About three-quarters of the way through Rich Cohen’s new book The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse comes an epic clash of baseball philosophies and worldviews.
On one side is Theo Epstein, president of the Cubs. A Red Sox fan since childhood, Epstein was also, during his formative years, a devoted reader of the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, a thousand-page compendium of statistics and rankings from more than a century of baseball history. James and his disciples have no patience for legends and tall tales. In their world, there are no called shots, no rally squirrels, no ill omens, and, especially, no curses. There’s an explanation for everything, and usually it involves numbers.
Cohen is the other kind of baseball fan—the romantic. He attended his first Cubs game in 1976. He was eight years old. The Cubs lost to the Reds, 8-3. On the way home from Wrigley Field, his father, a Yankees fan, warned him that falling in love with the Cubs would ruin his life. But Cohen had already seen the ivy. Later he came to realize that the Cubs were not just a team, they were a way of life. “A Cubs fan understood the futility of ambition,” he writes. “He was a kind of Buddhist. . . . A Cubs fan appreciates every August afternoon, because, for him, there is no October.”
This sort of Cubs fan not only accepts that the team is cursed—by Bill Sianis, owner of the Billy Goat Tavern—who took his revenge after management refused to let him bring his pet goat into Wrigley Field to watch the 1945 World Series) but also embraces it as another part of Cubness, along with Wrigley Field and Harry Caray. The prospect of a World Series victory does not fill this Cubs fan with joy. Instead it inspires an existential crisis: If the Cubs win, will they still be the Cubs? Will the universe end?
It was not always thus, Cohen reminds us. In the beginning, the Cubs (previously the White Stockings, Colts, Spuds, and Microbes) were one of the best teams in Major League Baseball, winners of three consecutive National League pennants, possessors of a deadly efficient infield and a star pitcher who’d learned how to use his mangled left hand to throw a wicked curveball. But then things took a turn. Or, if you are a fatalist like Cohen, intimations of the curse began to emerge, even before that fateful day in 1945.
Grover Cleveland Alexander, a brilliant young pitcher, was permanently traumatized by his time in the trenches during World War I. Outfielder Hack Wilson lost a ball in the sun during the 1929 World Series, allowing the A’s to score ten runs in one inning; he returned to Chicago in tears. The Cubs were in three World Series in the 30s and somehow managed to lose all three, including in 1932 when Babe Ruth allegedly called his shot in game three.
After the curse, the bad luck continued to pile up. First baseman Eddie Waitkus was shot by an obsessed female fan at the Edgewater Beach Hotel. (He’d just been traded to Philadelphia, but Cubness lingers.) Ken Hubbs, a second baseman and one of the few bright prospects of the early 60s, was killed in a plane crash before the 1964 season. The Cubs led the NL East for the entire 1969 season until one early September day at Shea Stadium when a black cat crossed Ron Santo’s path; the team proceeded to lose 17 of the next 25 games.
At several points in this narrative, Cohen reminds us that, despite the many hours he’s logged in the left-field bleachers, he’s not an ordinary Cubs fan. His father, Herbie, somehow struck up a friendship with Ernie Banks, and Cohen came home from school one day to find Banks sitting in his living room. After Cohen grew up and began writing about the Cubs for Sports Illustrated and Harper’s, he would occasionally check in with Banks, and thus he learned that even Ernie, Mr. Let’s Play Two!, the embodiment of Cubs fan hope and optimism, also believed in the curse, especially during the 1969 collapse.
“They can talk about Leo [Durocher, the bad-tempered manager] and how he pushed us, bad luck, the surging Mets, the black cat, but don’t believe any of it,” Banks tells Cohen. “It was us, only us. The curse is not voodoo. It’s just fear. When you have never won and your team has never won, not for decades, it works on you and gets into your head and you go out there waiting to see how you will fall apart, expecting something to go wrong, and when you look for it, you find it.”
