Cubs in the World Series: How Does It Feel?

Anthony Rizzo and Co. have Cubs fans on the precipice of feeling something completely new. (via Ben Grey)

Anthony Rizzo and Co. have Cubs fans on the precipice of feeling something completely new. (via Ben Grey)

Framed but yellowed, the MacNelly cartoon strip sits on a shelf above my desk. A student is pondering a history quiz:

First panel: What is the significance of the following?

Second panel: 1607.

Third panel: 1607 was the year the Cubs last won the Pennant.

The cartoon on Joe's shelf. Story checks out.

The cartoon on Joe’s shelf. Story checks out.

We are Cubs fans. We are constantly mocked, perennially disappointed, inexperienced at even a penultimate step toward success. Now, our team is in the World Series. How are we supposed to feel?

Ecstatic? Marc Salkin and his wife, Lauree Barreca, are transplanted Chicagoans on Hilton Head Island, S.C. They watched Saturday night with their schnauzer, Clark (no coincidence that Clark Street runs past Wrigley Field). I heard from him almost immediately Saturday night. “We are just floating around the house, six feet off the ground. Was able to say something tonight for the very first time in my life. Just great.”

Disbelieving? Trevor Freeze lives outside Charlotte now. Saturday night, he called Peoria, Ill., where he grew up. “You know, it’s starting to sink in,” his dad told him. Freeze the younger isn’t so sure. “It’s like going back to an old girlfriend. Every time. Thinking this time will be different. Only this time was different.”

First, let’s put to rest that nonsense cliché about Cubs fans waiting for 108 years for a World Series championship. Show me one of those people, and I’ll jump right on that story. Probably, almost no one reading this today has been pining for all 71 years for another World Series appearance. The people partying in Wrigleyville have grandparents who don’t remember 1945.

But fans of various generations have been through a lot over the years. Don Young, 1969. Leon Durham, 1984. Some guy named Steve, 2003. For many of you, those phrases need no further explanation. For the rest…later.

The Cubs won the 1945 National League pennant on the strength of a pretty good team, a dumb-luck midseason deal for a starting pitcher and World War II.

The team had Phil Cavarretta, who was the National League MVP, and Bill Nicholson, who led the Cubs in home runs – with 13! The gift pitcher was Hank Borowy, whom the Yankees practically forced on the Cubs. He started 14 games for Chicago; the Cubs lost just two of those – by 2-1 and 1-0.

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The war had robbed the St. Louis Cardinals, winners of the three previous pennants, of 1944 All-Stars Stan Musial, Walker Cooper, Max Lanier and Red Munger. The Cubs, largely intact in ‘45, finished all of three games ahead of the depleted Cardinals. And lost the World Series to Detroit.

Two years later, they would begin a string of 20 years of second-division, sub-.500 seasons. Then the pain would begin.

Some of us were fans even in those years, but not so many. The Cubs of those two decades weren’t cute “Cubbies.” They weren’t “lovable losers” yet, their fans not yet tagged with that hackneyed “long-suffering” prefix. They were lousy baseball teams, with management that ran the gamut from incompetent to indifferent to bizarre. They drew small interest and small crowds, home and away.

This season, a good-but not-great ticket for a day makeup game with the downtrodden Brewers set me back $80-plus, and the place was full. In the 16-season stretch from 1953 through 1968, with the best seat in the house going for less than you’ll pay now for a bottle of water at Wrigley Field, the Cubs never drew a million fans. The average attendance at Wrigley was less than 10,000; they were a constant second division team attendance-wise, too.

Here’s an apt saying: You get what you pay for. Owner Philip Wrigley sold the experience. No lights; baseball in the sunshine only. Beautiful Wrigley Field. Ivy on the walls. The Friendly Confines. Bad baseball.

As Ransom Jackson, a Cubs third baseman from that era, writes in his recent memoir:

The Cubs of the 1950s were mainly a bunch of castoffs brought in willy-nilly with no plan other than keeping the team payroll as low as possible.”

Those fans, pensioners now, did have Ernie Banks to root for, with his “Let’s play two!” enthusiasm and wrist-flick home run stroke. And they did have…well, a turn of the decade to the ‘60s, which moved the franchise from respectable ineptitude to laughable mismanagement. In the space of half a dozen years, the Cubs did a job swap with a manager (Charlie Grimm) and radio broadcaster (Lou Boudreau); created a “College of Coaches” manager-of-the-day scheme; made the infamous Brock-for-Broglio
trade with the Cardinals, and hired Leo Durocher as manager of a team that had finished eighth in the National League.

“This ain’t no eighth place ballclub,” Durocher declared. They finished 10th his first year.

