The following article was originally published in The 1991 Elias Baseball Analyst (New York: Fireside, 1991. Print.)
Unless you remember the Spanish-American War first-hand, you probably think the history of the Chicago Cubs has been all gloom and doom: 46 years since their last National League title, nearly that long again since their last World Series victory in 1908. But if Willard Scott ever happens to throw birthday kisses to a 103-year-old grandma in the Windy City, jot down her name and give her a call. Wish her 103 more, then ask her about the Cubs of her childhood. She’ll tell you about the most dominant team in the history of the National League.
Even with that 46-year World Series vacuum, the Cubs’ history has been a successful one. Take away every game that Ferguson Jenkins ever won for them, every game that Bruce Sutter ever saved for them, and every game in which Ernie Banks hit a home run, and the franchise would still have a record above the .500 mark. The more recent past may have meant a half-century of frustration, but the golden days of the Cubs franchise go all the way back to the founding of the National League in 1876, the same year that Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone and Sitting Bull danced on General Custer.
For starters, Chicago is the only team that has represented the same city throughout the league’s entire history. Even the historic Cincinnati franchise—considered the cornerstone of major league baseball—deserted the National League for the American Association for most of the 1880s. But the Chicago team remained a member club under every N.L. president from Morgan Bulkeley and William Hulbert through Bart Giamatti and Bill White. The first-year clubs were Chicago, originally called the White Stockings, the Boston Red Stockings (forerunners of the Atlanta Braves), and six other franchises no longer in operation: the Philadelphia Athletics, the New York Mutuals, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the St. Louis Brown Stockings (creative when it came to picking names, weren’t they?), the Louisville Grays, and the Hartford Dark Blues.
Chicago’s first manager was Al Spalding—that’s right, the guy who started the sporting goods firm that bears his name, and who made a fortune on the small, pink rubber balls that most boys and girls slapped around schoolyards until their hormones prodded them toward other diversions. Spalding’s team won the first National League pennant with a record of 52–14, taking the first of Chicago’s six league titles during an 11-year period from 1876 through 1886. The names of the team’s stars may be familiar even to current-day baseball fans with little knowledge of the 19th-century game: Cap Anson, King Kelly, and pre-Babe home-run king Ned Williamson (see page 424), to name a few.
Chicago posted winning records in every season from 1887 through 1891 as well, finishing second or third each time, and playing 102 games above .500 for the period. That kind of record today would earn them a choker’s label. But in the quaint mind-set of the 1800s, such a performance was probably considered a sign of excellence. (How blissfully naive!) The team then scuffled for the rest of the 1890s, but emerged shortly thereafter to become the only team ever to rival the dominance the great Yankees teams would display nearly a half-century later.
Starting in 1904, the Cubs strung together seven consecutive seasons above the .600 mark, four of them at .675 or better. (Only the Yankees had a longer streak, 11 years from 1947 through 1957; none of those teams reached the lofty .675 level.) They won four National League titles and two World Series during that time. Their record of 116–36 in 1906 remains the best in the majors during the 1900s. And the foundation of those teams was a trio of infielders whose names have been immortalized, but whose individual talents have been ironically obscured, by a poem entitled “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon,” written by columnist Franklin P. Adams, which was published in the New York Mail in July 1910:
These are the saddest of possible words,
Tinker to Evers to Chance.
Trio of Bear Cubs and fleeter than birds,
Tinker to Evers to Chance.
Thoughtlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
Making a Giant hit into a double,
Words that are weighty with nothing but trouble,
Tinker to Evers to Chance.
Tinker, Evers, and Chance played together regularly from 1903 through 1910, a span that would have coincided perfectly with that run of .600 seasons had they not fallen three percentage points short in their first year together. Because of Adams’s ode, baseball folklore holds that turning double plays was their hallmark. But never during their eight seasons together did the Cubs lead the National League in making double plays. On the other hand, a look at the record indicates that all three were excellent hitters and great base runners. Fielding? Well … at least we know they were excellent hitters and great base runners.
Actually, at first glance, their career batting statistics only reinforce the common notion that the three reached Cooperstown for their fielding skills. None of them was a career .300 hitter; Chance batted .297, and neither Tinker (.263) nor Evers (.270) was even close. But the league batting average during the eight seasons they played together was just .250. By comparison to the other players at their positions, it’s obvious that Tinker, Evers, and Chance were all superior hitters in their day.
