We were in Pittsburgh last summer, many hundreds of miles north of home, on the train from the airport to a PNC Park that would be filled with blue-shirted fans of the visiting team. My wife spoke to a Cubs-capped young boy headed to the game with his father.
“Don’t be a Cubs fan,” she pleaded. “They’ll just break your heart.”
After all these years, she knows. But yet, it’s not as though we can help it….
We are serfs in the Kingdom of Cub. We are in thrall to the vines of the outfield, to the seventh-inning sing, to the pain of ’69 and the shock of ’84.
We are attached by heredity to Philibuck and Pafko, Sarge and the Hawk, Brickhouse and Carey, channel 9 and 720 on your radio dial.
We are decendents of those who watched the first Chicago National League ballclub, the one that essentially invented the league in the centennial year 1876, and then handily won its first pennant. We carry the flag of those who ringed fields on the south, west and north sides of Chicago to watch Cap Anson and Three Finger Brown and Swish Nicholson, National League champions all. We are part of more than a century and a quarter of tradition, of Tinker to Evers to Chance, of Hack to Hank to Banks.
We are of all ages, and we know no social boundaries.
We are those of the Greatest Generation, fast disappearing, who were around for the Homer in the Gloamin’ and some of the greatest teams.
We share Cubdom with important people: the vice president and the late former president and the junior senator from New York, and with the actors and coaches and other celebrities who sing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” for better or worse. And we share Cubdom with the folks whose vacation of a lifetime is a Cubs Convention in wintertime Chicago cold or a week at Randy Hundley’s fantasy camp in wintertime Arizona warmth.
We are those, into our Medicare years, who remember Gravel Gertie, baseball’s most famous hot dog vendor, and who still wonder why manager Charlie Grimm started Hank Borowy on short rest in Game 7 in ’45.
We share Cubdom with the late cartoonist Jeff MacNelly:
Shoe (wearing Cubs cap): A good Cubs fan accepts defeat and disappointment in the belief that tomorrow will be a better day. Do you know what that’s called, Skyler?
Shoe: Optimism is the word I was looking for.
We are those, now thinking about retirement, who waited for the Andy Frain ushers to stop paying attention, in the days when the Cubs really did play two, then sneaked down into the always-available box seats. There, up close, you could see Handsome Ransom Jackson at third base next to Roy Smalley, and Frankie Baumholtz playing the outfield among the mastodons, Hank Sauer and Ralph Kiner.
We share Cubdom with those who have transported the blue circle and the red C all over the world, to places like Puerto Vallarta in Mexico, which is where you find Mickey’s No Name Café, “Unofficial Home Chicago Cubs.”
We are those whose mind’s picture of the Friendly Confines always shows a bright daytime scene, who always want to know if the wind’s blowing in off the lake or blowing fly balls into the seats, who know to bring a jacket even in June.
We share Cubdom with the cap-wearing, kid-bringing, glove-carrying crowds that hurry off the el at the Addison stop and with those who can score space on the rooftops and with those who pack the beer bistros around the park. We inhabit this land of ours with Bleacher Bums who wear no shirts and with generals of industry who wear suits and cell phones. And we share Cubdom with those who come no closer to the team than WGN on cable.
We are those, in the midst of our careers now, who scattered far from Chicago and picked up the pre-cable, pre-Internet voices of Vince Lloyd and Lou Boudreau after dark among the static on the radio. Sometimes, you did better in your car; maybe that’s how you heard the late-night Hendley-Koufax no-hit duel in Los Angeles.
We share Cubdom with political writer and occasional Cubs commentator George Will, who uses the same skybox-price words to describe the infield fly rule and the McCain-Feingold Act, and with political writer and occasional Cubs commentator David Broder, who does not.
We are those who went from ecstasy to gloom in 1969 with Fergie and Santo and the New York Stinkin’ Mets. And we are those who went from I-94 Series anticipation to a winter’s depression in the course of one week in 1984—the Padres, for Ryne’s sake!
We share Cubdom with people we spot with Cubs caps on the beach in Florida and with Cubs stickers on their California bumpers and with Cubs shirts in the stands at Turner Field in Atlanta (our super station can beat yours!). We have nothing else in common with the bearers, but we are extended family, serfs performing the duties of our station in life.