But indeed, there was beginning to be something to root for. Banks was a future Hall of Famer, as were new teammates Fergie Jenkins, Ron Santo and Billy Williams. They and competent colleagues made the late ‘60s teams good enough to raise — and dash — expectations. After a pair of third-place finishes, the 1969 Cubs nearly tripled their pre-Leo attendance, led the league most of the season…and lost the pennant to the Mets in a collapse marked by a famously dropped fly ball by an obscure outfielder, by silly muttering about a black cat that crossed in front of the Cubs’ dugout and by clubhouse infighting.

The middle-aged among the legion of today’s Cubs fans grew up with those teams, got a hint in ’69 of what might be possible, but then found little to cheer about through the Cubs’ blah ‘70s. But, most of us, even those who rooted for those nondescript teams, skip over those years. No one was waiting for the Cubs to win a World Series in that era. They were waiting for the season to be over. They were waiting for football season – Notre Dame and the Bears. Waiting ‘til they could get the Hamms’ beer jingle out of their heads for six months. Frommmm the land of sky blue waaaaters…

Despite all the hopeless seasons, there has long been a far-flung Cubs diaspora. Mike Kroichick and Kathy Gosnell don’t know each other, but they have a lot in common. They grew up in the Chicago area in the 1940s and ‘50s, rooted for those bad teams, went west after college, and spent their working years in southern California. And they are Cubs fans. Kroichick, during the team’s postseason run, is urging friends to type onto their birth certificates, as he has, “Lifelong Cubs fan.” Gosnell sees in the current team what she loved about Ernie Banks: “the very personification of joy in baseball.”

A contemporary in Washington in the mid-’70s, a Chicago guy named Bruce Ladd, was a lobbyist-consultant trying to make it in a town full of them – “a nobody,” he says now. At a cocktail party, “I wound up in a conversation about the Cubs, and I just got this idea: A Chicago Cubs fan club in Washington.”

Shortly thereafter, a California congressman opened a locked cabinet to show Ladd his treasured Andy Pafko baseball card. “I knew right then and there,” he says, that he’d discovered a magic entrée to Washington power corridors. The Emil Verban Memorial Society was born, named after an appropriately mediocre, Illinois-born Cubs outfielder of the 1940s.

Before Ladd folded the Society in 2006, he had capped the membership at 850, each one requiring a nomination from another member and a letter of application to Ladd. One could seek a recommendation from member Dick Cheney. Or from a Supreme Court justice: Harry Blackmon and Antonin Scalia were in the Society. Or, you might phone up the White House for a nomination from President Reagan (former Cubs announcer, just another member). The society was Ladd’s chance to meet Hillary Clinton; you know, someone needs to ask her whether she still has her membership card. (I can’t remember how, but I had one, too.)

Who says Washington is out of touch? Not many years later, the Cubs became trendy, and remained so. The game I saw them play in Atlanta this summer drew more than 43,000 customers, conservatively half of them wearing Cubs gear. The games of the Cincinnati series that followed drew a third of that. I live nowhere near Chicago, but I cannot wear my Cubs cap in public without drawing comment: “Go, Cubs,” a little boy shouted from his porch in Charlotte as I walked by on a recent visit. A Cleveland Indians hat? That’d be not so much.

We can date this phenomenon to 1982. The Cubs had another bad team, but they brought Dallas Green over from the Phillies as general manager. He would put together the Phillie-fertilized team that two years later had the Cubs on the brink of the World Series.

Much more important in that pivotal year were two other developments: The popular, one-of-a-kind broadcaster Harry Caray left the White Sox and moved to the Cubs – just as The Tribune Co., which now owned the team, was taking its local TV outlet, WGN, to superstation status.

Soon, Caray’s shtick, his beery voice, and his seventh-inning-stretch renditions of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” (ah one, ah two, ah three) were available to cable television viewers all over the country. Somewhat incidentally, so was Cubs baseball.

So by the time Green fielded a good team in 1984, the Cubs had become a thing. They drew two million fans to relatively small Wrigley Field for the first time. Folksinger Steve Goodman’s “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request,” recorded the year before, became an anthem (“Do they still play the blues in Chicago/When baseball season rolls around?). They won the National League East and were playing postseason baseball for the first time since 1945.

I scored a couple of tickets for the opener – thanks, Emil Verban Society – and invited a fellow Cubs fan, Dick Nally, a Chicago-area high school teacher. “I had to go ask my superintendent for the day off,” he recalls. “He was not only a Cubs fan, but a diehard Cubs fan. He just looked at me. ‘YOU are going to a playoff game?’”

