A Cubs fan ponders life as World Series champions
Every story needs an ending. Without a proper conclusion, the first act fades to meaninglessness. Endless accretion turns everything into goo. When I was a child, I told my mother I was scared to die. She said she understood my fear but did not share it. Death is necessary, she said. The ending is what gives life meaning. And what better ending can there possibly be, not just to the 2016 baseball season but to the game itself, than, after this long pitiless drought, than a Chicago Cubs World Series championship.
With this in mind, in perhaps the boldest proposal since the introduction by Charlie Finley of the fluorescent yellow baseball, I move that the game itself be declared complete, that the leagues be disband, that the parks be turned into museums or sold for scrap, that the uniforms be given to goodwill and that the sport cease being played. This famous pastime, which first gained widespread national popularity shortly after the Civil War, which carried us through two World Wars and the Great Depression, is our American epic. It is War and Peace. It has now reached its proper conclusion. End it.
The Cubs were not the first professional baseball team, but they might as well have been. The Cincinnati Reds were first, that team of ringers, but the Cubs were one of the first true powerhouses. The national game was to some extent built around their image.
The team, which was originally known as the White Stockings, was the product of 19th century Chicago, a city of girders and chemical plumes and steel. It was led by Cap Anson, who played first base, was the captain—hence "cap"—and also an ambassador for the game. The club went through many incarnations and many names in the ensuing years, quickly added fans and fanatics and was known for its uniquely spirited baseball.
The team played several seasons before the National League was formed in 1876. This pre-dated the existence of modern pro sports. Before baseball, if you were the sort of person who likes to wager, it was horse-racing, prizefighting or bear-baiting. Our national game has its origins in that shadowland, in other words, where the lower world touches the upper, and gangsters and gamblers set the terms.
In the early days of the National League, the name of the Chicago team would often appear in box scores and usually at the top of the standings of newspapers that have not existed for more than a century. The team was known for its ballparks, it’s jewel boxes: Lakefront Park, the West Side Grounds. These palaces are long gone, but still exist in the city’s subconscious—the bedrock beneath Wrigley Field. For a time, the Cubs had no home field. Meaning they wandered from park to park, which is why they were known, for a time, as the Orphans, which is sad enough to make me cry.
The young franchise was a scourge of the National League, just as proficient as the jazz age Yankees or Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine of the 1970s. The Cubs remain one of the winningest team in history because of the great players of those years. Mike Kelly, the catcher who is said to have invented the signals by which the backstop secretly communicates with his pitcher. Larry Corcoran, who threw three no-hitters for the team in the 1800s. It all culminated in the greatest stretch in franchise history, the 1906, ’07 and ’08 Cubs that won three straight National League pennants and back-to-back World Series championships in the latter two seasons. Those teams exist now only in black-and-white photos, raw boned kids in baggy uniforms. Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown, the ace who’d been mangled by a piece of farm machinery. Johnny Tinker and Joe Evers and Frank Chance, the game’s greatest double play combo, immortalized in poetry. In 1906, the Cubs won 116 games, which, considering the season was only 154 games long back then, remains an unsurpassed record of excellence. Many of the wins came in low-scoring games. It was the dead ball era, before the vulgarity of the Home-run and the grotesque distortions of Ruth and Maris and Bonds.
The game is best played when played small, efficient, clean. This is something the 2016 Cubs seem to know. It’s not the long ball that thrills—though, sure, that’s nice too. It’s the stellar defensive play, Kris Bryant on the grass, flipping the ball to Javier Baez, who grazes second as he rifles it to Anthony Rizzo at first. It must’ve looked just like that in August 1908.
The Cubs moved into Wrigley Field in 1916, then called Weegham Park. Once ensconced in the Friendly Confines, they set off of their long trek of never winning—a hundred years of solitude, a century long nap in the hills where the Dutch grandees play nine-pin. In 1937, Bill Veeck Jr. planted the Ivy, which, from a certain point of view, looked like a beautiful wreath on a beautiful coffin.
We had good years of course, and great players. Everyone can make his or her own list. Hack Wilson, who drove in 191 runs in 1930, still a record. Gabby Hartnett, who hit a ball out of Wrigley at dusk—"the homer in the gloaming"—to put the team into the 1938 World Series. (They were swept by the Yankees). Ernie Banks. Fergie Jenkins. Ryne Sandberg. Andre Dawson. Kerry Wood. And please, let’s not forget Mark Grace. But in the end, no matter how it looked in September, it always ended the same way. There was the curse of the billy goat and the Bartman game and all the rest, but shorn of magic it was just lots of losing. It was the Cubs’ constant, like the white noise heard everywhere in the universe if you listen hard enough.
For fans, losing became the story, and the message, and the moral. What we did with all that losing was just like what the early Christians had done with their suffering. We took the consequences of our weakness and defeat and turned them into positive virtues and lessons. Turn the other cheek. The last shall be first. The meek shall inherit the earth. In the end, losing was better than winning; it was more pure and of higher value; for you can have your pennants and World Series titles, but we have something greater, something that can never be taken away; our kingdom is not of this world. Wearing a Cubs hat told people something about you, maybe the most important thing.
Looking across the 141 professional baseball seasons, it seems obvious to me that this has been the game’s great story. Not Babe Ruth and the triumph of the home run. Not Lou Gehrig and his wrenching last words. Not the fix of 1919 nor the dominance of the Yankees. Not the innovations, good and bad, not the infield fly rule, not the designated hitter, not Astroturf. It’s the White Stockings, who became the Orphans, who became the Cubs. That’s the story. The great team that wandered off into a wilderness of mirrors, that got lost in an endless cactus land, and the king grew old, and his beard turned long and white, and the grail fell from his hand. That story has finally been redeemed, the old king turned young again, the grail recovered, the kingdom restored as the citizens fans of Cubs Nation rejoice. Another season will only smudge the edges of that perfect picture, that masterpiece.
For a long time I worried about what a winning Cubs team would do to my own psyche and that of my city. Would the Cubs become just another team? Would being a Cubs fan lose its special distinction? Would we suffer a collective loss of meaning? I’ve finally found a solution to all that. No more games. It’s 1908 again. Let’s let it stay that way forever.