Through the first long stretch of the 1969 season, in the newly created National League East, the Chicago Cubs had a magical season. They were easily on pace to win 100 games, were nine games ahead of the New York Mets, and at the end of every game they won, third baseman Ron Santo jumped up and clicked his heels – one of those superstitious rituals that have defined baseball as a sport that – for many Americans, and fans all over the world – transcends a mere game and becomes an extension of life.
In 2015, the Chicago Cubs started strong. Led by a crew of young, amazingly talented players, they chased the division leading St. Louis Cardinals, and the second place Pittsburgh Pirates through July and August and September. When they got a man on base, they rubbed their hands on their helmets and grinned – a new ritual spawned by utility infielder Jonathan Herrera.
In September, with the divisional title in sight, and dreams of ending the curse, the 1969 Cubs imploded. They lost 12 of the last 23 games of that season, while the Mets, like a team on a mission, went 23-7 over their final 30 games and took the division. There were no Wild Card games in those days, and the Cubs went home, never returning to that amazing championship style they exhibited through so much of that season.
In August, the 2015 Cubs began pulling off numbers that have never been matched in the history of baseball. Led by Cy Young winner Jake Arietta, they won almost every game in the month of August, and continued strong through September, chipping away at the divisional lead, including good runs against both the Cardinals and the Pirates, who also continued to play well. These three teams had the three best records in all of baseball. When the season ended, Pittsburgh fell to Chicago in a one game Wild Card showdown, and St. Louis lost the NLDS series winning only one game as the powerful young bats of the Cubs took them out, winning Games Two through Four and moving on to lose to the Mets, the same team to take out the 1969 team, in the NLCS Championship, who swept the Cubs in only four games.
Leo Durocher managed the 1969 team. It’s said he might have become too frenzied after August, whipping an aging set of veteran Hall of Fame players beyond their limits and leading to the downfall. Joe Maddon led the 2015 team, with smiles, brilliant leadership, and a style that was designed to remove stress, not cause it.
Over the years, there have been many discussions about which Chicago Cubs team was the best of all time. No one is around who can really comment on the way the 1906-1908 cubs line up against modern teams. The 1945 Cubs were amazing, but they played in a war-torn league, and it’s unlikely they would have been the outstanding team they were if all the players had been on hand. In 1984 the Padres ended the Cubs trip to the big game in the NLCS, and in 1989 the San Francisco Giants took the Cubs out in the NLCS. There was the year of the great Home Run race, and in 2003 the famous “Bartman Ball” curse began an 11-year dry spell, as the Marlins took the NLCS in seven games.
In 2007 and 2008 the Cubs managed to win the divisional title twice in a row for the first time since the 1900s…but were stopped both times short of the big game… and history.
There have been a lot of great teams, and I’d be lying if I said I’d compared them all for stats and numbers. I would NOT be lying if I told you I’ve been a fan through every year since about 1967, when I started listening to games with my grandfather on AM Radio. I’ve seen every one of those teams from that time forward, and for my money – until 2015 – the 1968/1969 Chicago Cubs were the best team the franchise had ever fielded, with the possible / probable exception of those 1906-1908 champions (who I’ve obviously never seen play in person).
This year, though, was special. Instead of dying out in September, the Cubs charged ahead. Instead of getting desperate, they just got better. Sure, they lost the NLCS, but no one at the beginning of the year thought a bunch of rookies, Joe Maddon and Lon Lester notwithstanding, was going anywhere NEAR the playoffs. The players had a different idea. They said “We’re pretty good,” and with the leadership of Anthony Rizzo and Miguel Montero framing games from behind the plate, they very nearly proved to the world that they were not only good – but possibly the best – that baseball has to offer.
With that in mind, I pulled some numbers. I only went with the starting lineups that are accepted for the two teams, and I only included the top four pitchers in the rotation because in 1969 there were only four starters listed. I was surprised (almost shocked) to find that the numbers are reasonably even, despite the entire infield and the catcher in 1969 making the All Star team.
You’ll see from the numbers below that some of the bigger differences in the game show through. The starting pitchers in 1969 won more games. The starting pitchers in 2015 combined for a lower ERA. There were more hits, RBIs and Runs in 1969 by the starting lineup, but if you figure in others like Kyle Schwarber, and Chris Denorfia, the numbers lean toward 2015. Leo Durocher played his veterans hard and didn’t make use of much of the rest of his roster. In the end, they ran out of gas, while the young 2015 team excelled.
