The saga of the rebuilding 1901 Cubs

In 6 days, the Cubs will conclude a season that, by any realistic measurement, has been their most disappointing in years.

Considered a possible playoff team on Opening Day, they held first place after 24 days on which they played.

On June 13, after completing a 3-game sweep of the Cardinals, they were 11 games over .500.

Then they lost 3 in a row at New York and 17 of 21, including 11 straight, and tumbled to fourth place, with more losses than wins.

And that's where they will be when the season ends: fourth, only because the Pirates also are in the division, and far under .500. They now are 18 games below the break-even point.


The Cubs have had many previous losing seasons, of course. Some, like 2021, began with optimism. Others came as no surprise.

One such season was 1901, the first of the Modern Era, 120 years ago.



The Cubs, then known as the Orphans, did not finish last in the 8-team league. But they wound up 37 games behind the champion Pirates, as they won 53 games, lost 86 and tied 1.

Those 53 wins remain their fewest in any non-strike season in which they played even 128 games, let alone 140.

Their .381 winning percentage was the lowest in their 26 seasons in the National League. They would not have a lower percentage through the final 60 years of the 8-team league.

In 1962, the first year of the Expansion Era, they would post a .364 percentage (59-103), which they would match in 1966.

They finished at .369 (38-65-3) in strike-shortened 1981 and at .377 in 2012 (61-101).

So, 120 years later, the 1901 Cubs have the fifth-lowest winning percentage of the Modern Era, and fourth lowest in a season that was completed.



During their first 16 seasons in the Nation League, the White Stockings (1876-89) and Colts (1890-91) had only 1 losing season: their second, 1877, when they went 26-33-1,l .441, in a 6-team league.

Two years later, they were 67-17-2, .798, and won their second pennant. They won 4 more through 1886, then came in second 3 times and third twice from 1887-91.

Their run of success ended in 1892, when they finished 70-76-1, .479, and plummeted to seventh place among 12 teams.

In 1893, they had their worst season yet: 56-71-1, .441, placing ninth. They had 1 more win the next year, but 4 more losses, for a percentage of just .432, and wound up eighth.


The Colts returned to winning ways in 1895: 72-58-3, .554. They virtually duplicated that the following season: 71-57-4, .555.

After a reversal in 1897 to 59-73-6, .447, long-time player/manager Cap Anson was fired. Under his successor, Tom Burns, they soared to 85-65-2, .567, in 1898, good for fourth place.

But their win total dropped by 10 a year later, to 75, and their percentage slipped to .507.

Then they won 10 fewer games again in 1900, finishing 65-75-6, .464, sixth of the 8 teams, and 19 games out of first.



In a lengthy recap of the season published on its final day, Oct. 14, the Chicago Tribune wrote:

"And winding up where charity begins, there is the home club -- still the home club, although half the fans in town have disowned it. . . .

"[Manager Tom] Loftus, with nothing to work on but a bunch of good pitchers, made the team play ball. He has experimented through most of the year, and the constant changing of the infield has made team work almost impossible. Only one man on the team (McCarthy) has played consistent ball.

"After hope was dead the team sank back to its proper level by slow stages, dropping back out of the race with Brooklyn, then falling below Philadelphia, then succumbing in the struggle with Boston.

"Later Loftus, tired of the quitting tendency of his older players, discarded them entirely and put in all his youngsters to try them out before the end of the year, and, while this experiment was being tried, the team fell rapidly down the percentages column."

In other words, Loftus and the Orphans began a rebuild, much as the Cubs did at midseason this year.


The "McCarthy" mentioned in the recap was Jack McCarthy. He had the second-highest batting average among the team's regulars, .294, to fellow outfielder Danny Green's .298. But McCarthy's OPS was just .683, trailing 4 teammates, and his OPS was a below-average 92.

His WAR was just 0.7 -- not that anyone knew about WAR back then; it would not be invented for more than a century. That 0.7 ranked only 11th on the club. Three pitchers -- Clark Griffith (5.0), Ned Garvin (3.9) and Jack Taylor (2.6) led the way. The top position player was utility man Sam Mertes (2.4).



