How the Cubs Won

Sports history is made all the time—and most of it consists of phenomena that rank at the level of Trivial Pursuits: x number of homeruns, y number of strikeouts, a few hundredths of a second here ...

Sports history is made all the time—and most of it consists of phenomena that rank at the level of Trivial Pursuits: x number of homeruns, y number of strikeouts, a few hundredths of a second here and there. But in the first hour after midnight on November 1, 2016, real Sports History was made in a big way. The Chicago Cubs, those lovable losers from the North Side of the Windy City,1 won their first World Series in 108 years, breaking a modern record for athletic futility and burying forever the dreaded Curse of the Billy Goat levied against them during their last World Series appearance, in 1945. Since then, the Cubs’ three best postwar bids had all ended in freakish debacle. In the four other playoff series they played between 1989 and 2008, their record was an atrocious 1-13.

Exactly six days after the Cubs’ great victory last year, Americans learned that their next president would be Donald J. Trump. Chicago is, of course, a Democratic town, and while we would not want to commit the ecological fallacy2 of assuming that Cubs fans are necessarily Democrats, we can easily assume that large portions of the fan base were devastated by that result. A week of giddy celebration, marked by one of the largest urban gatherings in world history, gave way to the political distress into which the nation then plunged, and which we inhabit still. It almost seemed as if some other divine judgment was being rendered in exchange for the purgation of the Cubs’ great curse.

For “long-suffering” Cubs fans like myself, this strange juxtaposition of athletic joy and political despair knows no resolution. The authors of the four books reviewed here are smart enough to leave the election out of their stories. Perhaps that is the real genius of sports journalism: to focus on victory and losses and the nuances of athletic achievement, and leave the woes of our public life to their own realm. Because whatever happens to the Republic, the world of sport has its own integrity, and the Cubs story is intriguing enough to examine on its own terms.

There are a few critical questions that define the arc of Cubs history: How and why did this team, with its attractive yet badly dated ballpark at Clark and Addison, command the unrequited loyalty of decades and generations of fans? What weight did the curse of 1945 have on the Cubs’ performance? And most important, what tweaks of fate made the Cubs’ miraculous rise since 2015 possible?

Every serious student of American culture knows Jacques Barzun’s famous remark about baseball: “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”3 Barzun was trained as a historian, but he was a true humanist in the best sense. The epochal home run that Bobby Thomson hit for the (then) New York Giants to doom the (then) Brooklyn Dodgers in a one-game playoff in 1951, Barzun writes, “gives us some idea of what Greek tragedy was like. Baseball is Greek in being national, heroic, and broken up in the rivalries of city-states.” That’s certainly how Chicagoans see it. Chicago has forever played second city to New York, and the dominance of the Yankees and the midcentury prominence of the Dodgers and the Giants were social facts that Chicagoans always resented.

None of our four books attain Barzun’s insight, but journalism is the first draft of history and often contains details the documentary record neglects. Taken together, they describe the annus mirabilis of 2016, when The Plan described by David Kaplan produced The Cubs Way explained by Tom Verducci, the success of which in turn has led long-time journalist-fans like Scott Simon to write the love story that My Cubs deserved or Rich Cohen to provide a psychologically wrenching account of the Story of a Curse that afflicted not only Cubs players but their unaccountably faithful fans—among whom I count myself, going back to 1952.

Let us begin with the curse, the most vivid way in which the tragic Greek trope applies to the Cubs. It was in 1945 that William Sianis, the Greek American owner of the Billy Goat Tavern, brought his pet goat Murphy (ticket in hoof) to Game 4 of that last World Series. It was fun enough when Murphy paraded the infield, but fans soon protested his olfactory aura and the ushers required Sianis to remove his pet. It was then that Sianis summoned the Hellenic force of Cassandra, Medea, and other oracles, wretchedly cursing the Cubs to never again play—or win, depending on your source—a World Series. The curse has since been held accountable for the Cubs’ many failures.

