Before going into detail about the Chicago Cubs, you have to make a brief mention of the thing that now defines them: THEY’RE THE 2016 WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONS!
Yep, if you’re a baseball fan… Well, even if you’re only a casual baseball fan… Okay, if you’ve done anything but hibernate since April of 2016, you’ve spotted the Cubs at some point. In a year of absolutely atrocious shit, the Cubs are the one story that seemed to grab all the feel-good headlines and win the good vibes of a country hard-pressed to see anything good about itself at all. And that 107-year-long streak of foibles which popular mythos refers to as the Billy Goat Curse? Yeah, there’s that. But one of the primary signals of the baseball apocalypse has finally tooted its trumpet, and the Chicago Cubs have been reborn. Goats aren’t banes to this group of ballplayers anymore. Now they’re breakfast.
We’ll get to that eventually, but you’re going to have to be patient and stick around. Those postseason yips that plagued the Cubs ran for 107 years, after all, and plenty happened both before and during that curse. Baseball has a rich history that stretches back to the mid-1800’s, and when the Cincinnati Red Stockings made it professional in 1869, everyone knew there would be others following along at some point. It didn’t take long. The Chicago White Stockings formed in 1870. You know how far back that is? The second World Series title was still 38 years into the future. That’s so far back, the Great Chicago Fire was still a year into the future. Anyhow, the Stockings played their first professional baseball game against the St. Louis Unions, trouncing them 47-1. They started out the same way any other team did in baseball’s anything-goes crazy cousins era, but after a few games as an indie team, they managed to whittle their roster down to 10 and get into the National Association of Base Ball Players (base ball is not a typo there). They even won the league title that year. Not that it really counts for anything – even counting the Pennants from those days, the NABBP isn’t considered a relative of the National League. But the Cubs do have the distinction of being the only team that goes back to them. The Atlanta Braves and the minor league Buffalo Bisons both trace their lineage back to the NABBP, but the Cubs are the only NABBP team that operated continuously since being a member, and therefore the only true survivor.
In 1871, everyone decided that amateur baseball was an antiquated concept, and the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was born. That was the league that eventually transformed into the National League, and the league the Cubs have stayed in. And despite having their home field wiped out by the Fire, the White Stockings kept rolling through the league. There was a brief dropout period – and no, I don’t know how a continuously operating franchise got to have a dropout period – while Chicago got back on its feet, but the Stockings returned in 1874. In 1876, the National League became the National League, and the Stockings’ Pennants started counting in the records. They won the inaugural Pennant that year, and then five more through 1886. William Hulbert, the financier (read: Owner) of the White Stockings signed some of the best players of the day, including Albert Spalding and Cap Anson. And it was in 1884 that the champions of the National League and a different league decided to have a friendly little competition after the proper season called the “World’s Championship Series.” The White Stockings first played in it in 1885 against the St. Louis Browns, which was won by, uh, no one. The thing ended in a dispute without a clear winner. When they played against each other in the same series the next year, though, there was no question about who was better: It was the Browns! Yeah, for all their trouble, the White Stockings lost. (See, they were doing it back then too.) They became the Cubs. The Browns won and eventually became today’s St. Louis Cardinals, so this is going to be a recurring theme.
In the 1890’s, the White Stockings name faded away just because sportswriters liked the name Colts better. Or at least the name Anson’s Colts, because he was the only decent player on the team by then. Even with Bill Lange setting a team record for steals in 1897 and spending seven years being among the league’s best hitters, the Colts really couldn’t get anything going. Al Spalding – who took over team ownership from Hulbert after Hulbert’s death in 1892 – decided not to renew Anson’s contract in 1898. His departure led to the Colts’ nickname going through a series of name changes, new and discarded monikers, and something like a media rivalry on something to call them. The last time Chicago Colts appeared in circulation was in 1905. Since Anson had become sort of the team “Pop,” the media also took to referring to them as the Remnants or Orphans. They’ve also been called the Panamas, Rainmakers, Spuds, Trojans, Zephyrs, and Microbes. But it was a name first given out in 1902, Cubs, which proved to have staying power. And when the team found a new Captain in Frank Chance, who said he loved being a Cub, the deal was sealed. After 1906, Chicago’s NL team was strictly the Cubs. The White Stockings name was grabbed in 1900 by the new minor league team on Chicago’s South Side. In 1901, the new minor league declared itself a major league, and the name of the Cubs’ new crosstown rival was soon shortened to White Sox.
