By Scott A. Rowan
For generations, Chicago Cubs fans and baseball pundits alike have shackled Philip Wrigley with the blame for the Cubs’ lousy performance during the decades when he ran the team. But Wrigley’s ideas have been rekindled by Cubs president Theo Epstein, who knows that it is role players, rather than big stars, who produce the most success in the long run. Some of Wrigley’s ideas, which were blamed for destroying the Cubs chances during the 1960s, have reappeared, and fans are hopeful that they will resurrect the team a half-century—and no championships—later.
In January 1960, Wrigley announced his revolutionary plan to use a rotating roster of coaches to lead the Cubs. The concept was dubbed the “College of Coaches.” Explaining his reasoning for having a staff of coaches rather than one individual in charge, Wrigley said, “Our main objective is to standardize our system.” Wrigley even went so far as to have the club create a booklet called “The Cubs Way,” which explained in detail how everything in the organization was to be taught. As baseball historians Glenn Stout and Richard A. Johnson explained in their book The Cubs, Wrigley “wanted the game of baseball taught throughout the Cubs organization exactly the same way so that as a player moved up in the system and then to the major leagues, he would receive consistent instruction and, hoped Wrigley, produce standardized results.”
Echoing Wrigley, in 2012 Epstein and his staff finished a 300-page book called The Cubs Way to be used by coaches, players, and managers throughout the organization. Epstein intended to cover “everything from what foot you hit the bag with when you’re making the turn to how we run bunt plays to what our overall organizational hitting philosophy is,” reported Paul Sullivan in the Chicago Tribune on February 18, 2012. “Everything about the game, we’re going to approach the same way as an organization, from the Dominican Summer League through A-ball, Double-A, Triple-A right up to the big leagues. Playing hard is a big part of it, but playing the game the right way and teaching it consistently is important as well.”
Not only were Epstein and Wrigley both trying to create a systematic approach to baseball, they both created manuals on how to teach the game—even using the same name—and wanted the same result: consistency throughout the entire organization. But while Wrigley was considered an eccentric whose newfangled ideas destroyed the team’s chances, Epstein was labeled a “boy genius” when he used the same approach to help the Boston Red Sox win the World Series in 2004 and 2007.
During the 50 years that separated Wrigley and Epstein’s experiments, the game has been swept by a new approach called “Moneyball” (in reference to the 2003 best-selling book by Michael Lewis, which was made into the second- highest grossing baseball film of all-time in 2011, earning more than $75 million globally).31 Moneyball introduced the idea of using statistics to determine the best players in baseball, rather than the traditional “eye test,” which relied on the consensus of scouts’ opinions.
Baseball insiders had known for years about this approach, which is also called sabremetrics (in reference to the Society of American Baseball Researchers, or SABR). The approach is also known as Jamesian baseball due to Bill James’ seminal book The Bill James Historical Abstract. First published in 1985, it was this work that first introduced the world of baseball to the kind of in-depth statistical analysis that eventually produced new statistics that twenty-first-century fans take for granted. Runs created, game score, and secondary average were some of the new statistics that James created, giving fans a new way to understand the game in greater detail than ever before. Epstein was such a disciple of James that he hired the “sabermetrician” as a senior advisor for the Red Sox in 2002.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that Epstein is merely spouting James’ approach. A graduate of Yale who later earned a law degree, he became the youngest general manager in baseball history when the Red Sox hired him at the age of 28. Epstein is so gifted that a baseball insider once told him he should “eventually run for president [of the United States]” because he could handle it and had “an extraordinary gift to help people.”
Having broken the epic Red Sox World Series drought with not one but two championships, Epstein has helped more people than many U.S. presidents. Now he is working to give Chicago, the only team with a championship drought lasting longer than the one the Red Sox suffered.
Many fans might be surprised to learn that what Epstein took from Bill James’ work only supported what he had learned through his family’s history in Hollywood decades earlier. Epstein’s grandfather, Philip Epstein, and his twin brother Julius wrote the screenplay for the classic 1942 film Casablanca, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. The Epstein brothers worked in Hollywood back when the “contract system” or “studio system” ruled the entertainment world. Everyone in the business of filmmaking, from writers to famous stars, had a contract that bound them to a specific studio—much as baseball players were bound to one team. In a revolutionary move, Epstein has fused together the statistical analysis Wrigley loved with Hollywood’s studio system mentality to simultaneously reduce the Cubs’ payroll and create consistency throughout the organization, relying on team players rather than big stars to achieve wins.
Of course, the Cubs’ transition from a star-laden team to a group of up-and- coming youngsters has been difficult for fans to watch. In 2012, Epstein’s second season with the franchise, the Cubs went 61–101—disappointing, to put it mildly. But the team president believes the fans will give Epstein time to enact his plans, saying, “We’re being transparent and they’re responding by giving back faith, belief and energy.” It takes time to build a winner, especially with a franchise that has gone more than 100 years without a championship. But Epstein, wielding his Jamesian approach, has become baseball’s version of the Hollywood studio president of the past, preaching that baseball requires many people to work together, each learning their roles and how to do them well, in order for the entire organization to succeed.
