Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Splendid Seasons: Cubs MVPs, Part 1

We're remembering the 19 Chicago athletes whose splendid seasons have earned them the Most Valuable Player award for their respective leagues. Nine of these players have represented the Cubs, and the first three of them are introduced below.

Wildfire Schulte,

     On the Cubs’ pennant-winning teams of 1906, 1907, 1908, and 1910, right fielder Frank "Wildfire" Schulte was overshadowed by teammates who included the immortal pitcher Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown and the famed double-play combo of Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, and Frank Chance. Schulte was adequate in all phases of the game and exceptional in none—until 1911, when he had a year that no one could have predicted. The term “career year” comes to mind. Schulte hit an even .300, belted 21 home runs (along with 30 doubles and 21 triples), scored 105 runs, and drove in 121. He led the league in homers, RBIs, and slugging percentage.
     Although the Cubs finished second to the Giants, Wildfire won the first official National League Most Valuable Player award for his efforts. The trophy was a brand-new car, because the Chalmers Motor Company sponsored the award.
     Schulte’s 21 round trippers marked the first time in modern major-league history that anyone had hit more than 16 in a season. To put the feat in perspective, consider that totals of 10, 12, 7, 10, and 10 had led the league in the five previous seasons. This was, after all, the dead-ball era. Frank “Home Run” Baker of the Philadelphia Athletics, whose nickname (of course) referred to his long-ball prowess, topped the American League with 11 that same year.
     Wildfire soon reverted to the form that made him solid yet unspectacular for 14 of his 15 years in the majors. In the seven years prior to 1911, his best seasonal totals had been 10 homers and 68 RBIs. In the seven years after 1911, his best totals were 13 and 72. He was a .270 hitter for his career.

Rogers Hornsby,

     “Baseball is my life,” said Rogers Hornsby, “the only thing I know and can talk about, my only interest.” He was, as they say today, focused. He didn’t smoke or drink—nor did he read or go to movies, for fear he’d ruin his eyesight. "If you live like I do," Hornsby told teammates, "you can be a great player too."
     Hornsby batted .358 for his career, second only to Ty Cobb in baseball history. He won six straight batting titles for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1920 to 1925, hitting .397 over that span. His single-season mark of .424 in 1924 is an unapproachable standard. But it was not only for his batting feats that Hornsby was exceptional; he was one of the most arrogant, obnoxious personalities the game has ever seen. Despite his incredible ability, he was traded three times in three years after leading St. Louis to the 1926 world championship.
     The 1929 Cubs were Hornsby’s fourth team in four years—and what a team they were! They outscored their opponents by over 200 runs as they breezed to the pennant by 10½ games. Hornsby batted .380, with 229 hits, 47 doubles, 39 homers, 156 runs, and 149 RBIs. Outfielders Hack Wilson (.345, 135 runs, 159 RBIs), Riggs Stephenson (.362, 110 RBIs), and Kiki Cuyler (.360, 43 stolen bases, 111 runs) were other mainstays in the Cubs’ fearsome lineup.
     It was the last great year for Hornsby. In 1930, an ankle injury limited him to 104 at-bats. Wilson’s 191 RBIs established a major-league record that still stands, but the Cubs fell two games short of the Cardinals. In the waning days of the season, Hornsby replaced manager Joe McCarthy (who went on to win eight pennants and seven world championships with the Yankees, but that's another story). The Rajah's managerial tenure of two years was not a success, because, as shortstop Woody English explained, “He expected everybody to be as good as he was.”
     Hornsby was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1942.

Gabby Hartnett,

     The National League’s catcher in the first five All-Star games, Gabby Hartnett contributed mightily to Cub pennants in 1932, 1935, and 1938. His best year was 1935, when he belted 13 homers, drove in 91 runs, and batted .344. Thanks to his deadly throwing arm, he also led the league’s catchers in assists with 77, despite catching only 110 games. Hall of Fame pitcher Burleigh Grimes said Hartnett had "as good an arm as ever hung on a man."
     On September 4, 1935, the Cubs were in third place behind the Cardinals and Giants. They lost only twice thereafter—on the second-to-last and last days of the season. In between they pulled off an unbelievable 21-game winning streak that catapulted them to the pennant. "All of a sudden we got the notion that we couldn’t lose,” said second baseman Billy Herman.
     Hartnett was the team’s heart and soul for 19 years. He batted .297 for his career and caught over 100 games 12 times—leading the league in putouts four times, in assists six times, and in fielding percentage six times. In 1938, he was appointed player-manager shortly after the midpoint of the season, with the Cubs in fourth place. After going 14-15 for the first month under Hartnett, the team surged to a 30-12 record the rest of the way and won another pennant. Manager Hartnett was helped immeasurably by player Hartnett, whose game-winning home run in the dark on September 28 put the Cubs in first place to stay. It remains arguably the greatest moment in Cubs history.
     Hartnett was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1955.

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