Chicago Cubs history: The forgotten first rebuild

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /

Before Theo Epstein, before Dallas Green, the Chicago Cubs underwent one other major reconstruction. Because no playoff appearances resulted, it’s largely forgotten. Until now.

After the Chicago Cubs’ historic 1969 collapse, local fans blocked a lot out. First, who recalls that the 1970 team came close to the playoffs? They finished five games behind the Pirates, or three games better in the standings than the year before.

Four future Hall of Famers again led the way. Banks, Jenkins, Williams and Santo. But after the 1971 season, 40-year-old Ernie Banks finally said “Let’s play none” and retired. The team would manage a final second-place finish in 1972, but by that winter, the core sell-off was well afoot.

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Bringing back the goods

Also forgotten was what an impressive group of young talent the sell-off returned. It featured five bonafide future All-Stars, including a future Cy Young winner and four-time batting-title winner. But why this bounty failed to return the Cubs to contention demands a deeper dive.

The story revolves around the longest-serving general manager in Cubs history, John Hollard. Taking the reins after the ’56 season, Holland inherited few great assets – save two. They were 25-year-old star shortstop Ernie Banks, and a 19-year-old Alabama prospect named Billy Williams.

The beginnings of something special

But gradually – very gradually – Holland assembled the pieces needed to end two decades of futility. Half came through amateur signings. Third baseman Ron Santo in 1959. Second baseman Glenn Beckert in 1962. Shortstop Don Kessinger in 1964, and lefty Ken Holtzman via the fourth round of the inaugural 1965 amateur draft.

The other half came by trade. As a trader, Holland is forever linked to the 1964 Brock-for-Broglio disaster. But Holland kept swinging away and with far better results.

This included effectively in 1966 engineering the reverse of Brock for Broglio. In this case, he shipped an accomplished but aging starter to Philadelphia and got a 23-year-old Ferguson Jenkins back. The next year, Holland netted battery-mates Randy Hundley and Bill Hands from the Giants for a reliever and an aging centerfielder. Last, Holland got solid veteran outfielder/first baseman Jim Hickman from the Dodgers for a song.

Nothing to show for it

This opened the Cubs’ title window in 1967. Alas, no flags resulted, and once the window shut after 1972, Holland started reconstructing. Over a three-year period, he’d turned over the entire rotation and starting lineup, save Kessinger at short.

Holtzman was the first to go, returning a 25-year-old Rick Monday from the A’s. Jenkins netted Bill Madlock from Texas. Billy Williams also headed west to the A’s, returning three players including Manny Trillo. Then what proved Santo’s last pro season brought from the White Sox the two Steves: Stone and Swisher. Even Joe Pepitone – added in 1970 – brought back future All-Star masher Andre Thornton.

But Holland’s rebuild faced three considerable problems. First, after he retired in 1975, his successors traded most of the young players before their peaks. Plus these trades netted little in return. (The lone exception: Monday, who was traded before his decline for the Dodgers’ Bill Buckner and Ivan DeJesus.)

All-Star, not Hall of Fame

Second, the Cubs replaced a Hall of Fame core with solid All-Star level players, but none ultimately bound for Cooperstown. Players like Madlock and Trillo were key cogs on future title-winners. However, they were always secondary to future Hall of Famers like Stargell, Blyleven, Carlton, Schmidt and Rose.

So unless the Cubs could draft Hall of Fame replacements,  regression was unavoidable. Unfortunately, the Cubs drafted horribly in the late ’60s and throughout the ’70s.

Starting with baseball’s first amateur draft in 1965, the Cubs didn’t score with a single first-round pick until 1981. That’s when they drafted Joe Carter and Shawon Dunston the following year.

Luck runs out?

Making things worse, their luck in later rounds was barely better. For two decades after selecting Holtzman in 1965, the Cubs drafted and signed only two picks to surpass his career WAR (27.5). They were third-rounder Rick Reuschel in 1970 (69.7 WAR) and second-rounder Lee Smith in 1975 (29.0).

Now draft success always requires avoiding some bad luck, but this level of consistent failure requires something more. Many believe the Wrigley family skimped on scouting. Take 1967. Might more scouting resources have prevented taking high school shortstop Terry Hughes second overall? Could a few more scouting visits have recommended gambling on top catching prospect Ted Simmons or shortstop Bobby Grich?

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Whatever the case, the curse finally reversed under Dallas Green. With him from Philadelphia, he brought Director of Player Development Gordon Goldsberry and several scouts. In 1984 and 1985 alone, they drafted Greg Maddux, Jamie Moyer, Rafael Palmeiro and Mark Grace.

But by then, the memory of John Holland and his failed rebuild was distant at best. Almost as much as that forgotten second-place 1970 finish.