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Cubs historical sleuthing: 1950s edition

Just when was this play against the Giants?

Photo by © Bettmann/CORBIS/Bettmann Archive

Let’s head back a few decades for this sleuthing opportunity.

Getty Images’ caption for this photo reads:

Rhodes of the Giants was tagged out at home on Al Dark’s grounder to Bilko in the 8th inning of the nightcap of a twin bill with the cubs today. Throw went from Bilko to Cubs catcher McCullough. Ump Donatelli calls the out. Giants dropped the second game, 3-0, after taking the opener, 7-6.

Given the players listed and the scores of the game, this wasn’t too hard to find.

It happened in the bottom of the eighth inning of the second game of a doubleheader between the Cubs and Giants at the Polo Grounds in New York, Thursday, September 9, 1954.

The Cubs were leading 2-0 going into the inning. The Giants had runners on first and third with one out when Al Dark grounded to first baseman Steve Bilko. Bilko threw Dusty Rhodes out at the plate and the Cubs got out of the inning. The Cubs added a run in the ninth and won 3-0. Clyde McCullough, who had caught for the Cubs since 1940 (!) and was one of three still active players from their 1945 World Series team by then (Andy Pafko and Phil Cavarretta were the others), barely played that year, only 31 games, most of them like this one, the second games of doubleheaders.

The win broke a five-game losing streak, but the 1954 Cubs were not very good, finishing seventh in the National League with a 64-90 record, the fourth time in seven years they’d lost 90 or more. Meanwhile, the Giants were on their way to a pennant and World Series; they’d finish 97-57.

Here’s a tale that will tell you just how incompetent the Cubs were in the 1950s.

Steve Bilko, the first baseman mentioned in the photo caption, is further evidence that Cubs management in the mid-1950s had no idea what it was doing. He’d been acquired from the Cardinals early in 1954 for cash considerations, but spent most of the year on the bench, playing in just 47 games.

As noted above, the 1954 Cubs were mostly terrible, losing 90 games. They’d be marginally better the following year. How much better might they have been if they’d given the 27-year-old Bilko their first base job? He had a monster season in ‘55 with the Cubs’ top farm team in Los Angeles, batting .328/.396/.572 with 37 home runs. Then he was even better the following year, batting .360/.453/.687 with 55 home runs, and more or less matched that in ‘57, batting .300/.413/.659 with 56 home runs.

He did not even get a September callup; instead the Cubs shipped him to the Reds at the end of the 1957 season for cash considerations. Dee Fondy, who was the Cubs’ primary first baseman in those years, was a decent player but nothing special. Why not give Bilko the job? At least the home runs might have been fun.

It’s true that Bilko didn’t hit much in a bit of MLB action after he left the Cubs with the Reds, Dodgers, Tigers and Angels, though he did bat .279./395/.544 with 20 home runs in 114 games for the expansion Angels in 1961. The Cubs were awful in 1956 while Bilko was scoring 163 (!) runs in 162 games for the Los Angeles minor league team. While it’s true that Wrigley Field in Los Angeles was a hitter’s park and well-suited for Bilko’s uppercut swing... so was Wrigley Field in Chicago.

Why the Cubs never gave this guy a chance is beyond me.