The Chicago Cubs are one of the two oldest teams currently playing in the Major Leagues, dating all the way back to 1876. With a history that long, that means there will be a lot of players to cover in their entry in the Retired Numbers Series.
Even with their lack of October success, the Cubs have had a lot of good players in their history. Are there any players that might be honored now? Or is their best bet further off into the future?
Some quick notes on the stats: The two most prominent stats I used are similarly named.
Both are called WAR, or Wins Above Replacement. They both try to account for every part of a player’s game, including, but not limited to: offense, defense, position, and playing time.
So, it is a counting stat, like hits or home runs (with the small difference that bad seasons can actually decrease your WAR, if you are worse than a replacement player). WAR credits a player with how many wins they have provided to their team. They aren’t perfect, but for my purposes (a single number showing roughly how good a player has been), they work perfectly.
There are two major sites that provide WAR, Baseball-Reference (henceforth called bWAR) and Fangraphs (fWAR). The two are mostly the same, with the biggest difference coming from the different fielding stats the two use. Fangraphs has a fairly good summary of what makes up WAR and how it is calculated (for those wanting a more general summary, the introduction works just fine).
Pitching is slightly different: Fangraphs’ WAR for pitchers, until recently (as in, after I started this series), only went back to 1974, so for my purposes, I stuck to just bWAR for them.
The Chicago Cubs have, to date, retired five numbers for six people (one number for two different people, specifically). Everyone of the six is a Hall of Famer (or will be), although that wasn’t necessarily the case when each was honored, meaning the team is open to retiring numbers for players not necessarily bound for Cooperstown.
Ernie Banks was the first to see his No. 14 removed from circulation in 1982, over a decade after he hung up his cleats. A lifetime Cub and veteran of nineteen seasons (1953-1971), Banks was worth 62.5 bWAR and 74 fWAR in his career, making him among the most valuable players in Cubs history.
Billy Williams, No. 26, would follow five years later. Another Hall of Famer and 16 year Cub (1961-1974 with call-ups in 1959 and 1960), Williams made his mark with 58.5 bWAR and 68 fWAR in his time at Wrigley. Adding his final two seasons in Oakland in and Williams was overall worth 59.9 bWAR and 70 fWAR.
It would take 16 years before they chose their next honoree, but in 2003, Chicago finally settled on Ron Santo. Both Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs rank his time with the Cubs as one of the two best stints in team history. From 1960 to 1973, Santo was worth 68.4 bWAR and 80 fWAR (both sites also say his time with the Chicago White Sox was actually below replacement level, bringing down his career totals). Santo would finally earn his spot in the Hall last year, just shy of a decade after his No. 10 was honored.
Ryne Sandberg’s No. 23 was hung from the flag pole just two years later following his induction to the Hall of Fame. His career lasted from 1981 to 1997 (with 1995 off), and had only six non-Cub plate appearances. In that time, he was worth 65.0 bWAR and 63 fWAR.
Greg Maddux and Ferguson Jenkins both wore No. 31, and both had their numbers retired in a joint ceremony in 2009. Both pitched with the team for ten years across multiple stints: Jenkins from 1966 to 1973 and again from 1882 to 1983; Maddux from 1986 to 1992 and from 2004 to 2006. Jenkins leads all Cubs pitchers in bWAR with 50.2 in his time there, and 77.4 bWAR for his career (compared to 60 and 91 fWAR). Maddux’s time with the Cubs generated 31.5 of his 99.4 bWAR (and 39 of his 121 fWAR).
There are three factors I can look at to determine where a team stands in retired number standards in relation to other teams. I can either look at the fWAR or bWAR; the median of the values or the average; or the value from playing with the team versus the total career value.
In more or less every measure, the Chicago Cubs are a second-quartile team. In one, they drop down to the median; in another two, they’re one or two into the top quartile. Basically, what it means is that they’re moderately strict in their requirements. It’s fairly standard for one of the original sixteen teams; they generally retire more worthy numbers than expansion teams (partly due to a longer history to draw from).
As mentioned, the Cubs have retired six numbers. This puts them in a four-way tie for 14th in the league, equal with the Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Indians, and Toronto Blue Jays. Among the original 16 teams, only the Oakland Athletics have retired fewer numbers.
And now, for the fun part: Who might be on the horizon for possible honorees?
Well, the top unretired number player is unquestionably Cap Anson. Baseball-Reference has him as the franchise leader in WAR at 80.7, while Fangraphs switches him with Ron Santo into second place with 79 fWAR.
While Cap Anson didn’t have a uniform number, players like that have been honored. And if there were an early player to honor, I would imagine original hit king and premiere member of the 3000 hit club Anson would be up there on the list. He even played 22 seasons (out of 27) with the Chicago Cubs. The one factor that makes me think it’s not likely to happen soon is that the club has had over 110 years to do something like that, so there may not be enough of an impetus to do so.
The next unhonored hitter on the list would be Sammy Sosa. No. 21 spent 13 years in Wrigley, hitting 545 home runs and racking up 55.9 bWAR and 64 fWAR. If the Hall of Fame ballot this year is any indication, he might not have public opinion on his side at the moment. However, given time, I think that will soften. If not in the Hall of Fame electorate, then at least in the town where he spent most of his career.