The Tribune's summary of the Orphans' season ended this way:

"The team is full of signs of promise for next year, and with Loftus to lop off the dead timber, there are brighter days ahead."

Indeed there were. But not in 1901.



The Orphans had used 30 players in 1900, 10 of them pitchers. Only 13 would be with the team in 1901.

Three of the 17 others were traded during the off season. Pitcher Garvin, first baseman John Ganzel and reserve infielder Sammy Strang were sent to the Giants in exchange for first baseman Jack Doyle.

Catcher Art Nichols moved on to the Cardinals.

Pitcher Frank Killen, a veteran of 10 seasons with 5 teams, retired, as did Jimmy "Pony" Ryan, the franchise leader with 99 career home runs in 15 seasons.

When catcher Tim Donahue held out for a larger salary, as he had before 1900, the Orphans released him. Team President Jim Hart revealed that Donahue had been paid $2,200 in 1900 and declared "that was about $1,200 more than he was worth, but we paid it just the same."

None of the other National League teams signed Donahue. Nor did any of the 8 clubs in the American League, which had newly cleared itself a second Major League.


No fewer than 10 members of 1900 Cubs did jump to AL teams in 1901.

Four of them never left town, as Griffith, fellow pitchers Jimmy Callahan and Zaza Harvey, and Mertes joined the White Sox, who would win the AL's first pennant.

Harvey had pitched in just 1 game for the Orphans in 1900, but Griffith was 14-13 in 30 games and Callahan, 13-16 in 32. For the Sox, they would go 24-7 and 15-8, respectively.

McCarthy, the only Orphan who had "played consistent ball" in 1900, according to the Tribune, spent 1901 with the Cleveland Blues, as did third baseman Bill Bradley.

Catcher Roger Bresnahan who had played 2 games for the Orphans as a 21-year-old rookie, went to he Baltimore Orioles. The future Hall of Famer would return to the Orphans, by then the Cubs, for his final 3 seasons, 1913-15, the last as player/manager.

Three Orphans, all of whom had been reserves, signed with the Washington Senators: shortstop Billy Clingman, first baseman Bill Everitt and outfielder Sam Dungan.



The Orphans' starting lineup at St. Louis on April 19, Opening Day, of 1901 had exactly 1 holdover from the previous Opening Day, Cupid Childs leading off and playing second base.

Doyle, Jim Delahanty and McCormick played first, third and short, instead of Everitt, Harry Wolverton and Clingman. Wolverton, it should be noted, had played all of 3 games for the Orphans in 1900 before being sold to the Phillies.

The all-new outfield, from left to right, was made up of Topsy Hartsel, Danny Green and Cozy Dolan. A year earlier, it had been Ryan, Mertes and McCarthy.

Johnny Kling was the catcher, succeeding Donahue.


The starting pitcher was Taylor, by far the most experienced returnee on the staff, having gone 10-17 in 28 games.

Also back: 33-year-old Jock Menefee, the Game 1 starter in 1900, who had finished 9-4 in 16 games; Mal Eason and Tom Hughes, both 22, who had pitched in 1 and 3 games, respectively; Bert Cunningham, 35, who had appeared in 8 games in 1900 and would pitch just once in 1901.

The only newcomer in the rotation would not arrive until May, obtained in a trade with the Pirates: an eccentric, 24-year-old left hander, named George Edward "Rube" Waddell. He would lead the team in victories in 1901, by 1 over Taylor, and go on to earn a plaque in the Hall of Fame. But 1901 would be his only year as a Cub, as he jumped to the Philadelphia Athletics of the American League after the season.

At 14-14, Waddell would be the only Orphans pitcher who avoided a losing record. Menefee would finish 8-12; Eason, 8-17; Hughes, 10-23; and Taylor, 13-19.



The Orphans' debut was delayed for a day by bad weather in St. Louis, but the Tribune reported, "Loftus' men were not idle today. Captain Doyle, fearing his men would get stiff and sore from inaction, determined upon keeping them at work.