This entire history of gloom, doom, and unmediated pessimism began its profound transformation in late July 2015. Throughout the 2016 season they remained the dominant team, ranking near the top in nearly all the “analytics” that generate the algorithms of contemporary baseball. They won 103 games, lost only 58 (and tied one!).

Then came the playoffs, when the bitter curd (that sour chèvre) of the curse awaited its taste. In each of the three series, the youthful, free-swinging Cubs faced grave dangers. In the opening series against the San Francisco Giants, they were trailing in Game 4 and had to worry about the threat of facing Johnny Cueto, the pitcher who had straitjacketed them in the series opener, in the decisive fifth game. In the next round against the Dodgers, they overcame a similar challenge.

Exactly six days after the Cubs’ great victory last year, Americans learned that their next president would be Donald J. Trump.

After four games of the World Series against the Cleveland Indians, the Cubs were down three games to one, and would have to win one game at home and two away to prevail. When they did get to Game 7, in Cleveland, the Cubs lost leads of four and three runs after a crazily ricocheting wild pitch scored two Indians and a hack hitter banged a two-run homer in the eighth, that most fateful of innings. Worse still, the Cubs much-admired manager, Joe Maddon, culminated a bizarre sequence of decisions involving his star closer, Aroldis Chapman, whose élan vital Maddon essentially sapped.

Maddon’s strategic genius had done a reverse Pallas Athena, evaporating along the shores of Lake Erie. So the game was tied 6-6 at the end of eight. One scoreless inning later the gods intervened with a 20-minute rain delay. At that moment, the Cubs right fielder Jason Heyward, who was the great disappointment of the regular season, became Henry V, gave his own “we lucky few” speech, and rallied the Cubs for their two-run rally in the 10th. A last Indian rally fell short as a stumbling Kris Bryant, the Cubs third baseman and the league MVP, face aglow, threw out the last Indian.

It was arguably the greatest seventh game in World Series history. But its inherent drama, which first revived the curse in every agonizing detail and then forever extinguished it, does not explain the transformative nature of what the Cubs had done—or how far they had traveled to become this new team of conquerors, and how their success has affected their long-beleaguered fans. These are the themes that our four authors address, in curiously complementary ways.

Two of our books, the contributions of Scott Simon and Rich Cohen, fall into the broad category of notes of a fan. Though the comedian Bill Murray has become the Cubs’ most visible fan, Scott Simon, the well-known NPR host, has just as good a claim. He is a pure fan of all sports Chicagoan, and has unusual personal ties to the Cubs. Simon’s father was an alcoholic sportswriter who eventually separated from his wife and died while Scott was still young. Into that breech stepped two notable figures: Charlie (“Jolly Cholly”) Grimm, a long-time Cubs player and manager who led the ’45 Cubs team, and who was a virtual uncle to Simon through his wife’s friendship with Simon’s mom; and his godfather Jack Brickhouse, the great WGN announcer (whose “Hey, hey” home run call I still recite as if it were the morning Sh’ma), an intelligent presence whose game-calling was vastly superior to the lush ramblings of the better known but always highly lubricated Harry Caray. Through these two gracious men, Simon enjoyed personal connections to the Cubs and Wrigley Field that other Chicagoans can only envy. When Simon concludes his short and graceful celebration with the declaration that “My feeling for the Cubs is love, not loyalty,” his faithful readers will know what he means.

That, alas, is not quite the attitude that Rich Cohen brings to his Story of a Curse. Cohen, too, is Chicagoland born, but his father was a Yankees fan, hence an alien from another planet, who warned his son never to root for the Cubs. While Yankees fans “expect to win,” Daddy cautioned, Cubs fans, expecting defeat, will “have a diminished life determined by low expectations.” (This keen paternal insight would surprise Justice John Paul Stevens, whose first Cubs game was in the 1929 World Series, and who attended Game 4 in 2016, at the tender age of 96.)4 Driven by a quasi-Oedipal tension even Sigmund Freud would have trouble treating, Cohen naturally plighted his baseball troth to the Cubs, with disturbing psychological consequences.

Whatever happens to the Republic, the world of sport has its own integrity.

