Before we start, we need to talk about Ernie Banks; you won’t see him on this list. While Mr. Cub played a few more games at first than at shortstop, it was at short that he made his Hall of Fame career. In his nine years as a shortstop, Banks accumulated 55 WAR; in his 10 years at first, just 12.7. So he will appear with the shortstops.
Ok, let’s get on to today’s list. Statistics are for each player’s Cubs tenure unless otherwise noted.
5. Phil Cavarretta 1934-1953, .292/.371/.416. 119 wRC+. 33.7 WAR
A perforated eardrum kept Cavarretta out of World War II, which meant he was one of the few wartime hitters in their mid-20s able to feast on depleted wartime pitching, and feast he did. From 1943-45 Cavarretta led all first basemen in runs, triples and wRC+, and finished a close second in doubles. He had little home run power but showcased excellent on-base skills, leading first basemen in OBP (.406) during this period and finishing behind only Stan Musial, Mel Ott and Augie Galan for all hitters.
4. Anthony Rizzo 2012-21, .272/.372/.489, 131 wRC+, 31.7 WAR
As the first baseman for the first Cubs World Series victory to be broadcast on radio, Rizzo could easily appear one or two places higher on this list. The raw statistics favor the next two guys ahead of him, but if you wanted to put Rizzo ahead of those guys I wouldn’t complain. Rizzo left Chicago this year as perhaps the most beloved Cub of the last 20 years. He dispelled questions about his power by tying for the lead league in homers by a first baseman from 2014-19, with 179. Since then his performance has tailed off significantly; his OPS has been 75 points below his career average. A contract like the five-year, $70 million extension the Cubs floated last March, which seemed like an insult at the time, is now likely out of reach.
3. Mark Grace 1988-2000, .308/.386/.445, 123 wRC+, 44.2 WAR
Now we’re getting into some all-time top 25 action. Grace managed to find his way to two Cubs postseasons in 1989 and 1998. He was sort of a Cavarretta 2.0, with limited power but remarkable plate discipline. During his Cubs career, Grace walked 385 times more often than he struck out. Cavarretta’s margin, in a much less whiff-prone era, was 209. Grace’s off-field discipline was a bit more spotty. He left a successful run with the Diamondbacks broadcast team after the 2012 season in the wake of two DUI arrests , and his ill-advised channeling of Archie Bunker in 2020 brought a swift end to his nascent Marquee Sports career.
2. Frank Chance 1898-1912, .297/.394/.395, 137 wRC+, 48.1 WAR
Another top-25 player, Chance took over first base from the only guy ahead of him on this list. When Chance benched himself in 1911, that concluded a continuous 34-year stretch of Hall of Famers as the primary first basemen for the Cubs.
1. Cap Anson 1876-1897, .329/.395/.446, 134 wRC+, 81.8 WAR
The very top of the the top 25, Anson is also among the top 25 MLB players of all-time. Not only the dominant player of the 19th century, Anson was also an energetic innovator, laying the groundwork for modern concepts such the starting rotation and spring training. He also advocated for a more sinister innovation, the color line, for which he has become infamous. However, as Robert Peterson notes in Only the Ball was White, segregated baseball was probably inevitable regardless of Anson’s agitation; Anson was riding the rising nationwide racist tide of the era. The Supreme Court would uphold state-mandated segregation in1896, Anson’s penultimate year in the majors.
Chicago Cubs: Looking at some honorable mention candidates
In 2005, Derrek Lee (2004-10) had the best single season for a Cubs first baseman when he slashed .335/.418/.662, good for a ludicrous 174 wRC+ and 7.7 bWAR. He fell just short of 400 total bases. For his trouble he finished third in MVP voting that year, despite having a better slash line than both guys in front of him (Albert Pujols and Andruw Jones). The Cubs’ 79-83 finish may have had something to do with that.
Vic Saier (1911-1917) continued the Cubs run of excellent first basemen, but a broken leg in1917 led to the premature end of his promising career. His attempted comeback with the Pirates in 1919 was unsuccessful.
Leon Durham (1981-88) would help the Cubs to the postseason in 1984 with his exciting blend of power speed. Drugs derailed his playing career, but he’s since enjoyed a long run as a major and minor league coach.
Charlie Grimm (1925-36) was the anti-Saier; he had a very long career with few notable individual seasons. However, Grimm hit very well in the 1932 and 1935 World Series, beating his career OPS by almost 200 points.