Who's on first? For Cubs, often a star, Part 2

Second of 2 parts. Part 1 covered the careers of Cap Anson, Frank Chance, Vic Saier, Charlie Grimm and Phil Cavarretta -- and the Cubs' search for a long-term first baseman throughout the 1950s and early 1960s.


ERNIE BANKS, 1962-71: 1,259 games at first base

The future "Mr. Cub" became the team's first Black player when he made his debut against the Phillies Sept. 17, 1953. He played in every game the next season, then again in 6 of the next 7 -- all at shortstop.

In 1955, his second full season, he slammed 44 home runs. From 1957-60, he hit 43, 47, 45 and 41. The 47 and 41 led both leagues, as did his 129 RBI in 1958 and 143 in 1959.

He was voted the NL's Most Valuable Player in each of those years, and was in the top 6 in the voting in 3 other seasons.

In 1960, the fourth year of the award, Banks won a Gold Glove at shortstop, at age 29.


But his knees were becoming a problem. In hopes of reducing the wear and tear on them, Banks agreed to shift to left field. He quickly decided he did not his new location, and on July 1, he returned to shortstop, where he remained for the final 74 games of the season.

But Banks did not directly from left to short; for 7 games, from June 16-22, he played first base.

After his first game there, Edward Prell of the Tribune quoted El Tappe, the Cubs' head coach: "Ernie is complaining of too much free time in left field. He wants more action and the first base job should placate Banks, as there is not much free time and there is considerable action at first base."

Prell also wrote: "The Banks of today little resembles the Cub shortstop of yesteryear. He has become quit and evinces signs of despondency and the old bounce has disappeared."


Bouchee and Andre Rodgers shared first base through the end of 1961. Rodgers ordinarily was a shortstop, and starting with the Cubs' first intrasquad training game of 1962, he was back at short -- with Banks at first, this time for good.

Over the next 10 years, Banks played 1,252 games at first, making his career total 1,259, or 134 more than he spent at shortstop.

In his final game, on Sept. 26, 1971, Banks went 1 for 3 with a walk. The hit was his 2,583rd in 2,528 games. He retired, at age 40, with 512 home runs, tied with Eddie Matthews for the eighth-most in Major League history. (Today, they are tied for 23rd.)

His slash line was .274/.330/.500; his OPS+, 122; and his WAR, 67.7, at the time the second-highest in team history behind Cap Anson, and still the fourth-highest, after Anson, Ron Santo and Ryne Sandberg.


BILL BUCKNER, 1977-84: 855 games at first

During the 5 seasons after Banks retired, first base became a merry-go-round for the Cubs.

No fewer than 18 different players spent time at first. Andre Thornton played 85 in 1974 and 108 in 1975. No one else played more than 73 in any year.

Among the others who were tried at first: Larry Biittner, Ray Bourque, Carmen Fanzone, Jim Hickman, Pete LaCock and Joe Pepitone. The latter had played 95 games there in 1971, Banks' farewell season.

Even long-time outfielder Billy Williams, destined for the Hall of Fame, got into the act. He played 89 total games at first, 65 of them in 1974, his last of 16 seasons as a Cub.

In 1976, the Cubs trotted out 8 first basemen, including Rick Monday, whose 1,163 games on defense in 10 previous seasons all had been an outfield. Monday played first in 32 games in 1976. Only LaCock (52) and Biittner (33) played more.


On Jan. 11, 1977, the Cubs sent Monday and pitcher Mike Garman to the Dodgers. They received shortstop Ivan de Jesus; a minor league pitcher, Jeff Albert; and 27-year-old Bill Buckner.

"Billy Buck" had broken in as an outfielder. In 1973, he was the Dodgers' most frequent first sacker, playing 93 games there. But he played only 7 more over the next 3 years, compared to 361 in the outfield, as Steve Garvey began a 9-year run at first for Los Angeles. He was the Most Valuable Player in 1974 and an All Star each year from 1974-81.

The Cubs handed their first base job to Buckner and he played hardly anywhere else through 1983: just 50 games in the outfield in 1980 and 15 in 1983.


In 974 total games as a Cub, Buckner batted .300/.332/.439, with an OPS+ of 107. His WAR in his 7 full seasons was 9.1, of which 3.7 came in 1982.