Stan Hack is yet another player from early in the Cubs’ history, a theme that will come up repeatedly on this list. Hack was an underrated third baseman who spent his entire career (1932-1947) with the Cubs.
He’s been mostly forgotten, despite solid numbers (50.7 bWAR, 59 fWAR). With his low profile, he would need something like an election to the Hall via the Veterans Committee in order to draw attention to himself. I can’t see that happening, though, with the deep backlog of Hall-worthy third basemen, meaning Hack will likely continue to go unhonored.
Hall of Fame Catcher Gabby Hartnett spent 19 seasons as a Cub, from 1922 to 1940. He didn’t have a uniform number until 1932, though, and he cycled through three numbers in his final nine seasons, meaning there isn’t really one number he’s known for.
His numbers were solid, though, with 49.6 bWAR and 55 fWAR. Being a member of the Hall helps his profile, but at the same time, the team hasn’t acted on retiring his number for over seven decades. There’s always a possibility that the team decides to honor him, but I see no indication that such a thing is imminent.
The next three need to be lumped together: Frank Chance, Joe Tinker, and Johnny Evers are ninth, 10th, and 13th in bWAR (43.4, 42.7, and 37.5), and 10th, ninth, and 11th in fWAR (52, 52, and 47). The three will be forever linked by Franklin Pierce Adams’ poem which means that they would probably need to all be honored or all remain unhonored.
All of them were done as regular players by 1917, though, well before uniform numbers were used. Given the nature of their case and how long it’s been since any of them played, I can’t see any of them being honored right now.
Mark Grace is a nice change of pace from the last few, having actually played in the last few decades. From 1988 to 2000, Grace compiled 41.1 bWAR and 46 fWAR while leading all players in hits for the 1990s.
That’s a decent enough resume, and he’s recent enough that fans will still have fond memories of him. He doesn’t have overwhelming odds in his favor, but I would imagine there’s still a decent chance he gets his No. 17 retired. If nothing else, being a more modern player, he should have time on his side.
After that is a run of similar, older (and to be honest, rather not notable) players, including Billy Herman, Bill Nicholson, Ned Williamson, and Jimmy Ryan. None of them has played with the Chicago Cubs more recently than 1947, and none of them stands out from the others enough to distinguish themselves.
Their age, combined with the lack of a standout, makes it very doubtful any of them will be honored. However, there are still players to cover; Wikipedia actually has a list of players who have had petitions for a retired number sent in on their behalf. I’ve already covered Cap Anson, Mark Grace, and Sammy Sosa, so let’s move on to the others.
Like Cap Anson, Hack Wilson played before the Cubs used uniform numbers. He’s also rather famous still, thanks to being a Hall of Famer and for holding the single-season RBI record with 191. It’s worth noting, though, that he only played for 12 seasons, and only six of them were with Chicago (1926-1931, worth 30.2 bWAR and 37 fWAR). Few teams have one retired non-number player, let alone two, and if the Cubs only chose one to retire, I imagine proto-Ty Cobb Cap Anson would rank much higher on their list than Wilson.
Phil Cavarretta, listed next on the Wikipedia page, stands a much better chance. Cavarretta stands behind only Cap Anson in seasons with the Cubs, playing there from 1934 to 1953. In that time, he accrued 31.2 bWAR, 38 fWAR, and and MVP award. That’s a fairly nice list of accomplishments, actually.
My biggest hesitation is, again, the fact that he’s been retired since 1955. Cavarretta himself wouldn’t even be alive to attend the ceremony were it to be held, which would make a ceremony seem a little odd. If fan support demands it, though, it could happen.
Andre Dawson is listed as well. Dawson again brings Hall of Fame star power with him. The biggest knock on his case is that he was unquestionably an Expo first (11 seasons, to only six in Chicago).
He did have his share of good memories at Wrigley though, with an MVP award, 17.3 bWAR, and 18 fWAR while there. Add in that his technical primary team no longer exists, plus his relatively recent election to the Hall, and Dawson actually represents a realistic candidate. We’ll just need to wait and see where his case goes from here. It’ll definitely need a push of fan-support to get it over the top.
Derrek Lee is also among those listed. His credentials for a retired number were not as strong as I first thought, though. He only played for the Cubs for seven seasons (2004-2010) during which time he was worth 21.2 bWAR and 25 fWAR.
His time as a Cub wasn’t bad, but I can’t see any reason why they would retire his number before, say, Mark Grace. Both were first basemen, but Grace had the benefit of coming up with the Cubs and playing there longer. Barring more fan support for Lee, I can’t see Lee getting his number retired while Grace’s isn’t.
On the subject of more recent players, Kerry Wood is the final player on the list (and this has the added benefit of providing a segue to the pitchers).
Wood is a tough case to figure out. He can either be seen negatively (the top prospect who disappointed on his prospect) or positively (the young pitcher who overcame overuse-induced injury early in his career to come back). He does have his famous moments with the team, at least (his 20-strikeout game, the 2003 season).