The Cubs name was accepted just in time for their new dynasty! And what is now seen as the first dynasty of the MB era. Frank Chance’s nickname was “Peerless Leader,” and he along with infield mates Joe Tinker and Johnny Evers became that black hole for multi-base hits that teams have trouble putting together. One sportswriter wrote a poem about the three of them. And if no one was hitting to their side, Harry Steinfeldt and Johnny Kling was just as capable, provided the failure of pitchers Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown (I LOVE that nickname), Jack Taylor, Orval Overall, and others. The Cubs of 1906 were a gang of famished grizzly bears who wiped out everything in their path. Their record was 116-58, which stands alone even today as far as winning percentage and victories in a 154-game season go. Their win total was tied by the Seattle Mariners in 2001, but they needed eight extra games to do it. The Cubs ran away with the Pennant and walked into their first-ever World Series, which also happened to be the first crosstown World Series ever. And also a title that should have been a gimme; the White Sox won 93 games on pitching and pitching alone. Their batting was putrid – the team average was a mere .230, which was good enough to earn them the nickname The Hitless Wonders. And true to their season form, the White Sox batters laid down and played dead for the entire series. Their batting was a .198 pile of feces. But it was still good enough to better the .196 egg the Cubs managed to lay. So, yes, in a monumental upset, the White Sox’ hurlers threw an array of pitches that made the Cubs look like bad tee ball players, and the Southsiders took the Series in six games.
After that failure, the Cubs barely slowed down. The proceeded to roll through the next two years, winning the World Series in both. 1907 and 1908 were their first and second titles. You’ll want to remember those years, because they’re going to become important. 1908 gave the Cubs a tough race with the New York Giants, which ended in a memorable play called Merkle’s Boner. It happened when Giants rookie Fred Merkle was sprinting to second base at the end of the game, but he broke stride and headed to the clubhouse while on the base path after runner Moose McCormick touched home for what should have been the winning run. The run was discounted, the game ended in a tie, and the Giants lost the playoff. The Cubs went on to beat the Detroit Tigers in the Fall Classic in both years. Johnny Kling sat out the 1909 season due to either a brief career in professional billiard or a contract dispute, depending on who you ask. Kling returned in 1910 and the Cubs won the Pennant again, but you could say the first dynasty in the history of 20th Century baseball was concluded when they couldn’t beat the Philadelphia Athletics. In 1911, the high-strung Evers rarely played due to a nervous breakdown, and Chance got smacked by a near-fatal beanball. (And that, folks, is why beaning home run hitters for showing off is a childish thing to do. If pitchers are so pissy about not getting shown up, they should LEARN TO PLAY THE FUCKING GAME!)
The Cubs fell into the doldrums for the next few years, but by 1918 they were the Champions of the NL again. This time their World Series opponent was the Boston Red Sox. Boston pitcher Babe Ruth tossed a complete game shutout in the first game, which pretty much set the tone for the six-game Boston triumph (which was their own last for the next 86 years). In 1921, gum magnate William Wrigley bought the controlling share of the Cubs and slapped his name on their stadium in 1925. Yeah, this is another thing they were doing back in those days too, and the ridiculous corporate promotional name the place ended up with was one of the stupidest and most forgettable: Wrigley Field. Wrigley also pulled a Donald Trump and threw a temper tantrum when a sportswriter named William Veeck criticized his team. Unlike Trump, though, Wrigley then challenged Veeck to see how much better he could do. Veeck responded by taking the challenge, building a team with stars like Hack Wilson, Gabby Hartnett, Billy Herman, and Rogers Hornsby and winning four Pennants. I like to imagine Wrigley looking at the Pennants and saying, “Well, that shut me up.”
1929, 1932, 1935, and 1938 were all Pennant years. All were also World Series losses, and not losses that were especially nice. In the 1929 Series, for example, the Cubs gave up an 8-0 lead to the Athletics in game four. That would have been bad enough on its own, but what made it worse was the fact that Hack Wilson became responsible for a three-run inside-the-field homer when he lost a routine pop fly in the sun. In 1932, the culprit was the New York Yankees. During game three, Babe Ruth – now a longtime Yankee and playing the position he would come to be famous for – made a pointing gesture at pitcher Charlie Root during an at-bat. Ruth then hit a home run. When asked about the gesture after the game, Ruth gave a rambling, indecipherable answer, so the media went out and fabricated a load of bullshit about Ruth calling his shot. That account is disputed by everyone who was on the field that day, including Root, who said he would have drilled Ruth had he thought Ruth was pointing to where he would hit a home run. The Cubs got swept that year. That’s not to say the Cubs were completely deprived; in 1938, Dizzy Dean was the team ace. Going into a critical series against the league-leading Pittsburgh Pirates, Dean proceeded to pitch what he later called the best game of his life in the first game. In the second game, Hartnett whacked a walk-off home run which broke a 5-5 tie, a hit known in Cubs lore as The Homer in the Gloamin.’ The Cubs vaulted into first with those two games, then pounded the Pirates 10-1 in the last game of the series before clinching the Pennant against the Cardinals a few days later.
