Usually these “Essential Games” sets are stacked with post-season victories, but this is the Cubs we're talking about, and since they weren't taping too many games back in 1908, fans are going to have to settle for this somewhat arbitrary collection of four regular season games.
HALL OF FAME SHOWCASE vs. PHI, July 12, 1969
It's really hard to believe that the Hall of Fame trio of Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, and Billy Williams could take the field together everyday for the better part of two decades and never make a single playoff appearance (Williams finally got into a playoff as an Oakland A in 1975), but such is the magic of Cubs' baseball.
This NBC Game of the Week has no particular historic significance in and of itself. However, it was long touted as the only complete regular season broadcast in existence prior to 1970. I don't know if that's really accurate, but many fans are surprised to learn that MLB just didn't see fit to actually tape and preserve its games until fairly recently, even after cheaper technology was available. Most of baseball history has simply been lost, save through the statistical record and journalistic accounts.
This game features the aforementioned stars in the middle of the lineup along with Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins on the mound. The Cubs can make one claim to fame over the past century – they have pilfered future stars from the Phillies for a song. In 1966, they swiped Jenkins in exchange for aging starters Bob Buhl and Larry Jackson, both of whom would retire within a few years. Meanwhile, Jenkins ran off six consecutive 20-win seasons for his new team.
In this game, Jenkins wasn't at his best, yielding four runs (two earned) on ten hits, but the Cubs beat up on Rick Wise thanks to three hits from Billy Williams and a three run homer from journeyman outfielder Willie Smith to cruise to an easy 7-4 win.
SANDBERG'S COMEBACK SHOCKER vs. STL, June 23, 1984
Speaking of the Cubs mugging the Phillies, here's the trade every Phillies fan has nightmares about, even those who weren't born when it happened. The Phils swapped an aging Larry Bowa for an “in his prime” (it was hard to tell) Ivan DeJesus. They also tossed in a minor league infielder to sweeten the deal. The kid was only able to play third and second and the Phillies were already set with Mike Schmidt and Juan Samuel, so really, what was the harm in dealing a scrawny slap hitter named Ryne Sandberg?
Sandberg did nothing in his first two seasons with the Cubs to give Phils fans indigestion, but in1984 he suddenly learned to love the long ball and shocked the league by winning the MVP along with the second in a long string of Gold Gloves. This game was a breakout of sorts for Ryno, as he helped the Cubs storm back from an early 7-1 deficit, capping off a 7-RBI performance by taking ace closer Bruce Sutter deep in consecutive innings, a game tying blast in the 9th and yet another game tier in the 10th. Sutter had a 1.54 ERA that year and finished third in the Cy voting, by the way.
NL WILD CARD TIEBREAKER vs. SFG, Sep 28, 1998
90 wins weren't enough to secure a playoff bid that year, not when the Cubs were stranded 12 games behind the mighty Astros (yes, you read that correctly) for the Central crown, but it was enough to net them a tie-breaker with the Giants for the Wild Card. Considering that the Cubs had lost well over 90 games the year before, fans were understandably excited but also skeptical.
Steve Trachsel was in rare dominant form that day, taking a no-hitter into the 7th, and a home run from Gary Gaetti spearheaded the charge to a 5-0 lead that suddenly looked vulnerable when the Giants posted a three spot in the 9th. But the late, great Rod Beck was ready to slam the door for his 51st save.
It was a huge win, but it's best not to ask what happened next.
NL CENTRAL DIVISION CLINCHER vs. STL, Sep 20, 2008
Were the Cubs finally ready to start a dynasty? They had made the playoffs in 2007, and were en route to leading the NL in victories in 2008. It's best not to ask what happened next.
For this day, however, the Cubs were focused on bouncing the hated Cards from the playoff race and clinching the Central. They didn't waste much time, surging to an early 5-0 lead. But starter Ted Lilly wilted in the 6th, coughing up four runs and the Cubbies had to white knuckle it behind two wild and crazy relievers in Carlos Marmol and Kerry Wood. There was never anything to worry about.
The 1969 game is from a black-and-white Kinescope recording (1.33:1) and shows the expected signs of wear and tear, but it's actually not much worse than plenty of “official” MLB tapes from the 80's. The other three games are in color with the 2008 game in widescreen, and the other two full-screen. Video quality is so-so on the 1984 game but acceptable, and generally strong on the two more recent games.
The 2008 game offers two audio options: the TV Play-by-play (Tim McCarver) and the Cubs Radio Call. The other three games only offer a single audio option from the TV broadcast. Curt Gowdy headlines the 1969 broadcast. For 1984, it's Bob Costas and 1998 is an ESPN feed with Jon Miller and Joe Morgan. The 1969 audio has its problems, but it's clearly audible throughout the parts that I sampled. The other audio streams are fairly strong.
There are no extras included.
Each game is housed in its own slim keepcase, and the DVDs sport cover art from Cubs' program books.
I don't follow the Cubs closely enough to know which games have already been offered on DVD, though I know the 1969 game has long been available on a pricey VHS which is obviously now obsolete. The last 100 years might not have produced many post-season highlights for the Cubs faithful, but there's always the next 100 years. And at least you get to see franchise greats like Banks, Santo, Williams, Jenkins, and Sandberg in action here.