Welcome to the All-Time Franchise Starting Lineup, where we review one of the 30 current MLB franchises every other week to determine the best players by position in franchise history. This week, we’ll tackle the Chicago Cubs, who have a long, and often frustrating history. If you missed any of our prior installments, you can find them here.
The Ground Rules
- Each player’s WAR with the franchise was the primary driver of the selections. Two WAR calculations were used, one from Fangraphs and the other from Baseball-Reference. When the WAR between two players was similar, we considered other factors such as stats and awards to break the tie.
- Only statistics earned with the franchise in question for each player were used. For example, someone like Albert Pujols won’t be the Dodgers’ first baseman since he only played there for part of a season near the end of his career.
- Players with multi-position eligibility can play any position they played for a reasonable period with the team.
- Outfielders can be shifted between center, left, and right as long as it makes sense defensively – especially for center field.
- Since we have universal DH now, we will assign one DH per team. Doing so also allows us to get more deserving hitters into the lineup who played at a log-jammed position.
- Three pitchers will be named – one right-handed starter, one left-handed starter, and one reliever.
The Chicago Cubs formed as the Chicago White Stockings in 1871 in the National Association, which became the National League (and later MLB) in 1876. Thus, they are one of the original eight MLB franchises. The White Stockings won six pennants and made two World Series appearances (0-1-1) with a .626 winning percentage before changing their name to the Colts in 1890. In 1898 they became the Orphans, and in 1903, the Cubs were born.
The Cubs went to three straight World Series between 1906 and 1908, winning the latter two. Despite seven more appearances in the Fall Classic, they would not win another championship until 2016. Many later referred to this drought as “The Curse of the Billy Goat.” Officially, though, the curse didn’t start until 1945 when the Billy Goat Tavern owner and his pet goat were kicked out of Game 4 of the 1945 World Series as the goat was bothering fans. The Cubs did not make it back to the World Series until they won in 2016 and only made the playoffs seven times.
In total, the franchise has a .513 winning percentage with 21 playoff appearances, 17 pennants, and only three World Series victories in its 146-year history. Despite the long championship drought, Cubs fans remain among the most passionate in Major League Baseball.
Catcher: Gabby Hartnett
Gabby Hartnett was an easy choice at catcher, considering he made our list of the Top Ten Catchers of All-Time and played all but 64 games of his career with the Cubs. Hartnett broke in with the Cubs in 1922 and remained with the club until 1941, when he played his final season with the Giants. Hartnett made the first six All-Star teams after the game premiered in 1933 and was the NL MVP in 1935. That season he batted .344 with 13 HR and 91 RBI. Hartnett’s Cubs made it to four World Series in 1929, 1932, 1935, and 1938, all of which they lost (of course).
In addition to Hartnett’s offensive prowess, he had one of the best arms in the game. Six times he led the league in Caught Stealing %, and he threw out 56% of would-be base stealers in his career. He was also an iron man, catching 100 or more games for 12 seasons, including eight in a row from 1930 to 1937. In 1938, Hartnett took over as player-manager and guided the Cubs to the series that season. He remained the manager until he left the team after the 1940 season. Harnett was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1955.
First Base: Cap Anson
Cap Anson leads all historical Cubs in WAR by a fair margin and is one of our Top Ten First Basemen of All-Time. He’s also the only player in our lineup who played for the franchise before they became the Cubs. Anson began his career in 1871 but joined the White Stockings in 1876, their first year in the National League. Anson became MLB’s first superstar, winning four batting titles and leading the league in RBI eight times. In 19 of his 22 seasons with Chicago, Anson hit over .300. He spent 22 years with the franchise as he didn’t retire until 1897, when he was 45 years old.
In addition to being a superstar on the field, Anson is the franchise’s winningest manager. He began his career as a player-manager in 1879 and continued until he retired as a player in 1897. Along the way, Cap accumulated a .579 winning %, won five pennants, and went to two World Series (with one loss and one tie). He is credited with popularizing modern strategies such as the hit-and-run and the pitching rotation. Anson was elected to the Hall of Fame posthumously in 1939.
