Known as the Chicago White Stockings, 1871, 1874-89; Chicago Colts, 1890-97; Chicago Orphans, 1898-1901
THE CUBS BY THE DECADE
The 19th Century
Begun in 1870 as a semipro outfit, the White Stockings (Cubs) entered the National Association in 1871 but were badly victimized late that year by the Great Chicago Fire, forcing them to wander in and out of major league status until emerging as a charter member of the National League in 1876 with the help of an influx of star players. Among them was Cap Anson—a great baseball man who managed the team for 19 years and became baseball’s first 3,000-hit man, but a lousy humanitarian as he led the successful effort to bar black ballplayers from the majors. Five-time pennants winners during the 1880s, Chicago briefly survived a mass exodus of its players to the short-lived Players League in 1890 before descending into mediocrity, in part due to a simmering feud between the front office and Anson, fired after 1897.
The Cubs began the 20th Century in impressive fashion by fielding a National League dynasty late in the decade behind the “Peerless Leader” Frank Chance, the team’s hard-nosed first baseman-manager and part of the fabled double-play combination that also featured shortstop Joe Tinker and second baseman Johnny Evers. Chance especially relied on sensational pitching on his way to multiple pennants; three times the Cubs turned in team earned run averages below 2.00, including an all-time record 1.73 in 1907. Chicago’s back-to-back World Series titles in 1907-08 would be the Cubs’ last for over a century.
After one more pennant in 1910, the Cubs slowly descended in the standings through the decade, rising briefly to the top in 1918 with another NL flag before bowing to the Boston Red Sox in the World Series. Numerous hitters made star turns for the Cubs including Wildfire Schulte, Heinie Zimmerman, Cy Williams and Vic Saier; Hippo Vaughn dominated the rotation as the decade’s top ace. The team inherited the ballpark soon to be known as Wrigley Field when the owners of the defunct Federal League’s Chicago entry—who had built it in 1914—were allowed to purchase the Cubs in 1916.
The Cubs’ personality was a perfect fit for Chicago’s arresting role in the Roaring Twenties, as prohibition didn’t keep stars such as veteran ace Pete Alexander and the short (yet incredibly powerful) slugger Hack Wilson from pursuing their alcohol. After menial results through the first part of the decade, the Cubs transformed into a hitting machine thanks to a titanic lineup that included, by decade’s end, Wilson, Rogers Hornsby and Kiki Cuyler—all under the astute leadership of young manager Joe McCarthy. The fans loved it and packed Wrigley Field with over a million fans (an NL first) for five straight seasons beginning in 1927.
Despite an almost maddening turnover in managers and top talent, the Cubs managed to stay consistently at the top of the NL standings through the decade as they ran their streak of winning records to 14 and collected three more pennants—yet with no championships. Engorging hitting highlighted by Wilson’s 56 homers and 191 RBIs in 1930 gave way later to a Cubs team more dependent on solid pitching, with sterling contributions from Lon Warneke, Bill Lee and, briefly at decade’s end, a fragile yet effective Dizzy Dean.
The Cubs sloughed through the early 1940s but caught lightning in a wartime bottle when they spiked to a NL pennant in 1945—losing out to Detroit in a wild, seven-game World Series that was the Cubs’ last for 71 years, with many since blaming their absence on a curse laid down by a local tavern owner who wasn’t allowed to bring his billy goat inside Wrigley. Any hex made its presence immediately felt, as the 1947 season began a run of 16 years without a winning season.
Despite repeated losing, the decade didn’t lack for excitement at Wrigley Field. Three MVP awards were handed out to Cubs players: Hank Sauer in 1952 and, from 1958-59, shortstop Ernie Banks—the team’s first black player whose everlasting positive energy captivated the Wrigley faithful. On the mound, Bob Rush did all he could to patch together an otherwise woeful rotation. All in all, the Cubs could not escape the NL’s second division once during the decade.
Desperate to try anything to win, the Cubs established the unorthodox “College of Coaches” system to replace the single manager from 1961-62—with failing bureaucratic results. A new wave of talent—including ace pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, quiet slugger Billy Williams and effervescent third baseman Ron Santo—would ultimately prove to be the much-needed tonic to reverse the franchise’s fortunes; behind roughened veteran manager Leo Durocher, the Cubs made a run at the postseason late in the decade, coming closest in 1969 when it folded late in a turbulent pennant race with the upstart New York Mets.
