Can The 2013 Cubs Channel The Turnaround Artists Of 1967?

We’ve heard a lot this spring about the 1966 Cubs—or, to be precise, about an unfortunate legacy of that squad: a Cubs’ season record 103 losses, a standard of incompetence that last year’s team heroically avoided by losing only 101. How inept were the ’66 Cubs? After finishing eighth (in the 10-team National League) the year before, the Cubs brought in Leo Durocher as manager, and he remarked indelibly, “This ain’t no eighth-place ballclub.” Exactly. It finished tenth.

But, wait. Just three months into the following season, Wrigley Field workers hoisted the team flag to the top of the pole above the scoreboard. On July 2, 1967, long, lean Fergie Jenkins beat the Reds 4-1 and pulled the Cubs into a tie for first place.

That ’67 team didn’t stay in first, but it contended for much of the summer and finished at 87-74, the best record in 22 years. What’s more, the Cubs were arguably on their way to assembling a roster that was one of the best—if not the best (ah, the painful memories!)—in the National League of that era.

Is it possible to imagine a similar turnaround for the not-quite-as-bad losers of 2012? Granted, the team is off to a bumbling start, but the ’67 squad was only 8-8 on May 3.

The Cubs have so, so much to teach us about failure. Let’s take a look at those 1966-67 teams and see how they compare with the squad being fielded this year.

The first thing you notice about those ’66 Cubs is an anomaly: The roster seems far too strong to set a record for losing. The team had four future Hall-of-Famers—two in their prime (Ron Santo and Billy Williams), one still holding his own (Ernie Banks) and one about to shine (Jenkins). Plus, a future Hall-of-Fame manager in Durocher. (Question for sabermetricians: Has any other team with four future Hall-of-Famers lost as many as 103 games?)

Banks, Santo, and Williams held down three of the eight everyday positions. Three of the other ’66 position players would make the All-Star team in the next few years (catcher Randy Hundley, shortstop Don Kessinger, and second-baseman Glenn Beckert). None of those selections were based on charity.

What that means is that six of eight position players were top notch. The holes came in centerfield, a chronic Cubs defect, manifested in 1966 by the flashy but unreliable Adolfo Phillips, and left field, inhabited then by Byron Browne, remembered today only when confused with Brant Brown, the Cub who dropped a two-out ninth inning based-loaded fly ball to lose a key game during the 1998 pennant race.

The rub came with the pitchers. In 1966 Jenkins worked mostly out of the bullpen, and the team e.r.a. ballooned to 4.33, the worst in the league by a solid margin. (I should point out that the roster featured a fifth future Hall-of-Famer, Robin Roberts, the Philly stalwart who threw his final unfortunate 48 innings for the Cubs that summer.) Still, there were signs of hope even beyond the looming ascension of Jenkins. Rookie Ken Holtzman led the staff with 11 wins, and he would go on to a strong career (if not as strong as his talent seemed to promise). Bill Hands had arrived from the Giants and he would soon put together several good seasons (and be the only Cubs starter who didn’t flounder under pressure down the stretch in 1969).

Looking over that roster from the distance of 47 years, it’s easy to see why Durocher saw promise. Why did the Cubs lose so extravagantly?

Don Kessinger remembers that the year kicked off with a “strange spring.” Because of a lingering dispute over the Mesa, Arizona, facilities, the club held spring training in Long Beach, California. The team had limited time on the practice field and took several long road trips just to schedule spring games. “We couldn’t get the extra work in,” Kessinger recalls.

That came as the team—which included several new players—was just getting to know Durocher. “Don Kessinger and I were real young at the time,” says Glenn Beckert. “We didn’t know whether Durocher would like us.”

The Cubs scored runs—644 over the season. But gave up far more—809. “The team was dead last in the major leagues in runs allowed that year,” says Al Yellon, who writes for the blog BleedCubbieBlue.com. “Jenkins was a rookie, a 23-year-old kid. After they put Jenkins in the rotation at the start of August, they played almost .500 ball the last two months.”

“I don’t think any of us honestly doubted that we had the talent that could make this ballclub win,” Kessinger says today.

And how does he feel about the current Cubs roster? “I have a lot of faith in the front office of the Cubs now,” Kessinger says diplomatically.

Indeed, scanning the 2013 roster, only an optimist of Ernie Banksian dimensions would find four future Hall-of-Famers. I only count two position players who have even made the All-Star team as Cubs: Starlin Castro (2011, 2012), Alfonso Soriano (2007, 2008). Castro is still a work in progress and The Fonz can only hope for lasting recognition if his outfield hop turns into a Gangnam style YouTube sensation.

Getting more granular, here’s what the 2013 Cubs, position by position, would need to hit if they were to equal their ’67 counterparts, who rallied so heartily.

1B: Anthony Rizzo, BA: 276; HR: 23; RBI: 95 (Banks’s record)
2B: Darwin Barney, .280; 5; 40 (Beckert)
SS: Starlin Castro, .231; 0; 42 (Kessinger)
3B: Luis Valbuena, .300; 31; 98 (Santo)
RF: Nate Schierholtz, .218; 5; 33 (Ted Savage, part time, replacing Browne)
CF: David DeJesus, .268; 17; 70 (Phillips)
LF: Alfonso Soriano, .278; 28; 84 (Williams)
C: Welington Castillo, .267; 14; 60 (Hundley)

If you could make your pact with the devil, would you take those numbers right now? I would (a shame about the demise of Castro, but Javier Baez is on deck). Do you believe the 2013 team will come close those results? If so, I’d like to talk to you about a great deal on a slightly pre-driven relief pitcher named Carlos Marmol.

OK, so the 2013 Cubs aren’t likely to score runs at a pace to lift the pennant atop the scoreboard any time after May June 1 or so. Do the current Cubs have better pitching than the surging ’67 team?

Here’s where the comparison really gets discouraging. The ’67 squad cut almost an entire run off the ’66 team’s e.r.a. (to 3.48). Jenkins led the group with a 20-13 record and a 2.80 e.r.a. Holtzman went 9-0 (spending part time on army duty). Several newcomers and vets adequately filled out the rest of the rotation, and the bullpen (led by slender Twiggy Hartenstein) proved passably reliable.

All right, maybe you spend an afternoon listening to Ernie whisper his gospel of sunny days, and you come away believing Jeff Samardzija will pitch as well as Fergie did and Travis Wood won’t fade. And maybe Matt Garza will return and his billy-goat beard will finally break the curse. True, the team e.r.a so far this year hovers around 3.80, a substantial improvement. But can you really expect the retreads and uncertainties filling out the rest of the rotation and the Huntley Little League of a bullpen to keep it up? Maybe, if the umps start calling games at Wrigley after seven innings out of sympathy for fans who can’t buy a beer to drown their misery.

I asked Al Yellon, a student of Cubs history, whether this year’s team had any hope of a quick turnaround. “I’d like to think it’s possible,” he said slowly. “The realistic answer is no.”

So here’s the harsh news to all of you hoping that Luis Valbuena will finally have that break-out year you’ve been expecting: The badness of the 1966 Cubs defies all logic. The badness of this year’s squad affirms reality.

cst_logo-sqEDITOR’S NOTE: This column is published in partnership with the Chicago Sun-Times. To learn more about our partnership, read this note from our founders.

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