Too bad Al couldn't go back another five years, because he'd have stumbled (what an appropriate word) on the worst North Side aggregation of all time.
No, not the twin 103-loss leaders of 1962 and 1966, but they're close. The all-time worst Cubs team must be the 1981 bunch, saved from the total ignominy of passing 103 defeats by the strike that wiped out almost two months of play at mid-season.
The '81 Cubs was the final season of the Wrigley family ownership, and Bill Wrigley, last of the blueblood scions to run the franchise. Bill bowed out with his tail between his legs, stripping the team down in advance of his closed-door sale to Tribune Company, in effect a 33-year co-owner of the Cubs due to the cut-rate broadcast rights fees the team charged to air games on WGN-TV and Radio.
You judge a bad team both by performance and the quality of talent on the roster. The '81 Cubs sagged behind all other entries in franchise history in both.
The tone was set for the season when Wrigley ordered the trade of closer Bruce Sutter to the Cardinals (the second-to-last major trade ever made with St. Louis) after he was awarded a $700,000 contract from an arbitrator before the 1980 season. The concept was: I can't afford you, Bruce, and even if I could, I'm not paying an outrageous salary. ($700,000 doesn't sound outrageous today, but it was, at the time, the largest arbitration award yet given.)
From spring training until the strike, the Cubs steadily shed what little talent they possessed. Slugger Dave Kingman, who had worn out his welcome after only three seasons, was dispatched just before the season, leaving him stuck with his "Kingman's Landing" ice cream parlor on Western Avenue near Irving Park Road. The eatery stayed open only a few weeks after its Opening Day debut. Ace starter Rick Reuschel was traded to the Yankees for Doug Bird, Mike Griffin and $400,000 two months into the season. Since when did a Wrigley need $400-K back in a deal? Fill-in GM Herman Franks, taking over for the gruff Bob Kennedy, who was forced out, allowed the Chicago Tribune's Dave Nightingale to sit in his office to listen into the Reuschel trade talks.
The Cubs fielded the likes of Ken Reitz (who scored ten runs all season) at third, a .195-hitting Ivan DeJesus at short, Joe Strain opening the season at second but soon replaced by Mike Tyson and Steve Dillard, and ol' reliable Bill Buckner at first. Steve (Hendu) Henderson, obtained by the Mets for Kingman, played left. The recycled Jerry Morales, Heity Cruz and failing prospect Scot Thompson alternated in center. In the strike-torn second half, they employed aging Bobby Bonds out of position, in his last big-league season, to add to the center-field logjam. Young Leon "Bull" Durham, actually decent compensation for Sutter, looked good in right. But he was the exception. Tim Blackwell and rookie Jody Davis split time behind the plate.
Reuschel and Mike Krukow headed up a thin rotation that also featured Bird, Griffin and ex-Sox Ken Kravec. With Sutter gone, setup man Dick Tidrow was badly miscast as a closer. Also logging ninth-inning duties was a washed-up Rawly Eastwick. Rookie Lee Smith was not yet trusted yet to work the ninth. The top prospect was Randy Martz, shuttling between the rotation and bullpen.
The Cubs played even worse than their talent suggested. They started out an absurd 6-28 and 10-36. They had a minor uptick to stick at 15-37 when play resumed. Amazingly, the '81 Cubs actually were marginally in the second-half race -- three games out with ten left -- before fading away by losing seven of those last ten.
I remember attending the late-summer press conference where Tribune Co. officially took over the club. Media sat in the box seats as Tribune bossman Stanton Cook addressed the assemblage from a microphone near the Cubs on-deck circle. Tribune Co. was considered a savior by fans with its deep pockets. That image did not last too long.
I won't rank the 103-loss teams above 1981 even though both had absolutely miserable pitching. In '62, the Cubs could field some thunder with Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, George Altman and Ron Santo, who had a down season. Lou Brock showed flashes as a sometimes-leadoff man and Kenny Hubbs was Rookie of the Year at second. In '66, Banks, Williams and Santo held forth in Leo Durocher's first year as manager, while youngsters like Randy Hundley, Don Kessinger, Glenn Beckert, Fergie Jenkins, Ken Holtzman and Bill Hands claimed regular roles.
So in your misery, fans, take heart. Life with the 2010 Cubs -- who have contender-quality starting pitching -- could get a lot worse. And has. Unfortunately, following this team is reduced to accepting small favors of history such as the above.