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The 1958 Cubs: The contender that could have been...

... and once again, pitching was their downfall.

Ernie Banks at Spring Training, March 10, 1958
Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images

The other day, I told you the story of the 1975 Cubs, a team that had a terrific offense but finished far down the National League standings due to their atrociously bad pitching staff.

Here’s the tale of another Cubs club from about a generation earlier that had the league MVP in Ernie Banks and several other good hitters that contended briefly but collapsed due to a lack of good pitching.

By the end of the 1957 season the Cubs had failed to contend for over a decade and had just one non-losing season since 1946, a 77-77 year in 1952, when Hank Sauer was NL MVP.

1957 had been yet another in a bad string of seasons for the ballclub. They finished 62-92, tied with the Pirates for last place in the NL, 33 games behind the pennant-winning Milwaukee Braves. It was the sixth time in the previous 10 seasons (and third in the previous four) the Cubs had lost at least 90 games, and there didn’t seem to be much hope for anything better in ‘58.

But 1958 started out well for the North Siders. They won their first four games and 11 of their first 17, including three walkoff wins in four days in early May. Two of those wins were over the defending champion Braves and one over the Reds, and popular outfielder Walt “Moose” Moryn was responsible for two of those walkoffs, a homer on May 2 against Milwaukee and a double in the first game of a doubleheader May 4 against Cincinnati.

After the May 2 game, Edward Prell of the Tribune called the team “our fantastic Cubs,” though noted that only 5,751 watched that win on a chilly, rainy day. As of that date, 15 games into the season, the Cubs had hit 28 home runs and outscored their opponents 82-61.

The Cubs managed to hold first place for a couple of days after that walkoff win against the Reds. They were 13-7 on May 7, but then lost seven in a row and 12 of 14 and the reason... pitching. In that 14-game stretch the Cubs were outscored 85-57. They were still scoring decent numbers of runs — four per game — but were allowing runs at an alarming pace of seven per game.

Thirteen different pitchers started games for the Cubs in 1958. Only five of them posted season ERAs under 4.00, and a couple of those were in just a handful of games. John Buzhardt, for example, a promising rookie callup in 1958, posted a 1.85 ERA and 0.945 WHIP in six games (two starts) and 24⅓ innings at age 21. But when his performance declined the following year, GM John Holland pulled the plug and traded him to the Phillies (along with Al Dark and Jim Woods) for Richie Ashburn. While Ashburn had a couple of decent years for the Cubs, that didn’t move the needle on contention. Meanwhile, Buzhardt wound up having several good years for the White Sox in the 1960s.

The same can be said for Moe Drabowsky, who posted a 4.51 ERA in 32 games (20 starts) for the 1958 Cubs. Three years later Drabowsky and Seth Morehead were traded to the Braves for Andre Rodgers and Daryl Robertson. Sure, Rodgers had a couple of decent years as a Cub but Drabowsky became one of the best relievers in the American League and was a key contributor to the Orioles’ 1966 World Series winners.

I could probably write a whole book on guys like this, players the Cubs gave up on who became good for other teams in the 1950s and 1960s. Maybe I will, someday.

In any case, the ‘58 Cubs floundered around between fourth and sixth place for most of the rest of May and June, That stretch included a win over the Reds June 14 when the Cubs played the game under protest for a reason that would wind up resonating for the team six decades later. Check out the Retrosheet play-by-play from the second inning:

CUBS 2ND: Thomson singled; TEMPLE CHANGED POSITIONS (PLAYING 1B); CROWE CHANGED POSITIONS (PLAYING 2B); Briggs hit into a double play (first to second) [Thomson out at second]; Johnny Temple and George Crowe switched positions for one batter; Cubs manager Bob Scheffing protested game; NL President Warren Giles ruled next day that a first baseman switching to another position must change to a regular glove

You’ll remember that Anthony Rizzo would do this on occasion when a bunt situation occurred and Joe Maddon wanted him to switch positions with Ben Zobrist. The protest was moot because the Cubs won that game, but this is where that rule dates from.

Also during that stretch, Cardinals star Stan Musial got his 3,000th hit at Wrigley Field, off Drabowsky, on May 13.

Of that hit, a double, we actually have video — with the call by then-Cardinals announcer Harry Caray:

The Cubs wound up losing that game 5-3.

On June 17, the Cubs lost to the Braves in Milwaukee 6-3. They were in sixth place, seven games out of the top spot, then held by the Braves.

And then they went on a remarkable run. From June 19 through July 18, a month’s worth of games (interrupted by the All-Star break), the Cubs went 18-10 and were 46-42. A 5-3 win over the Braves July 18 brought them to within 2½ games of Milwaukee. That game brought the largest Wrigley crowd since 1948 — a total of 43,173 which included 15,916 admitted free for Ladies Day. Ernie Banks hit his 25th home run of the season that day, the 88th game of the year.

Could it happen? Could the Cubs actually contend for a National League pennant against their neighbors to the north? (Back then, it could take up to three hours to drive from Chicago to Milwaukee, as the I-94 route between the two cities wasn’t completed until the early 1960s.)

Well, of course you know it didn’t happen. The Cubs lost five in a row and 23 of 32 after that win over the Braves and wouldn’t win consecutive games again until August 20 and 21. The reason? Pitching, of course. That 9-23 stretch featured the Cubs scoring 129 runs — again, a reasonably good 4.03 per game — but allowing 167, or 5.22 per game. This sounds a lot, actually, like the 2021 Cubs after the July selloff. The ‘21 Cubs offense was pretty good the last two months, but the pitching was atrocious.

The Cubs went 11-20 in August 1958, but recovered a bit to have a winning September at 12-11. It obviously wasn’t enough to put them anywhere near a pennant and they finished tied for fifth with the Cardinals at 72-82, 20 games out of first place. They were second in the NL in runs (709) and led in homers with 182. The 182 homers set a franchise record which stood until 1987, when the Cubs hit 209 in a year when just about everyone was blasting home runs. The Cubs would also not score 700+ runs again until 1967, a year when they actually did contend for a while and won 87 games.

And 1958 was the year Banks won the first of his two consecutive MVP awards, batting .313/.366/.614 with 47 home runs, the homer number his career best. He led the NL in HR, RBI, SLG and total bases.

During that August stretch, the Cubs traveled to Los Angeles and San Francisco and lost four of six to the Dodgers and Giants. They also made a stop in San Diego to play an exhibition game against the then-minor league San Diego Padres. During that stop in San Diego Banks was interviewed by local TV reporter Lute Mason, and thankfully we have video of that conversation (and a bit of video of the ‘58 Cubs) that was saved:

(More on that interview and game in this article I posted here last June.)

It’s just too bad the ‘58 Cubs couldn’t find any pitching. They actually previously had a decent pitcher, Sam Jones, who had — repeat after me — been traded away a couple of years earlier, along with Jim Davis, Hobie Landrith and Eddie Miksis, to the Cardinals for Jackie Collum, Ray Katt, Tom Poholsky and a minor leaguer. Jones had a good year for St. Louis in 1958 — he might have been able to stabilize the rotation, and having posted 6.3 bWAR for the Cardinals, might even have gotten the Cubs over .500. None of the guys the Cubs got in that deal did anything useful on the North Side, pretty much the story of the 1950s.

The 1958 team must have been fun to watch, though, with all those home runs and Banks as MVP.