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Today in Cubs history: The Cubs trade for Ryne Sandberg

He was a little-known minor leaguer at the time. But this deal changed Cubs franchise history.

Ryne Sandberg with the Phillies in September 1981
Photofile/MLB Archives via Getty Images

The Cubs finished 1981 with a 38-65 record, a .369 winning percentage that would have translated to a 60-102 record if not for the players’ strike that year. (And the way the team was playing before the strike, that 162-game record probably would have been worse.) They’d lost 98 games the year before, hadn’t made the postseason since the 1945 NL pennant and in the 36 seasons since then, had posted a winning record just seven times.

It’s one of the worst stretches for any MLB franchise at any time and so when the team was sold to Tribune Company in late 1981, fans began to be cautiously optimistic that things would change under new ownership.

Tribune brought in Dallas Green to be the Cubs’ new general manager. Green had played for the Phillies and joined their organization as a minor league manager in 1968, and in 1972 became director of player development. Then he served as Phillies manager from 1979-81, managing them to a World Series title in 1980, the first in their franchise history.

So when Green was put in place as GM October 15, 1981, it seemed likely that he’d bring over people from Philadelphia he was familiar with; it’s something many baseball executives do. (We saw this again with Theo Epstein and the Red Sox in the 2010s.)

He hired Phillies third base coach Lee Elia to manage the team and Phillies executive Gordon Goldsberry to head up scouting and player development before the end of October. Two other Phillies coaches, John Vukovich and Billy Connors (a former Cubs player) were also added.

The term “Phillies West” began to be batted around. On December 6, 1981 Green traded Cubs starting pitcher Mike Krukow to his old team for Keith Moreland, Dickie Noles and Dan Larson.

Several weeks later, Green decided he needed an on-field leader, someone he knew well and trusted. Larry Bowa, who had 12 Phillies seasons under his belt and who had played in four postseasons for Philadelphia, fit the bill. At 35, he was nearing the end of his career, but Green valued him more than Ivan De Jesus, who had posted a terrible season for the Cubs in ‘81: .194/.276/.233 and -1.3 bWAR.

But De Jesus was just 28 and had talent. Thus Green wanted more, and he obviously knew the Phillies organization well.

Jerome Holtzman of the Tribune reported the trade:

The Cubs continued to retool Wednesday for what is expected to be a long climb upward by making their biggest off-season deal — acquiring Larry Bowa, an aging but feisty veteran, and an untested minor leaguer from the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for Ivan De Jesus.

This trade of quality shortstops had been in the works for more than a month, but wasn’t consummated until the Phillies agreed to add Ryne Sandberg, a 22-year-old middle infielder with good speed but a light bat. From the beginning, the Cubs insisted there would be no deal unless Sandberg was included.

You know, of course, what happened. Sandberg had two good but unspectacular years in 1982 and 1983, finishing sixth in 1982 Rookie of the Year voting, and then Jim Frey was hired as manager in 1984 and, using his hitting coach background, convinced Sandberg to use his bat to drive the ball.

You have probably seen me post this video before, but it’s worth showing you again today, the one career hit Sandberg got in a Phillies uniform, September 27, 1981 at Wrigley Field, with the announcers barely noting it in a blowout game, as it was Jack Brickhouse’s last broadcast from Wrigley Field.

He would go on to have 2,385 more as a Cub; that total ranks fourth in franchise history behind Cap Anson, Ernie Banks and Billy Williams. Sandberg ranks fourth in games played as a Cub, fourth in at-bats, fifth in home runs, fourth in stolen bases and fifth in bWAR (60.5). He was NL MVP in 1984 and led the league in home runs with 40 in 1990. His 54 stolen bases in 1985 are still tied for the second-most by any Cubs player in a season since 1906. His nine Gold Gloves are the most by any Cubs player.

After a short “retirement” in mid-1994, Sandberg came back for two final seasons with the team in 1996 and 1997 and was given a sendoff September 20, 1997, the day before his final home game:

It occurs to me that he’s really the only Cub of his caliber who’s had that kind of ceremony at Wrigley. Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins — they never had that.

In Ryno’s final home game the next day, September 21, 1997, he had two hits and was removed for a pinch runner after the second, to a thunderous ovation:

Here’s a Cubs produced documentary on the game that burst Sandberg onto the national scene, his two game-tying homers against the Cardinals June 23, 1984, the game now known as “The Sandberg Game”:

It all wound up in Sandberg’s induction into baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 2005. The trade is one of the greatest (and arguably the greatest) in Cubs history, and it happened 40 years ago today, January 27, 1982.