By Randy Richardson
Russell to Zobrist to Rizzo. It might not roll off the tongue quite as smoothly as Tinker to Evers to Chance. But that’s the historical playing field to which the 2016 Cubs are being compared.
At 25-6, the 2016 Cubs have matched the 1907 Cubs for the best start in franchise history. In so doing, they beat up divisional archrivals the Cardinals and the Pirates and out-slugged the mighty Nationals. Expectations? So far they’ve stomped all over them.
What’s left for these brash boys in blue? Well, there’s history to be made, and the 2016 Cubs seem set on chasing it all the way to the end.
While they’ve embraced the target on them, the 2016 Cubs appear to be setting their own target on the 1907 Cubs, which for 109 years has held the title as the best team in franchise history.
That 1907 Cubs team didn’t even play in Wrigley Field, which wouldn’t be built until seven years later; their home ballpark was West Side Park.
After winning a NL record 116 games in 1906 but losing the World Series to the Chicago White Sox, the Cubs shot out of the gate the following year at a blistering pace and never looked back, finishing in first place in the NL with a 107-45 record, 17 games ahead of the Pittsburgh Pirates. They then won the franchise’s first World Series over the Detroit Tigers four games to none (with one tie). They would repeat as World Series champions in 1908. Of course, no Cubs team has won a World Series since then.
So who were these turn-of-the-century Cubs that hold the title of the franchise’s all-time greatest team? The dead-ball era team was built largely on strong pitching and defense, led by two 20-game winners, Orval Overall (23-7 record; 1.68 ERA) and Mordecai “Three Fingers” Brown (20-6; 1.39 ERA) and the double-play combination of shortstop Joe Tinker, second baseman Johnny Evers and first baseman Frank Chance, made famous by Franklin Pierce Adam’s poem, “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon.”
A compelling case has been made that the Cubs from 1906 to 1910 were the best team in NL history. “The Cubs were so dominant in all aspects of the game that no other NL team in the modern era over any five-year period is even close to the percentage by which they outscored their opponents,” baseball researcher Bryan Soderholm-Difatte concluded in 2011. He put them ahead of even the 1949-1956 Brooklyn Dodgers (“The Boys of Summer”) and the 1972-1976 Cincinnati Reds (“The Big Red Machine”).
That Cubs team of a bygone era set the standard and no other team in franchise history has come close to matching.
The 2016 incarnation, led by a deep and talented cast of characters that includes 2015 Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta and 2015 Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant, has kept pace longer than any other team in franchise history. But it still has a long way to go.
The course only gets tougher from here. And if this team is to ever make its own case for the franchise’s greatest, it will have to conquer that one hurdle that has eluded all others.
Winning a World Series is the standard by which all great teams are measured. The last Cubs team to do it won back-to-back championships. This Cubs team still has to win its first. That’s a good target to embrace.
Randy Richardson is the author of the Wrigleyville murder mystery, Lost in the Ivy, and a regular contributor to Wrigleyville Nation.