From 1903 to 1910, Chance was one of the toughest outs in baseball, batting .302 and ranking eighth in the majors with an eight-year total of 417 walks. (Hit by pitch statistics are regrettably unavailable for that period. But even discounting them, Chance—an olden-day Minnie Minoso who crowded the plate—ranked sixth with a .382 on-base average. If HBPs were included, Chance might leap-frog over Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie, among others, into second place behind Honus Wagner.) Harry Davis had far more power, but no other first baseman compared to Chance at the plate. The eight-year batting statistics of all players with 750 or more games at first base during the period follow, along with the average performance for all first basemen telescoped down to the same number of plate appearances as Chance:
First Base AB R H 2B 3B HR BB SB BA
Kitty Bransfield 3958 382 1041 175 49 13 173 128 .263
Frank Chance 3211 597 970 154 60 16 417 311 .302
Harry Davis 4094 598 1128 239 63 53 346 172 .276
Tom Jones 3688 320 919 115 30 3 191 134 .249
Fred Tenney 3585 527 984 115 34 10 458 112 .274
Averages 3388 395 889 131 50 16 241 129 .263
Evers was also among the best offensive second basemen of that period, second only to Nap Lajoie. Similarly, Tinker (a power-hitting infielder by dead-ball standards) and Bobby Wallace ran a distant and inseparable second and third to Honus Wagner among the top-hitting shortstops of the day. Those who played at least 750 games at those positions from 1903 through 1910:
Second Base AB R H 2B 3B HR BB SB BA
Johnny Evers 3689 552 995 136 45 5 395 257 .270
Miller Huggins 3365 542 879 78 38 5 547 184 .261
Nap Lajoie 4043 577 1379 298 62 24 270 162 .341
Claude Ritchey 3074 338 811 128 40 5 341 61 .264
Jimmy Williams 3449 386 863 146 58 20 290 72 .250
Averages 3775 445 960 140 48 12 309 153 .254
Shortstops AB R H 2B 3B HR BB SB BA
Bill Dahlen 3175 383 770 130 22 16 379 159 .243
Mickey Doolan 3010 253 705 133 45 8 165 82 .234
Freddy Parent 3883 453 987 125 57 13 266 152 .254
Joe Tinker 3957 474 1002 154 69 22 241 222 .253
Honus Wagner 4200 791 1454 294 107 42 440 382 .346
Bobby Wallace 4068 449 1047 171 57 8 366 107 .257
Averages 3893 441 967 139 48 12 305 165 .248
Tinker, Evers, and Chance were no worse than the second-best hitters at their three infield positions. By today’s standards, they could be Eddie Murray, Steve Sax, and Barry Larkin; or Don Mattingly, Roberto Alomar, and Alan Trammell—in short, the foundation of a potentially awesome lineup, especially when you factor in their base-stealing capabilities. Notice the stolen-base totals above; during those eight seasons, Chance (2d), Evers (4th), and Tinker (9th) all ranked among the top 10 in the entire majors, Chance trailing only Honus Wagner.
Ironically, fielding—the skill for which Tinker, Evers, and Chance were immortalized—may have been the one at which they were merely ordinary. As we mentioned earlier, the Cubs didn’t lead the National League in double plays even once during their time together; in fact, they never finished higher than third. Tinker, at least, was a good (though probably not great) fielder, having consistently ranked among the leaders in assists per game. The same standard of measure doesn’t flatter Evers, however. The following table shows their major-league ranks at shortstop and second base, respectively, among players with at least 50 games played there in each season; the number of players ranked is also indicated:
1903 1904 1905 1906 1907 1908 1909 1910
Tinker 5/17 6/18 2/17 10/16 5/18 7/17 6/19 9/18
Evers 10/17 2/17 10/17 12/18 2/18 12/19 7/17 11/17
For the period from 1903 through 1910, Tinker’s average of 3.4 assists per game ranked sixth among 17 players with 500 or more games at shortstop; Evers ranked sixth among 13 second basemen with a 3.00 mark. Neither was a particularly sure-handed fielder, either. Tinker ranked eighth among those 17 shortstops in fielding percentage, with one error for every 16.1 chances. (He led the majors in fielding percentage in 1908 and 1913, and led the N.L. in 1909 and 1911.) Evers ranked only 11th among the 13 second basemen (one error per 19.3 chances). Of course, fielding is the most difficult of all baseball skills to quantify. But neither Tinker nor Evers turned an inordinate number of double plays; they didn’t field an unusual number of ground balls; and they both made their share of errors—especially Evers. Have there been any great fielders in major league history who failed to distinguish themselves statistically in at least one of those categories? Among the three, it was the first baseman Chance who had the best fielding statistics. That says a lot.
Tinker, Evers, and Chance are all worthy Hall of Famers for their hitting and base stealing alone—especially in light of the N.L. championship teams they played for. That’s a blessing denied many other great infields in Cubs history: not Cap Anson, Fred Pfeffer, Ned Williamson, and Tom Burns in the 1880s; but certainly Billy Jurges, Billy Herman, Stan Hack, and the first baseman of the month in the 1930s; Ernie Banks, Glenn Beckert, Don Kessinger, and Ron Santo in the 1960s; Ryne Sandberg, Shawon Dunston, and Leon Durham or Mark Grace in the 1980s. But as to whether baseball’s most legendary double play combination was anything more than adequate in the field, you’ll have to take columnist Adams’s word for it, if you like. That leaves only one question: What’s a gonfalon?