“Working at Warner Bros. was a very friendly atmosphere during the days of the studio system,” Julius Epstein said in the book Casablanca: Behind the Scenes:
For the writers, it was a club. There were seventy to seventy-five writers at Warners—it wasn’t called the motion picture industry for nothing. It was like an assembly line. . . . But you have to realize that today it’s a whole different ball game. The whole contract system is dead. In 1935, I had five released movies in my first year at Warner Bros. . . . Such a thing today would be impossible because in those days, we were under contract, and as soon as you finished one, they shoved another one at you.
The contract system gave you a sense of security, because doing so many pictures, if you batted .500, or even .300, you were in pretty good shape—like a ball player. Today, you more or less live or die on each picture. Instead of five in one year, you’re lucky to get one every five years.
During the 1930s and 1940s, studio executives took the approach that if they created dozens of films each year, the odds were in their favor that at least a few of them would turn out to be hits. In short, they had to create more films to improve their chances. The Chicago Cubs have become a twenty-first century version of that system, going out of their way to get rid of stars (and their salaries) in order to create a pool of players all trained in the same way, allowing multiple players to play the same position successfully (in the case of injury, for example). According to Foxsports.com’s Greg Couch, the plan is to build a team of role players rather than relying on big stars to achieve victory:
Epstein has focused on scouting and drafting amateur players. He has unloaded as many big contracts as possible at the major league level and put money into amateurs. The Cubs spent a team-record $12 million on [the 2011] draft class.
Epstein cut the Cubs’ payroll from $125 million in 2011 to $88 million in 2012. Both sabermetricians and Hollywood executives would say it only makes sense: if you can have lower-paid employees generate hits by creating a system that only demands certain requirements of each one, then the overall success of the organization should be inevitable.
According to Epstein biographer John Frascella in his book Theology, Epstein looks at players differently than most of his old-fashioned baseball peers, often asking them to do less individually so the team can succeed overall. For example, while fans may love home-run hitters, Epstein has chosen to manufacture runs instead. Where fans love to see a pitcher hit 100 mph on a radar gun, Epstein looks for strong pitchers who can learn control while also achieving longevity over the course of their careers. In short, Epstein has been using the same philosophy as the old film studios, which dictated that lots of small films would yield better results than hiring one big star with a big contract who might fail in a big way.
“Theo wanted to get his players on base in any possible fashion, and score runs without donating outs to the opposition,” Frascella wrote in Theology, adding that Epstein vehemently eschewed out-producing plays such as the hit-and-run and the sacrifice bunt:
It was a style more generally known as “station-to-station” baseball. “Station-to- station” meant walks and hits would determine his team’s fate. Like a merry-go- round, consecutive walks and hits can move runners fluidly around the bases. . . . His strategy turned every inning into a potential rally. . . . While most other teams were gazing at pitchers’ won-lost records, Theo and [Bill] James were taking a good, hard look at strikeout-to-walk ratios.
According to Terry Francona in his book Francona: The Red Sox Years, Epstein left the Red Sox for the Cubs after 2011, when upper management forced him to hire more “sexy” players. Francona, who also left after the 2011 season, claimed that the Red Sox hired a consulting firm to investigate the team’s diminishing television ratings. The result of the $100,000 study, according to the book, infuriated both Epstein and Francona, who both left the organization as a result. Francona wrote that the report contained marketing notes that suggested more star players were needed to enhance ratings, and that female viewers wanted more “sexy players” like Dustin Pedroia. For Epstein, whose whole approach was built around using role players instead of big stars, it was too much. Wrote Francona, “Epstein was insulted, amused (Pedroia, sexy?) and angry.”
Epstein left the Red Sox and joined the Cubs, looking to create a unified organization built around role players who would manufacture runs rather than relying on big plays to save the game. He wanted hurlers who would be able to pitch in the mid-90 mph range for several years, rather than bringing 100-mph heat for only one or two seasons. And he wanted affable players who could “gel and avoid unnecessary friction with teammates,” not prima donnas who would demand the spotlight.
Epstein calls his philosophy “the Cubs Way,” just as Wrigley did during the 1960s. Studio executives in the 1930s called it the Hollywood Way. Meanwhile, fans don’t care what you call it, as long as Epstein’s Cubs are able to achieve what Casablanca earned—immortal greatness.
Stout and Johnson, Cubs, 236.
Paul Sullivan, “Theo stresses the ‘Cubs way’ as camp opens,” Chicago Tribune, February 18, 2012, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-02-18/sports/chi-cubs-file-in-to-camp-on- opening-day-20120218_1_chicago-cubs-cubs-way-cubs-way.
“Sports – Baseball, 1982-Present,” boxofficemojo.com,http://boxofficemojo.com/genres/chart/?id=baseball.htm, accessed June 27, 2013.
John Frascella, Theology (New York: Cambridge House Press, 2009), 46.
David Haugh, “Haugh: Epstein always calculating,” Chicago Tribune, February 26, 2013, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-02-26/sports/ct-spt-0227-haugh-cubs-chicago– 20130227_1_theo-epstein-cubs-fans-rooftop-owners.
Harlan Lebo, Casablanca: Behind the Scenes (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 9–10.
Greg Couch, “Theo asking Cubs fans to believe,” FoxSports.com, October 3, 2012, http://msn.foxsports.com/mlb/story/chicago-cubs-theo-epstein-worst-team-in-franchise-history-100212.
Frascella, Theology, 59.
Terry Francona, Francona: The Red Sox Years (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2013), 272.
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