U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Lovable Losers No More: History and the Chicago Cubs, from a Fan’s Perspective

As the blog’s resident rabid Cubs fan, I feel obligated, on this glorious day, to offer some reflection on the meaning of last night’s World Series win. Given the nature of this blog, and the interests of its readers and writers, I’ll do my best to stay on the preferred topic, generally speaking.

To be a Cubs fan is to be steeped in history and tradition. As its fans know, whether they are long-time followers or recent pick-ups courtesy of this year’s World Series run, the past is no foreign country for a team (formerly) known as “The Lovable Losers.” Some idea of the past is always present to Cubs fans. The capitalization in that moniker is important, as is the singularity of the article. That “losers” designation has, until today, symbolized—depending on your commitments—a kind of invisible cross or a trail of baggage. The Cubs have been a team for people who understand, and even embraced, the notion of historical burdens.

In my personal life I’ve generally been a relentlessly presentist and future-oriented person. Because of personal circumstances and hardships I won’t outline here, I preferred to focus on fixing things, whether in the present or the future. This personal trait, or fault (as I now look at it), is probably, ironically, why I was first attracted to history as a field of study. I came to it because I needed to better understand burdens and historical baggage. I long carried an appreciation for tradition, but not history.

I came to be a Cubs fan around my tenth or eleventh year. What I remember most about that period was, as a sixth-grade latch-key kid, coming home after school and watching Cubs games on WGN. At that time I lived in Raytown, Missouri. We were cable TV subscribers, so we had the access. I was always super hungry right after school, so I’d grab a can of Chunky Soup or tortilla chips and salsa, and head downstairs to watch TV. I remember listening to Harry Caray and Steve Stone call the games. I remember watching Ryne Sandberg, Bill Buckner, Larry Bowa, and Lee Smith. In scanning the 1982 roster, I had forgotten that Ferguson Jenkins was still playing. I remember the arrival of Bob Dernier in 1984, however, because his mother lived across the street. Ms. Dernier was a school librarian, and I mowed her lawn in the summers for $5 a pop. On the Cubs, in the first few years of watching the team it was all about Wrigley Field, the ivy, the bleacher bums, the entertainment value of Harry Caray, getting to know the players, and the team’s history.

At this time I was already a baseball fan, courtesy of my father. He had introduced me to Kansas City Royals baseball about five years earlier, during that great run, from 1976-1978, of KC playing the New York Yankees for the American League Championship. My father’s interest in the game would fade (he was a football guy), but mine remained. That introduction had familiarized me with the fundamentals of the game. It also prepared me for the Royals great run to the 1980 World Series. Because I had first moved to Raytown in the summer of 1980, I arrived in the midst of both a pennant chase and one of the great individual offensive runs of all time—i.e. George Brett’s quest for .400 (he ended the season at .390). Although my father had introduced me to baseball during a great period for the Royals, that season hooked me to both the game and that team for life.

In that same year, 1980, I took up an interest in baseball cards. My school friends had introduced me to cards when they traded them over lunch. That interest moved me into a numerical historical understanding of the game. I puzzled over the statistics (i.e. meaning, use, and calculation), but also developed a sense of a player’s improvement over time, greatest moments, and the general arc of a career. I think that was my first introduction to a kind of cliometric thinking.

Returning to the Cubs, by the time 1984 rolled around I was familiar with the Cubs legacy, history, and traditions. I knew about the World Series drought. I knew a teeny bit about 1969 and the team’s failure against the Mets. But I really understood the arc of that particular year, meaning 1984—i.e how the Cubs surprised the National League with a winning season (96 games, tops in the Eastern Division). Gary Matthews, Ron Cey, Leon Durham, and Ryne Sandberg were the team’s offensive stars (Buckner was traded to the Red Sox that season). That team took a 2-0 lead in its NLCS series with the San Diego Padres, but then lost, in stunning fashion, three straight games to lose the series and miss the World Series.

