The Chicago Cubs World Series victory in 2016 famously brought to an end 108 years of futility, but during that long stretch, there was a period during which the Cubs were especially putrid. From 1946 through 1983, Chicago went to the postseason zero times. During that 38-year span, the Cubs were .500 or better in just nine seasons, six of them (1967-72) occurred during the Durocher years. (Leo would be defenestrated partway through the 1972 season, but the Cubs would finish with a respectable 85 wins, albeit 11 games behind the first-place Pirates).
It was this remarkable expanse of baseball ineptitude that generated the image of the Cubs as lovable losers, damned by a petulant ruminant whose curse reached its zenith during this time. This was a new thing; until World War II, the Cubs were a consistently strong franchise. True, they had recently had a bad run of form in the World Series, but they were nothing like the national punchlines they would become. While the sport today differs in many ways from that played before the advent of free agency and cable television, the Cubs’ long slog through the valley of the shadow of ‘meh’ provides some lessons for how to build, or not, a winning franchise. It also turned out to be a grim harbinger of problems plaguing the sport today.
The Cubs were 16th in wins during the period. At first, that doesn’t sound so bad, but for much of this time the major leagues only had 16 teams. Look at the table in the link again and you will see that the only teams with fewer wins during this period were expansion teams. The only reason the Cubs weren’t at the bottom is because MLB added a basement.
The player performance blame wasn’t evenly distributed. The pitchers were either OK (if you believe FIP-, which ranks them 12th) or not awful (if you believe ERA-, which ranks them 18th). The hitting, on the other hand, was Voldemort-level bad. The Cubs had a wRC+ of 87, good (or “good”) for 22nd out of the 26th teams in this universe. The four teams below them were expansion clubs, and three expansion franchises (oddly enough, including the one that would leave DC for Texas and the one that would leave Montreal for DC) were actually better.
Dig deeper and there’s more dirt. Three positions (catcher, first, and second) were especially deadly, with wRC+ of 75, 100, and 74, respectively. That “100” may not look bad, but for first basemen who are paid to hit, yeah, that’s bad; only the Seattle Pilots were worse. The Cubs young hitters (those under age 27) were also abysmal, with a wRC+ of 80. Once again, only the Pilots were worse. Thank you, Pilots!