan Hack (1,824, in 1932-47) and Aramis Ramirez (1,089, in 2003-11).

In the 30 years between Santo and Ramirez, the Cubs used 90 third basemen, of whom Ron Cey played 516 games and no one else more than the 390 by Steve Ontiveros.


But then there is first base, which has been occupied by a series of long-running stars.


CAP ANSON, 1879-97: 2,059 games at first

Anson was a third baseman when the made his professional debut with the Rockford Forest Citys at age 19 in 1871.

Then next 4 seasons, with the Philadelphia Athletics, he played 82 games at third and 92 as a catcher.

In 1876, he joined the White Stockings, as the Cubs then were known. During that season and the 1 that followed, he caught 33 times and played third 106.

Then, in 1878, he was an outfielder in 48 of the team's 60 games, playing left in 45 games and center in 3.

But in 1879, when Anson became player-manager, he put himself at first base. And there is where he remained for nearly 2 decades.

Over his final 19 seasons, he appeared other than at first in only 58 games: 3 as pitcher, 47 as catcher (21 of those in his last 2 years, at ages 44 and 45!), 4 at second base, 3 at shortstop and 1 in the outfield.


Anson's total of 2,277 games is second most in franchise history, behind only Ernie Banks' 2,528. Billy Williams is third, with 2,151. Santo, with 2,126, completes the list of those who played at least 2,000.

The 1,722 runs that Anson scored are 406 more than by runnerup Ryne Sandberg. His 3,012 hits are 428 ahead of No. 2 Banks, his 529 doubles are 73 ahead of Mark Grace and his 1,880 runs batted in are 244 ahead of Banks.

Anson's .331 batting average is tied for fourth highest in team history with Ray Grimes, who had only 1,431 at bats, to 9,104 by Anson.

The 3 with higher averages are Rogers Hornsby (.350, in 1,121 AB), Riggs Stephenson (.336, in 3,474 AB) and Bill Madlock (also .336, in 1,481 AB).


FRANK CHANCE, 1898-1912: 989 games at first

Chance, 21, was the Cubs' primary catcher in his rookie season and remained so for 3 years, appearing behind the plate in 141 of his 173 games. He played first base in just 5, with 18 in the outfield.

In 1901, he was an outfielder in 51 games, a catcher in 13 and a first baseman in 6.

The following year, he caught 30 times and manned first base 38.

But for the remainder on his years as a Cub, 1904-12, he was at first in 820 games and caught in just 2 -- both in 1904. He also pinch hit in 14 games and pinch ran in 1.


Like Anson, Chance also was the Cubs manager, although his tenure spanned 8 seasons, vs. Anson's 19. In each of Chance's seasons, the Cubs finished first or second. From 1906-10, his first 5 full seasons, they won 2 World Series, 4 pennants and compiled a record of 530-235-12, a winning percentage of .690. They won fewer than 100 games in only 1 of those years: 99, in 1908, when they won their second straight Series.

In his entire 15 seasons as a Cub, Chance played 1,275 games, in which he put together a slash line of .296/.394/.394. Hardly a slugger, he hit only 20 homers, 6 of them in 1 season and 3 in another. But he smacked 200 doubles and 79 triples, had 548 walks to only 319 strikeouts, and stole 402 bases. He led both leagues in steals twice, with 67 in 1903 and 57 in 1906.


VIC SAIER, 1911-17: 786 games at first

Saier was 1 day shy of his 20th birthday when he made his debut, in which he batted cleanup and had 2 singles in 4 at bats.

He was the Cubs' most frequent first baseman that year, starting in 73 games, to 31 by Chance, now 34 and slowed by repeated beanings.

Saier played 707 more games at first over the next 5 seasons. In the second of those, 1913, he led the league in triples, with 12, and all 3 components of his slash line, .289/.370/.480, would prove to be the best of his career, as were his OPS, .850, and OPS+, 142.

In 1914, he finished second in the NL with 18 homers, 4 of them off Giants great Christy Mathewson.

