For those of you over a certain age–say, 45–you might not remember where you were on this date in 1981, but if you were a Cub fan you surely felt the effects of what happened at the corner of Clark & Addison. The Tribune Company, which was in its 3rd month of playing with their shiny new toy, having acquired the Cubs from the beleaguered William Wrigley III in early August during that season’s players’ strike, made their first real organizational hire.
It was on this day, 38 years ago, that George Dallas Green stepped to the podium as the Cubs’ Executive Vice President and General Manager. Green had concluded the 1981 season as the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, where in 1980 he had pulled off a feat which at the time was no less spectacular than what our men in blue pulled off in 2016–he became the first person in the history of human beings to lead the Phillies to a World Championship. That’s right, Philadelphia–one of the “original” 8 National League teams that dated back to at least the beginning of the World Series in 1903–had, up until that point, never won a World Series. And you could actually say it was for lack of trying. Unlike the Cubs, whose own drought by 1980 had reached 72 seasons but had also included seven trips to the Fall Classic in that time, Philadelphia was so forlorn for so long that their only World Series appearances were in 1915 and 1950.
2 trips to the World Series in nearly 80 years and not a win to show for it…and you thought that what Joe Maddon did in 2016 was impressive.
Green’s success didn’t simply come by helming the Phillies in 1980 as field manager. By the time he was hired as such late in the ’79 season, he had served as their Farm Director for nearly a decade. In that time, Green’s farm system drafted and/or developed Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski, Bob Boone, Lonnie Smith and Keith Moreland–all players who contributed to their championship in 1980. By the time Green stepped in as Philadelphia manager, the team was actually pretty good, but still carried the weight of 8 decades of loserdom. While they had snapped a 26-year postseason drought with 3 consecutive trips to the postseason beginning in 1976 as National League East Champions, they were sent home each time by the NL west entrant in the LCS (Cincinnati in ’76 and LA in ’77 & ’78). Replacing Danny Ozark late in the ’79 season as Philadelphia’s field manager, Green ended up running the table in his first full season in 1980, knocking off future-Cub Manager Jim Frey (hired by Green) and the Kansas City Royals to bring home the first World Series Championship in franchise history.
After another trip to the postseason in 1981–this time Philadelphia was disposed of by the Montreal Expos in a one-off divisional series played due to the aforementioned players’ strike–Green left the only organization he had known for all but 2 of his previous 35+ years (aside from pitching a year for Washington and another with the Mets–wherein he gave up a notable home run to Jimmy Piersall–Green had also spent his entire playing career with the Philadelphia organization), and accepted a promotion to serve as the top dog for the Cubs’ front office.
Now again, if you’re 45 or older, you probably don’t need to be reminded of the state of the Cubs by the close of the 1981 season. Having completed their 36th consecutive pennant-less season, the 1981 Cubs were so bad that it felt like rock-bottom, even for them. Aside from the much-ballyhooed “Durocher years” from the late 60’s-to-early-70’s–a team that still appeared in the playoffs as often as you and I–most seasons for a Cubs fan since 1945 seemed largely the same from one to the other. Bad baseball, bad management, bad team. Out of contention before school started most every year etc., and 1981 was particularly heinous.
Coming off a 98-loss season in 1980 in which their first-year manager was fired before season’s end (that’s quite a trick, if you think about it), the Cubs went into 1981 with little plan, besides removing the “interim” label that preceded Manager Joey Almalfitano’s title. Almalfitano had replaced Herman Franks as interim manager in the last week of the 1979 season, went back to being a coach in 1980 under new hire Preston Gomez, and then replaced Gomez half-way through that season. The Wrigley family was so disinterested in the product on the field by this point that they simply just let Joey manage the team heading in 1981 and it’s no surprise they were even worse than the 1980 team. It got even more dispiritingly comical when General Manager Bob Kennedy was relieved of his duties and the Cubs simply replaced him with former field manager Franks, who was no less rotund 2 years after first leaving the Cubs. It seemed like an odd move to give the job to a 67-year old Franks, happy in retirement and with no previous GM experience, but in retrospect it was clear that the Wrigleys were merely clearing the deck for a sale. Franks’ only deal of note was when he dealt his one-time ace starter Rick Reuschel to the Yankees, and the only other significant event that took place for the franchise that allowed fans to thankfully look away from the baseball diamond was the Tribune company’s actual purchase of the team that August.
So when the Cubs finally pulled into the station in 1981 with a .369 winning percentage, and very little of value on the roster besides Bill Buckner, Leon Durham, and Ivan Dejesus (and possibly a young catcher by the name of Jody Davis), they were about as sad a franchise as there was around.
That was soon to change. And for the first time in my lifetime (I was 9 at the time) I was excited about the Cubs for reasons besides the snow melting and a new season beginning–you know, the usual blind hope every fan has for his/her team has every year.
