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Cubs historical sleuthing: Jim Essian edition

Let’s remember a guy!

Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Getty Images provided the following information:

Manager Jim Essian #41 of the Chicago Cubs argues with an umpire during an Major League Baseball game circa 1991 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. Essian managed the Cubs in 1991.

This has to be 1991, because it’s the only year Essian was Cubs manager. Don Zimmer was fired May 21 after he’d asked for a contract extension. Joe Altobelli was interim manager for one game, then Essian took over for a series against the Expos at Wrigley Field May 24.

You’d think it would be almost impossible to figure this one out, but there’s useful information here, especially the number on the umpire’s shirt. Umpire No. 11 in 1991 was Ed Montague.

From the same photo set, we also have this photo:

Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

That’s obviously Rick Sutcliffe behind Montague and Essian, clearly from the same game.

So, we need to find a game:

a) managed by Essian
b) started by Sutcliffe
c) with Montague as a base umpire

There is only one such game. It happened Sunday, May 26, 1991 against the Montreal Expos, and as a bonus confirmation, here are the weather conditions from the boxscore, which match what we see:

80° F, Wind 20mph out to Leftfield, Cloudy, No Precipitation.

Sutcliffe got hit hard in this game, allowing six runs in 3⅔ innings. It’s impossible to tell for sure, but it seems likely this is Essian on his way out to relieve Sutcliffe in the fourth, stopping to discuss something with Montague. It seems likely that, in those days when not every game was staffed with a photographer, that one would have been sent out to get photos of Essian in his first home series as manager.

The Cubs trailed 6-1 going into the bottom of the seventh and scored seven runs in that inning off Dennis Martinez and two Montreal relievers. George Bell hit a three-run homer that gave the Cubs an 8-6 lead, which they held till the end of the game. It was the fifth straight win under Essian, who started his Cubs tenure with that 5-0 record. The win put the Cubs in third place, four games out.

The rest of the year would not go as well. They went 54-63 the rest of the way and Essian, who had been an up-and-coming managerial prospect before 1991, was fired a couple of weeks after the season ended, along with the entire coaching staff. He was one of 13 (!) managers fired during or after the 1991 season.

Andrew Bagnato of the Tribune reported:

When the Cubs hired Essian, in something of a surprise move, he was seen as a tough disciplinarian who would bring order to a talented but directionless team. But by August the club had fallen out of contention and players were privately griping that Essian hadn’t provided enough discipline or direction.

And his strategic moves, particularly his handling of pitching changes, drew criticism.

In Essian’s defense, the Cubs were devastated by injuries to Danny Jackson, Mike Harkey, Rick Sutcliffe and Dave Smith and hampered by a bullpen that blew more saves than any team but Montreal.

Essian, who was only 40 at the time, never worked in MLB or with any affiliated teams from that day on. Since 2017, though, he has been serving as the manager of the Utica Unicorns, a club in the four-team independent United Shore Professional Baseball League, all the teams located in suburban Detroit. Essian is a Detroit-area native.

Personally, I didn’t think Essian did that bad of a job, but the Cubs also cleaned house in the front office at the time, moving Don Grenesko back to a Tribune Company job and firing Jim Frey as GM and replacing him with Larry Himes. What could possibly have gone wrong with that?

Here is Mike Bojanowski’s scorecard from this game, and then six images of a 1991 team autographed ball, with autographs as noted here:

side A:

Jim Essian

side B:

Logo, plus signatures shown on other sides below

side C:

Danny Jackson
Ryne Sandberg
Jerome Walton
Chico Walker
Paul Assenmacher
Steve Wilson
Les Lancaster

side D:

Hector Villanueva
Heathcliff Slocumb
Jose Vizcaino
Shawn Boskie
George Bell

side E:

Chuck McElroy
Shawon Dunston
Andre Dawson
Dave Smith
Mike Harkey
Rick Sutcliffe

side F:

Dwight Smith
Doug Dascenzo
Bob Scanlan
Mark Grace
Greg Maddux
Mike Bielecki
Joe Girardi