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Give It Up, Cub Fans

From April 1996: Chicago’s Cubs reigned as the world champions of baseball in 1908, but they’ve been waiting till next year ever since—a record of failure unmatched by any other pro team. Why is this beloved ball club so good at being bad? One tortured fan journeys to the heart of Cub darkness, looking for answers

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On a Thursday afternoon late last September, the Chicago Cubs played the Houston Astros in a back-and-forth slugfest at Wrigley Field. In the eighth inning with the score tied 7-7, the Cubs laboring relief pitcher, Randy Myers, faced a Houston batter with a man on base. Sitting in the stands was a 27-year-old bond trader named John P. Murray, a young man who describes himself as a “huge” Cubs fan ever since he was a little kid going to the ballpark with his family. Watching Myers struggle—and anticipating the demise of the Cubs’ threadbare hopes of getting into the postseason playoffs—Murray began to boil over. “Sometimes you get so frustrated,” he says. ‘’You pay so much and the team doesn’t get better.” Finally, he told his companions that if Myers gave up a homer, he was going to run out on the field and tell the pitcher off. “They said, ‘No, you won’t.’ [I said,] ‘If he gives it up, I’m going.’"           

Sure enough, Myers’s next pitch was crushed for a home run. So Murray trotted down the aisle, hopped the first-base wall, ran past first baseman Mark Grace, and chugged out to Myers. “What the hell was that?” he yelled when he got close to the pitcher.           

Myers reasonably feared for his safety—"I felt the look in his eyes, that he wanted to hurt me,” Myers said later—and decked Murray with a muscled forearm. After a brief melee, the fan was led away and arrested.           

John P. Murray’s behavior has been appropriately deplored on all sides. Today, he himself acknowledges it was a “stupid thing” to do. At a minimum, the incident is an argument for better security at sporting events; at worst, it’s another dismaying sign of the decline of public life in this country.           

And yet, what true Cubs fan—and by that I’m basically talking about the hereditary variety, bearing the defective gene, usually passed through the father—what true Cubs fan hasn’t countless times felt the exact same impulse? The team’s phenomenal failure to win mocks the odds and defies the normal cyclical course of human events. Think of the emotional costs. My father, for example, was born in 1917. He lived a life that was long, rich, and productive (despite the habit of turning first thing to the sports pages in the morning paper). He tasted success and he nuzzled grandchildren, and he died without ever seeing his team win a World Series. I’m pushing 50, and I’ve never seen them win a pennant. (For the record, they last won the Series in 1908 and last played in it in 1945.) This is the sort of lush environment to breed a John P. Murray.

These days, under the ownership of the Tribune Company, the club has a fresh management group led by team president Andy MacPhail, who is widely considered one of the best baseball men in the country. “The word around the league is that they are really on the right road,” says the agent Steve Zucker. MacPhail “knows how to win,” says Allan Simpson, the editor of Baseball America magazine.

But MacPhail is swimming against a tradition that has swamped great baseball talents before him, from Bill Veeck to Leo Durocher to Dallas Green. Why? Why this miserable history? We’ve all heard the silly explanations, the stories about black cats, billy goats, and hexes, the kind of nonsense that perpetuates the tedious notion of the Cubs as lovable losers. But there must be more do it than that, some rational answer grounded in science or history or business. To try to find out, I’ve talked to baseball experts, team executives, statisticians, reporters, agents, players, managers, fans—even some sports psychologists. In short, I’ve made an obsessive, even paranoid journey to the heart of Cub darkness, and back again.

The news, friends, is not good.

A BIT OF CONTEXT

 Americans are so fixed on winning that we celebrate the great successes in sports—DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, the Bulls’ threepeat, Vince Lombardi’s indomitable Packers—without, perhaps, devoting sufficient awe to monumental feats of failure. In that pantheon, the Cubs are true giants. Remember, this is a professional team whose business is baseball. Let’s start with winning a league pennant, the ticket to the World Series. Early baseball history is a muddle of teams and leagues, but once the Series was started in 1903, the old St. Louis Browns (later the Baltimore Orioles) went 41 years before getting there, in 1944; that record was later matched by the Athletics (from 1931, when they were in Philadelphia, to 1972 in Oakland). The Cleveland Indians, who made it last year for the first time since 1954, also went 41 years between Series berths. But none of those low achievers measure up to the Cubs, who are at 50 years and counting. As for actually winning a World Series, no major-league club approaches the Cubs’ record of futility: an eighty-seven year drought—fourscore and seven years. (Miserably enough for Chicago, the closest rivals for Series frustration are the White Sox, who reigned champions 78 years ago, in 1917.) When the Cubs last savored triumph, Henry Ford was introducing his Model T. Geronimo was still alive. The Drake Hotel wouldn’t go up for another decade.

Even more disheartening, I haven’t turned up another team in a major professional sport with a record of failure approaching the Cubs’. In football, the peripatetic club called the Cardinals hasn’t won the big one in 48 seasons. In hockey, the New York Rangers went 54 years without a championship, then won one, two years ago. The National Basketball Association has been around only since 1949, and the Phoenix Suns—formed in 1968—are the oldest winless club.

Though this would seem to make an anecdotal case that we are witnessing something extraordinary with the Cubs, I called on the world of science for confirmation.

Stephen M. Stigler is the Ernest DeWitt Burton Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Statistics at the University of Chicago. In a charming letter responding to my inquiry, Professor Stigler pointed out that over the span of World Series history, the Cubs have actually made a reasonable number of appearances (ten), “and the number of victories (two), while disappointing, is not astonishingly low.” But he goes on to add, “What is striking is the paucity of recent appearances (and of course, of victories).” Taking into account the expansion of the league and assuming that every year was a clean slate, with every team having an equal opportunity, Professor Stigler says, “The chance that the Cubs would make no World Series appearances since 1945 is (7/8)^16 (9/10)^7 (11/12)^24  (13/14)^2 = 0.006, about half of 1 percent.” In fairness, he goes on to point out that every year is not a clean slate—that the team doesn’t change that much from year to year. If you assume that the team renews itself only every three years, for example, “the chance of no Series appearances since 1945 rises considerably, to 20 percent,” a figure he describes as not remarkable at all. However, Professor Stigler concludes sagely, “if there is a lesson in all of this, it is that the Cubs would fare better if they changed the team yearly, at least until they come up with a winner!”

Now we’re getting into a management strategy that John P. Murray could appreciate: Fire the whole bunch of them!

* * *

Photograph: Courtesy of the National Baseball Library & Archive, Cooperstown, N.Y. Photo manipulation by Mark Paez

 

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