Green was busy that offseason. Before he made any personnel moves on the field he rolled out his marketing slogan and brand that was designed to shake things up. “Building a New Tradition” was essentially an oath that swore to fumigate the 3+ decade stench that had followed the Cubs since WWII. Many fans were upset that by Green’s brashness. My dad–for whom the only Cubs pennant had occurred in his lifetime when he was 12 years old–was not one of them, as he did not share the complacent nostalgia that had seemed to envelop certain swaths of the fanbase. Those fans that did take offense at Green’s bluster were not ones that concerned Green in the first place (and many of these folks were NIMBY’s who quivered at the notion of lights being installed in Wrigley Field–a move that Green was finally able to pull off much to the eventual glee of all of these homeowners who bitched about it but then saw their home values skyrocket for the next 10 years). If he was going to change the culture, Green had to sometimes be an asshole. “Building a New Tradition” was plastered outside the bleacher gates, in their promotional advertising and elsewhere. It was clear a new era was arriving.
When the calendar turned to December, Green started to deal. He made 3 moves on December 8th alone. First, he traded Mike Krukow to Green’s old team in Philadelphia for Keith Moreland, Dickie Noles and Dan Larson. Then Green broke out the checkbook and signed reliever Bill Campbell, who had been one of the more effective closers in the American League through the late 1970’s. “Soup”‘s signing was quickly overshadowed by another signing–that of Ferguson Jenkins. In spite of his distaste for the Cubs’ recent past, Green couldn’t resist making a move that not only helped the club but also stirred the hearts of their fans who remembered Jenkins-in-his-prime, who had been one of the very best pitchers in the league for the Cubs a decade earlier. And the fact is, Jenkins was still an effective pitcher in 1981.
It was six weeks later when Green made the move that ultimately set the franchise on the right course. On January 27th, 1982, Green dealt popular shortstop Ivan DeJesus for his aging Philadelphia counterpart Larry Bowa. Since Bowa was approaching the end of his career while DeJesus was still more or less in his prime, Green insisted that Philadelphia throw in a young middle infielder whom Green had drafted while serving as the Phillies’ Farm Director–Ryne Sandberg.
The rest, as they say is history.
The Cubs showed progress in 1982 and then again in 1983–the latter team bolstered by Green’s acquisition of aging veteran (though still effective) Ron Cey. Cey’s acquisition moved Sandberg from third base–where he had played as a rookie in ’82–to second base, where he became the first player to win a gold glove in the first year of playing a new position. It was also Sandberg’s first of what would be nine consecutive gold gloves while playing the keystone.
On the eve of the 1984 season, Green made one more trade–this would prove to be the “finishing touch” to a 3 year project that ultimately saw the Cubs in contention. In once again going back to his old organization in making a deal, Green picked up Bob Dernier and Gary Matthews (and Porfi Altamirano) from Philadelphia for Bill Campbell and Mike Diaz. Why the Phillies would give up 2 starting outfielders to a divisional opponent for an aging reliever in Campbell and “a guy” in Diaz is anyone’s guess. Philadelphia was coming off their 6th playoff appearance in 8 years in 1983 and whatever their motive was, it quickly proved to be the Cubs’ gain. In Dernier, the Cubs had a legitimate centerfielder who was able to step in at leadoff and, in Matthews, they had a spirited “captain” whose intangibles–if not his adventurous play in left field–would galvanize the team. Matthews would go on to lead the National League in Game Winning RBI (yes–GWRBI was a real stat and in fact 1984 was the last year it was officially recorded), while Dernier teamed with Sandberg at the top of the order in what Harry Caray delighted in calling “The Daily Double”.
One of the problems for Green, as it turned out, was that he had too much success too soon. The ’84 Cubs took the city by storm, exorcising the ghosts of 1969 (or one would have thought) by beating the Mets–who also surprisingly found themselves in contention after several years of malaise–12 out of 18 times and reaching the postseason for the first time in 39 years. The problem was, Green had overdelivered. In acquiring veterans likes Cey, Bowa Matthews–Green built a team long on experience, but short on patches of hair that weren’t gray and within 2 years of the division title in ’84, the team was back to bad, pulling up with a 90-loss season.
The issue was that Green’s success had altered expectations in an extraordinary way. For the first time in franchise history, 2 million fans stormed the gates at Wrigley in 1984–a feat replicated in 1985. In ’86 they dipped below 2 million for the last time in any non-strike-shortened season but expectations had certainly changed. Though the ’86 Cubs still had Sandberg, Dernier, Durham, Davis & Moreland, they were not supplemented by enough talent, as the real fruit of Green’s farm system was still a year or so away. Sure, Green’s first-ever draft choice–and the only #1 draft pick in Cubs history–Shawon Dunston was on the big-league roster, but in 1986 Dunston was still struggling and in any event was about the only thing Green had to show for his 5 years (Greg Maddux also debuted in late ’86 but wouldn’t begin to make his mark for a couple years). The bitter irony is that there was a whole host of talent on the farm about ready to knock the door down in 1986–bitterly ironic because Green was about to enter his final year with the Cubs in 1987.
