The eternal story of professional sports has one particular constant: The winners will always be perpetual winners, no matter how bad they get, and the losers will always be perpetual losers, no matter how good they get. Yes, the good teams are going to have off years, sometimes stringing together a few in a row, but you can always count on them to return to the upper parts of the standings, and bad teams will have their occasional moments and sometimes even win championships. Sooner or later, though, we know they'll all return to their usual formal places in the pack, and that's how we know all is well within the sports universe. There are very, very few instances in which a team has been able to change its luck completely, morphing into a league lord after decades of being the doormat, and there are about as many instances of a world class team falling into oblivion forever.
Only a few teams have ever managed to pull that off one way or the other. The NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers are one of the most famous cases. Founded in 1933, the Steelers are one of the NFL's oldest teams. They took the field for the first time only to lose to the New York Giants by a score of 23-2, and it was a perfect sign of just what came to torture Steelers fans for the better part of 40 years. They proceeded to win just 24 games over their first eight years, never made the playoffs until 1947, were repeatedly killed by their archival Cleveland Browns, and posted only eight winning records, one of which came during a war year in which they were forced to merge with the Philadelphia Eagles just to survive. They were markedly improved by the 50's and 60's, but in this case, "markedly improved" means "at least they were competitive." Finally, after bottoming out in 1969, the Steelers won first pick draft rights over the equally dreadful Chicago Bears, and they used them on a Louisiana quarterback named Terry Bradshaw. Bradshaw won four Super Bowls, and the Steelers stayed good long after he left, eventually winning a sixth Super Bowl in 2008, which gave them more Super Bowls than any other NFL team.
On the flipside, we have the Chicago Cubs. Their history as the Lovable Losers of Major League Baseball is very overblown. It's true they haven't won the World Series in 104 years now, but they didn't actually stop being competitive until the late 40's, when the Billy Goat Curse came into being. Before that happened, World Series victors or not, the Cubs were monsters. They were 16-time Pennant winners who did everything right, and were one of the most hated teams in the National League.
The Cubs are one of the oldest teams in baseball. The official record states their original founding in 1876, but that's only because it's the year the National League was founded. They actually came into being in 1870 as the Chicago White Stockings (and yes, the current Chicago White Sox did name themselves as a nod to that), and went through several rolls of names. Due to the fact that they just couldn't find a place to play, they were given other nicknames like the Chicago Orphans and Chicago Remnants, as well as other names like the Chicago Colts and Chicago Zephyrs which sportswriters pulled from the air. While they were doing this, they were also winning Pennants. They won the first National League Pennant in 1876, and they followed that up with a dynasty that won it again in 1880, 1881, 1882, 1885, and 1886 led by the day's luminaries: Albert Spalding, Ross Barnes, Deacon White, and Cap Anson. In 1885 and 1886, the National League played a primitive World Series against the champions of the American Association. They played against the Saint Louis Brown Stockings both times, ending with a tie in 1885 and Saint Louis being the 1886 victor. They waned by the 1890's, and were deadwood by the 20th century.
The down period didn't last very long. By 1903, their famous infield of Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, and Frank Chance was locked and loaded, and by 1906 they were complimented by an army of pitchers including Orval Overall, Ed Reulbach, and the immortal Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown, whose lost index finger allowed him to get an extra spin on his pitches and allowed him to dominate batters. In 1906, all that firepower took them to 116 victories, a regular season record which is still standing today. It was tied in 2001 by the Seattle Mariners, who needed 162 games to tie it (seasons were 154 games long back then), and the 1998 New York Yankees came within two games of it. They ran away with the Pennant and looked like a lock for the World Series title when they were matched up with their crosstown AL White Sox in the first subway series. (Technically, it would be the Red Line Series, or it would have been if the Red Line existed back then.) Now check the matchup: The Cubs set a record for wins, and also a record for winning percentage which is without equal. The White Sox won 93 games, a miracle when you consider their team batting average was a paltry .230, lowest in the AL. Who would you assume won? That's right, the White Sox managed to gut this sucker out with superior pitching. Their team batting average in the World Series was .198, low but still better than the .196 the Cubs could muster against the South Siders' superior hurlers.
The Cubs didn't let let that little setback slow them down. They returned to the World Series the next two seasons and won it both times, thus creating the second dynasty of baseball and the first dynasty of the modern era. So far, the 1907 and 1908 titles are still the only World Series the Chicago Cubs ever won. The 1908 Pennant races featured baseball's first one-game playoff, against the New York Giants, a classic game in which a very possible Giants victory was ruined when Giants player Fred Merkle didn't touch all the bases. Although Merkle was a rookie that year who put together a respectably solid career which lasted around 20 years, he never managed to live that play down. After 1909 went to the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Cubs returned to the World Series once again in 1910 to close out their dynasty.