Cohen has no illusions about Cubs history or the aesthetic charms of Wrigley Field, which in many ways was a dump of a ballpark before it became a pilgrimage site equivalent to Lourdes or Santiago de Compostela. The curse, in Cohen’s telling, was not just the mythopoeic legacy of 1945: it has been a recurring motif in Cubs history almost from the outset. And its legacy is not only an explanation of the Cubs’ failures on the field; it also drives the emotional torment of their loyal (but in this account not always loving) fans. Periodically one senses that Cohen’s complicated feelings are the fruit of his father’s version of a curse.

Cohen ends his book on a sad, almost bitter note, so unlike Scott Simon’s joy. After the Cubs won Game 7, Cohen could have used his press pass to join the crowd on the field—an occasion any lifelong fan would relish—but he “was not in the mood. I wanted to sit in a dark room. I was happy but sad too. A whole period of my life had ended. My childhood suddenly seemed much further away. I walked back to my hotel alone.”

Both Simon and Cohen evoke an eternal motif of the baseball bildungsroman: fathers and sons (or now just parents and children). But this memoirist theme leaves open the great analytical questions that every scholar of the Cubs’ superlative performances in 2015 and 2016 must ask: How did they do it? What shift in the cosmos made it possible?

These are the questions that Tom Verducci and David (the Kapman) Kaplan pursue. Both authors enjoyed direct access to the main players in the Cubs organization, and both rely on their interviews to provide much of their material. To my way of thinking, Verducci is by far the better author. His emphasis on the creation of the Cubs Way, a culture of professional achievement that began in the minor leagues and then worked its way up, gives his book its sustaining theme.

Three entrepreneurial figures dominate this side of the story: Tom Ricketts, heir to the Ameritrade fortune, who became the team’s new owner in 2009; Theo Epstein, its president, son of the novelist Leslie and grandson and grandnephew of Philip and Julius Epstein, screenwriters for Casablanca and Arsenic and Old Lace5; and Joe Maddon, a mediocre college athlete from eastern Pennsylvania, who slowly made his way through the ranks of baseball’s occupational structure, until finally becoming manager of the lowly Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2006, and taking them to a World Series only two years later.

Ricketts became a Cubs fan when he studied at the University of Chicago but lived near Wrigley Field. Many a wealthy man buys a sports team to satisfy his ego and celebrity, but Ricketts brought a strong measure of dynamic capitalism to his new property. To follow the scholarly literature of the history of capitalism, we could even describe his approach as another example of “creative destruction.” The key decision was hiring Epstein, who had attained immense fame by transforming the Boston Red Sox, his boyhood team, into a World Series winner in 2004, when he was just 31. (They had last won in 1918.) By 2011, however, the Red Sox had become a toxic team that Epstein was eager to leave. What greater challenge could there be than taking on the Cubs and dissolving its dreaded curse?

One of Epstein’s key innovations in Boston had been to hire Bill James, the great pioneer of baseball sabermetrics. Epstein remains loyal to that analytical tradition, but as Verducci makes clear, at a certain point he realized that analytics were no longer the sufficient measure of a player’s worth. There was a whole array of personal traits that one also had to discover. Identifying these traits became the key to Epstein’s approach, and it proved its value in identifying the four young players who formed the nucleus of the new Cubs: Anthony Rizzo (the key magnetic personality), Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Kyle Schwarber.6 The Cubs Way was thus built on a twofold assessment of personnel and the heuristic desire to allow the right habits to percolate up from the minor leagues rather than down from the majors.

Yet to produce this harmonic convergence in Cubs culture, one final element had to be obtained. A field manager was needed to enable this team to produce on the field, the final laboratory of experimental design. When Epstein learned in the fall of 2014 that Joe Maddon was willing to opt out of his contract with the Rays, he flew (disguised) to Pensacola and headed for the Navarre Beach RV park where Maddon hung out.