Through the years, in the wake of many catastrophes, Cohen continues to hear variations on this idea from nearly every Cub he talks to. Joe Girardi, who won three World Series with the Yankees, tells him about the power of looking at photos of past victory celebrations in the clubhouse every day as you put on your pinstripes. At Wrigley, historically there were no victory pictures, only portraits of might-have-beens. Pitcher Kevin Tapani theorizes that Cubness is something you catch, like a cold, after your immunity is compromised by too many lovable loser stories.
Even members of the Cubs organization who initially appear to be of a more practical frame of mind reveal themselves as curse believers. For Andy MacPhail, a former general manager, it has a physical form: Beautiful Wrigley Field. “There is no home-field advantage,” he tells Cohen. “To win you need to be an all-around good team—pitching and hitting, everything. It takes a long time to build a team like that.”
And then enter Epstein, the man who, in 2004, broke the Curse of the Bambino that had haunted his Red Sox since 1918, when they sent Babe Ruth to the Yankees. Despite his lifetime immersion in baseball history and statistics, Epstein had been unaware of the Curse of the Goat until he happened to be watching game six of the 2003 National League Championship Series on TV, the game that has come to be known as the Bartman game.
“So was it the curse?” Cohen asks Epstein when they finally meet in 2016, five years after Epstein took over the team, completely dismantled it, and built it back up again with players cultivated through the farm system. (It hasn’t even been a decade, and already this is the stuff of legend.) Epstein is initially puzzled. Cohen clarifies: the freakishness of a Cubs fan snatching a ball from a Cubs outfielder, leading to another Cubs collapse, this one just four outs from the World Series. “No,” Epstein replies. “It was a blown lead, like I said.” But what about all that bad luck? What about the ball that rolled through Leon Durham’s legs back in 1984? “I can’t speak about ancient history, but I can speak about recent history,” Epstein says. “The Cubs were not good because the organization focused on the wrong things.”
Epstein’s Cubs have an entirely different idea of Cubness. They look to the future, not the past. Players use the phrase “That’s Cub” as a compliment, a sign that someone has done something good, not as a sigh of resignation because, as expected, everything has gone to hell. (The slogan has since been adopted by the marketing department.) The Ricketts family, which owns the team, put up giant video boards in the outfield, which some purists complain ruined the historic character of Beautiful Wrigley Field and destroyed the tradition of watching games from the rooftops across the street (often for a higher ticket price than a seat in the park itself), but which also blocked the wind coming off the lake. Most of all, the new Cubs aren’t cursed because, like Epstein, they don’t believe in curses.
So where does that leave fans like Cohen, who have spent their lives loving the old Cubs against their better judgment, and maybe even loving the curse in some weird twisted way? The last third of Story of a Curse is a full recap of the 2016 season, during which we learn that the Cubs won game five of the World Series thanks to the efforts of actor Chris Pratt, who Cohen was interviewing for Vanity Fair and who was so moved by Cohen’s devotion to the Cubs that he knelt and said a prayer for the team and its long-suffering fans. Game seven gets a chapter all its own: the improbable late-inning two-run homer by Indians outfielder Rajai Davis, the bottom-of-the-ninth face-off between Aroldis Chapman and Jason Kipnis, and the tenth-inning rain delay, during which Jason Heyward gave the team an impassioned pep talk, are all more like a collection of bad sports-movie cliches than actual life. “That team is cursed,” Cohen’s wife concludes when he calls her in the middle of the tenth inning for emotional support. “We’ve just seen the strength of the curse and how good the Cubs have to be to overcome it. It’s like watching someone fight off bird flu.”
But they did it. They broke the curse. Since then there have been all manner of strange and unprecedented events and natural disasters, starting with the election, less than a week later, of a reality television star as president of the United States. The Theo Epsteins of the world blame politics and climate change and continue to go about their business of playing baseball. But what about the rest of us? Cohen makes a persuasive—and entertaining—case that, for Cubs fans, the curse was one of the core beliefs that held the universe steady. Now, after 108 years, the Cubs are finally winners. But at what cost? v
The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse by Rich Cohen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Cohen will be a guest on The Interview Show, Fri 10/6, 6:30 PM, the Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, 773-227-4433, hideoutchicago.com, $15.