That was the last of 4 seasons as a Cub in which he batted above .300. He was the NL batting champion in 1980, when he hit .324, a career high by 1 point over his average 2 years earlier.

In 1981, he led both leagues in doubles, with 35; in 1983, the NL, with 38. His high was 41, in 1980.

Of his 1,136 hits for the Cubs, 235 where doubles, more than 20 percent. He also hit 25 triples and 81 homers.

Buckner also struck out in just 159 of 4,043 plate appearances, just 1 of every 25.4.


Buckner played in 161 of the Cubs' 162 games in 1983, then 153 the next year, at age 33.

However, he was not in the lineup on Opening Day of 1984. On May 25, after appearing in 21 games, only 7 of them starts, he was traded to the Red Sox, for pitcher Dennis Eckersley and infielder Mike Brumley.


LEON DURHAM, 1981-88: 575 games at first

Buckner's replacement already was a 2-time All-Star as a Cub.

Acquired from the Cardinals after 1980, his rookie season, over the next 3 years, playing outfield, Durham slashed .291/.374/.489, with an OPS+ of 138. It was 151 in 1982, when he finished at .312/.388/.521 and had a WAR of 4.7.

That year, Durham hit 22 homers and drove in 90 runs. In 1984, he homered 23 times and collected 96 RBI to help the Cubs win their first pennant since 1945.

In 1987, he hit 27 homers, most of his career. He hit a total of 173 as a Cub, the last 3 in April 1988, shortly before he was traded to the Reds for pitcher Pat Perry.

In all of his 921 games with the Cubs, Durham put up a line of .279/.362/.484. His OPS+ was 128; his WAR, 15.3.


MARK GRACE, 1988-2000: 1,890 games at first

When he was called up, Grace was a 24-year-old who never had played a big league game. He was batting only .254 through 21 games with Iowa, the Cubs' top farm team. But the previous 2 years, he had hit .342 in 126 games at Class A, then .333 in 123 at Class AA.

Grace went 2 for 5 in his debut on May 2, 1988. He eventually manned first base for 13 years, playing more games at the position than anyone else in the Modern Era.

Those first 2 hits, both singles, were followed by 1,199 more, including 511 doubles, 45 triples and 173 homers.

His batting average was above .300 in 9 seasons, with a peak of .325 in 1993, the first of 3 years he was an All-Star. He finished at .298 in another season and .298 in one more.

Only once did he bat below .280, en route to a final slash line of .308/.386/.455 and an OPS+ was 122.

His WAR, 44.2, is 15th in team history, 12th among position players overall, 6th among position players whose careers began after World War II -- and best, by far, among first basemen. He holds the latter distinction to this day.


INTERVAL, 2001-03

In 1994 and 1995, Mark Grace had become a free agent, only to sign again with the Cubs. On Oct. 20, 2000, he became a free agent once more, at age 36.

Three weeks later, the Cubs traded a minor league pitcher, Eric Ireland, to the Athletics for Matt Stairs, who would turn 33 in late February of 2001. Grace then signed with Arizona.

Stairs, inevitably described as "a professional hitter," had played 690 big league games before joining the Cub, 571 of them over the previous 4 seasons.

He had played 16 at first base. But that is where he was on Opening Day and for virtually every game through late July. Then a deal with the Rays brought veteran Fred McGriff to the Cubs and sent Stairs to the outfield.

"Crime Dog" McGriff hit 12 homers in his 49 games as a Cub in 2001, then 30 in 146 games in 2002. He turned 39 on Halloween. The next day, he became a free agent. On New Year's Eve, he signed with the Dodgers.

Back on Dec. 4, 2002, the Cubs had made a trade with the Dodgers, obtaining second baseman Mark Grudzielanek and first baseman Eric Karros. They helped the 2003 Cubs win their first pennant since 1989, then they, too, headed for greener pastures.

Hee-Seop Choi had played 22 games at first for the Cubs in 2002, at age 23, and 69 in 2003. But he had batted only .210/.337/.401, with an OPS+ of just 92.

Clearly, someone better was needed.


DERREK LEE, 2004-10: 910 games at first

That someone turned out to be slugger and Gold Glove fielder Derrek Lee. He had taken over at first base for the Marlins in 1998 and over 6 seasons homered 129 times while slashing .264/.353/.469, for an OPS+ of 115.

Lee had set career highs of 31 homers and 92 RBI in 2003, as the Marlins earned a wild card berth, then won the World Series in 6 games against the Yankees.