"He secured Athletic Park, and took the train out there for the final practice during the afternoon. The grounds were in fairly good condition, and for almost three hours the men worked hard, then bundled up, and returned to the hotel in a bus.

"Doyle then took a squad of his players, whose arms are feeling the effect of the cold weather, to a Turkish bath, where they took a steam bath and a hard massage."



In the game the next day, Doyle rapped out 4 hits, all singles, in 5 at bats. Hartsel and Dolan each had 3; Delahanty, Kling and McCormick, 2 apiece.

The Orphans amassed 18 in all, yet barely held on to win, 8-7 -- their eighth straight on Opening Day.

Said the Tribune:

"Doyle's little band of experiments, the remnants of the teams of former years, went out on the field at Sportsman's Park, and by clear grit and nerve, won a game which any team of Chicagoans for the last ten years would have given up long before it was half played.

"Before the struggle was finished the 7,000 people in the stands cheered the remnants and howled praise down upon them, even when the disappointment was bitterest . . .

"There were mistakes; there were flies misjudged, and there were wild throws. Besides there were two decisions by Umpire Emslie which seemed, for the time, to be ruinous for Chicago's chances for victory, and once, after making a mistake, Emslie fined Doyle $5."



The Cardinals tallied 2 runs in the first inning, then there was no further scoring until the fourth, when the Orphans tallied 4. Doyle began the rally with the first of his hits. After a hit batsman and an out, Kling tied the score with a double. He came home on a single by Childs, who raced around the bases on a triple by Hartsel.

St. Louis pulled even with a pair in the bottom of the inning.

The Orphans went in front ahead, 5-4, in the fifth, as Doyle singled, stole second and was singled in by McCormick.

The lead lasted only 3 batters. With runners on first and second, the Cardinals tried a double steal. Kling's throw sailed past third base and both men scored, making the score 6-5 in favor of St. Louis.

Now it was the Orphans' turn to go back on top. With 1 out in the sixth, Hartsel smacked his second triple. Singles by Dolan, Green and Doyle resulted in 3 runs, good for an 8-6 lead.



In the seventh, Delahanty failed to catch a foul popup. Moments later, the batter hit a home run, bringing the Cardinals to within 8-7.

The Tribune described what happened next:

"[Jesse] Burkett, the premier hitter of the National League, had made three hits. This time, he faced Taylor, determined to wrest victory from the grasp of the Chicagoans. He caught a straight ball squarely on his bat and drove it straight at Taylor.

"The ball struck the pitcher on the leg, knocked his feet from under him, and bounded back. In an instant Taylor was on his feet, chasing the ball, and by a desperate effort recovered it in time to throw the fleet Burkett out at first, then he sank to the ground with the flesh torn from his leg for two inches.

"Even then Taylor would not quit, but resumed pitching."



Taylor struck out Burkett to open the ninth. The next batter was Emmet Heidrick, who already had produced a single, double and triple.

This time, he "drove the sphere on a line over Hartsel's head. The little tow-headed recruit . . . turned in pursuit. [Shortstop] McCormick tore out to help him relay the ball to the plate.

"It was a race for victory between Heidrick and Hartsel, two of the speediest men in the business. Hartsel got the ball against the left field bleachers just as Heidrick turned second and tore on toward the plate.

"Hartsel shot the ball toward McCormick. Heidrick was turning third. [Dick] Padden, on the [coach] lines, was urging Heidrick to greater efforts and spurring him on towards the plate.

"McCormick turned and shot the ball on a line toward Kling, who was waiting at the plate. The ball and the man came down the line together. Kling grabbed the sphere, tagged Heidrick on the back as he slid, and St. Louis was defeated."



Well, not exactly. That was the second out of the inning, not the third.

The next 2 batters singled, raising to 14 the number of hits off Taylor. The Cardinals then tried another double steal.

"Kling stopped a low pitch, grabbed the ball when it was too late to catch either runner, and made another low throw to third. This time, however, Delahanty jumped out and blocked the ball, saving the day.

