Cubs' greatest rival: Part 1

Ask a group of Cubs fans to name the team's greatest rival and the answers almost always will be the same.

Some will say the Brewers. There will be a smattering of votes for the White Sox. But the overwhelming choice will be the Cardinals.

Various media long have referred to the Cardinals as the Cubs' "traditional" rival, and games between the teams certainly have been closely contested.

From 1892 through 2021, the Cubs have beaten the Cardinals 1,253 times, only 57 more than the Cardinals have beaten the Cubs, and 19 games have ended in ties.

That makes the Cubs' winning percentage against the Cardinals .512, equivalent to 83-79 over a full, 162-game modern season.

In all those games, the run differential is exactly 7, in favor of the Cardinals, 10,787 to 10,780.


Strangely, in only 6 of their 130 seasons of competition have the Cubs and Cardinals finished 1-2 in the league or division standings, and 3 of those have come in the last 13 seasons: 2009, 2016 and 2020. The first 3 were in 1930, 1935 and 1946.

They have finished 1-3 or 2-3 in 18 more seasons.



So who was the Cubs' greatest rival, before the Cardinals conclusively assumed that mantle?

To identify their rivalries, I examined the Cubs' record for each of their 150 seasons: 1870, 1871 and 1874-2021, looking at the teams that finished behind them when they won titles, and ahead of them when they came in second or third.

In general, I defined a true rivalry as one in which the Cubs and an opponent frequently vied for first place over a span of at least 3 seasons.

That ruled out, for example, the Astros. The Cubs were first and Houston second only once, in 2003, and the Astros were first and the Cubs second only once as well, in 1998.


Add up the seasons in which each opponent finished second to the Cubs, and the seasons the Cubs finished second or third behind the opponent, and there are some surprising results.

The total for the Brewers is 4, all during 2007-18.

But that still is twice as many seasons as for 4 of the teams that the Cubs have been playing since the 19th Century!



The current iteration of the Cincinnati Reds have had the same nickname and been in the same city since 1882. The Cubs have been playing them since 1890, when the Reds jumped to the NL after 8 seasons in the rival American Association.

The Cubs were in the NL East and the Reds were in the NL West from 1969 through 1993, then were reunited in the NL Central in 1994.

So, they have competed for the same title in 106 seasons.

In none of them did the Cubs wind up on top and the Reds in second or the Cubs come in second with the Reds on top.

The Cubs won league or division titles in 16 of those 106 seasons; the Reds, in 8.

Twice, the Reds placed first and the Cubs third: in 1919 and 1995.



The Reds weren't the only AA team to switch to the NL in 1890. So did today's Dodgers, then known as the Bridegrooms.

They had won the AA pennant in 1889 and they won the NL flag in 1890. The Cubs, known as the Colts, finished second, 6.5 games behind overall but with 10 more losses, going 83-53 to Brooklyn's 86-43.

The teams were head-to-head competitors for 78 more seasons, until the Dodgers were assigned to the NL West in 1969.

The Cubs never again finished second, or even third, to the Dodgers, and the Dodgers never finished second to the Cubs. (They did wind up third when the Cubs won pennants in 1932 and 1945.)



The Phillies were called the Quakers when the brand new franchise entered the National League in 1883, and they certainly didn't put up much of a fight that year, winning 17 games, losing 81 and tying 1. They went 2-10 against the White Stockings, who placed second to Boston.

Between 1885 and 1910, Chicago captured 6 NL championships. Philadelphia did not win its first until 1915, a year in which the Cubs were fourth.

The Cubs were seventh when the Phillies won again, in 1950.

From 1976-83, Philadelphia was the NL East kingpin 5 times and it regained the crown in 1993. The Cubs did not finish second in any of the Phillies' title seasons, and they were third only in 1978.

The Phillies never have been runnerup to the Cubs. They came in third when Chicago won titles in 1885 and 1907.

Fun fact: the Phillies currently are 1,177 games under .500 in their history. The Cubs peaked at 1,179 games above .500 when they beat the Phillies on June 14, 1947. The Cubs now are 566 games above. 500.


So, we have eliminated the Astros, Brewers, Dodgers, Phillies and current iteration of the Reds.

The Cubs clearly have not had a long-time, intense rivalry with the Diamondbacks, Expos/Nationals, Marlins, Padres or Rockies. (Memorable playoff series alone do not a rivalry make!)

I would argue that their rivalry with the White Sox never has been their GREATEST rivalry at any point -- and they have had no real rivalry with any of the other American League teams.

That leaves 7 teams that I consider having been the Cubs' greatest rival at some time from their creation to the emergence of their ongoing rivalry with the Cardinals.

Following is a look at each of those 7 teams, in chronological order.




The team that became the Cubs was organized in 1869 for one specific purpose: defeat the Cincinnati Red Stockings.

Those "Reds" are not related to the current Reds, who began play in 1882. The original Reds were the world's first professional baseball team and they defeated every team they played in 1869, including several of Chicago's top amateur teams, and they often won by lopsided scores.

In response to the local teams' losses, 50 well-to-do city business men gathered at a downtown hotel and declared their intent to "get together a professional baseball nine; a nine which should play ball and nothing else, a nine which should beat the world."

For many years, Chicagoans had viewed Cincinnati as their chief rival for supremacy in "the West" and refused to be bested by "Porkopolis" in any endeavor, including baseball.