Almost as soon as the final out was made, management began dismantling the team, and on Nov. 25, Lee was swapped to the Cubs for Choi and a minor league pitcher.

The deal was made 2 days before Thanksgiving. Over the next 7 seasons, Cubs fans would be extremely thankful for the trade.


In his first year as a Cub, Lee played first in 161 games -- and pinch hit in the only 1 he did not. He played first 158 times the next year, 154 in 2008, and at least 141 in 2 other seasons.

He surpassed his previous highs for both homers (32) and RBI (98) in his first year with the Cubs, then enjoyed the greatest season of his career in the second, 2005.

Lee led all batters in both leagues in average (.335), slugging (.662), OPS (1.080), OPS+ (174) and total bases (393). His 199 hits were the most in the NL; his 50 doubles, the most in either league.

He slugged 46 homers, 14 more than he ever had before, or would again, and drove in 107 runs, a total he would top only in 2009, with 111.

His body of work made him an All-Star for the first time. He won a first Silver Slugger, a second Gold Glove and came in third in voting for Most Valuable Player.


Lee never reached such lofty heights again, but in both 2007 and 2009, his final batting average was above .300 and his OPS above .900. In 2007 and 2008, the Cubs won division titles.

His .306 average and .972 OPS in 2009, at age 33, were his highest in 4 years. But after 109 games in 2010, he was at .251 and .751. On Aug. 10, the Cubs traded him to the Braves for 3 minor leaguers.


ANTHONY RIZZO, 2014-2021: 1,303 games at first

For the rest of 2010, the Cubs' first baseman was Xavier Nady, normally an outfielder, who had played first in 79 of his 679 games prior to 2010.

Veteran Carlos Pena was signed as a free agent in December, hit 28 homers in 2011 despite batting just .225, then signed with the Rays, for whom he had played before joining the Cubs.

The next year, the Opening Day starter at first was 29-year-old Bryan LaHair, who had hit .288/.377/.508 in 20 games the previous season. The 29-year-old started the season 4 for 9, including 2 doubles and a homer, and by May 7, through 26 games, he was batting .388/.479/.800, with 9 doubles and 8 home runs.

LaHair eventually was named to the All-Star team, but well before he was, reality had set in. From May to Oct. 3, when the season ended, his slash line was .219/.285/.342 -- with 8 doubles and 8 homers, almost the same totals in his final 104 games as in his first 26.


Back in January, the Cubs had sent pitcher Andrew Cashner and a minor leaguer to the Padres for 22-year-old Anthony Rizzo, who had played 49 games for San Diego in 2011, batting just .141/.281/.242.

New Cubs President Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer had known Rizzo since he was 17 and had signed with the Red Sox while the 2 men were running the Sox. Hoyer had traded for Rizzo in 2010 while GM of the Padres.

Their faith was rewarded quickly. In 70 games at Iowa, Rizzo batted .342/.405/.696, with 18 home runs, earning promotion to the Cubs.

On June 26, he manned first base at Wrigley Field, with LaHair in right field. Rizzo doubled and singled. He started the next game at first, too, and all but 1 of the remaining 135, ending the season at .285/.342/.463.

LaHair, who finished at .259/.334/.450, was released in November. He never played another big league game.


Rizzo, of course, went on to become the face of the Cubs. In the Modern Era, only Mark Grace and Charlie Grimm have played more games for the team at first base.

A 3-time All Star, "Rizz" was a 4-time Gold Glove winner, recognized as one of the game's best defenders at first base.

At bat, he was a model of consistency. From 2014-17, he hit 32, 31, 32 and 32 home runs. From 2015-18, he drove in 101, 109, 109 and 101 runs.

In the 2016 League Championship Series, Rizzo hit .320/.370/.640, then in the World Series he slashed .360/.484/.600.

And when he caught Kris Bryant's throw for the third out in the bottom of the 10th inning of Game 7, then tucked the ball in his back pocket, he made grown men cry with joy.


Some of them may have cried again on July 29, 2021, when the Cubs traded Rizzo to the Yankees as part of their mid-season sell-off/fire sale/rebuild.

From the day he took over from LaHair, through his single in 4 at bats in a loss at Cincinnati the day before he was traded, Rizzo put together a slash line of .272/.372/.489, for an OPS of .861 and an OPS+ of 130.