"A hit meant defeat in the eleventh hour, and the crowd stood up urging [Bobby] Wallace to reclaim the victory."

Wallace earlier had doubled and made 3 outs. With the game on the line, "Wallace hit the ball hard and far out to right, but Dolan was crouched under it and the game was over."



The thrilling victory, in the Orphans' first game of the Modern Era, was the high point of their entire season.

And it did not even gain them a share of first place, as Brooklyn also won, improving to 2-0.

The Orphans lost the next 2 games at St. Louis, then 1 at Cincinnati and 3 more at home to the Reds, making them 1-6 before they defeated the Reds, 9-6, for their first win at home on April 29.

They won the finale of the 5-game series the next day and began May with a win at Pittsburgh. Then they dropped 2 out of 3 to end that series, followed by 4 straight at home to the Pirates.

The last of the those losses, on May 9, made their record 5-12, putting them in last place.

They rose to seventh by sweeping 3 games at home against the Cardinals and stayed there while splitting 4 at New York.

But a 4-0 loss at Philadelphia on May 18 returned the Orphans to eighth, and there they remained, game after game, through their next 92 contests, by which time they were 48-68, 22 games out of first.

They lost their final 6 games in June to finish the month 7-20, then lost their first 2 in July, for a season-high 8 straight defeats.



The Orphans had their longest winning streak, 5 games, July 17-21 -- a sweep of an extended series at home against the Giants.

They won 4 in a row July 26-30, then suffered a 14-inning loss that made them 15-15 for the month.

They missed a chance for a winning record in August, too, by losing their last game, the second of a doubleheader, to wind up 12-12.

Two wins in 3 games at New York to start September finally lifted the Orphans out of the cellar. They promptly lost 6 in a row to return to it.

They repeated that rise and fall 3 more times over the next few weeks, during which they lost 5 in a row twice. The final loss in the second of those skids made it impossible for them even to equal their previous low of 56 wins in 1893.

The 5-1 loss to the Giants put the Orphans 2 games behind the seventh-place Reds (48-79).



That was on Thursday, Sept. 26. While there were 10 days to go in the season, the Orphans had only 4 games still to play, all at home.

On Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 28 and 29, they beat the Giants and lost to the Superbas, today's Dodgers. The made the Orphans 52-85, still 2 games behind the Reds (51-80) but only 1.5 behind the Giants (51-81).

The next 5 days, the Orphans were idle. The Giants played 2 games and the Reds, 5. Both teams lost them all.

There were no games in the league on Thursday and Friday, so going into the final weekend, the bottom of the standings found the Giants sixth, at 51-83; the Orphans, seventh, at 52-85; and the Reds eighth, at 51-86.



On Saturday, the Orphans hosted the Pirates, who were 89-49 and had clinched the pennant back on Sept. 26.

The score was tied at 1 when Charlie Dexter singled with 1 out in the eighth. After a second out, Fred Raymer's hit sent Dexter to third.

"Raymer went down to steal second," the Tribune reported, "and [catcher George] Yeager let fly the ball at [shortstop Honus] Wagner, who instantly returned the throw when Dexter broke for home.

"Dexter was caught a mile, but Yeager dropped the ball as he dived the touch the runner."

The Orphans made that run stand up for a 2-1 victory. When the Giants (52-85) lost both games a doubleheader, their final games of the season, the Orphans (53-85) found themselves alone in sixth place, the highest they had been since they were fifth, at 1-2, on April 21 -- 136 games ago!



They finished sixth, too, by .001 over the Giants, .381 to .380. The Reds wound up last, at .374 (52-87), 1 game behind the pair.

The Orphans' final game, alas, was anything a bookend to their thrilling win on Opening Day, nearly 6 months earlier.

The Tribune deemed it "a burlesque game which the Pirates were forced to take because of the misplays of the locals. The final score was 9 to 5. . . .

"With nine runs accrued in three innings from three hits, only one of which was good for more than a base, it is a sample of weird fielding and general messing about of the ball.