The Cubs made the World Series again in 1918. They weren't dominant this time, but their 84-45 record did lead the majors, and they had the pitching of Grover Cleveland Alexander. In the World Series that year, they became the final victim of the Boston Red Sox before their own famed curse - the Curse of the Bambino (which Boston natives never believed in, and which was an idea spread in the 1990's by sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy, who was bemused at his half-baked idea taking on such a life of its own) - took hold, and they didn't win the World Series again until 2004.
William Wrigley then bought the team. He changed the name of their home field, Weeghman Park, to Wrigley Field. After being criticized by a loudmouthed sportswriter named William Veeck, Wrigley then hired Veeck to run the team, challenging him to do better. When Veeck assembled talent like Hack Wilon, Gabby Hartnett, Billy Herman, and Rogers Hornsby, the Cubs were a dynamo again and Wrigley presumably said "Well, that shut me up." Beginning in 1929, the Cubs won the Pennant every three years until 1938. They kept getting hiccups during the World Series, though, and often got humiliated. In 1929, the Cubs met the Philadelphia Athletics. In game four, the Cubs were leading 8-0 in the seventh inning when the As scored ten runs. The embarrassing part of that incident was that they gave up three of those runs on an inside-the-park homer when Hack Wilson lost an everyday pop fly in the sun. In the 1932 World Series, Babe Ruth of the Yankees made a gesture at Cubs pitcher Charlie Root, then hit a home run off him. When Ruth was asked what was up with the gesture, he gave only a vague answer which baseball lore twisted into the idea of him calling his shot, even though only one eyewitness on the field believed that. Everyone else - including Charlie Root, who said he would have drilled the Bambino on the next pitch if he believed Ruth was calling his shot - believes he was giving Root a strike count. 1935 probably gave the Cubs their best chance when Billy Herman hit .321 and led the Cubs to 21 straight wins in September, allowing them to roll into a hard-fought, six-game World Series against the Detroit Tigers which they lost. In 1938, behind the stellar pitching of Dizzy Dean, the Cubs won an important late-season game with Gabby Hartnett's Homer in the Gloamin'. In the Series, they fell to the Yankees again, as so many of the Yankees' World Series opponents are wont to do.
In 1945, at the end of the war years, the Cubs' replacement players won the Pennant. One sportswriter, when asked who would win the World Series against the Tigers, famously quipped that he didn't think either of them were capable of winning it. The 1945 World Series was one of the sloppiest ever played, and the Tigers won it in seven games. The whole series was overshadowed by one particular incident in the stands, though. For one of the games, bar owner, Cubs fan, and goat aficionado Billy Sianis bought two box tickets, one for him and one for his pet goat, Murphy. Goats tend to smell bad, though, and after a few too many complaints, Sianis was booted from Wrigley Field. On the way out, the pissed Sianis uttered under his breath "The Cubs, they ain't gonna win no more." Of course, that phrase was laughed off, but 68 years after the incident, the Cubs have yet to return to the Fall Classic.
My opinion on the Cubs would be a lot different today if the team didn't latch on to that image. While at a singles meeting one fine winter night in Chicago, I chatted up some sports fans, and one of them told me the Cubs hired a marketing director who decided the team might be able to play up its loserdom as an image of cute underdogs and run away with profits. After realizing the Cubs weren't going anywhere fast, "Lovable Losers" was apparently invented as a way to market the team, and that led to the inevitable transformation of the Cubs into the "Cubbies," the fandom into "Cubdom," and Wrigley Field into "The Friendly Confines." Harry Carey was hired to broadcast in the late 70's or early 80's (ironically, after having spent years broadcasting for the team's two biggest rivals, the White Sox and the Saint Louis Cardinals), and his exclamatory style and cutesy gimmicks like pronouncing names backwards won an audience of yuppie frat boys. Although the Cubs and White Sox have around the same number of fans in Chicago, the Cubs have an enormous national fanbase, and probably around 90 percent of the casual fans living in Chicago. The imagery is my problem with them. I'm in many ways an ornery Rust Belt factory kid; even if all this didn't happen, I would still have reservations about cheering for a team called the Cubs. But no one has embraced bad baseball the way the Wrigleyville upwardly mobile have. Could you imagine guys like Frank Chance or Charlie Root embracing a title like the Lovable Losers? No, those old players would have stomped fans to the curb for referring to them as the Cubbies.
