As Derrek Lee’s contract comes to a close, the Cubs may very well see the end of an era at first base by the end of the year, if not sooner. Lee has occupied the corner since being acquired for Hee-Seop Choi from the Marlins in 2003 (stifle those giggles- the Marlins would seek revenge 6 years later by sending Kevin “Walk-Walk-Homer” Gregg to the Cubs and actually receiving a player in return). Having both fascinated and frustrated the Wrigley faithful over the years, Lee is finally at a point where it may be time for him to move on, which will leave a noticeable vacancy at first base. When he does depart, Lee will join the pantheon of memorable Cubs first basemen alongside names such as Grace, Cavarretta, and one of the greatest Cubs’ legends of all time: Frank Chance.
Let me first acknowledge that Chance was not the first Cub to play first base, but the second- he was preceded by the immortal Cap Anson. Anson turned over his duties around 1898 to Chance, but not before compiling a mountain of team records that most Cubs- at any position- will have a tough time surpassing. But since the theme here is who will fill Lee’s shoes, let’s take a look at a moment when the Cubs lost a legend, and replaced him with another.
Frank Chance, 1st Basemen
Nicknamed “Husk” because of his stocky 6-foot, 190 lb. build, Chance played 15 seasons with the Cubs from 1898 to 1912. During that time, the California-born right hander clocked over 1200 hits, 200 doubles, and 400 stolen bases, with a lifetime .296 BA and .394 OBP. A constant threat on the base paths, Chance led the league in SB’s in 1903 and 1906, with 67 and 57 thefts respectively. He also batted .421 in the fall of 1908 to help secure a second straight World Series victory for the Cubs.
Tinkers to Evers to Chance
Although the actual trio existed about one hundred years ago, this shortstop-second base-first base combination is still heralded as one of the best infields of all time (to complete the thought, Harry Steinfeldt manned third for the majority of this era- he was acquired by Chance’s request the year after he became manager). With Tinker’s sure hands and Evers’ swift turns from second to first, the trio worked their way into regular baseball vernacular. Chance actually came into the bigs as a catcher, but was moved from behind the plate to the outfield and then to first base in 1902. He was a solid fielder, posting a career .987 fielding percentage, and also led the league in fielding percentage in two separate years (1909- .994; 1910- .996).
Frank Chance, Manager
In today’s game, most managers keep relatively quiet about their teams, doing everything they can to avoid drama in an age where the media jumps to exploit the tiniest headlines. A century ago, things were a little different. Managers were fiery and profane, fearlessly jumping on their players for all sorts on personality conflicts. It wasn’t a major headline if a manager had to sock a player in the jaw to keep him in line, and many old timers would readily admit to their ruthless methods for motivation.
Frank Chance was no different. Elected as the manager in 1905, and on the brink of his prime, the 27 year-old Chance led the Cubs to a .635 winning percentage in his first year as both player and manager, and captured two titles out of three World Series appearances from 1906-1908. He won games using the ideal national league elements- smart fundamentals, great defense, and good pitching. But Chance also added a little pepper to the game for more motivation. He was known to handpick his players, which may seem normal enough. Yet it wasn’t always with good intentions. For example, according to Doug Myers in Essential Cubs:
“When a pitcher named Jack Harper beaned him once too often for his liking, he traded for him, cut his salary by two-thirds, refused to pitch him, and drove him into retirement at the age of 28.”
A product of his time, Chance was known to participate in riots and brawls just as frequently as he instigated them, with both fans and players. He received retribution just as often; Chance actually lost hearing in one ear and suffered from blood clots in his brain from frequent bean balls. Chance managed until 1912 and never had a team winning percentage under .597. He is cemented in history (and the brickwork around Wrigley Field) as one of the best Cubs first basemen and managers of all time.
Frank Chance died in 1947, but enjoyed the glory of a Hall of Fame induction the year before due to election by the Old Timers Committee.