Second Base: Ryne Sandberg
Ryne Sandberg was, in many ways, the perfect second baseman. He was a master defensively, winning nine gold gloves in his career, and a premier hitter. In addition, “Ryno” was a true clubhouse leader, despite being on the quiet side. His professionalism and preparation set an example for the Cubs of the 1980s and 90s.
Sandberg was not drafted by the Cubs but rather traded to Chicago by the Phillies in January 1982 along with an aging Larry Bowa for Ivan DeJesus. This decision would come back to haunt the Phils faithful for years to come. It didn’t take long for Sandberg to distinguish himself in Chicago. He won his first Gold Glove in his sophomore season and took home the NL MVP the following year (1984). He also won his first of seven Silver Sluggers that season and attended his first of ten consecutive All-Star games.
Ryno developed into a premier power hitter as his career wore on, leading the league in HRs in 1990 and becoming the all-time HR leader in home runs by a second baseman at the time of his retirement. He also led his Cubs to the playoffs for the first time since the “Billy Goat incident” in 1984. The Cubs made another post-season appearance with Sandberg in 1989. Ryno retired after the 1994 season but returned after a year away for two more seasons in 1996-97. Cooperstown came calling in 2005, and his number was retired by the Cubs the same year.
Shortstop: Ernie Banks
Ernie Banks began his career with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues in 1950. In 1953, the Monarchs sold his rights to Chicago, and the legend of “Mr. Cub.” was born. Banks became a fixture at shortstop in 1954, leading the league in games played for six of the next seven seasons. He made his first of 14 All-Star appearances in 1955 and won back-to-back MVPs in 1958 and 1959, leading the league in RBI both seasons. Banks hit over 40 HRs five times over six years from 1955 to 1960 and led the league in the category twice.
Despite winning a Gold Glove at shortstop in 1960, Banks transitioned to first base for the second half of his career. The Cubs made the move to extend his career, which lasted through the 1971 season. Banks earned his nickname due to his sunny disposition and great quotes, his most famous of which was “There’s sunshine, fresh air, and the team’s behind us. Let’s play two.” Banks was inducted into the Hall of Fame during his first year of eligibility in 1977 with 84% of the vote. Five years later, the Cubs retired his number.
Third Base: Ron Santo
Ron Santo completes our Hall of Fame laden, no doubt about it, Cubs’ all-time infield. He debuted in Chicago in 1960 and quickly established himself as the Cubs’ third baseman for the next 13 seasons. A workhorse, Santo averaged 156 games per season after his rookie year. This feat is even more remarkable because Santo was diagnosed with diabetes when he was 18 – a fact he kept secret for most of his career.
Santo played stellar defense at the hot corner, winning five Gold Gloves. He possessed power and a keen eye at the plate, leading the league in walks four times and OBP twice. Santo was an All-Star regular for the team, attending the Midsummer Classic nine times, including his last season with the Cubs in 1973. After the season, Santo was traded across town to the White Sox, where he played one more year before retiring.
The Cubs retired his jersey in 2003, which Santo said meant more to him than making the Hall of Fame, which had eluded him to this point. After succumbing to cancer in 2010, Santo finally made it into Cooperstown posthumously when the Veteran’s Committee elected him in 2012.
Left Field: Billy Williams
Billy Williams is yet another Hall of Famer from the 1960s-era Cubs that shockingly never made it to the post-season. After a few brief call-ups in 1959 and 1960, Williams emerged as the team’s left fielder in 1961 and promptly won Rookie of the Year. Like Banks and Santo, Williams was an iron man, averaging 156 games per season for Chicago from 1961 until he was traded to the A’s after the 1974 season. He led the NL in games played five times and, for a time, was the NL leader in consecutive games with 1,117.
