When a colleague pulled out his iPhone in the Chicago Cubs clubhouse Thursday afternoon to show a factoid he received from the team’s historian, my head began to spin.
After the four-game sweep by the San Diego Padres, the Cubs had been outscored by 20 or more runs in back-to-back series for only the second time in franchise history. The other time it happened was in September 1879, when the Providence Grays outscored the Cubs by 20 runs (29-9) and the Boston Braves by 23 (31-8).
Of all the bad teams in Cubs history, we finally have a matching set, separated by only 143 years.
I wondered how the 1879 Cubs handled their beatings. Did they have stand-up players such as closer David Robertson or catcher Willson Contreras who stepped up Thursday and faced media members after the embarrassing losing streak had reached 10 games? Was the manager on the hot seat afterward? Did Cubs fans of 1879 ignore the drubbings on the field and focus on building the longest beer-cup snake known to modern man at Lake Front Park?
Thanks to modern technology — a subscription to the Chicago Tribune — I was able to find some answers.
The Tribune, which turned 175 on June 10, did not employ a baseball beat writer back in 1879, when the Cubs were known as the White Stockings, Rutherford B. Hayes was president and the telephone had just been invented three years earlier.
The 1879 team was managed by Cap Anson, a first baseman who led the White Stockings to the National League pennant in 1876, the first year of the new league. Anson later was called “baseball’s first superstar” by the Society for American Baseball Research, which wrote: “So good was Anson’s bat control that he struck out only once during the 1878 season and twice in 1879.” Cubs slugger Patrick Wisdom, who can strike out three times in one afternoon, is no Cap Anson.
There was no account of the 17-8 loss in Boston on Sept. 10, 1879, the first time in Cubs history the team had lost consecutive series by 20 or more runs. The big sporting news in the Tribune’s Sept. 11 edition was that Syracuse, one of the eight NL clubs, had disbanded, canceling the three games scheduled against the White Stockings that weekend in New York.
As it turned out, Anson’s 1879 team had more dissension than manager David Ross’s 2022 version, which has been controversy-free so far. Under the news of Syracuse folding was an item on the release of right fielder George Shaffer, who apparently was a talkative fellow nicknamed “Orator.”
“A good many people in Chicago during the present season have objected to George Shaffer … on the ground that he was too much of a ‘chinner,’ ” the paper reported. “The Tribune has on several occasions alluded to the peculiarity of this young man, but out of consideration for him did not state, as it might have done, in addition to being noisy and troublesome on the field, Shaffer was the far worst kind of disorganizer. Even going so far not so long ago to charge another member of the nine to selling games, thus starting a rumor, that spread all over the country, that there was crookedness in the White Stockings camp.”
This was before baseball rumors spread on Twitter or TikTok, because, you know, the phone had just been invented. That meant Orator Shaffer’s rumor the White Stockings had been selling (throwing) games was spread by a combination of word of mouth, the telegraph and newspapers.
Anyways, Shaffer — whose baseball encyclopedia listing is spelled “Shafer” — had been in a “rough and tumble fight” outside a Boston hotel with teammate Ed Williamson, according to the Tribune. Shaffer was “badly worsted and somewhat used up by the encounter,” the report said, and demanded his immediate release.
This was the kind of dust-up White Sox general manager Rick Hahn would refer to as a “nothing burger,” but the Tribune reported the White Stockings refused to release Shaffer until it could telegraph the team president in Chicago. White Stockings President William Hulbert eventually sent a telegraph back to Boston stating it was imperative to release Shaffer, who no longer would orate in Chicago.
The Tribune item ended with the unnamed author taking one last shot at Shaffer, concluding Hulbert’s actions would be endorsed “by the Chicago public to a man.” Even 143 years ago, Tribune sports writers were trying to dump unpopular players. Imagine that.
That was the end of the saga, and the Tribune virtually ignored the White Stockings the next couple of weeks. But the paper provided a brief summary of the team’s up-and-down season in a Sept. 28 article headlined: “Providence Wins the Pennant.” The story mentions the White Stockings’ 14-1 start in May and the slew of injuries that followed: “The Chicago boom continued with great force until the 1st of July, and then began the chapter of accidents and misfortunes that landed the team in third place.”
The Trib report was particularly harsh on White Stockings pitcher Terry Larkin, one of the team’s two starters, who went 31-23 with a 2.44 ERA in 58 starts with 57 complete games:
“For the loss of power Larkin himself was alone to blame. He is simply an addition to the long list of ball-players who have ruined themselves by dissipation. They deserve no pity and seldom receive any.”
The story included the long list of injuries that doomed the 1879 White Stockings, who went 4-12 in September to finish fourth with a 46-33 record.
If you believe the adage “what goes around comes around,” there could be hope for Ross’ 2022 Cubs. Despite enduring back-to-back series beatings that no team in franchise history would match until now, the 1879 White Stockings would go on to capture three straight NL pennants from 1880-82, a couple of decades before the first World Series.
And just like in 1879, you can read about it here.