That year was my introduction to the misery and heartbreak of being a Cubs fan. I was devastated by the loss. It was then that I understood “The Lovable Losers” moniker, and its baggage and disappointment. I had a visceral understanding of what it meant to follow a “cursed” team—a team with proud traditions but a dark history for fans. Even though I had also been heartbroken by the Royals loss to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1980, I had been more emotionally invested in that 1984 Cubs team. The Cubs’ collapse held more meaning to me. The stories and coverage after the 1984 series loss were all about curses, heartbreak, disappointment, and being a snake-bitten franchise. “Wait ’til next year” meant something to me.

As you can see, loving the Cubs was, to quote Nelson Algren’s gendered metaphor in Chicago: City on the Make, like loving a women with a broken nose. Here’s the full passage:

Yet once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.[1]

I had become a part of the ambience and beauty of Wrigley Field, and its home team. I loved the trappings and traditions of the Cubs, even when the team’s nose had been broken by an unlovely Padres team. And I loved that team even though the Tribune company, the Cubs owner at the time, was under-investing in its baseball commitment. The Royals were my American League team and one of the “lovelier lovelies” in baseball in the 1980s, but the Cubs loveliness was, indeed, “so real.”

The loveliness of the Cubs was wrapped in its futility. That record included no World Series championships since 1908, no World Series appearance since 1945, and major regular season and post-season disappointments in 1969, 1984, 1989, 1998, 2003, 2007, 2008, and even 2015. I include 2015 despite winning the wildcard and division-series games because of the heartbreaking nature of being swept by the New York Mets, who had been instrumental in dashing the Cubs hopes and playoff aspirations in 1969. History had, heretofore, offered empirical evidence of disappointment. Agony and heartbreak were real. The baggage was as much of a reality as the loveliness of Cubs culture.

What is most interesting to me, about that baggage, is how it had been embraced, historically, by the team’s fans. Per “The Lovable Losers,” a sizable segment of Cubs fans almost wanted failure. They relished in having a cultural touchstone for life’s curve balls. Being a loser was a kind of badge of honor. You could be a Cubs fan with pride, even if you didn’t appreciate being known as a loser in your personal or professional life.

What will those fans do, now that the Cubs on-the-field team has shed one of its core identity markers? Will a softer form of “The Lovable Losers” persist? It could, given that this is only one championship over the past 108 years. And next year’s team, and future teams, could slip back into their historically futile ways. That seems improbable, however, given this team’s youth, competency, and the overall management of the franchise. Indeed, the franchise seems poised for kind 1920s Yankees run. Contingency is specter in sports and athletics, but especially in baseball. Injuries are the great unknown, and have ruined many good baseball teams over the years. My own Kansas City Royals, who won last year’s World Series and played in the same in 2014, barely reached .500 this season as a result of injuries. The same fate might await the Cubs.

For now, however—for today—the Cubs are losers no more. The reigning world champions for Major League Baseball reside at 1060 West Addison, the home of “The Lovely Confines” (my term). This team and its youthful players overcame their history of “Cubbie occurrences” (Lou Piniella’s term), mishaps, curses, and general baggage. They put behind them the franchise’s tradition of losing, and have become, in reality, winners. Today’s reality is different for older Cubs fans. For my part, I will relish this new frontier until Opening Day for the 2017 season. – TL

————————————————
Notes

[1] Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the Make, 50th Anniversary Edition, introduction by Studs Terkel, annotated by Bill Savage and David Schmittgens (1950; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 23.

15 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Wonderful, Tim, thanks. My God, my goodness, what a series. There’s a sound in your voice here that makes me want to listen to more–I can’t tell you exactly what it is, except for the feel of honesty in it, but then how would I know? The weird magic of good prose. Again, thanks.