At the plate, Williams was a model of consistency, quietly going about his business and averaging 28 HRs, 96 RBI, 93 runs, and a .297 batting average in his 14 full seasons with Chicago. Six times he attended the Midsummer Classic, and twice he finished as runner-up in the MVP voting. In 1972, Williams’s best season, he won the batting title with a .333 average, slugged 37 HRs, and drove in 122 runs.
Two years after being traded to Oakland, Williams retired. It took him a few tries, but in 1987, Williams was elected to the Hall of Fame. That same year, the Cubs retired his number 26.
Center Field: Hack Wilson
At first glance, it looked like there might be some debate about center field as Jimmy Ryan has a higher career WAR with the Cubs than Hack Wilson. Upon closer inspection, however, you see that it took Ryan nearly twice as many games in a Cubs uniform than Wilson to achieve his slightly higher WAR. Wilson only played six seasons with the Cubs, but they were spectacular.
After a couple of solid but unspectacular seasons with the Giants, Wilson was sent to Double-A Toledo of the American Association in 1925. After that season, the Cubs picked him up in probably the greatest Rule 5 selection of all time. Over the next six seasons, Wilson led the NL in HRs four times and RBI twice. His 56 HRs in 1930 were an NL record until Mark McGwire broke it in 1998, and his 191 RBI that season still reigns as the most ever.
Following the 1931 season, the Cubs traded Wilson to the Cardinals, ending his short but amazing tenure with Chicago. He retired three years later after only 12 big league seasons. Due to his relatively short career, Wilson was never elected to the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA. However, in 1979, 30 years after his death, the Veteran’s Committee recognized Wilson’s contribution to the game and inducted him.
Right Field: Sammy Sosa
After a few unremarkable seasons with the Texas Rangers and Chicago White Sox, Sammy Sosa was traded to the Cubs at the end of spring training in 1992. The speedy Sosa preferred to swing for the fences, striking out a lot in the process and hitting for a low average. His approach started to pay dividends in his second season at Wrigley when he belted 33 HRs. Sosa was just getting started.
By 1995 Sosa’s combination of power and speed made him an All-Star and a Silver Slugger. He repeatedly repeated both feats, attending seven All-Star games and winning six Silver Sluggers. In 1998 he took it a step further, winning the NL MVP and eclipsing Roger Maris’ single-season HR record with 66 to go along with 158 RBI. However, he was not the new record holder, as Mark McGwire slugged 70 that year. The McGwire and Sosa HR race electrified baseball fans everywhere and turned Sammy into a superstar.
Sosa led the league in HRs twice more after 1998; however, his massive popularity began to fade in the early 2000s when accusations of steroid use and corked bats began to encircle him. Though no one ever proved the steroid allegations, the circumstantial evidence surrounding Sosa’s transformation from a slightly built, speed outfielder to a hulking HR hitter was substantial. In 2009, two years after Sosa retired, the New York Times reported that Sammy was among the 104 players who failed an anonymous drug test in 2003. For these reasons, Sosa has yet to gain admittance into the Hall of Fame. Even so, “Slammin’ Sammy” will always be a legend in Chicago, for better or for worse.
Designated Hitter: Stan Hack
There were a few options for DH, but Stan Hack has the highest WAR among Cubs’ hitters not already in the lineup by a fair margin. Frank Chance, Joe Tinker, and Johnny Evers, who were immortalized by the famous 1910 poem by Franklin Pierce Adams, also warranted consideration. But Hack gets the nod as a lifelong Cub and five-time all-star who led the NL in hits two times.
Hack was a third baseman who broke in with the Cubs in 1932 but didn’t establish himself as a regular until 1934. His tenure with the team was during a good run for Chicago, who went to four World Series with him on the roster (though he only had one at bat in the 1932 series). Hack proved himself an excellent post-season hitter, batting .348 with a .408 OBP throughout his 18 World Series games. He was also a proficient base stealer, leading the league in SBs twice – though they didn’t tend to run much during his era.
