Just as the 2023 Cubs did, the 1968 Cubs went from 10 games under .500 (35-45) to finishing with a winning record at 84-78. That meant they went 49-33 from that 10-games-under spot, a .598 winning percentage that would equate to a 96-win regular season. They seemed to have all the pieces in place to win the new N.L. East in 1969.
As you know, it didn’t happen. And some of the trades made by GM John Holland in 1969 would undermine the franchise for years to come.
January 9: Acquired Ted Abernathy from the Reds for Clarence Jones, Bill Plummer and Kenneth Myette
Finally admitting their mistake in dumping Abernathy in 1966, the Cubs reacquired him and didn’t really give up much. Jones never played for the Reds, Plummer was a good-field-no-hit backup catcher to Johnny Bench (and he never played in a postseason game for them). Myette never made the major leagues.
The problem was that Leo Durocher still didn’t trust Abernathy. He pitched reasonably well in 56 games (3.16 ERA) but had just three saves. Durocher wouldn’t use him to close games even after Phil Regan blew save after save.
Abernathy got off to a decent start in 1970 but that wasn’t enough for Durocher. The Cubs dumped him in a mid-1970 deal and he wound up having a couple of good years for the Royals.
But that wasn’t even close to the worst deal the Cubs made in 1969.
January 15: Acquired Manny Jimenez from the Pirates for Ron Campbell and Chuck Hartenstein
Campbell was a career minor leaguer who never played for the Pirates; this deal was basically Hartenstein for Jimenez.
Here’s why that deal happened. Hartenstein, known as “Twiggy” for his slight stature, had a good year in 1967, not quite as good in 1968, and according to his SABR biography, Hartenstein had this explanation for the deal:
I go to spring training with them in ’68 and the pitching coach was Joe Becker, and the days that I was scheduled to get an inning’s work here or there, Joe would always come out and say, “Hey, get your work in on the side. Leo wants to see these other guys.” When the season opened, I wasn’t ready. My arm was fine, but unless you face hitters in spring training, you don’t really get ready and I wasn’t. It just showed up. I struggled that first half. Me and John Boccabella got sent to Tacoma.
When we came back up, both of us had been flying all night to get back there from Tacoma to Chicago. We were playing San Francisco at the time and at some point in the game, they brought me in. I got a few guys out here and there and then Jack Hiatt — their catcher — I got a ball up to him and he hit a fly ball to right that dropped into the bleachers.
As soon as the game was over, we were walking out and the traveling secretary hands me an envelope. I said, “What is this?” He said, “Leo didn’t talk to you? Well, this is your ticket to go home.” I went right from there to Leo’s office. He and I had a… discussion. it was probably a little louder than most. Then I went upstairs to the GM, Mr. [John] Holland, and I said, “Mr. Holland, I hate to have to ask you this. You guys have treated me great all the way through, but I just cannot get along with your manager. Would you please trade me?” Sometime during the offseason, they traded me to Pittsburgh.
This is the game against the Giants he’s talking about.
Whether Hartenstein could have continued his 1967 work for the Cubs will forever remain unknown. But this deal was made because of Durocher’s dislike for him, for no real good reason. Durocher was a mean, spiteful man and P.K. Wrigley should have fired him after the summer camp incident in mid-1969.
Nowadays we sometimes have trades made as salary dumps. This was just a... player dump. Jimenez had played one full MLB season, with the A’s in 1962. Even then his numbers were just okay. After that he was a part-time player in Kansas City and Pittsburgh. With the Cubs he played in six games, all as a pinch-hitter, going 1-for-6 with two strikeouts. He was sent to Triple-A Tacoma, expressed his unhappiness over that, and was released.
April 19: Acquired Nate Oliver from the Yankees for Lee Elia
Yes, THAT Lee Elia, who never played for the Yankees. His Cubs career was 15 games in 1968 in which he went 3-for-17. He also played 80 games for the 1966 White Sox.
Oliver was a decent utility man, good glove, but couldn’t hit — .159/.196/.295 in 50 PA with one home run. The home run was hit on a day when the wind was howling out at Wrigley Field and the Cubs hit four homers in a 19-0 shellacking of the Padres.