    • Thanks Jim. I love the immersive aspects of playoffs baseball, especially in an election year like this one. Since you’re working on a memoir (right?), perhaps you’re appreciating the memoirish tone of this piece—the sepia of nostalgia therein? -TL

  2. Sincere congratulations, sir. As a Red Sox fan since 1985, I know the cathartic nature of “next year” finally arriving. Believe me when I say that baseball becomes far more enjoyable once you’re just another team and not a “cursed” one. That anxiety and urgency, that expectation of a history of failure dominating all else on the field, disappears, and then it’s easier to appreciate the game as the simple pleasure of competition. That psychological liberation is what it’s all about.

  3. Neil: Thanks for the comment. I suspect you’re right that, as a fan, it’ll be more enjoyable next year without the fear, angst, and heartburn of losing, yet again. I’m looking forward to that! And I hope the players loosen up, and maybe win another. – TL

  4. Yes, congratulations to you Tim. I’m also a Cubs fan, have been since I can remember. I’m so happy to see this post. I had hoped you would write something up.

    Just a few memories: My parents grew up on the North Side of Chicago in Bucktown, which was a Polish neighborhood at the time. My dad is one of those stories that we’ve heard about so much. He’s eighty-three now, used to go to the games as a kid, showing up early, getting autographs from his favorite players. He wasn’t at the series in 1945, but remembers listening to game seven on the radio and crying when the Cubs lost. Like you, the 1984 squad was the one I grew up on: Sandberg, Smith, Sarge, the Penguin, Rick Sutcliffe, Harry Caray, the whole lot. We lived a couple of hours south of Chicago then, and the town was divided between Cubs and Cardinals fans. So I grew up with a pretty severe dislike of the Cardinals, although who didn’t like Ozzie Smith? I was one of those kids who played baseball, collected cards, watched games like you on WGN with my dad. At Catholic School in the middle grades, the Dominican sister who taught us homeroom loved the Cubs so much that she cancelled regular class for the first two games against the Padres. She wheeled out the TV those afternoons and we watched them win. The lights weren’t up at Wrigley then, so the playoffs in Chicago happened during the day. Then Steve Garvey and the Padres swept the last three. It was devastating.

    Like you, I worry about what will happen next. They are a great, young squad, but what will drive them and us if they become another large market team? I’ve always thought Cubs fans were the most morally serious fans for the reasons you describe, so now I don’t know what to do. It’s exhilarating and strange. Thanks for a great post Tim.

    • Peter: My apologies for not remembering our shared passion for the Cubs! I recall now at least one conversation between us about that. I guess I thought my rabidness distinguished me from most of my history friends, excluding Matt Hedstrom—who lets his Cubs freak flag fly on Facebook.

      My faux pas aside, I’m glad this piece resonated with you. Perhaps this addendum will also speak to you:

      I was struck this morning, after watching the victory parade proceed through the city (I was one of the 5 million strong, perched at Addison and Halsted), about how *deliberate* and *reasoned* this rebuilding and march to the championship has been. The Ricketts family hired Theo Epstein and his team, and Maddon, to make this happen. They completed the feat about one year earlier than expected (so says hearsay and rumor).

      But Epstein is known for an analytical approach to the game, a la Billy Beane and Moneyball. I don’t mean to say that Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Maddon are not susceptible to less than reasonable decisions, or moves from the heart that they want to justify with quantitative thinking. But their priority is *analytics*.

      You might call this the Team of Reason, or a product of Enlightenment baseball, as Spinoza or Comte or other positivists might’ve imagined building a team.

      Am I on to something here? – TL

      • I think you’re probably right about this. It is the team of reason, in the spirit of the Enlightenment, Comte and analytics, and also in the sense that reason, when it’s good, is patient. They built a farm team with real depth and their style of play showed patience this year. They were good when they took pitches and put runners on. Of course, this goes back into analytics doesn’t it. Runs scored and on-base percentage are what matters.

        Watching baseball now is different than when we watched Harry and Steve don’t you think? I’m thinking about how stories from broadcasters to fill up time are now pushed over more and more for statistics, some of them totally outrageous. “In this scenario on this occasion this or that batter does the following, etc.” (I’m also not sure about the players being interviewed in the middle of games, but that’s another story.)