The star players of the 1960s faded or were traded, and the mid-decade birth of modern free agency was heavily stiff-armed by the ruling Wrigley family, which had owned the Cubs for over 50 years and once claimed no ballplayer was worth $100,000. Hence, the results on the field were telling; though the Cubs seldom hit rock bottom, they rarely threatened to contend with a weak rotation and popgun offense occasionally brought to life by perennial batting champ Bill Madlock and, late in the decade, the tape-measure theatrics of Dave Kingman. Outspent, the Wrigleys sold to the Tribune Company in 1981.
The Cubs produced two winning seasons in the decade—and made the playoffs in both, their first postseason appearances since 1945. Although both ended in failure at the NLCS (most frustratingly in 1984 by blowing a two-game lead over San Diego) they sparked a newfound, long-term enthusiasm in Chicago, further aided by the quiet leadership of highly popular players Ryne Sandberg and Andre Dawson, the winsome play-by-play antics of legendary broadcaster Harry Caray and—finally, in 1988—with the installation of lights at Wrigley after years of arm-wrestling with surrounding residents.
A disappointing decade saw just one postseason appearance, and barely—with the 1998 Cubs needing a 163rd regular season game to qualify for the wild card spot. That team was lifted by Sammy Sosa, who began the 1990s as a speedy, skinny kid and ended it as a supremely bulky presence who played a powerful second fiddle to Mark McGwire in 1998’s historic rush to snap Roger Maris’ season home run mark; Sosa’s 66 clouts that year ignited a four-year run in which he averaged 61 a season. Pitching was fair at best, save for Greg Maddux’ pre-Atlanta successes and Kerry Wood’s 20-K performance in 1998.
As the Cubs approached and surpassed 100 years without a world title, the Billy Goat Curse took on an expanded life—especially in the 2003 NLCS as, up three runs and five outs away from the team’s first World Series in nearly 60 years, Steve Bartman’s infamous interference on a fly ball and Alex Gonzalez’s critical infield error opened the floodgates for the opposing Marlins and sank the Cubs’ quest. Three years later, the Tribune Company went for broke and succeeded in the worst way—infusing $300 million on free agents to help foster two divisional titles but zero playoff wins in 2007-08. In 2009, a bankrupt Tribune sold to the Ricketts family.
A prolonged dive in the standings took the Cubs to rock bottom in 2012 with 101 losses, but a steady, seemingly endless stream of gifted top prospects including Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Javier Baez quickly brought the Cubs back to prominence. Guiding them were proven leaders in eccentric manager Joe Maddon and team president Theo Epstein—who, after rebuilding the Red Sox and helping them snap their long World Series drought, finally brought championship glory back to Wrigleyville in 2016 after a 108-year dry spell. Another rebuild also took place in the stands with a $500 million makeover of century-old Wrigley Field, which the City of Chicago helped to finance.
Unable to build a dynasty, the Cubs gradually withered back to mediocrity as virtually all the key players from their dreamlike 2016 campaign were gone by 2022; that included Epstein, who left Chicago for an executive spot at MLB. A relatively no-name (for now) roster is essentially tasked with starting over.
Highlights of the Cubs’ History on This Great Game:
1906: The Hitless Wonders How the Chicago White Sox bat .230 with seven home runs all year—and still become world champions over a much more powerful Cubs unit.
1908: The Merkle Boner A 19-year-old rookie costs the New York Giants by committing one of the game’s most notorious blunders—and leads to the Cubs’ last World Series triumph for the next 100-plus years.
1929: Running on Ehmke All but washed up, veteran pitcher Howard Ehmke gets the dream call for Game One of the World Series and delivers, setting the tone for a long-overdue championship for the Philadelphia A’s over the Cubs.
1932: The So-Called Shot Babe Ruth’s historic and highly debated gesture gives a hostile World Series between the New York Yankees and the Cubs its flashpoint.
1945: Hank’s Heroic Rescue As World War II comes to an end, Hank Greenberg makes the first and most celebrated return to baseball—and keeps the Cubs from going over the top in the World Series.
1998: The Maris Sweepstakes Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa embark on a historic record-breaking pursuit of Roger Maris’ long-standing season home run mark.
2003: Curses, Inc. Baseball’s two most famously cursed—the Cubs and Boston Red Sox—add to their long-suffering legend of heartbreak.
2016: Cubs Win! Cubs Win! With stout pitching, a confident batch of young hitters and a magnetic manager, it finally all comes together for the Cubs, who shared baseball’s longest-ever championship drought.