He hit 242 homers, sixth most in team history and most by anyone while playing first base; Banks hit 212 of his 512 at first. Lee is a distant third, with 178.

Rizzo also had 276 doubles, with a high of 43, and even 20 triples.

He was hit by 165 pitches, a team record by 28 over runnerup Frank Chance's 137 and nearly double the 86 of No. 3 Kris Bryant.


INTERVAL: 2021-?

From July 30 through Aug. 1, the Cubs played 3 games, in which Patrick Wisdom held down first base.

After an off day, the position was manned by 29-year-old Frank Schwindel, who had been in the minor leagues since 2011, except for 15 games with the Royals in 2019 and 20 with the Athletics in 2021.

In his first at bat as a Cub, Schwindel doubled. Three days later, he homered, and he hasn't stopped hitting since.

Through Sept. 15, he had multiple hits in 17 of his 40 games while batting .362/.409/.684, for an OPS of 1.093 and an OPS+ of 187.

Among his 55 hits were 11 doubles, a triple and 12 home runs. Five of his homers put the Cubs in front, including a grand slam. He also had a walk-off single.


No one expects "Frank the Tank" to keep up his other-worldly start as a Cub. But only time will tell if he becomes No. 12 in the pantheon of the team's long-term first baseman:

1. Cap Anson: 2,059 games at first base

2. Frank Chance: 989

3. Vic Saier: 786

4. Charlie Grimm: 1,321

5. Phil Cavarretta: 1,209

6. Ernie Banks: 1,259

7. Bill Buckner: 855

8. Leon Durham: 575

9. Mark Grace, 1,890

10. Derrek Lee: 910

11. Anthony Rizzo: 1,303


That is a total of 13,156 games, an average of 1,196 per player, with a median of 1,209.

From May 2, 1879, when Anson played first for the first time, through July 29, 2021, when Rizzo did so for the last time, the Cubs played 21,524 games.

So those 11 men were the team's first baseman for 61.1 percent of their games over 144 season!



In the Modern Era, the Cubs have used 273 different first basemen. Yearly rosters at for 1876-1900 specify 7 more.

There clearly were others, however.

In the 1876, Cal McVey, the only listed first baseman, played 63 total games, but the team played 66.

I checked the Chicago Tribune's box score for all 66 and found that John Glenn, normally a left fielder, started 9 games at first base. In 5 of them, McVey was the starting pitcher, including a 1-hit complete game. In 1, McVey was the catcher.


Anson did not play in 185 of the team's 2,277 games between 1879 and 1897, the years he played first base, yet the only 2 identified as first basemen on rosters in those years are Joe Start (6 total games, in 1879) and Milt Scott (1 game, in 1882).

In 1898-1900, after Anson retired, the only first baseman on each year's roster played 149 of 152 games,

136 of 152 and 101 of 156.

Add them up, and there are 259 games in 1879-1900 in which somebody else had to have played first base!



In the Modern Era, there have been 140 who played first in fewer than 10 games, including 45 in just 1.

The 1-timers include Joey Amalfitano, Wellington Castillo, Jody Davis, Harvey Kuenn, Tommy LaStella, Miguel Montero, Benito Santiago, Kyle Schwarber and Todd Zeile.

No fewer than 5 made their one and only appearance at first for the Cubs this season: Taylor Gushue, P.J. Higgins, Joc Pederson and Eric Sogard.

Matt Duffy did it twice.


Two of those who played first just once ordinarily were pitchers: Rube Waddell in 1901 and Orval Overall in 1910.

In 1902, pitcher Jack Taylor played first in both games of a doubleheader, but never again.


Dutch Reuther made his debut, as a pitcher for the Cubs, on April 13, 1917, pinch hit the next 2 days, then played first for 5 straight games. After that, he pitched 9 times and pinch hit 16 before being waived in mid-July.

Reuther ultimately played 11 seasons. After leaving the Cubs, he appeared in 457 games, pitching in 299

457 pitch, pinch hitting in 167 and played first base in 3.


Frank Corridon pitched in 12 games, played first in 6 and outfield in 2 for the 1904 Cubs, who dealt him to the Phillies in late July.

From 1901-03, Jock Menefee was a pitcher in 63 games, an outfielder in 47 and a first baseman in 22. For good measure, he played second and third base in 2 games each!

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