Veeck and Wrigley had both died by then, and Wrigley’s successor, PK Wrigley, didn’t have quite the baseball acumen of either his pop or Veeck. The Cubs started to falter after the Veeck/Wrigley glory days, but PK’s team gave fans his shining moment in 1945. You may recognize that year as the final year of World War II, which means that MLB had a talent depletion. The Cubs took advantage of the lack of players and delivered the Pennant that year, entering the World Series against the waiting Tigers. The Cubs won the first game 9-0. In game three, Claude Passeau threw a one-hitter, and the Cubs had a 2-1 lead in the Series. Game four was at Wrigley Field, and one of the spectators was one Mr. William Sianis. But Sianis had bought two tickets. One would expect him to bring a friend, or his wife, or his kid to the ballgame, as adult folk usually do. Sianis’s companion was named Murphy. But the twist here is that little Murph wasn’t a wife, friend, or kid… Well, not of the human variety, anyway. Murphy was a goat. And, well, he smelled the part. When others started complaining, Wrigley threw Sianis – and Murphy – out of the park. The pissed-off Sianis responded by uttering, “The Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more,” and his family then said he later sent a telegram to Wrigley proclaiming the Cubs would never win another World Series. The Cubs lost game four, and ultimately lost the 1945 World Series in seven games.
And so began a long period of irrelevance and an even longer drought. The Cubs posted an 82-71 record in 1946, which was enough for third place, then turned into a bottom half team for the next 20 years. From 1947 to 1966, the Cubs went from first to worst and always lost a ton of games – over 90 games many times, and over 100 in 1962 and 1966. The 1962 team, in fact, was one of the worst teams fielded by any team ever – they lost 109 games. The little credit that can be given to the Cubs during that time can fall almost entirely on the shoulders of Ernie Banks, who began his career with the team in 1953 and became their greatest player. Banks was a 14-time All-Star, two-time MVP, and two-time leader in home runs and RBIs. Banks also has the distinction of being the player who integrated the Cubs. (Sad but true: The 2016 World Series was the first time any black players at all played in a World Series at Wrigley Field, and the first time any black Cubs players played in the World Series.) In December of 1960, the desperate Wrigley said he was going to try a new management technique: The College of Coaches! It involved eight “coaches” who would be rotated through the Cubs’ entire system, so that every player in the system would learn a standard style of play and every “coach” would get a turn managing the big boys. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much of a pattern to the rotation, every “coach” had a different style, and the talent return to the North Side – save Ron Santo in 1960 and Billy Williams following a year later, both of whom became Cubs icons – wasn’t. Amidst the chaos the idea caused, Wrigley finally appointed a sole head coach for the parent club in 1963, but the experiment wasn’t axed until 1966, when the Cubs hired Leo Durocher. Durocher enthusiastically declared himself the manager and Wrigley basically smiled, nodded, and said, “Yes, yes he is.”
With Durocher at the reins, the Cubs slowly sparked back to life. With Durocher, Banks, Williams, Santo, and pitcher Ferguson Jenkins anchoring the team, they posted back-to-back winning seasons in 1967 and 1968. Then came 1969, and the Cubs started the year 11-1 and proceeded to blow away everyone’s expectations. Jenkins won 21 games, and pitchers Bill Hands and Ken Holtzman added 20 and 17 respectively. By the end of August, the Cubs were soaring over the division and looked uncatchable at nine and a half games over the New York Mets. They looked like a lock for their first postseason appearance since the 1945 World Series. (Although 1969 was the year that baseball first adopted divisional alignments, meaning coming in first place would have put the Cubs in the NLCS and not necessarily the World Series.) On September 9, a fan released a black cat – an ACTUAL black cat – on the field at Shea Stadium, where the Cubs were playing against the Mets. Superstitious fans attribute what happened to the Cubs to that incident, although a more reasonable explanation argues that, with the Cubs not having any lights installed at Wrigley Field and only playing day games, the fierce humidity of Chicago just got to them. The Cubs started losing a lot of key games, collapsing under a terrible September record of 8-17. But let’s be honest: Even if the Cubs had kept up their winning pace, the second-place Mets went an otherworldly 39-11 down the final leg of the season. The tale of the Billy Goat Curse and the Great Collapse of 1969 doesn’t give the Mets enough credit. No, the Cubs winning all of eight games that month doesn’t help anyone’s case, but 39-11 means the Mets weren’t going to be stopped. The Cubs were simply in the way and got mowed down for it.