In a few weeks, the group raised $10,000 and soon signed the team's first player, second baseman Jimmy Wood, who had previously played for the Eckfords, based in Brooklyn. Wood was named captain and soon was joined by other experienced players, forming a roster of which the Chicago Tribune would say, "There is not a man of the ten who is not as good as the best of the other clubs. . . there is not a man the other clubs deem weak."



The team traveled to St. Louis for its first game in late April 1870 and won by the tidy score of 47-1. They also acquired their nickname, the White Stockings.

Over the next 2-plus months, the "Whites" played amateur teams, "picked nines," semi-pro teams, and other professional teams.

On June 30 and July 2, during a tour of the East, they defeated the college teams at Harvard and Yale. Those wins improved their record to 28-0. They had outscored their opponents by 1,097 runs, winning by an average score of 49 to 10. Only twice had they won by fewer than 6 runs.

Then they lost games at Brooklyn and New York, won narrowly over a different New York team, and lost at Philadelphia.

The "Whites" won each of the final 6 games to conclude their trip with a record of 17-4, making them 36-3 for the season.



Upon their return to Chicago, they promptly dropped 3 straight games -- the first, to the Mutuals, by a humiliating score of 9-0; the second, to Harvard, 11-6; and the third to the Athletics, 18-11.

A 42-8 victory on Aug. 4 was followed a day later by yet another defeat, 16-11, by the Haymakers, whom the Whites had beaten when they met in Troy, N.Y., about 5 weeks earlier.

The loss in the rematch was the Whites' fourth in 5 games and left their record at 37-7.



The Chicago Tribune's Aug. 7 edition carried this item:

"The White Stockings being completely crippled by sickness and injuries, no more matches will be arranged at present, and the last game, for at least a month, will be that of to-morrow, with the Olympics, of Washington.

"This over with, a sufficient length of time will be devoted toward allowing the men to recuperate and recover.

"The club is now in new hands as to outside management, and although its restoration to efficiency now seems to be past praying for, the organization will be maintained as best it may, and next year, if nothing happens to prevent, Chicago's dearly bought experience will be put to some account in the formation of a base ball club which will, to say the least be an improvement on the one which has so fearfully flatted out."



In fact, after edging the Olympics, a team from Washington, 16-15, the Whites rested for only 6 days before returning to action. They handily defeated 3 local amateur teams, then on Aug. 26 journeyed to Rockford, Ill., to face the Forest Citys, a team they had whipped, 28-14, in mid-June.

This time, they lost to them, 14-7. They were now 42-8.

But in their next game, on Aug. 30, the Whites defeated the visiting Brooklyn Atlantics. Six days later, they beat Rockford, also at home.

And 2 days after that, on Wednesday, Sept. 7, in an outcome few had considered possible, the much-maligned Whites triumphed against the champion Red Stockings, at Cincinnati, no less.

The Whites scored 3 runs in the top of the second inning and opened an 8-1 lead midway through the eighth. After the Red Stockings closed to within 8-4, the Whites tallied 2 more in the ninth, then held on to win, 10-6.



The Tribune's sports page devoted nearly 3 full columns to the historic victory, including complete play by play and reaction to the upset not just in Chicago, but in Cincinnati, Cleveland and Rockford.

There were 7 stacked headlines above the first paragraph of text:




The Redoubtable Red Stockings

Defeated by Chicago's

$18,000 Nine.


When the Garden City Sets

Out to Do a Thing,

She Does It.


It Took Money to Accom-

plish the Business, but

it is Done.


It Was not Only Done, but it

Was Well Done.


Cincinnati Grieveth and Chi-

cago Exulteth.


The Score -- White Stockings, 10;

Red Stockings, 6.


The story began:

"The mission of the White Stockings has been accomplished. The organization was effected with a direct view to beating the Red Stockings, and they have done it.

"The white is above the red, and Chicago can crow over Cincinnati to her heart's content. The way it happened was the simplest in the world. The Red Stockings were fairly outplayed and badly beaten."



Their season wasn't over, however -- not by a long shot. They continued to play for more than 2 months, winning all 19 games they played, including several close calls.

On a second Eastern swing, the Whites avenged 3 of their 4 earlier losses, including one at New York in front of more than 10,000 spectators.

That crowd was dwarfed by the 18,000 who turned out in Chicago on Oct. 13 to see a rematch between the Whites and Red Stockings.

Cincinnati scored 3 runs in the eighth inning to tie the score at 8.

The leadoff man for the Whites in the ninth reached base on an error. The next man up grounded to the second baseman, who tried to tag the runner from first, but the runner alertly stopped in his tracks.

The fielder threw the ball to first for an out, then the first baseman fired it to second, hoping to cut down the runner. But the throw was wild, allowing the runner to reach third. Moments later, he scored the tie-breaking run on a sacrifice fly.

That play seemed to unravel the Red Stockings. Before they got 2 more outs, the Whites paraded 7 more runs across the plate, making the score 16-8.

The Red Stockings put up a fight, tallying 5 runs in the bottom of the inning before the Whites finally secured a 16-13 victory.



"It has been done again; this time in a manner which leaves no doubt as to whether Chicago has been successful in her efforts to wrest the base ball supremacy from Cincinnati," the Tribune declared.

After the season, the Reds disbanded, in large part because their 2 top players, brothers George and Harry Wright, had departed to join a team in Boston.

So the first great rivalry in the history of the future Cubs lasted all of 1 season!


TOMORROW: The Cubs' next great rival

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