Anyway, back to my brief narrative, the Cubs were merely average for a couple of years before they started bottoming out. From 1947 to 1966, they were one of the worst teams in the National League, only breaking the 500 mark twice. The Cubs discovered Ernie Banks, their greatest player, in the 50's, but couldn't dig up any real help for him. Players like Hank Sauer and Ralph Kiner were there only temporarily, and Phil Cavarretta was signed late in his career, when his numbers were falling. By the early 60's, the Cubs finally had a semblance of a real talent base again when they had Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, and Ferguson Jenkins. Wrigley, however, chose that time to try a bold experiment in management which looked like a good idea in paper but proved to be a disaster that led to the Cubs hitting perhaps the lowest point in their history: The College of Coaches, a rotating collection of eight managers who would all take periodic turns ruini - er, running - the Cubs. The would rotate through the entire organization, so every player in the minors would also be introduced to a standard system of play. To Wrigley's credit, this system anticipated the coaching specialization which eventually evolved into the game. Unfortunately, it also meant team leadership was inconsistent, so players had to adjust to a new system every so often. After the 1962 Cubs lost 109 games - the most in their history - Wrigley reinstated the old system, but the college didn't go away completely until Leo Durocher was hired to manage in 1966.
Durocher was excellent as a manager, and the Cubs finally finished the 60's with a string of winning records thanks in large part to him. In 1969, the Cubs were just plain good, good like in the old days good. Until September, that is, when they went 8-17, fell into second place, and lost to the New York Mets, who went 39-11 to finish and clearly weren't going to be stopped no matter how the Cubs did. No, the September record didn't help, but the Mets got hot at the right time and plowed through everything in their path in their miracle year. Fans thought up the stupidest excuses in the world to explain the collapse: In August that season, a black cat ran across the field. Others blamed the number of day games the Cubs played, a result of Wrigley Field not introducing night baseball until 1987.
After middling through a nondescript decade in the 70's, the Cubs were finally back in contention in 1984. Led by a talented cast of players which included Ryne Sandberg, Davey Lopes, and Rick Sutcliffe, the Cubs won their division with a league-best 96 victories. In the NLCS, they met the San Diego Padres, ran them into a 2-0 in the then-five game long series, and became the first team to squander that lead, losing the Pennant. They won the division again in 1989 with Mark Grace and Joe Girardi, this time losing the NLCS to the San Francisco Giants. After hitting more mediocrity in the 90's, the Cubs won the Wild Card in 1998 during what was prognosticated to be a transitional year. Part of that was due to slugger Sammy Sosa playing a game of Top This! with Saint Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire. Although Sosa hit "only" 66 home runs to McGwire's 70 in the great home run chase of 1998, they both topped Yankee Roger Maris, who had held the original mark for most homers in a single season at 61. They won a tiebreaker game against the Giants to get the Wild Card that year, but were promptly flattened by the Atlanta Braves in the playoffs. Same old, same old, and no, that's not a plug for the swill known as Old Style Beer, a Wrigleyville staple.
Five outs. That's literally how far away the Cubs were from their first Pennant since 1945 back in 2003, the first year for manager Dusty Baker, hired fresh off a World Series appearance as manager of the Giants. The Cubs had won their division that year under Baker's positivity slogan, "Why not us?" They had beat up the Braves in the LDS and now, here they were in the NLCS, up three games to two against the Florida Marlins, five outs away from winning the Pennant. Unfortunately, Baker could taste the history he was about to make. He left his starting pitcher, Mark Prior, on the mound a bit too long; while Prior had been confusing and muddling Marlin batters all night with a dazzling array of fastballs and breaking balls, he was also visibly tired by the eighth inning. The Marlins picked up the momentum when his pitches lost their velocity, started hitting, and shortstop Alex Gonzales ended up booting a ground ball which could have ended the inning. Somewhere in the rally, a fan named Steve Bartman caught a pop fly foul because he did what any fan would have done by reaching for it. As outfielder Moises Alou was jumping to make the play at the time it landed in Bartman's lap, many fans ended up blaming Bartman for losing the game. Although the Cubs fanbase appears to have regained its rationality for the most part with this, Alou is being a complete ass about it. At first he said he was sure he would have caught the foul. Years later, he took it back, saying he never stood a chance at catching it. A couple of months later, he denied ever saying he wouldn't have caught it, saying if he did say that, he probably only did it to make Bartman feel better. Now, when I saw a photo of the scene, first of all, at least three or four other fans were also reaching out. Second, there's no way in hell Alou was going to catch that ball. His arm was a solid foot away from it, at the very least. Anyway, the Marlins took the momentum back, then the Pennant, then beat the Yankees in the World Series.