Hack briefly retired in 1943, partly because he and manager Jimmie Wilson didn’t get along. He came back, though, and played through 1947. The Hall of Fame never gave Hack much love, though many feel he was a better third baseman than a few others with plaques in Cooperstown.
Right-Handed Starter: Fergie Jenkins
Only two pitchers have had their number retired by the Cubs: Greg Maddux and Ferguson “Fergie” Jenkins. Despite Maddux’s career success, Jenkins was the superior pitcher for the franchise. Maddux probably wouldn’t even be the second-choice for right-handed starter, as Rick Reuschel probably deserves that honor.
Jenkins began his career with Philadelphia but was traded to the Cubs during his second big league season. He was a reliever initially, but the Cubs converted him to a full-time starter in 1967. This move proved wise as Jenkins threw 20 complete games that season, made the first of three all-star appearances, and finished second in the Cy Young voting. He took home the Cy Young a few years later in 1971, after an incredible season in which he started 39 games and completed 30 of them over 325 innings pitched. His ERA that season was 2.77 to go along with a 1.05 WHIP.
After the 1973 season, the Cubs traded Jenkins to the Rangers, but his career was far from over. He pitched another ten seasons after the trade, returning to the Cubs for the last two. Fergie retired after the 1983 season at the age of 40. In 1991, the BBWAA voted Jenkins into the Hall of Fame, making him the first Canadian-born player to be inducted. The Cubs further honored him in 2009, retiring his number 31, which was not coincidently also worn by Maddux.
Left-Handed Starter: Hippo Vaughn
James “Hippo” Vaughn began his career with the New York Highlanders (later Yankees) in 1908. After a short stint with the Washington Senators, he was traded to the Cubs in August 1913. He flourished in Chicago and remained with the team until 1921 when he opted to play semi-pro baseball after a salary dispute.
In Vaughn’s nine seasons with the franchise, he led the league in innings pitched and strikeouts twice and ERA, wins, and shutouts once. His best season came in 1918, when he won the pitcher’s triple crown after accumulating 22 wins, 148 strikeouts, and a 1.74 ERA in 209 innings pitched. That team advanced to the World Series, losing to Babe Ruth and the Red Sox in six games. Vaughn started three of the six and only won one despite completing all three games with an ERA of 1.00.
Had Vaughn remained in MLB, he likely would have garnered serious Hall of Fame consideration. After all, his lifetime ERA of 2.49 ranks 31st all-time, and his 41 shutouts rank 41st. However, most of his counting stats fall below the threshold of most of the hurlers in Cooperstown.
Reliever: Bruce Sutter
Perhaps the most difficult choice in the Cubs’ All-Time lineup came at reliever, where it was a two-horse race between Bruce Sutter and Lee Smith. The two closers had similar WARs and are both in the Hall of Fame. Smith was with Chicago for eight seasons and Sutter only five, but what put Sutter over the top for us was how incredibly dominant those five seasons were.
Sutter broke in with Chicago in 1976 after mastering the split-fingered fastball in the minor leagues. After a solid first season with the club, Sutter emerged as a dominant force in 1977. He set a record by recording at least one strikeout per appearance 39 straight times – a record that would not be broken until 2014 by Aroldis Chapman. Sutter made his first all-star appearance that season and remained a Cubs’ representative in the game for the rest of his tenure with the franchise. In 1979, he won the Cy Young award after leading the league with 37 saves accompanied by a 2.22 ERA. He was the saves leader again the following season and thrice more after his trade to St. Louis in 1980.
Sutter was an early pioneer of the modern closer and was recognized as such by the Hall of Fame in 2006. Prior to his enshrinement, no pitcher who had never started a game had gained admittance.
The Cubs All-Franchise starting lineup is filled with Hall of Famers at nearly every position. In a few weeks, we’ll dig into their cross-town rivals: The Chicago White Sox.
Featured Image Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)