April 25: Acquired Dick Selma from the Padres for Joe Niekro, Gary Ross and Francisco Libran
This was another spite deal — Niekro had gotten on Durocher’s bad side with a couple of bad outings in early April and so it was “Begone!”
For a time, it looked like the Cubs had gotten value in Selma, at least. He pitched well for much of 1969 and was a fan favorite. But his performance declined and he was traded after the season (in another bad deal, more on that later).
Joe Niekro had 27.8 bWAR after leaving the Cubs, two top-five Cy Young finishes and pitched in three postseasons for the Astros and Twins.
While Leo Durocher deserves credit for bringing the Cubs out of their 20-year slumber under .500, his influence on this and other trades set the Cubs back more than a decade.
April 27: Acquired Don Nottebart from the Reds for James Armstrong
Armstrong never played in the majors. Nottebart had been a decent starter/reliever for three teams (Reds, Braves, Astros) for several seasons, including throwing a no-hitter in 1963, but by 1969 he was pretty much done. He pitched in 16 games for the Cubs with a 7.00 ERA before his season ended with an injury. He pitched in the Cubs minor leagues in 1970 but was never called up, then retired.
June 11: Acquired Paul Popovich from the Expos for Adolfo Phillips and Jack Lamabe
As I noted in an earlier installment, Durocher really ruined Phillips, who was said to be a sensitive man who did not react well to Durocher’s mean-guy tactics. In 1969, Phillips was relegated to the bench most of the time early, then started 14 of 15 games from May 6-27. He went just 10-for-41 (.244) but walked 11 times, giving him an OBP of .415 over that period. Any modern manager would realize he’d found a leadoff man. Durocher? Nope.
Phillips never did much in Montreal or Cleveland and left baseball. We’ll never know how he might have done under a better manager.
Popovich had been traded to the Dodgers in 1968, as you know, and they traded him to the Expos earlier this day, along with Ron Fairly, for Maury Wills and Manny Mota. The Expos then flipped him to the Cubs.
Popovich was a useful bench player for the Cubs until 1974, when he was traded to the Pirates.
September 11: Acquired Jimmie Hall from the Yankees for Terry Bongiovanni and a PTBNL
Flailing around after losing eight in a row, the Cubs acquired Hall several years past his sell-by date. He’d been a really good hitter for the Twins from 1963-65, making two All-Star teams and finishing third in A.L. Rookie of the Year voting in ‘63.
He went 5-for-24 with the Cubs in 1969 and began 1970 with them before being traded to the Braves. The Cubs sent a spare-part outfielder named Rick Bladt to the Yankees in January 1970 to complete this deal. Bongiovanni never played in the majors.
November 17: Acquired Johnny Callison from the Phillies for Oscar Gamble and Dick Selma
Oh, man, yet again.
Gamble had been called up by the Cubs in late 1969 at age 19, again, the Cubs were flailing around looking for anyone who might be able to help them. He went 16-for-71 with a home run and 10 walks, which isn’t bad for a 19-year-old with about a year and a half of pro ball. He’d been drafter by the Cubs on the recommendation of Buck O’Neil.
The trade was a shock. Callison, again, was another guy who’d been good years before — his peak years were 1962-65 — and he would turn 31 before the 1970 season began.
There were rumors, to this day unsubstantiated, that Gamble was traded because he had hung out with white women, particularly when at the Arizona Instructional League after the season.
How many colossal mistakes can we count here? Gamble hit 200 home runs in a 17-year career, posting 22.9 bWAR. Might that have been better with Wrigley as his home park? We’ll never know.
Callison had two mediocre years with the Cubs and his bWAR was negative (-0.4).
December 4: Acquired Boots Day from the Cardinals for Rich Nye
It looked like Nye would become a solid starter after his fine 1967 season at age 22 (3.20 ER, 1.127 WHIP, 1.7 bWAR). But injuries slowed him, and he was dealt away. He was finished playing in 1970, after which he went to veterinary school. He became one of the country’s most renowned veterinarians treating exotic animals, running a clinic in the Chicago suburbs until he (mostly) retired a few years ago. He’s still a consultant there.
Day played in just 11 games for the Cubs before they traded him to the Expos. More on that in the next installment.
1969 was not a good year for the Cubs, on the field or trade-wise. This year gets an F for trades.
Give the Cubs a grade for their 1969 trades.
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