While fans who had gotten a taste of success in 1984 began to grow restless by 1986, the 1987 Cubs actually ushered in the second part of Green’s organizational plan, unbeknownst to everyone without the benefit of retrospection. Whereas the first plan was to build a winner as quickly as possible by acquiring veterans (even ones not from Philadelphia!), the second plan was a longer process–the complete overhaul of the farm system. If 1986 was rock-bottom for the Green Era after early success, 1987 was a new, second chapter–that of a budding farm system that took 5 years to build. Though Maddux, Jaime Moyer, Dave Martinez and Rafael Palmeiro had made their debuts in 1986, it was in 1987 where they actually played extensively (joined by Damon Berryhill, who was making his debut that year). The 1987 Cubs finished in last place, but it was misleading. The NL East that season was ridiculously competitive that year, with three 90-win teams. As late as September 7th, the Cubs were a .500 team. They may have finished lower in the standings than they did in 1986, but they were definitely a better team than they were in ’86. Bolstered by free agent acquisition Andre Dawson–a signing Green could only take credit for insofar as Dawson’s agent had given him a blank check during the infamous collusion class of 1986/1987–the 1987 Cubs showed a lot of promise. With Sandberg in his prime, a Dunston who looked like he was finally going to figure it out (SPOILER: he never really did, at least not for the Cubs), Dawson, and young studs in Palmeiro, Maddux, Moyer and Martinez, the future looked bright.
Oh, if only it were so.
Some events only become clear in retrospect, and Dallas Green’s tenure is one that definitely fits the bill. As shocking as his dismissal–after the ’87 season–was at the time, there was no outrage at the move. It was really only in looking back from the perspective of several years later where it seemed to be the colossal mistake that it truly was. At the time, it just seemed that Green had worn out his welcome. Although stories conflict as to what specifically led to Green and the Cubs parting ways after 1987, the generally accepted notion is that Green’s bluster eventually got too much for the effete, ineffectual know-nothing asshats at Tribune like John Madigan who didn’t care about the baseball team aside from the status it provided them, but were able to point to the 3 consecutive sub-.500 seasons after the surprise playoff appearance in 1984 to justify giving Green the heave-ho. They may have also reacted negatively to the purported notion that Green was set to come down from the executive suites to manage the team (THE MAN IS BECOMING A MONSTER WHO WILL STOP AT NOTHING). Whatever the reason, once the decision was made, the course of Cubs history was inexorably altered. This was demonstrated the very next season when a young first-base prospect (and Green draft pick) by the name of Mark Grace made his debut, and ended up finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting, and again the following season when former Green draft picks Jerome Walton and Dwight Smith finished 1-2 in Rookie of the Year, and yet again the following season when another Green draft pick–Mike Harkey–also finished as Rookie of the Year runner-up.
Meanwhile Green’s successor, Jim Frey, whom Green had at one time hired to manage his Cubs team, spent his 4 years on the job as General Manager steadily dismantling all of the work Green had done. Palmeiro was dealt–along with Moyer–for a collection of players that included Mitch Williams who, while he did serve as the closer on the 1989 NL East Division winning Cubs, was gone 15 months after nearly getting decapitated by a Will Clark line drive that essentially poured salt on the Cubs’ pennant hopes in Game 5 of that year’s NLCS. Frey didn’t draft nearly as well as Green, and by the mid-1990’s the Cubs were locked into a perpetual cycle of designed mediocrity. Because of the popularity of Wrigley Field that flourished under Green’s leadership (with an assist to a little-known marketing executive named John McDonough), the Tribune company soon realized that the Cubs didn’t need to commit all of their resources to the team. Hiring Green in 1981 was a bold move by the Tribune–and the last one they made. By 1991 they had retreated to the path of least resistance, and were happy to run the team like a mid-level organization all the way up until they decided to sell in 2007.
As for Green, he never did achieve the heights he had reached while with the Cubs after leaving. Struck down like Icarus, he spent the rest of his baseball career hopping from one organization to another–at two different points after leaving the Cubs he served as field manager for both the Yankees and the Mets. And even if he had never joined the Cubs, his legacy would be set by having led one of the saddest-assed franchises in baseball to their first-ever world title when he led the Phillies to the pinnacle in 1980. However, he did join the Cubs and until the arrival of Theo Epstein he ran the most successful organization in franchise history in over 70 years.
So, on this day–October 15th–the day he was hired to revive one hellaciously moribund franchise, let’s have a toast to the one and only Dallas Green, a hard-ass that taught me that the Cubs didn’t have to be shitty.