The next year, despite a leg injury that sidelined him for 3 weeks, he set career highs with 35 doubles and 29 steals.


On April 20, 1916, Saier had a double, 2 singles and an 11th-inning walk-off sacrifice fly that earned the Cubs a 7-6 win over the Reds in their first game at their new home, Weeghman Park, today's Wrigley Field. But by the end of the season, all of his numbers were lower than they had been the year before.

In the sixth inning of the Cubs' fifth game of 1917, Saier tried to score from second on a 2-out, bases-loaded single by Larry Doyle.

"[Tom] Long in right field made a peg to the plate," the Chicago Tribune said the next day. ""Vic was preparing to slide when the St. Louis pitcher intercepted to throw to make a play on Doyle.

"Vic then realized he didn't have to slide, but in making the change he lost his stride or stumbled, for he rolled over the plate, catching his spikes either in the rubber on in the hard earth and twisting his right leg under him.

"The outside bone in the lower leg was snapped about three inches above the ankle and almost protruded through the flesh.

"Vic writhed in pain and his mates hustled him off to the clubhouse, where Dr. Pitts, the club physician, made an examination and pronounced the bone broken, after which he hurried Saier to a hospital for proper treatment.

"The accident to Saier was sadder by far than the loss of the game, for Vic has been counted as about the strongest player on [Manager Fred] Mitchell's team, and most experts think him the best first sacker in the National League."


Saier returned to play in the Cubs' final game of the season, on Sept. 30. He went 2 for 4, as he had in his first game with the team. This one turned out to be his last.

He sat out 1918, working in a defense plant, and prior to the start of 1919, the Cubs sold him to the Pirates. After 58 games, they released him, ending his career.

His daughter, in an interview many years later, said Saier had asked to be released "because he was disillusioned. He always though of himself as a Cub."

During his time with the Cubs, Saier batted .263/.351/.409, with an OPS of .760 and an OPS+ of 121.


INTERVAL, 1917-25

Following the gruesome injury to Saier in early 1917, the Cubs purchased first baseman Fred Merkle from Brooklyn.

Merkle had been 19 years old when he made the famous "boner" as a Giant against the Cubs that proved pivotal in the 1908 pennant race. Now 29, he played adequately during 3 seasons as a Cub, slashing .278/.330/.374, with an OPS+ of 109. All the numbers were virtually identical to those had had in 10 years with New York before going to Brooklyn, for which he had played just 25 games over 2 seasons.

Merkle played 85 games at first for the Cubs in 1920, but Turner Barber played 69. Normally an outfielder, Barber had played first in only 4 previous games and would play it in only 17 more over the next 2 years.


In 1921, the Cubs gave the first base job to Ray Grimes, who had spent 5 years in the minors before getting into 1 game for the Red Sox in 1920. They sold him to the Cubs in November.

On May 28, Grimes singled, double and homered, raising his slash line after 31 games to .368/.478/.500. Around that time, The Sporting News called him "the best looking first sacker to wear a Cub uniform since Frank Chance."

Grimes finished the year at .321/.406/.449. The next year, he improved to .354/.442/.572, while scoring and knocking in 99 runs. He collected 27 of the RBI during 17 consecutive games in which had at least 1, setting a league record.


During that streak, he sat 10 games with injuries. In 1923, he missed 16 teams in May, went 3 for 6 in 2 games, then required an operation and sidelined until Aug. 6.

Grimes batted .336/.409/.421 after his return, to finish at .329/.401/.407. The next year, he was at .344/.425/.570 through 25 games, then slumped to .250/.376/.369 over his next 26, and was out for 3 weeks during that stretch with yet another injury.

He went a combined 1 for 5 on July 7-8, dropping his average to .299. Managed Bill Killefer then placed Grimes on waivers, telling reporters that the 30-year-old was "just a bit too slow."


Grimes wound up playing 26 more big league games, for the Phillies, in 1926. He played in the minors through 1930, retiring at age 36.

Three other players manned first base for the Cubs during Grimes' final season, led by Hooks Cotter, with 90 games. He failed to impress, was returned to the minors in 1925 and never returned to the Cubs or any other team.