As for the facts, he was worth 24.2 bWAR in his Chicago Cub career (and 23 fWAR), which lasted 12 seasons. Wood’s case is more or less going to depend directly on fan support. At the very least, his career was recent enough to still be in peoples’ minds.
And with that, we can move on to the rest of the pitchers.
Rick Reuschel leads non-Fergie Jenkins pitchers in Cubs bWAR, with 46.0 over 12 seasons (Fangraphs even agrees, on this point, with 53 fWAR).
Reuschel provides several complications. First, he’s been retired since 1991 with no apparent call for his No. 48 to be retired. On his own, he would appear good enough, but he was rather underrated in his time. Underrated to the point of being Hall-of-Fame level good. A Hall of Fame election (via the Veterans Committee, at this point) would definitely make him into a favorite for the honor.
As is, though, he’s probably too underrated to be called anything other than a decent possibility. He’s probably about on par with Grace as far as odds go.
The pitchers run into the same issue as the hitters.
Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown was a Hall of Fame pitcher who pitched from 1903 to 1916. 10 of those years were for the Cubs, and they were good (42.9 bWAR, 43 fWAR).
However, he’s been retired for nearly a century and never had a uniform number. There’s obviously never been a compelling enough reason to retire a number for him to date, and with fellow no-numbers Cap Anson, Hack Wilson, and others also on the outside looking in, I can’t see Brown as a top candidate.
No team has more than two no-number retired “numbers”, and Brown falls behind Anson in order of importance right now, I would imagine. If Anson gets his number retired, then maybe we can come back and look at Brown and Wilson.
Clark Griffith is next on the list, with 42.0 bWAR (and 47 fWAR) in eight seasons. But, again, he never wore a number, and those eight seasons were a long time ago; from 1893 to1900, to be exact. He’s actually in Cooperstown as an Executive/Pioneer, he’s been retired so long (and he’s more famous as an owner, arguably). Again, can’t really see his status changing much.
The pitchers fall into the same problem as the hitters from here.
The next four by bWAR are all within 3.5 wins (between 40.3 and 37.0) of each other: Pete Alexander, Bill Hutchinson, Hippo Vaughn, and Charlie Root. Alexander is in the only one of the four in the Hall, but he’s not more well-known than, say, Anson or Brown. Root was the only one of the quartet to even wear a number, and even then, he’s mostly known now for giving up Babe Ruth’s called shot. I really can’t consider any of them as major candidates.
Immediately after those four, though, is Carlos Zambrano. Placing below them might not seem good, but in fact, it’s not that bad. Zambrano was nearly as good (35.6 bWAR, 31 fWAR), but threw fewer innings than any of them. Between modern reduced workloads for pitchers and free agency, Zambrano stands out much more against his peers than any of those four do against theirs.
His 11 seasons in Chicago were—interesting, to say the least. I can see why Zambrano’s “intangibles” (so to speak) in this case would work against him. But at least he has a number to work with, and he looks good against his contemporaries, if nothing else (I do think time will lessen any animosity towards him, but that’s still a decent amount to overcome).
After that are more older-time pitchers, so it’s probably time to start on more modern players. I’ll start with one who’s not currently a Chicago Cub, but who’s still active nevertheless: Aramis Ramirez. Ramirez played nine seasons in Chicago. In that time, was about as good as teammate Derrek Lee, with 29 fWAR and 22.1 bWAR. His chances aren’t great, but if I was covering Lee, I figured I may as well cover Ramirez too. I would still imagine Lee has slightly better chances, although they still aren’t in his favor.
So then, we’re left with the current roster. Who’s the most promising from this group?
The rotation is a little lacking on young aces, so we’ll need to stick to the position players. Starlin Castro leads the way. Despite just finishing his age-22 season, he’s already a three-year veteran with 7.9 bWAR and 9 fWAR to his name. He’s under contract through 2019 (with an option for 2020) as well, so he’ll be around for some time. As one of the best young players in the game, I’m optimistic about his odds. There’s a real chance that he ends up a lock. As is, he’s just one of the favorites.
Alfonso Soriano has been with the team for some time, and hasn’t been completely awful (20 fWAR, although only 6.3 bWAR thanks to a disagreement on fielding). However, he won’t come close to being worth his massive contract, which I think will leave a bad memory too strong to overcome with most fans.
Darwin Barney has only been around as long as Castro, but he’s four years older. Also, almost the entirety of his value is with his glove. The only way I can see this happening is if he sticks with the Cubs for a decade or more while continuing to play incredible defense into his 30s. That’s not a terribly likely scenario.
And, lastly, there’s the newest call-up, Anthony Rizzo. He’s just slightly older than Castro, and was impressive in 87 games in 2012. He’ll need to keep it up and stick with the team, but he comes with enough praise as a prospect that he’s at least worth considering here. It’s also worth noting that last year, here wore Phil Cavarretta’s No. 44.
As of right now, the players that I think are most likely to get their numbers retired by the Chicago Cubs in the future are, in order:
This article is also featured at Hot Corner Harbor.