The crowd got misty-eyed as Ernie Banks threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the Cubs won a laugher in that first game of a best-of-five for the pennant. It was just a formality that they would put away the inconsequential San Diego Padres. And then, at a crucial time in Game Five, a ground ball went under first baseman Leon Durham’s glove.

Here came the jinx talk again, the superstitions about a black cat and a motley goat. Another generation of Cubs fans waited for next year. Next year the Cubs were back under .500.

We can skip over details of the next two decades. The 1989 and 1998, Cubs poked their heads up out of the second division like groundhogs, only to get said heads chopped off quickly in the postseason. And there was the ’98 home run craziness with Mark McGwire and our Sammy, the two not yet fully exposed as steroid balloons.

And then, just as the millennials discovered the Cubs, 2003 happened. The Cubs won their division. They won the playoffs’ first round. They were up three games to one and leading in the eighth inning of Game Six. Then, as the nation and Moises Alou watched, a fan along the left field line, an innocent not old enough to remember the disappointments of ’45 and ’69 and ’84, stuck his hand in the path of a maybe-catchable fly ball.

Now we are fully invested again. Epstein and Maddon. Rizzo and Bryant. Lester and Hendricks. The team is good; everyone and every statistic says so. Every precinct outside Cuyahoga County is with the Cubs. Now we, team and fans, ride hopefully into the ultimate quixotic battle, the World Series.

But our saddlebags are burdened with history, however long we’ve been fans. The helmet is lopsided, the steed is swaybacked, the sword and the lance are rusty.

In his book A Nice Little Place on the North Side, commemorating the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field, George Will ruminates about those who have been waiting for success for the Cubs. He quotes the poet William Butler Yeats: “Life is a long preparation for something that never happens.”

But if the Cubs actually won the World Series, would we be prepared? Would we know what to feel? What would we think?

“I’d think,” says Ladd, “why can’t we do this a second time?”

Wait ‘til next year.

References and Resources


Joe Distelheim is a retired newspaper editor whose career included stints as sports editor of The Charlotte Observer and Detroit Free Press. He co-authored Cubs: From Tinker to Banks to Sandberg to Today.
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eric kinkopf
Guest

The earliest memory I have of TV is our round-screen Philco and sitting in the living room with my dad, watching the 1954 Series in black and white, of course. I was four. It’s all I remember, but it was my introduction to baseball and the Cleveland Indians. I was nine when my dad took my oldest sister and me to our first games, a double-header against the White Sox in 1959. My two favorite players were Tito Francona and Vic Power. As kids, we all emulated Rocky Colavito’s bat-stretch and Power’s pendulum, bat-windup into his stance. In grade school… Read more »

Don Craft
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Don Craft

Great writing, Joe! I look forward to your next article, after the Cubs win.

JG
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JG

Quick correction: “The Bartman Game” (don’t call it that) was game six of the 2003 NLCS, not game five; the Cubs lost that one 4-0 in Miami. I remember very vividly how some were happy the Cubs had lost that game. This way, they figured, the Cubs could win the series at home! And, come on, we had Prior and Wood ready to go – what could possibly go wrong?! I was not one of those people. I remembered all too well the heartbreak of that 1984 NLCS against San Diego. I have always been a Cubs fan. Or, at… Read more »

Dietz Spiewak
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Dietz Spiewak

“These walls are funny. First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized.”- The Shawshank Redemption

Nearly 40 hours have gone by since my “Cursectomy” and though the mass was horrific and grotesque (71 years of growth) in some ways I miss it. It was part of me, who I was and what I stood for but it is now gone.

Emily
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Emily

You knocked this one out of the park, my friend. Go Cubs!

Mark McCarter
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Mark McCarter

Glad to see the best editor I ever had prove he can write, too. Pretty sure he’s a five-tool player in the world of journalism. I celebrate the Cubs’ success for him, and cherish the Cubs’ games we’ve watched together. All the best from a long-suffering — that description is beginning to fit — Orioles fan.

Njguy73
Guest
Njguy73

Somewhere, Lee Elia is thinking, “That oughtta stick it up them 3,000 dumb [expletives] who boo at day baseball.”

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

It’s funny that, even after 71 years without being in the World Series, the Cubs still are tied for the 6th most appearances. There are lots of teams with far fewer, albeit more recent, appearances. Of course, that doesn’t do much for fans who aren’t octogenarians. The Phillies have been in five.

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

Sorry, the Phillies are at 7. Indians are at 6 counting this year and White Sox at 5.

Fake Yeezy Boost
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The Yeezy Boost 350 v2 movement began with the release of the “Beluga” last Fall, a striking colorway made famous by the bright solar red stripe that ran along the lateral side of the shoes.