Why We Cheer: Tethered to History
Individuals become fans of particular sports team through one of two ways—choice, or inheritance. For fans of the modern Chicago Cubs what tended to drive the “choosers” was the visibility that the Cubs had thanks to the power of television. In the 1980’s and 1990’s both the Cubs and Atlanta Braves were seen all across America on cable TV. The additional advantage that the Cubs had was that all of their homes games were played during the day until 1988, so kids who were home all day during the summer had the opportunity to watch major-league baseball.
I am part of the other group, the inherited, which a pessimist might call the indoctrinated., and which a true cynic would call the abused.
The roots of my Cub fandom go back two generations. My father’s father, the son of Irish immigrants, began the cycle. Back then, in the early aughts, during the Frank Chance Era, the Cubs were not known as a “North Side” team per se, as both the Cubs and Sox played south of Downtown. Sure, the Cubs, near modern-day UIC, were about 5 miles northwest of the Sox, who back then played on 39th Street, but the modern-day dichotomy of North Side/South Side wasn’t as developed as it is now.
If I were to guess, I would say that there were two factors that contributed to my grandfather choosing the Cubs (although the story goes that he was cool with both teams at one point, but later ditched the White Sox after the 1919 World Series scandal). The first factor was that he lived closer to West Side Grounds, home of the Cubs. The other was how ridiculously awesome those Cubs team were. True story. The 1906 Cubs team holds the record—since 1900--for the best single-season winning percentage. The 1906-1907 Cubs hold the best two year record, and the 1906-1908 Cubs hold the best three year record. The Cubs averaged 107 wins a year in that stretch, while playing only 152 games per year. Nobody has ever dominated baseball for a near 450-game stretch like that before or since.
This was a really goddamn good team and it’s no wonder that my grandpa staked his claim to them.
Sadly, my dad would not be so lucky. Sure, the year he was born—1933—the Cubs, in the midst of another National League dynasty, were defending National League champs. They would also win the pennant when he was 2 and again when he was 5. It was the last “Golden Era” of a franchise that had, by then, enjoyed rather quite a few of those eras already. By this time my grandfather had settled in the area near Wrigley Field in an increasingly populated North Side, and this was where my dad was born and raised. My father does not have much recollection about the Cubs in the 1930’s, although he was often reminded by his old man about some of the stars from these perennially-contending clubs—Kiki Cuyler, Lon Warneke and his dad’s favorite player—Riggs Stephenson.
Sadly, my dad was unwittingly entering an era that was, at that point, totally unprecedented for the franchise. Sure, they won the pennant again in ’45, but not before the Cubs franchise had suffered through their first-ever five-year streak of sub .500 baseball, going al the way back to 1876 (indeed, in the near 70 years that the Cubs had existed prior to 1940, they only had suffered through 14 sub-.500 seasons total, and never more than three consecutive). Besides, the pennant they did win in ’45 hardy signified any sort of a dynasty anyway. At 12 years old, though, my dad couldn’t have appreciated the fact that this patchwork pennant winner mostly represented the fact that their 4F’s were simply, in the words of the great Mike Royko “less enfeebeled” than the 4-F’s of all of the other NL teams, whose better players were off to war. In any event, as everyone knows, the 1945 Cubs definitively slammed shut a nearly-uninterrupted 70-year string of pennant contention and marked the commencement of one of the darkest ages in professional sports.
The loyalty stuck with my dad, though, as should be expected. As a young man in the 1950’s, he would while away many afternoons at Wrigley, watching one collection of misfits after another fumble, overthrow, and swing and miss at baseballs year after year. In the entire decade of the 50’s, the Cubs enjoyed one—ONE--.500 season, and even that was right at .500—in 1952, when they went 77-77.
Amazingly, it got worse in the early 1960’s when oddball owner PK Wrigley implemented his bewilderingly inept “College of Coaches” In 1962 the Cubs would suffer through their first-ever 100 loss season. They repeated the feat 4 years.
All of this classic ineptitude was not enough to turn my dad off the Cubs—the seed had been planted and the thought of simply turning his attention to the perennially-contending White Sox across town never would have occurred to my dad (indeed, another one of my inherited traits is that while, I generally root against New York teams in all sports, the Yankees never bothered me. Hearing stories from my old man about Mantle, Maris, Ford and crew strutting into a town and taking 4 of 4 or 4 of 5 from the annoyingly successful White Sox, knocking them down a peg and giving my dad a brief ray of happiness during a time when the Cubs were in a positively medieval era makes me happy). My older brothers, born roughly a decade ahead of me in the early 60’s, were raised Cub fans and in theirearliest years, the Cubs had briefly—and disappointingly as it turned out—gotten good again. But the Durocher-Era Cubs—who still never won anything—soon faded back into the 1950’s-like malaise to round out the 1970’s.