        So while I’m not sure the obsession over analytics and statistics has been on the whole better for watching baseball, now it’s the lay of the land and Epstein seems to have mastered it. You won’t get complaints from me for the results. It may be that I’m grousing here now that I think of it. I mean, Robert Coover wrote my favorite baseball novel, The Universal Baseball Association in 1968, where the protagonist becomes so obsessed with chance and number that the wheels come off and he can’t distinguish between reality and fantasy.

        Maybe that’s telling. Maybe you felt that today in Chicago: the team of numbers allowed us to live out a fantasy. I woke up, well, really “groggy” on Thursday and had to pinch myself to believe it had really happened.

      • Here’s Rany Jazayerli on my point about the Cubs becoming a team driven by the head (i.e. critical thinking, information, and curiosity) as much as the heart (two excerpts):

        1. “To be perfectly clear, “analytics” doesn’t mean “numbers.” It means cutting through the bullshit. It means having a reason for every decision you make, and that reason being something other than “because that’s the way it’s always been done.” It doesn’t mean eliminating Conventional Wisdom; it means questioning it. It means getting as much data as you can, but “data” is just a fancy word for information. The Cubs don’t focus on stats at the exclusion of other forms of information — they famously picked Hendricks as the pitching prospect they wanted from the Rangers four years ago due to his makeup.”

        2. “Baseball has been solved, and the solution is simple: There is no solution. It’s when you think you’ve got the game figured out that it bites you in the ass. There is always more information to be had, and more information is always useful. The battle was never between the quants and the gut-instinct types, it was between the curious and the incurious. The curious have won. Like Japanese soldiers hiding in the mountains of the Philippines for 30 years after World War II, there will still be pockets of resistance for some time in the form of small-town columnists desperate to serve up clickbait with an anti-analytics screed. But make no mistake: The war is over.” –
        TL

  5. The framing of reason vs. desire (Enlightenment) or “morally serious” fans vs. “large market team” evades entirely the character of mass spectator sports in the 20th century and after. It’s consumer capitalism, guys! Baseball was big business by the 1920s. There’s no stadium without sponsor billboards, from day one–think of lovable Fenway, what’s that big old green thing looming over left field? The commodity form demands moral seriousness and analytics. Ask Marx. Hell, ask me.

    • Yes, this too Jim! No doubt about it. The analytics and reason angle have been supplemented, BIG TIME, with revenue enhancers. Evidence: Fight with free-loading roof-top opportunists, massive billboards, the big screen for advertising assaults between innings, and significant ticket price increases. Like the Yankees did in the 1990s and 2000s, we bought this championship as much as the franchise “reasoned” for it. So yes indeed, I’m with you. In this society, scratch the surface a teeny bit, and greed seeps like puss from the sore. It begs for a Marxian bandaid. – TL

    • Jesus H. Christ. There ain’t nothing Livingston won’t stretch over the rack of his dialectics. No quarter. OK, fine, granted. Since the “golden age” of Grantland Rice, baseball has been about consumer capitalism. Another way of framing the question: how will the Cubs rebrand their product? I mean, this one sold really well, eh?

      • Actually, I think Jim’s at war with himself on this one. The Cubs speak to his heart, deeply. But his cross of gold (capitalism) burdens his vision of this world with a (just) burning skepticism about greed. Don’t all thinking Americans feel this tension about her products, institutions, churches, etc.? The profanity of capitalism scratches and claws, and sometimes destroys, our sacred objects.

  6. I don’t much follow professional sports and didn’t know all these details of the Cubs’ history. I did notice the line in the post about Cubs’ fans having valued “a cultural touchstone for life’s curve balls.” Just wanted to say that that’s a particularly nice phrase (in a well written post).

  7. Ha! I love this shit! Peter Kuryla, damn straight, and thank you for your eloquent elocution of Frankfurt School dialectics, speaking of them. And Tim Lacy, thank you for raising the questions to begin with. Tim, fuck your panel on whatever, let’s the three of us do one on the Cubs in Dallas.

Comments are closed.