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[x-post] Lovable Losers No More: History and the Chicago Cubs, from a Fan’s Perspective

November 3, 2016

[This is a cross-post from the S-USIH Blog. – TL]

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” 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, Andre Dawson, 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.” 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

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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.

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