And this is where I come in. I was aware of the Cubs by about 1977, but my 5-year old brain was yet unable to hold any real interest in them. I’m pretty sure it was in 1977 when I was taken to my first game. My first visual recollection starts with my dad turning off Chuck Woolery on “Wheel Fortune” while Chuck was in the midst of giving some lady the go ahead to purchase the porcelain Dalmatian (ahh, Chuck Woolery and people buying obnoxious shit instead of just getting a check. My how “Wheel of Fortune” has changed), and off we went—six of us--to the Cubs game. The recollection for me is boiled down to a sort of vague snapshot—a sunny view from the bleachers, 400 feet from the action, which is where my dad would always take us if there were more than 1 kid going with, as the bleachers were a much cheaper ticket back then.
So while I had been exposed to the Cubs in 1977 and 1978, it didn’t really take root until 1979. This may have something to do with the fact that 1979 was the year that I began playing Little League Baseball myself. For whatever reason, the first vivid memory I have of the Cubs is from a late-September game against the scary Pittsburgh Pirates. My appreciation for baseball may have been in its infancy, but I was able to glean enough to know that the Pirates were a menacing bunch. Dressed in gold and black uniforms, these big, bad jewelry-clad, moody mofos like Dave Parker, Mike Easler, John Milner and Bill Madlock (not to mention the gentlemanly but still-fearful Willie Stargell) were a pretty bad-ass bunch of dudes and would, in fact, eventually win what would be their last World Series to date that season. The fact that the Cubs chose not to flee the field shrieking, let alone actually challenge the Pirates in a couple of close games, got me excited for them. The Cubs were hovering around .500 at the time but were out of contention and yet they played Pittsburgh tough. In one of the games—and this is really the precise point where my first recollection of action on the field takes place—the Cubs’ manager, Herman Franks, a delightfully rotund individual, came out to argue a call with the umpire and went hysterical, kicking dirt and otherwise making a spectacle of himself. Franks may have flipped his cap around to get in the ump’s face for all I remember. Watching the game on WGN-TV, as the later-summer, late-afternoon shadows had crept around home plate, I was hooked.
My delight in this funny looking and funnily-named Herman Franks quickly turned to sadness when he was fired immediately after the Pittsburgh series. He was replaced by third-base coach Joey Amalfitano, but it didn’t matter. Sad as I was to see Franks gone, I spent that offseason after the 1979 campaign waiting for baseball to come back.
The 1980 Cubs were terrible. Franks’ replacement—Preston Gomez—couldn’t even make it to August, as he was canned after 90 games into his first year. Once again Amalfitano replaced the manager and apparently, Joey’s 15-37 record convinced the Cubs to let him run the team in 1981 from the get-go.
It only got worse in 1981, a team that I still rank in the top 5 in mylifetime as the worst ever (in no particular order, the other four would be 1986, 1994, 1997, and 2002.). No matter, though. Even though the Cubs were a dreadful 15-37 (what is it with that record?) when the player’s strike hit, they were granted a reprieve as the league decided to spit the season up into “halves”. The Cubs got a fresh start, and I, of course, being the young stupid kid I was, felt like a kid who gets Christmas in July waiting for the “second” Opening Day. Of course the Cubs proved that their 15-37 first half was no mirage as they went 23-38 in the second half to finish with a .369 winning percentage for the season. But that still didn’t deter me. Like my dad in the 1950’s, I was a Cub fan whether I liked it or not.
Of course, while many people of my generation have seen some awful, awful baseball, we also have seen more successful seasons than those fans who came before us, so I can’t complain that I’ve suffered more than people like my dad and my uncles have. And my fandom, such as it arrived during a particularly bleak period of time for the Cubs, was rewarded in 1984, when they snapped a 39-year postseason drought.
I’ve written in the past about steering my daughter away from rooting for the Cubs. Born in 2006, the Cubs had yet to score a run in her presence during her first two games, in 2006 and 2007, respectively, so my ambivalence was warranted (that, and the fact that she was born toward the end of the MacPhail Era of Incompetence and my frustration with the team at the time was at a fever pitch). Anyway, my wife and I got her out there again for last Sunday’s season finale against the Cardinals, and the Cubs not only scored, and won, but my now two-and-a-half year old girl managed to make it all the way through to the end of the game. When we sang “Go Cubs Go” after the last out, she sang most all of the words and it occurred to me that I may have already passed it down.
Editor's Note: Huey is a Goat Rider at Large who currently hangs his hat at Hire Jim Essian. He is a good writer who has been kind enough on past occassions to save news clippings of various Goat Riders whenever we have been able to sneak our way into the press.