The window for those Cubs teams was shut after that. The keystones got old, as they tend to do. They finished the next few seasons with winning records, but not GOOD records. Pitcher Milt Pappas threw a no-hitter in 1972. But by 1973, with all of the team’s good players retired or on teams not named the Chicago Cubs, they dropped back down like a victim of the Chicago mob. In 1977, star Bobby Murcer had the team in first by the All-Star break, but that first place was by just two games – a lead which had been a whopping 19 games only in June of that year. The streaking Philadelphia Phillies cut up the division during the rest of the season, and the Cubs broke even and finished fourth, 22 games behind the Phillies. Save the window-closing years right after the 1969 plowing, that was their best year. It also typified a pattern the Cubs had fallen into: They would spend the first half of the year doing well, a significant number of games over .500, and tease the fans into thinking they had a chance. Then they would spend the rest of the year accumulating losses in bunches and finish with a losing record. The Cubs’ habit of doing this is where the term “June Swoon” comes from.
A reprieve found the Cubs in 1984, a few years after the Tribune Company bought the team. In 1982, Ivan DeJesus was traded to the Phillies for Larry Bowa and Ryne Sandberg. Bowa was a veteran mainstay in Philadelphia and multiple-time All-Star who helped the Phillies win the 1981 World Series and was a few years from ending his career. Sandberg’s career was only beginning. The two of them lifted a talented team, and in 1984 the Cubs charged out to a league-best 96 wins. Going into the NLCS – their first postseason appearance since 1945 – the Cubs looked like they were going to run off with the Pennant, too. They took a 2-0 lead in the series, which back then was only five games. Unfortunately, the shiny, eternal optimism of the season got burned by, of all teams, the San Diego Padres, who won all of the next three games to take the Pennant and lose the 1984 World Series to the Tigers. While the Cubs were picked to win their division again the next year, they won a disappointing 77 games. But at least with the backing of the Trib and high-flying players like Dennis Eckersley, Andre Dawson, Greg Maddux, and Rafael Palmeiro, they played an exciting brand of baseball that always entertained the fans. Another ease of the postseason had to wait until 1989, though, when the Cubs won 93 games and the NL East again. Since the NLCS moved from five games to seven games in 1985, the Cubs had two extra chances to dispose of the San Francisco Giants. Unfortunately, the Giants had too much firepower and destroyed the underdog Cubs in five games.
After taking their now-accustomed spot near the bottom of the standings in the 90’s, 1998 saw the Cubs peak their heads out in the direction of success again. Maddux won his first Cy Young and turned tail to the Atlanta Braves. Sammy Sosa emerged as a power hitter, and in 1998 he and Mark McGwire of the Cubs’ archival St. Louis Cardinals dueled in a race to break the season home run record of 61. Sosa hit 66 homers that year, rookie Kerry Wood tied a record by striking out 20 players in a game against the Houston Astros, and the Cubs survived an incredible Wild Card race against the Giants and Mets. Near the end of the season, the Cubs nabbed Gary Gaetti off waivers from St. Louis, and that proved prophetic when Gaetti hit a walk-off home run to beat the Giants in the one-game playoff to enter the postseason once more. Still no Pennant, though, because the road to the Pennant ran through Atlanta. The Braves flattened the Cubs, only letting them score four runs in three games.
It’s possible the Trib had fallen into complacency during the early millennium. You know the drill: Field the team, push their history and mythology, wait for fans and tourists to show up and keep paying’ at the turnstiles. (Basketball fans recognize this as the New York Knicks’ current approach.) Then 2003 happened. The Cubs won themselves another Wild Card slot that year, slammed the Braves in the NLDS, and faced the Florida Marlins in the NLCS. They took a 3-1 lead in the NLCS too, and were five outs from clinching the Pennant in game six. With a 3-1 lead and young pitching phenom Mark Prior on the mound dazzling Wrigley Field with an array of fastballs and breaking balls, the Cubs looked for all the world like they were finally going to break through. Unfortunately, Prior was hurting by then, and the only person anywhere who was oblivious to it was Cubs manager Dusty Baker. The hurt Prior started throwing bad pitches. The Marlins started hitting the ball and getting on base. A fan named Steve Bartman caught a foul pop fly which could have ended the inning had outfielder Moises Alou caught it instead, Alex Gonzales made a costly error, and Baker didn’t catch what was going on until the Cubs were already behind. The Marlins won the game 8-2, and all eight runs came in that single inning. The Cubs proceeded to squander the remaining games, denying themselves the Pennant once again. While the fans were heartbroken again, they now had expectations which couldn’t be fulfilled with occasional Wild Card spots. Any pessimists among the fans after that got permission to be optimists again the very next season, when the Red Sox broke a curse of their own which dated back to 1918. That now meant that ongoing so-called curses could be broken. And if the point wasn’t hammered in by that, it was REALLY hammered in after 2005, when the White Sox – the underrepresented and largely forgotten team on Chicago’s South Side that I mentioned much earlier – won the World Series, snapping a drought of THEIR own which ran for 88 years. That meant Cubs fans now had to be tormented by their South Side rivals lording a title over them.