The rest is baseball history, and to grasp Maddon’s genius, you just have to read Verducci’s book, particularly chapter 12, which recounts the 13 rules that comprise “The Zen of Joe.” But History entered the story in another way during the Cubs’ final three victories. For the essence of History is its capacity to surprise us, and in those last three Cubs victories in 2016, Maddon violated his set rules with his tactical decisions about pitching, doing exactly what he had vowed not to do. Maddon, the Cubs’ great manager, suddenly appeared to have become the living, willful agent of the curse. In the end, though, the Cubs Way prevailed and the players rallied to a momentous win.

Six days later, an incompetent, ignorant narcissist became president-elect, and many of us were left to ponder the strange fate that juxtaposed athletic victory with political dejection. The fact that Hillary Rodham Clinton is also a native Cubs fan did not help the case.

At times like these, one needs consolation, from either philosophy or literature. As it happens, one story immediately came to my mind. W. P. Kinsella, best known as the author of Shoeless Joe, the inspiration for the 1989 film Field of Dreams, has written elsewhere about baseball, and one of his stories seems especially apt. In “The Last Pennant before Armageddon,” the Cubs are running away with the Eastern Division and looking ahead to the playoffs. But their manager, Al “the Hun” Tiller, is consumed by vivid dreams in which groups of Cubs fans, in the world to come, repeatedly ask God why the Cubs cannot be allowed to win the Division, the pennant, even the Series.

In the sixth dream, evidently just before He rested, God responds to their pleas. Although He holds the Cubs in high esteem, God declares, “you should know that when the Cubs next win the National League Championship, it will be the last pennant before Armageddon.” Listening to sports radio one sleepless night, Tiller is startled when a blind archangel calls in to repeat the warning. Finally, the Cubs face the Dodgers for the league championship (just like last year), while a great crisis is brewing between the United States and the Soviet Union over Sri Lanka. Nuclear apocalypse suddenly seems imminent. And in the final inning of the decisive game, Al Tiller, just like Joe Maddon, has to make an agonizing pitching choice.7

Think about Trump, Kim Jong-un, and the current iteration of the Korean puzzle, and Armageddon no longer seems so far away. In the meantime, though, having rooted for the Cubs a good 65 years, I enter my senior years a contented and still-loving Cubs fan. As Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, would say, “Let’s play two!”8

  1. This nickname owes nothing to the weather conditions that often govern play at Wrigley Field, when the wind is either blowing out toward Lake Michigan, turning routine fly balls into home runs, or blowing in to turn monstrous shots into easy outs. Chicago is the Windy City for its inhabitants’ propensity for boastful talking.
  2. Which is not identical with the Tokyo Accords.
  3. When bowdlerized like this, one is left to muse, yes, but what is it about baseball that one must know? Is this some Willy Loman–like reference to the loneliness of the final batter who hits into a game-ending double play? That in fact is not the moral Barzun draws. One needs to learn “the rules and realities of the game,” he continues, “and do it by watching first some high school or small-town teams,” so one knows the essentials before graduating to grasp the complexities of the major league game. To this opening observation, Barzun added six more pages of profound, subtle, and humorous insights about the nuances and symmetries of baseball. He ends with a hilarious explanation of why cricket, the diversion the English profess to love, is actually a game that no one has ever played.
  4. See Mark Walsh, “Justice Stevens on the Cubs and the World Series,” SCOTUSblog, October 26, 2016.
  5. Arsenic and Old Lace is also a Rakove family classic (“When you say others? Do you mean OTHERS?”). I saw a theatrical version in London before taking a night train to Edinburgh in October 1966, where I met my wife that very day.
  6. This year many Cubs fans have been agonizing over Schwarber’s uneven season, but those of us who love the Cubs just as Scott Simon does will regard Schwarber as a perpetual team hero.
  7. W. P. Kinsella, The Thrill of the Grass (Ontario, 1984), pp. 3–21.
  8. I was teaching at nearby Colgate University in 1977, when Ernie entered the Hall of Fame, and I attended his induction at Cooperstown. I hope the tape of his speech records the “Hey! Hey!” I yelled when he repeated his famous “Let’s play two” line as he began his remarks.
Chicago Cubs: World Series Champions (2016). Photograph by Shutter Runner / Flickr