"Such playing a valedictory crowd of perhaps 3,000 spectators was forced to witness. The Remnants made eight actual fielding misplays, besides battery errors and errors of judgments, and Pittsburgh three.

"Hughes started the trouble by his wildness, and incidentally brought about his own downfall, although he was hit safely only four times. Four bases on balls, two batters hit and four errors, three of which were childish, took the glamour off his performance and enabled Pittsburgh to roll up its runs so rapidly that, although it failed to score in the last five innings, the game was clinched."



At least the final game was not a blowout. The Orphans suffered 19 of those, enjoying only 11. They also lost 22 games by 1 run, winning 17.

The last loss made them 6-14 for the season against the Pirates. They were 6-13 vs. Boston, 7-13 vs. Brooklyn and a horrendous 3-17 vs Philadelphia.

They split their 20 games with both Cincinnati and St. Louis, leaving New York (11-9) as the only rival against which they won more often than they lost.

The 1901 Orphans were 30-39 at home, compared to 23-47 on the road, although their run differential actually was slightly better beyond Chicago: minus-57 on the road, minus-64 at home.

They finished 1 run short of allowing 700, while scoring only 578.

Their average of 4.13 runs scored per game was well below the 4.70 of the 7 other teams, while their 4.99 runs allowed was higher than their rivals' combined 4.58.



The Orphans ranked fifth in team batting average (.258) and on-base percentage (.310), and sixth in slugging (.326) and OPS (.636). They were last in home runs (8) and next-to-last in doubles (7), but first in steals (204).

They were No. 5 in ERA (3.33) and hits allowed (1,348, or 9.62 per game), while leading the league in strikeouts (586, or 4.19 per game!).

They had the most complete games, 131, but the fewest shutouts: 2, 1 each by Eason and Hughes.



There would be another massive turnover in personnel during the off season.

Hartsel had been by far the Orphans' best player, with a WAR of 5.6 and an OPS+ of 161, thanks to a slash line of .335/.414/.475. He jumped to Philadelphia of the American League.

Green (3.9 and 131, .313/.364/.421) signed with the White Sox.

That left only 1 player from 1901 who had an OPS+ of more than 100 still with the Orphans in 1902: 24-year-old Frank Chance, who had finished at 118, with a WAR of 1.6, while batting .278/.376/.361.

Chance had played in 69 games in 1901, 51 in the outfield, 13 at catcher and 6 at first base. In 1902, he would play 76 games, 30 behind the plate and 38 at first. And in 1903, he would become a full-time first baseman, never playing any other position during the rest of his 10 seasons as a Cub en route to the Hall of Fame.


Childs, Doyle, McCormick and Raymer were gone in 1902 as well. McCormick's successor at shortstop was Joe Tinker, also destined for Cooperstown.

Pitchers Hughes defected to Baltimore. Eason returned, but pitched in only 2 games.

The most prominent departure of all was Loftus, fired a manager after 2 seasons. He, too, went to the AL, taking over as manager of the Senators.

The Orphans replaced Loftus with Frank Selee, who had managed rival Boston for the previous 12 seasons, winning 5 pennants.

In 1901, despite losing several top players to the new league, Selee had guided the Beaneaters to a 69-69 record, putting them fifth, 16.5 games ahead of the Orphans but 20.5 behind the Pirates.

Orphans President Jim Hart, whom Selee had replaced as manager in Boston, quickly signed him to take over in Chicago.



In their first season under Selee, the Orphans improved by 15 victories, winding up 68-69, in fifth place. They were 82-56 the next year, their first widely known as the Cubs.

Then, from 1904 through 1912, led by Selee and then Chance, they never won fewer than 91 games in a season, winning 65 percent of their games (898-477-22).

During those 9 years, the only disappointment was that the Cubs did not win more pennants and World Series. They led the league four times and they won the Series twice.

The biggest disappointment likely was in 1906, the first time they played in the Series, when they were upset by the White Sox. In the regular season, the Cubs had won 116 games, still a Major League record -- and more than twice the 53 they had won just 5 years earlier!

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