Damn if the Cubs didn’t try. Baker was out after a cellar finish in 2006. In his place? One of baseball’s great managers, Lou Piniella! They also took the steps of signing Ted Lilly and Alfonso Soriano. 2007 started weak; they fell behind the Milwaukee Brewers by eight games and fought to play catch-up for most of the year. But after a strange incident leading to a fight between Michael Barrett and Carlos Zambano – both Cubs – the Cubs had a fire under their asses. Barrett was traded, the team survived a series of injuries and suspensions – including Piniella himself – and Kerry Wood remade himself as a reliever. In September, the Cubs won a lot of critical games and, in one of the most amazing divisional races ever, clinched their title on September 28. Not that that did them any good in the postseason, though, because they were swept out of the first round by the Arizona Diamondbacks. But 2007 did give the team something to build on, and just before Christmas that year, the Cubs closed a deal for Japanese superstar Kosuke Fukudome. The Cubs roared out of the gate, signed longtime foe Jim Edmonds in May, had the best record in baseball by June, sent eight players to the All-Star Game, overcame a seven-game losing streak, and closed the regular season with an MLB-leading 98 wins. Heavily favored to take what should have been theirs in the 100th anniversary of their most recent title, the Cubs entered the playoffs against the Los Angeles Dodgers… And dropped the ball again. The Cubs missed the playoffs in 2009, but finished the year with their third straight winning record.
It was in 2011 when the Cubs made probably their most important move: They hired Theo Epstein, the wizard behind the 2004 Red Sox, to run their team. Epstein brought with him sabremetrics and youth. That meant there would be a process, so when the Cubs posted their worst record since 1966 – 101 losses – no one was that surprised. Despite losing so much, that season brought a surprising amount of optimism even by the standards of the team’s famously sunshine-and-sweets fan base. And there was reason for that: It was because the Cubs were going to become very, very good very, very soon, and everyone knew that dismal 2012 season would be the last time the Cubs would be such a pushover for awhile. The talent took a couple more years to gel, but once Joe Maddon was hired to manage in 2015, the team became a live wire. In 2015, they shot into a Wild Card spot with 97 wins. In the Wild Card game, they allowed only four hits against the Pirates, taking them out 4-0. Facing the Cardinals in the NLDS, the Cubs lost the first game, but bounced back in the next three to take the series. Their progress was finally halted in the NLCS when they were swept by the Mets. And they weren’t going to let that happen again in 2016. 2016 set a bunch of important milestones: The Cubs won 103 games, their best record since 1910 and the first time they won 100 games since 1935. They had the best record in MLB. Skipping the Wild Card game, the Cubs went straight to the NLDS to play the Giants. The Giants played the Cubs close the whole series, and in game four with the Cubs having a 2-1 series lead, the Giants had a 5-2 lead going into the ninth. But the Cubs did something they hadn’t done a lot of in the past: They broke through in the clutch. Four runs went onto the board, and the Cubs had a 6-5 win and a 3-1 series victory. That set them up for a date with the Dodgers in the NLCS, which they looked to Cub up again after the Dodgers took a 2-1 series lead. But in that 2-1 lead, they were only able to outscore the Cubs by a total of 11-8, despite SHUTTING THEM OUT TWICE. And that weird statistic showed through the rest of the NLCS – Chicago returned to capture the next two games, winning by a combined score of 18-6. The next game brought Dodgers star Clayton Kershaw back to the mound after his clutch 1-0 victory in game two, which had to be giving Cubs fans fits. If there was one way the Cubs could blow everything again, it was by losing to the great Kershaw, then blowing game seven. But that wasn’t going to happen again this year. Not to THESE Cubs. Kershaw gave up seven hits, three of which were home runs. ERA leader Kyle Hendricks gave up a hit on his first pitch of the game, but after that he shelled the Dodgers for seven innings, only getting pulled after giving up his second hit of the night – a single to Josh Reddick. Joe Maddon went to his bullpen for Aroldis Chapman, who walked a batter in the ninth but otherwise slammed the door. Yasiel Puig grounded into a double play, the game was over, and the Cubs were the champions of the National League for the first time in 71 years.