It would take a lot more research than I’ve had time for to really run the numbers on this, but my assessment is that the 2015 team has a slight edge over the 1969 team – and this played out with the third-best record in baseball in a year of great teams, and a visit to the NLCS series. I believe that the biggest differences were the age of the players, and the vast difference between the methods of Leo Durocher, and Joe Maddon. With the additions of players like Zobrist and Heyward to the lineup, and assuming the starting rotation will strengthen, the 2016 Chicago Cubs show the potential to hammer the lid on this question forever, becoming the best team ever fielded by the franchise… on paper. Can’t wait for Spring and the chance to test the numbers.
1969 HR 126 / 2015 HR 139
1969 RBI 575 / 2015 RBI 510
1969 HITS 1,114 / 2015 HITS 1,018
1969 RUNS 579 / 2015 RUNS 534
1969 Pitching: W/L Pitching 68/50 ERA 3.2275
2015 Pitching: W/L Pitching 51/32 ERA 3.20175
Catcher – Randy Hundley:
18 HR, 64 RBI, 133 Hits, 67 Runs
Fielding % .992 All Star Team Reserve
Catcher – Miguel Montero:
15 HR, 53 RBI, 86 Hits, 36 Runs
Fielding % .986
First Base – Ernie Banks:
23 HR, 64 RBI, 143 Hits, 60 runs
Fielding % .997 All Star Reserve
First Base – Anthony Rizzo:
31 HR, 101 RBI, 163 hits, 94 Runs
Fielding % .994 – All Star
Second Base – Glenn Beckert:
1 HR, 37 RBI, 148 hits, 69 runs
Fielding % .965 All Star
Second Base – Starlin Castro:
11 HR, 69 RBI, 145 hits, 52 runs
Fielding % .961
Short Stop – Don Kessinger:
4 HR, 53 RBI, 181 Hits, 109 runs
Fielding % .976 All Star
Short-Stop – Addison Russell:
13 HR, 54 RBI, 115 Hits, 60 runs
Fielding % .978
Third Base – Ron Santo:
29 HR, 123 RBI, 166 Hits, 97 Runs
Fielding % .947
Third Base – Kris Bryant:
26 HR, 99 RBI,154 Hits, 87 Runs
Fielding % .954
Left Field – Billy Williams:
21 HR, 95 RBI, 188 Hits, 103 Runs
Fielding % .975
Left Field – Chris Coghlan:
16 HR, 41 RBI, 110 Hits, 64 Runs
Fielding % .996
Center Field – Don Young:
6HR, 27 RBI, 65 Hits, 36 Runs
Fielding % .979
Center Field – Dexter Fowler:
17 HR, 46 RBI, 149 Hits, 102 Runs
Fielding % .988
Right Field – Jim Hickman:
21 HR, 54 RBI, 80 Hits, 38 Runs
Fielding % .981
Right Field – Jorge Soler:
10 HR, 47 RBI, 96 Hits, 39 Runs
Fielding % .993
STARTING PITCHERS 1969 Top Four Starters:
Fergie Jenkins 21–15 / ERA 3.21 / WHIP 1.14 / SO–W 3.85 / 273 SO
Bill Hands 20–14 / ERA 2.49 / WHIP 1.137 / SO–W 2.48 / 181 SO
Ken Holtzman 17–13 ERA3.58 / WHIP 1.305 / SO–W 1.89 / 176 SO
Dick Selma 10–8 / ERA3.63 / WHIP 1.239 /SO–W 2.24 / 161 SO
STARTING PITCHERS 2015 Top Four Starters
Jake Arietta 22–6 / ERA 1.77 / WHIP 0.865 / SO–W 4.92 / 236 SO
John Lester 11–12 / ERA 3.34 / WHIP 1.112 / SO–W 4.40 / 207 SO
Kyle Hendricks 8–7 / ERA 3.95 / WHIP 1.161 / SO–W 3.88 / 167 SO
Jason Hammel 10–7 / ERA 3.74 / WHIP 1.160 / SO–W 4.30 / 172 SO
2015 97/65 3rd Place NLC Wild Card (W) NLCS (W) NLDS (Lost to Mets)
1969 92/70 2nd NLC (lost to Mets)