A Chance to Change the Narrative: Kris Bryant and Other Cubs’ Rookie All-Stars

Shortly before last Monday’s game against the Cardinals—a miserable game, which I attended, regretted attending, and later recapped—a thing happened which went a pretty fair distance towards repairing the damage done to the psyche by that evening’s events: Kris Bryant was named a 2015 National League All-Star. This was good news for a number of reasons. First, insofar as a player being named to an All-Star team generally indicates that that player is having a good season, and insofar as Cubs fans (I’m assuming you, dear reader, fall into this category) would prefer their team to be populated with good players rather than bad, having more All-Stars rather than less is generally a good thing. Second, Bryant had been, before the season began, widely considered one of the very best prospects in baseball, and insofar as Cubs fans are haunted by the ghosts of Corey Patterson, Mark Prior, and Brian Dopirak (among many others) it was nice to see Bryant avoid falling flat on his face in his debut season.

But thirdly, and most relevantly to the rest of this post, it was good news because rookies—a category which includes Bryant—are rarely selected for the All-Star game, and when they are, they tend to end up being pretty good players. Proving that statement in full could and indeed might end up as the subject for another whole piece, but for now you’re going to have to take it on faith that being named to the All-Star game as a rookie is an excellent, and rare, accomplishment. What I want to do today is take you on a trip down memory lane to examine the last five—indeed, quite possibly the only five—Cubs rookies to have been selected to an All-Star team. With luck, the result will give you something to talk about during the next lull in conversaton you’d like to fill with baseball trivia.

Before we begin, a few procedural notes. First, the All-Star game only began in 1933, meaning that possibly worthy players from the first six-plus decades of the Cubs’ history are, sadly, excluded from consideration here. Second, although BP’s databases are the home of much magic and wonder, they are not also the home of records indicating which players met, or did not meet, MLB’s standards for the ‘rookie’ designation (which standards have, in fact, changed somewhat over time). That means that while the five players I have selected for discussion here are definitely five players who fall into the category under consideration—Cubs rookie All-Stars—they are not necessarily (although they are probably), the only players in that category.

Enough waffle. On to the players. The first guy to make the All-Star game as a Cubs rookie was a Chicago native, a late bloomer, and a contender for the Most Anonymous Name Of All Time award:

Don Johnson, 1944. I haven’t looked it up, but I’m guessing that 32-year-old rookies don’t come around all that often. These days, when players debut that late into their careers, their stories tend to be hagiographed by some movie starring Dennis Quaid. This was presumably not the case with Johnson, who was able to make his debut by virtue of the Second World War, which had drawn many of baseball’s best players away from the game to other, more pressing matters. While that period of baseball history is usually associated with the Bonus Babies—young kids joining teams fresh out of, in some cases, their freshman years of high school—the well was running dry at the other end of the age curve, too, and that’s where Johnson fell. Although he technically made his debut in 1943, recording 45 mostly forgettable plate appearances at age 31, he managed to put up a fairly solid .278/.311/.352 line in his official rookie season of 1944, including the .285/.319/.359 first-half line that sent him to Forbes Field in Pittsburgh for that year’s Midsummer Classic. It would be his first and also final All-Star selection.

Toby Atwell, 1952. Atwell, unlike Johnson, lined up his ‘true’ rookie season (the year of his big-league debut) with the season in which his rookie eligibility expired. He, too, debuted somewhat late in life (age 28), and put up a superb .324/.414/.438 line over 55 games in the first half of the 1952 campaign. That was enough to send him to Philadelphia’s Shibe Park and baseball semi-immortality. Atwell cooled off significantly after that blazing start to his career, to .275/.366/.331 for the rest of the season, and never hit higher than .289 for a full season, or made an All-Star team, ever again. In fact, he hung around in the majors for just three more seasons, mostly with Pittsburgh, before eventually petering out with a .167/.265/.400 line over 30 plate appearances for the Milwaukee Braves in 1956. Not a model you’d like to see for Bryant.