The Cinderella Cleveland Indians won the American League Pennant, which made the ensuing World Series the juiciest since… Well… Uh… Okay, I can’t think of any World Series ever that had this much weight on it, so I’ll just say it would have been the biggest since that theoretical matchup between the Cubs and Red Sox in 2003 that had everyone salivating before the Yankees and Marlins fucking spoiled everything. The Cubs had gone 107 years without a title. With three of the Cursed Five (the Cubs, Red Sox, White Sox, Indians, and Giants) having broken their curses since the millennium – the Giants destroyed a curse in 2010 which dated back to 1954 – we were seeing the last two of the Cursed Five playing against each other. Someone was going to elevated, the other heartbroken. Also, the manager of the Indians was Terry Francona, who managed the cursebreaker Red Sox in 2004. And this might be the only World Series where the team with all the popular support behind it was the overwhelming favorite. Epstein built the Cubs from the ground to dominate for years, like he did with the Red Sox a decade before. The Tribe was built more like the 2005 White Sox – a group of scrappers who may turn out to be one of the great one-and-done jobs of the sport. In any case, the season wasn’t finished yet – there were still at least four more games to be played. That turned into five after the Tribe and Cubs split the first two. Game three was a pitching duel and a 1-0 Cleveland victory, and after the Tribe took game four 7-2, the pundits started to wonder if they were wrong about the paper talent disparity between the Cubs and Indians. But again, these weren’t the ghost goats of Cubs teams past. They were a very competent unit which had spent the last season going on three-game winning streaks. Who on that team cared that they were now down 3-1? Not Joe Maddon, who kept his team loose and relaxed. Jon Lester won game five at Wrigley Field on All Hallow’s Eve. Maddon had his team show up in their Halloween costumes. In game six, the Cubs’ bats finally woke up. Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Anthony Rizzo hit four home runs between them as the Cubs rolled to a 9-3 victory and got right back into the Series. In the final game, things looked all set for a Cub romp until they suddenly didn’t. The Cubs scored in the first inning, and the Indians responded with one of their own in the third. By the middle of the fifth, Chicago was up 5-1, but that was when Cleveland started to hack into the lead. They cut the score to 5-3, at which point Chicago added a sixth run in the sixth inning. Then they made a mistake by hitting cruise control, which allowed Rajai Davis smash a three-run homer which tied the game in the eighth. With Cubs fans now tuning out – or at least away – to not have to watch their team Cub everything up again, the game entered the tenth inning tied at six. It felt like an eternity with a 17-minute rain delay. Kyle Schwarber singled and was then pulled for pinch runner Albert Almora. The Tribe walked Rizzo to pull up Ben Zobrist. Zobrist doubled, which brought Almora home. Then Cleveland pitcher Bryan Shaw walked Russell, which loaded the bases for Miguel Montero to get Rizzo home. Cubs eight, Indians six, and now it was Cleveland’s turn. Carl Edwards retired Cleveland’s first two batters, but walked Brandon Guyer. Rajai Davis followed up his big homer by hitting a single which got Guyer to home. To the batting box came Michael Martinez! To the mound, Mike Montgomery! On Montgomery’s second pitch, Martinez hit a soft grounder to Bryant… Davis turned on the jets… Bryant threw to Rizzo…
And with that, a million kids’ books and inspirational sports movies were null and void. A million fawning sports documentaries lost whatever sense they made. A million goat jokes were silenced. 107 years of history were replaced with a clean slate. Planet Earth got drunk, fell over onto its side, got up dizzy, and wondered what the fuck just happened. The final was 8-7, and the Cubs were the World Series Champions. It was the ultimate W.