CHARLIE GRIMM 1925-36: 1,321 games at first

Cotter became expendable because, on Oct. 27, 1924, the Cubs had made a 3-for-3 swap with the Pirates. In exchange for pitcher Vic Aldridge, second baseman George Grantham and minor league first baseman Al Niehaus, the Cubs received pitcher Wilbur Cooper, winner of at 202 games in 13 seasons, including 20 in 1924; veteran shortstop Rabbit Maranville; and 25-year-old first baseman Charlie Grimm.

After 12 games with the Athletics in 1916, at age 17, Grimm had played 50 for the Cardinals in 1918. The next year, he joined the Pirates, for whom he raised his batting average from .227 in 1920, to .274, .292 and .345 in the next 3 seasons.

He had hit "only" .288 in 1924, but was still just 26 when he made his debut as a Cub, going 0 for 3 with a walk on April 14, 1925.


In his first 5 games, he was 2 for 14, .143. In his next 22, he was 33 for 78, .423, with 6 doubles, 4 triples and 2 home runs. His on-base percentage was .458; his slugging average, .679.

After the last of those games, on May 18, he was slashing .380/.441/.609.

By the end of June, he was at .341/.386/.541, but over the final 3-plus months, he was only .281/.330/.365. His OPS fell below .900 for good on July 18 and below .800 on Oct. 3, the next-to-last day of the year. He wound up at .793, with a line of .306/.354/.439.

His 159 hits included 29 doubles, 5 triples and a career-high 10 home runs.


Grimm would equal that number in 1929, just 1 of 11 more seasons he would spend with the Cubs -- as a player. He also managed the team for a total of 19 years, in 3 stints: 1932-38, the first 5 seasons as player-manager; 1944-49; and for the first 17 games of 1960, at age 61. His guided the Cubs through late-season surges that won pennants in 1932 and 1935.

His playing career came to an end in 1936, after 2,166 total games, including 1,334 as a Cub, all but 13 at first base.

His slash line for the Cubs was .296/.349/.405, with 270 doubles, 43 triples and 61 home runs.

Yet his final OPS+ was 97, or 3 points below the "average" mark of 100. That value peaked at 126 in 1931, when he batted .331/.393/.458, for .851. It was 100, 103 and 107 in 3 other seasons; 99, once; and 96, twice.


PHIL CAVARRETTA, 1934-53: 1,209 games at first

In Grimm's next-to-last season, 1935, he appeared on the field in just 2 games. A year later, he played in only 35.

Dolph Camilli, the Cubs' first baseman at the start of 1934, was traded to the Phillies after 32 games for Don Hurst, who then manned first in 47 games as a Cub.

Between Sept. 16 and 30, a fourth player held down the position: 18-year-old Phil Cavarretta, who joined the Cubs after only 108 games during the summer with the team's Class B and A minor league affiliates.

In 1935, at age 18, Cavarretta started 145 games at first, and in 1936, still a teenager, 116 more.


During various season over the following 17 years, "Philliabuck" played 539 games in the outfield, and in 6 of them, he spent more times in left, center or right than he did at first, including 102 to 24 in 1947.

In 1937-39, the Cubs literally let it "rip," using 33-year-old Ripper Collins at first base for the first 2 years, then 24-year-old Rip Russell for third.

But in 1940, Cavarretta was back at first, until he was injured in mid-July, after which he appeared in only 6 more games, all a pinch hitter. Russell filled in the rest of the way, then Babe Dahlgren played first in 1941 and split time there with veteran slugger Jimmie Foxx in 1942.


Cavarretta was the regular once more the following year, and in 1944 he played first in 139 games, nearly as many as his 145 in his first full season, 9 years earlier.

He played in 120 in 1945, when the Cubs won the pennant for the third and last time in his career.

From 1947, when he turned 30, through 1953, he played first in 401 of his 721 total games, more than half again as many as his 256 in the outfield. He pinch hit in 152 games.


