As a Cubs fan who acquired my fandom on my own, not having it passed to me by my father or grandfather like so many, my knowledge of Cubs history and culture trickled in slowly and randomly. For me, Cubs history began with Sammy Sosa and Steve Buechele and Jaime Navarro, because these were the names that I kept seeing when I turned the game on. So there must have been a short time (though it seems inconceivable) when I was a Cubs fan, but I didn’t know who Ernie Banks was. Or it was a name I had heard and maybe even associated with the Cubs, but I had no idea what his impact was. Nevertheless, today I am very aware of Mr. Cub and what his legacy means to this team. Today if you ask any Cubs fan in the world, who is the greatest Cub ever? They will almost certainly name Ernie Banks.
Then why have I published a list that says a person named Cap Anson is Cub number one? Adrian “Cap” Anson played for Chicago (called the White Stockings at the time) from 1876, their inaugural year in the National League, until 1897. Twenty-two seasons with Chicago, a record that will never be broken. He was the first superstar of baseball and the first member of the 3,000 hit club. His teams, for which he played and managed, won six National League pennants. His name was so synonymous with Chicago baseball that, after he retired, the team came to be known as the Orphans, having lost their patriarch. So a fan from a hundred years ago would not be shocked to see Anson’s name at the top of the list.
I tried to make the process of creating this ranking as objective as possible. The same factors are used for everyone and applied uniformly. It’s impossible to create an objective list like this that captures every conceivable nuance of a player’s value to a franchise, but I gave it a shot, and I think it largely does that. Because I resisted the temptation to make “topside entries” (as we would say in the accounting world) to make things look the way I wanted them, there are moments on the list that I disagree with, and unfortunately the first one is right at the top. Cap Anson is not the greatest Cub of all time.
Anson was a great baseball player and a terrible person. His enormous influence extended beyond the city of Chicago and touched all of baseball, and while he used that influence to mentor a lot of young baseball players and create a good product on the field, he also used it to perpetuate baseball’s original sin: segregation. During that era, teams would often play other teams outside of their league, like exhibitions with local semi-pros. Anson refused to let Chicago play against teams that featured even one black player. If Anson had been a different person, the power he wielded could have been used to break down the prejudices that were rampant around the league and around the nation. Instead, he fortified those prejudices, and it would be fifty years past his retirement before the first African American hit a major league lineup.
In other circumstances, I would gladly champion Cap Anson as the greatest Cub, because I love 19th century baseball. I often hear people dismiss the first quarter century of the major leagues because it was “inferior” or “nothing like modern baseball.” Of course it was different, but the difference is what makes it so interesting. We evaluate players within the context of their playing environment. It was different baseball, but it was undeniably Baseball, and the rich soil from which the modern game grew. Anson was a huge part of that, but his sins were too many, and his greatness is too overshadowed by the worst thing about baseball history.
Ernie Banks, on the other hand, was not just a legendary player but a legendary man. He served honorably in the US Army during the Korean War. Throughout his baseball career, he was known as much for his warm demeanor as he was for his outstanding play. He was the antithesis to Anson. While Anson perpetuated the color barrier, Banks broke it for the Cubs, and he did so with grace and confidence. He won two MVP awards while playing for last place teams, a mark of his extreme talent and excellent play during his peak years. His name was so synonymous with Chicago baseball that, after he died, the team went out the next season and won the World Series just to honor his memory. Yes, I’m certain that’s how it happened.
For now, Cap Anson’s name will stay at the top of the list. I suppose the goal would be that an unknown future Cub, some Mike Trout-ish or Ronald Acuña-like figure, would pass both Banks and Anson and claim the top spot for himself. For now, it’s 1. Cap Anson and 2. Ernie Banks. But Anson will have to be content being the greatest White Stocking, because everyone knows who the real greatest Cub is.
Addendum, August 20, 2021: I made a decision to change the ranking system. It now includes a boost for a player’s peak value, much like Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system. Ernie Banks had one of the highest peaks of any shortstop ever, so he is now in his rightful spot atop the rankings and Cap Anson is second.
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