The Cubs actually did better the following season, winning their division and more games, but they were promptly ejected from the playoffs, then were bad again until Dusty Baker was replaced by Lou Piniella in 2007. That year started rocky, but the Cubs found their footing and got involved in an exciting race for the division title with the Milwaukee Brewers. The division crown was important because none of the NL Central teams that year were particularly good, so the second-place finisher was out of the playoffs no matter what - the Wild Card leaders were ahead of the division leaders in the NL Central. Eventually, Chicago pulled through with 85 wins as opposed to Milwaukee's 83, but they lost the first playoff round to the Arizona Diamondbacks. This was seen as a stepping stone to greater things, and the following year, the Cubs posted 98 wins, best in MLB. They were actually pretty lovable while doing it too, so much so that Chicago Mayor Richard Daley - a diehard White Sox fan who is known for in Sox circles for his indifference to the North Siders - was actually seen photographed in a Cubs cap. The Cubs, in this, their 100th anniversary since their last World Series title, really looked like a Team of Destiny. Unfortunately, they choked in the postseason as well, this time against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Since then, Piniella started floundering, and the Cubs have failed back into mediocrity. Chicago is still waiting.
The Cubs have a total of two World Series titles and 16 Pennants. Their Hall of Famers include Cap Anson, Ernie Banks, Ferguson Jenkins, Ron Santo, Mordecai Brown, Ryne Sandberg, Rube Waddell, Robin Roberts, Goose Gossage, and Richie Ashburn. They've retired the numbers of Ron Santo, Ernie Banks, Ryne Sandberg, Billy Williams, Ferguson Jenkins, and Greg Maddux. Also, Jackie Robinson. Unfortunately, Cap Anson was one of the most vile people to ever play Major League Baseball. He played in the 1800's, and when his team was once scheduled to play a game against a team fielding a black player, Anson, sporting the belief that those "chocolate-covered coons" (his term) shouldn't be playing his pure white man's game, refused to take the field. Plessy vs. Ferguson was right around the corner, so naturally, everyone in the league sided with him, and by the late 1890's, black people were out of baseball. He's part of the reason professional sports were segregated, so if you ever happen to spot his grave, defecate on it.
The Cubs have one of the greatest rivalries in the National League with the Saint Louis Cardinals. This came to a head when the Cubs traded Lou Brock for Ernie Brogglio. This pissed off Cardinals fans, because Brogglio was a 20-game winner one year, who had won 19 the following year while Brock could barely tap fouls at the plate. When the trade was made, Brock suddenly morphed into a great hitter who eventually won two World Series titles in Saint Louis and retired as the all-time leader in stolen bases. Brogglio only won seven more games in his major league career. The Cubs also have rivalries with the crosstown Chicago White Sox, who suffered a nasty World Series drought of their own which lasted 88 years, from 1917 to 2005. It was torture for Cubs fans that the South Siders managed to win the Fall Classic before they did, and White Sox fans won't let them forget it.
I hate the Cubs. I can't stand the way they've turned losing into a badge of honor. I can't stand how their fans keep skewering baseball history to make it look like there's some massive conspiracy against the Cubs, one of the most popular teams in MLB. To be a Cubs fan, what you need to be is white, yuppie, and fucking stupid. Cubs fans are convinced their team lost the 1984 NLCS because the lack of lights on Wrigley Field forced them to start more games in San Diego, or something. They're convinced a black cat scattering across Wrigley Field destroyed the 1969 season, and the way they first acted at Steve Bartman is inexcusable. Bartman actually needed a Police escort to escape Wrigley Field, and Florida Governor Jeb Bush offered him a chance to get out of Chicago to hide in Florida. The ones who don't actually follow baseball appear to be the fans the organization frequently caters to. I find it a baseball injustice that Harry Carey got a statue before Ernie Banks, or any other players, did, but it sums up the frat house mentality which affects even people who aren't at the games during summers. I do, however, have to admire the way Cubs fans refuse to see doom around every corner. They're a glass-half-full kind of people, and on the often occasions the team is sucking, they do take in the incredible atmosphere at Wrigley Field.
Wrigleyville is a unique place in baseball. Wrigley Field is notorious for not having any parking, and that's because it sits right in the middle of the neighborhood. Instead of a slightly isolated area, Wrigley Field is located literally right across the street from some apartments, bars, and souvenir shops. It's a breathing part of the neighborhood it resides in. Wrigleyville even has its own beer associated with its identity: Old Style, which is nasty stuff but unique to a Cubs fan mindset. Not a lot of other teams can claim that.
I should rate the Cubs higher, but the way the organization caters to secondary fans, the way those secondary fans react to the team, their cuteness and quiche, and a bunch of other factors prevent that. For my Chicago baseball fix, I'm sticking to the White Sox. Although I must confess that I'm waiting for the Cubs' storybook World Series victory myself, just because it would be followed by one hell of a party.