Here’s a list of names for you: Mordecai Brown. Ferguson Jenkins. Greg Maddux. Grover Cleveland Alexander. Goose Gossage. Ernie Banks. Billy Williams. Ron Santo. Jimmie Foxx. Andre Dawson. Ryne Sandberg. Hack Wilson. Billy Herman. That’s only a scraping of household names in baseball circles in what is, with some argument, possibly the most impressive all-time roster in baseball. For Christ sake, the Cubs fielded two of baseball’s original stars – Cap Anson and King Kelly. This isn’t so much a roster capable of winning a World Series so much as it is winning ten of them in a row, and going 162-0 every year during said streak. Mordecai Brown had a video game ERA of 2.06 FOR HIS CAREER. Brown’s nickname was Three-Finger. If you get a look at his bad hand, it looks more like four and a half fingers, but two of those fingers didn’t function, so Three-Finger it was. (Besides, Four-and-a-Half-Finger didn’t have quite the same ring to it.) His unusual grip allowed him to get a weird spin on the ball, and none other than Ty Cobb called one of his pitches the most devastating pitch he ever faced. Goose Gossage was a closing pitcher, and if you’re a sabremetrics expert, there’s a good chance you’re arguing that he was the best closer in baseball history – yes, better even than Mariano Rivera. One of their managers was Leo Durocher, who ranks tenth in victories. Ron Santo, Ernie Banks, Ryne Sandberg, Billy Williams, Ferguson Jenkins, and Greg Maddux have all had their numbers retired by the Cubs. This is a kind of firepower that even the mighty Yankees, with their 27 World Series titles, don’t possess. Do the Yankees have an unstoppable all-time roster? You betcha. But as good as their pitching has been, it’s nowhere near the heat the collective Cubs roster packs. The Yankees have built their brand on home runs. The Cubs have… Well, everything and fucking ivy on the walls.
So the question here is pretty much, what the hell? There’s no real good reason the Cubs faulted so often. That 108-year-long drought has taken on a whole life of its own. It’s not like the White Sox’ 88-year streak, which went unseen by everyone except baseball fans. It’s not like the Giants’ or Indians’ curses, which weren’t as bad or as well-known. And while the Red Sox’ Curse of the Bambino did take on its own life, it didn’t do so until the 90’s, when Boston Globe sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy wrote a book called The Curse of the Bambino. Shaughnessy said the curse was a cute little concept, and he was amused that so many people built such a mythology out of it. Most longtime Boston fans continue to bristle if you refer to their 86-year futility streak as a curse. The Cubs and their fans fully latched on to the mythology of the Billy Goat Curse, right to the extent that goats have been invited to Wrigley Field at numerous points after security showed William Sianis and Murphy the door in 1945. It got so out of control that the team asked Sianis to retract the curse in 1969, which he actually did, at least to the extent that he could.
The Billy Goat Curse entered mainstream pop culture so hard that Back to the Future Part II made a reference to it: When Marty McFly travels to 2015, he sees a holographic headline stating that the Cubs won the World Series against Miami. Michael J. Fox joked on Twitter afterward that the movie was only off by a year. (“Not bad!”) There was a pretty bad movie, Rookie of the Year, based on it. In that movie, a kid breaks his arm, and it heals in such a way that he immediately develops a 100-mph fastball which gets him spotted and signed by the Cubs. It’s a wish-fulfillment fantasy for kids, of course, and the producers did that Hollywood thing where they didn’t let the movie end with the Cubs winning anything substantial. But the end has a shot of the main character playing little league ball again with a World Series ring on his finger. An awful lot of sports books have used the Cubs and the Billy Goat Curse as a reference point. In 1969, a Chicago study group made a record called “Hey Hey! Holy Mackerel!” The song incorporated a lot of the catchphrases of the team’s announcers, and got a lot of airplay. It was pretty much the catch-all Cubs anthem until Steve Goodman recorded “Go, Cubs, Go!” in 1984, and if you set foot in Chicago during baseball season, that song is going to fucking assault you. Eddie Vedder recorded a song dedicated to them in 2007.
The Cubs have a history which is essentially split in half. They have that great period before 1945 where they won lots of Pennants, and the post-period where they became the Lovable Losers. But if you’ve come this far, it shouldn’t be that surprising that the Cubs were the second baseball team to win 10,000 games. (The Giants were the first.) Part of that is due to their longevity, but that doesn’t mean those wins should be taken as a joke. In terms of wins, the Cubs only trail the Giants, and there are currently only some six other teams on the list.