The 1945 season was Cavarretta's best, as he batted .355/.449/.500, leading the league in the first 2 categories, and being voted its Most Valuable Player.

His average was above .300 in 4 different seasons and his OPS exceeded .800 in 7. In 11 years, his OPS+ was at least 113, with a high of 166 in his MVP campaign.

Cavarretta's final slash line as a Cub was .292/.371/.416, for an OPS of .787 and an OPS+ of 118.

His 1,927 hits included 341 doubles, 99 triples and 92 homers. He walked 794 times and struck out only 585.


INTERVAL, 1946-61

As Cavarretta's number of games at first dwindled in the seasons after World War II, the Cubs cycled through a series of first basemen, none of whom kept the job for an extended period.

In 1946-48, it was Eddie Waitkus, who batted .294/.339/.398. He was an All-Star in his final season, when his line was .306/.403/.829 and his WAR was 3.6, making his 3-year total 7.8. That winter, he was traded to the Phillies.

Herman Reich played the most games at first in 1949, 85, then was sold to the White Sox in February 1950. Preston Ward (76 games) and Cavarretta (67) divided duties that summer.


During spring training of 1951, Chuck Connors and Dee Fondy battled for the starting job, with Fondy winning the competition. On May 23, he was batting .330/.390/.462, but then slumped to .203/.232/.304 through July 1, when he was sent to the Cubs' Los Angeles farm club.

"Manager Frank Frisch decided on the change," the Tribune reported, "just as he had decided to take Fondy instead of Connors when the club left the west coast during spring training. At the time, both players were given the understanding that if Fondy did not live up to expectations, Connors would be recalled."

Connors, the story said, "is the toast of the Coast league. He is batting .333 for 90 games; leads the league in runs batted in with 74, and has made 119 hits, of which 21 were home runs. He is expected to add to Cubs' punch, and remove some of the fielding deficiencies at first base."

Instead, Connors batted .29/.282/.303, with just 2 homers, in 66 games. He would spent 1952 back in the PCL, then retire to pursue a career in acting. He soon gained fame as the star of a TV Western, "The Rifleman."

Fred Richards, a September call-up, batted .296 in 10 games and never appeared in a big league game again.


Opening Day of 1952 found Fondy back at first for the Cubs, and there he stayed for 5 full seasons.

Fondy is the epitome of a player with decent traditional statistics who gets little love from advanced metrics. He played 783 as a Cub, 754 at first base, and slashed .285/.323/.422, with 69 home runs.

But his OPS was 96, slightly below average, and his WAR was just 5.1. It was 2.6 in 1952, his first full season, then declined in each succeeding year: 2.1, 1.2, 0.2, -0.6. That

final number, in 1956, was fifth lowest among 35 Cubs who had significant playing time.

On May 1, 1957, Fondy and second baseman Gene Baker, the team's second Black player, were traded to the Pirates, for first baseman Dale Long and outfielder Lee Walls.


Long had been an All-Star in 1956, when he became the first player to hit a home run in 8 consecutive games and finished with 27 homers. He was batting just. 182, with no homers, when he was dealt to the Cubs.

The change in scenery paid off almost immediately, and Long went on to hit .305/.383/.511 the rest of the season, with 21 homers. His OPS+ was 139.

But over the next 2 years, he homered only 20 more times. His batting average fell to .271, then .236; his OPS, to .824, then .738; and his OPS+, to 118, then 96.

Just before the start of the 1960 season, the Cubs sold him to the Giants.


The Cubs' first baseman on Opening Day of 1960 was George Altman, who had played 120 games in the field as a rookie the previous year, all in the outfield. He returned to the outfield in early May, and about a week later, the Cubs acquired veteran Ed Bouchee from the Phillies.

Bouchee played 80 games at first for the Cubs that year and 107 the next. Early on, it became evident that he, too, was not going to last long at the position. He was left unprotected in the expansion draft that followed the 1961 season and was selected by the New York Mets.

But in 1962, the Cubs finally found a long-term first baseman again -- and an unlikely one, at that.


TOMORROW: More great Cubs first basemen

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