Happy Kris Bryant Day! If you live a jaded, cloaked-in-irony existence like myself, you are sick of holidays manufactured by the chocolate, greeting card, and chocolate greeting card companies. Kris Bryant Day, though, represents something else—it is pure, joyful, and created organically by the MLB Player Union’s poor negotiating. We here at BP-Wrigleyville thought it only appropriate to celebrate this most exciting of baseball days by taking a quick look back at the debuts of some of the franchise’s most iconic players.
On September 17, 1953, a 22-year-old Ernie Banks started at shortstop and batted seventh against the Philadelphia Phillies. As Joe Posnanski noted about the time of his debut, “Attendance at Wrigley Field was down a quarter of a million, the Cubs were 40 or so games out of first place, they had blundered into acquiring slugger Ralph Kiner just as his career was going over the cliff. Hopelessness hovered over the Chicago Cubs like a rain cloud. Enter Ernie Banks.” Banks started inauspiciously, going 0-for-3 with a walk and committing an error in the Cubs 16-4 loss. On September 20, though, Banks recorded his first two hits in a Cubs uniform—a triple and a home run off the St. Louis Cardinals’ Gerry Staley. Banks finished 1953 at .314/.385/.571, and Mr. Cub had hit the ground running, and hitting.
Ron Santo was just 20 years old when he made his debut for the Cubs on June 26, 1960, but he certainly had the most impressive first appearance of any player on this list. At Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, Santo started at third base and batted sixth in both ends of the doubleheader against the Pirates. Santo finished the day 3-for-8 with five RBI, and the Cubs scored 14 runs in sweeping both games. Facing right-hander Bob Friend in the second inning of the first game, Santos singled to center in his first career at-bat. Friend was in the midst of leading the NL in FIP (2.54) in 1960.
In August 1959, a Cubs team hovering around .500 called up a 21-year-old Billy Williams. On August 6 against the Philadelphia Phillies, he started in left field and batted third, one spot ahead of eventual NL MVP Ernie Banks. So, you know, no pressure. Williams came to bat in the first inning against right-hander Jim Owens with no outs and runners on the corners. He proceeded to ground out to first, scoring the runner from third and earning his first career RBI. Williams finished the day 0-for-4, but the Cubs won 4-2. He would wait four games and 12 plate appearances before recording his first career hit, a single off the Pirates’ Vern Law at Wrigley Field.
Of five the players on this list, only Sandberg made his major-league debut for another organization. In late 1981, Sandberg was called up by the Philadelphia Phillies, appearing in 13 games, but receiving only six plate appearances. Acquired in the offseason by general manager Dallas Green, who had been with the Phillies when Sandberg was drafted, Sandberg started at third base on Opening Day 1982. Sandberg, just 22, batted seventh, going 0-for-3 with two strikeouts against Cincinnati Reds starter Mario Soto. The Cubs won 3-2, behind home runs from Bump Willis and Keith Moreland, and Sandberg began his career 0-for-26. His first hit came at home against St. Louis Cardinals starter Joaquin Andujar on April 13.
Greg Maddux occupies the most recent and unusual Cubs debut on this list. On September 2, 1986, the Cubs and Houston Astros, on their way to a NL West title, met at Wrigley Field. With lights still two full years away, the game went in to the fifteenth inning tied 4-4, before being suspended. The game was resumed on September 3, and Maddux, just 20 years old, first stepped on a big-league field as a pinch-runner in the seventeenth inning. Following a Gary Matthews strikeout and Shawon Dunston single, Mike Martin grounded out to strand Maddux at second base. Maddux moved to the mound to start the eighteenth inning. After inducing Craig Reynolds to groundout to Sandberg, he surrendered a home run to Billy Hatcher, one of just 54 he hit in more than 4,700 plate appearances. Maddux finished the inning by retiring Bill Doran and Danny Darwin, and the Cubs would lose 8-7. He went just the one inning, allowing the home run and earning the loss. On September 7, Maddux started for the first time at Cincinnati, and earned a complete game victory despite allowing 14 base runners. It was a bizarre, wholly unique beginning for one of the team’s, and game’s, all-time great right-handed pitchers.
Each player above went from his Chicago Cubs debut to a career that resulted in enshrinement in Cooperstown. Will Kris Bryant follow a similar path?
Honestly, who cares? Kris Bryant Day is about celebrating the present, finally. So, today, eat, drink, and be merry. Just don’t be surprised when it seems like we start celebrating the holiday earlier and earlier every year.