Like every other team in baseball, the Cubs have Jackie Robinson’s number 42 retired. Cap Anson is hopefully rolling over in whatever pit in hell he’s stuck in. Robinson was the man who was signed by the Dodgers in 1947, ending a longstanding segregational policy. Anson is basically the guy who started the whole fucking idea. The whole thing started during a game against a team in Toledo when Anson refused to take the field to play because Toledo had a black player. Instead of beating Anson half to death with the bat and asking who wanted to join him, Toledo released the player, Moses Fleetwood Walker. A few years later, Anson did the same thing in Newark. IN AN EXHIBITION. The player, George Stovey, was released. In the International League, team owners met one morning in Buffalo and voted on the issue. As you can imagine, they went against black players. The baseball player with the worst reputation ever is Ty Cobb, whose racism is often brought into the discussion. But I always though Cobb got a bad rap. It sort of goes with the territory because Cobb really was a mean dude and his primary biographer, Al Stump, was reportedly a total hack. I don’t want to look like I’m writing off Cobb’s own racism, but I’m trying to point out that Cobb’s particular brand of racism was typical of someone from his era – he was from Georgia in the late 1800’s, so yeah, he was an irrepressible bigot. But nothing he ever did went beyond his slurs and insults. What Anson did set blacks back for decades, and that makes it much, much worse than anything Cobb ever even tried.
There’s a certain culture surrounding the Cubs which defies their history and reputation. It’s rare that a team which has been so unsuccessful amasses such a huge following. It happens even in Chicago – while the Cubs and White Sox are pretty even in terms of hardcore baseball nerds, the Cubs own the souls of damn near every casual fan in the city. That’s because the way the Cubs do things stands out. Wrigley Field isn’t like any other sports stadium in the country. Instead of being built on a large lot where the closest sign of civilization is a million miles away, Wrigley Field sits right in the middle of the neighborhood. There are apartments literally right across the street, and bleacher seats on the roofs of those apartments. The owners of the Cubs have a deal that allows them to charge for spectators who sit there. There’s a friendliness and electricity even outside the gates when the Cubs play that doesn’t feel like anywhere else, and the old-fashioned facade adds to the ambience. Hell, the Cubs didn’t even have lights installed at Wrigley for night games until 1987. The Cubs have created a couple of traditions that baseball fans love: One is having someone lead the audience in singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch. Although that used to be Harry Caray’s thing, a lot of different people take it up now, and the song has had some notable folks enthusiastically take the mic. They’ve included Bill Murray, John Cusack, Eddie Vedder, Gary Sinise, and Ozzy Osbourne. The other is the flag. When the Cubs win games, they fly a flag with a simple blue W. If they lose, they fly an L. The W is such an icon through Chicago that Blackhawks fans have taken to printing up a red version since their 2010 Stanley Cup victory. Unfortunately, all this has taken some unfortunate connections. While it isn’t as bad as the bad reputation that came to surround the White Sox, it can be off-putting to those who get a bit too serious about their team loyalties. The image of the Lovable Losers who play at The Friendly Confines started cropping up in the 70’s when marketers started to notice that fans attended games no matter how bad the team is. The casual fan base is frequently associated with partying college kids who only attend games as an excuse to get drunk and vomit. Honestly, a lot of this reputation is deserved, and I’m always amazed at how much of the Cubs’ mythology is based in what casual fans DON’T know. There’s a common myth that the Cubs lost the 1984 NLCS because MLB gave the Padres some sort of advantage regarding stadiums because the Cubs didn’t play night games or some such bullshit.
The Cubs get a lot of attention despite being known for losing. I think the only other teams on that level in all of sports are the New York Mets, New York Knicks, Cleveland Browns… I think that covers it. And yet, the Cubs are a national brand. When the Chicago White Sox won the World Series in 2005, a few players appeared on Oprah. When the Cubs won, they were celebrated pretty much nationally, and they got to be on Saturday Night Live. I’m not sure how lovable they are – I’m that rare Chicago adoptee who went to the other team. But they’re not losers anymore, and they did bring the country its only real feel-good story of the year, even causing people who ordinarily hate them to cheer them on. And that says something about their appeal.
Cursebreaker story that had the entire country behind them; one of the best and purest baseball rivalries with the St. Louis Cardinals (you may want to refrain from mentioning the Brogglio/Brock trade in front of an older Cubs fan); all-time roster capable of wrecking everyone who would oppose them; uniquely inviting atmosphere and culture
Good luck parking at Wrigley Field (seriously, there’s no parking lot, and most fans either pay insane prices at private lots and get shuttled to the park, or they park downtown and take the Red Line to Addison); imagery just screams “mock me!;” curse story sounds like a bad children’s book; ballpark is old and held up by fishnets in some spots; bandwagon stigma will be setting in soon
Should you be a fan?
Speaking in my official capacity as a person who follows and cheers for three teams Cubs fans hate: Why yes, yes you should! Be quick about it, though, because the onetime Lovable Losers ain’t losers no more. That means they ain’t gonna be lovable much longer.