Sam Jones, 1955. Sam Jones, 82, is a member of the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, by virtue of his 13-season career with the Boston Celtics that saw him win … wait, this doesn’t seem right. Oh, yeah. Wrong Sam Jones. The correct Sam Jones (insofar as this piece is concerned) threw a fairly inneffectual 44.2 innings across two seasons with the Cleveland Indians in 1951 and 1952 before bouncing around the minors for a few years and eventually exhausting his rookie eligiblity in 1955 with the Cubs. That season, he pitched 241.2 innings for the North Siders, putting up a fairly solid 3.78 ERA over the first half of that season. That was, apparently, enough to earn a spot at the All-Star game in Milwaukee, and so that’s where Jones went. Unlike the first two members of this list, he actually ended up with a pretty solid big-league career, retiring in 1964 with a 3.59 ERA over 1643.1 innings pitched. Also unlike all the others on this list, including those that follow, Jones returned to the Midsummer Classic, in 1959, and only then began a slow descent into the anonymity in which he remains.

Geovany Soto, 2008. Bet you remember this one. Soto, who currently plays across town with the White Sox, made spot starts for the Cubs in each of the 2005, 2006, and 2007 seasons before breaking out in a big way for the division-winning 2008 squad. That season, he made the All-Star team and won the Rookie of the Year award on the back of a .285/.364/.504 line from the catcher position. He was so good, in fact, that I bought his t-shirt, assuming he’d be around for a long time. Goes to show you what an eye for talent I have. To be fair, Soto stuck around the North Side for a few more years, eventually departing via trade in 2012, but he was never anywhere near as good as he’d been in his rookie season, and left with a whiff of something more than unmet expectations about him. Prospects, man. They don’t all work out.

Kosuke Fukudome, 2008. I’m not sure this should really count as a rookie season, but strictly speaking it does, and concludes this little trip down memory lane. Fukudome, 31 in 2008, was the Cubs’ big international signing before the season, and hit a game-tying home run on a frigid Opening Day that endeared him to the Wrigley faithful and eventually landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated in mid-May. By the time he got to Yankee Stadium for the All-Star game (the same game, by the way, where Josh Hamilton put on his insane Home Run Derby show), he was already cooling down from a torrid start, but his .279/.383/.408 first-half line still looks pretty good from the perspective of 2015. Unfortunately, however, Fukudome was never as good again, and was shipped to Cleveland midway through the 2011 season before burning out of the majors with a 2012 season for the White Sox. As far as I can tell, he’s still in professional ball, putting up a .267/.342/.491 line for Japan’s Central League Hanshin Tigers.

And there you have it: the five Cubs, prior to Kris Bryant, who made the All-Star team in their rookie season. On the whole, it’s not a startling track record of success. We have two rookies who debuted in their fourth decade (Johnson and Fukudome), both of whom had poor careers after hot starts, and three more traditional rookies (Atwell, Jones, and Soto), only one of whom (Jones) had a career worth writing home about. All I can really take from that is to conclude that, for the Cubs, at least, big early-career performances have been no guarantee of future glories. Still, it can’t possibly be a bad thing to succeed early (though I’m willing to listen to arguments), and Bryant will add his name to this semi-distinguished list in Cincinnati tonight. With luck, a fair wind, and a lot of hard work, he’ll outshine all five of his peers by the time all is said and done with, and change the story that’s been told so far.

Lead photo courtesy of Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

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4 comments on “A Chance to Change the Narrative: Kris Bryant and Other Cubs’ Rookie All-Stars”

Man, didn’t you think Fukudome was going to be huge after that homer in the opener? I know I did.

Rian Watt

I was just arriving at O’Hare at the time and tuned in on the radio on the drive back just as he was coming to the plate. Loudest I’ve heard Wrigley get on that medium.

Zack Moser

Sam Jones is also notably the first African-American pitcher to throw an MLB no-hitter. One of the most interesting Cubs of all time, IMO.

Rian Watt

#History strikes again. Didn’t know that at all, that’s excellent.

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