We are those who, through good fortune of birth, were spared these old agonies and first felt the lash in October 2003, in an eighth inning that will hurt as long as anyone can remember the names of the fan who turned one maybe-out into none and the shortstop who turned a sure two into none.
We share Cubdom with the generations who have heard “We don’t care who wins just as long as it’s the Cubs,” and “Hey, hey,” and “Holy cow!” We share images: “Beautiful Wrigley Field,” the manual scoreboard, bullpens right there in the open down the base lines. We know that 8/8/88 was the date of the first (rained-out) night game, and that Waveland is the avenue behind the left field bleachers. I say Brock. You say Broglio. And we remember together that awful trade.
We are those who carry on for those who served but are gone now, all the potential-springs-eternal fans who saw new hope in Novikoff and Brinkhopf, Baker and Banks, Drott and Drabowsky, the hope we see today in D-Lee and Big Z. We who have bowed before Andy and Billy and Sammy are the successors to the many who revered Hack Miller and Hack Wilson and Hack, Stan. How many millions of unrequited Cubs fans, people who worked hard and gave to charity, were good to their spouses and children, were honest and upright… how many lived long and otherwise fulfilled lives without seeing their team win four of seven in the last week of the baseball year?
We are those who can recite the whole litany of dropped fly balls and botched grounders and horrid personnel decisions.
We’ve all heard the line: Any team can have a bad century.
Why do you put yourself thorough this, they ask, they who do not share our lot in life. Why do you care so much when the object of your affection keeps spurning you? They don’t say it in so many words, but they imply that we should abandon our heritage, that we should abdicate.
People, please understand. We do not envy Yankees fans. Who roots for Microsoft to make another billion? We are not like fans of the Diamondbacks or the Marlins, those World Series arrivistes of the Sunbelt. Rooting for such a team is drinking instant coffee.
The White Sox, clearly, are not an option.
We cringe at the phrase “long suffering,” which lazy language attaches to “Cubs fans” the way it attaches “lovable” to “losers.” We know the real emphasis in that expression is on “long.” We who are a certain age were Cubs fans before the Cubs were cute. We are not those who change team alliances like so many Dave Kingmans. If the job takes us to Minneapolis, we are sure as grass not going to start pulling for some team that plays on synthetic fiber in an airplane hangar with cup holders.
The enterprise of our estate has never been stuffy and old money, nor is it upstart nouveau riche. It’s everyday, solid, Middle American, like, well, the Wrigley Co. Chew on that.
We don’t know five World Series championships in a row, or a decade-plus of annual division titles. But that only makes us appreciate smaller successes all the more. How joyful were those six months of 1984, right through the third day of October and a two-games-to-none lead in the championship series? How wonderful was the unexpected Boys of Zimmer 1989 season? Yes, Mark McGwire outhomered Our Sammy in ’98, but who got into the postseason? And 2003, in the division playoff, how about flicking the Braves away like so much lint?
We will not waver in our loyalty, or in our passion. We will persevere. We trust the lords of the manor, trust they are with us in the struggle.
We believe that the current general manager is a fine judge of baseball flesh, and will employ workers who are strong of mind and body, powerful of arm, fleet of foot, and of good character. Men named Gallagher and Matthews and Holland and Green (oh, so close!) and Lynch couldn’t do it, but this time we are on the right path. We have faith.
We know—not hope, know—that the manager we have now is finally the man to show our troops the way to ultimate victory, as no one has since the Peerless Leader, Frank Chance, in ought-eight. Nineteen ought-eight. Jolly Cholly couldn’t, or the Fordham Flash, or Marse Joe, not the entire faculty of the college of coaches, nor the roaring Leo or the ranting Lee, not all the guys named Jim. In Dusty we trusted, for a while. But this is the time.
We share Cubdom with Bryant Gumbel:
“Being a Cubs fan is like being in limbo, with paradise always a day away.”
Our day will come, though we worry that it won’t. And—admit it—we worry a little that it will. In the most secret parts of our minds we wonder what will happen to us, to our very being, if the Cubs really do win it all. Then how will we feel about them? How will we feel about ourselves? What would the dog do if it did catch the school bus? And if Sisyphus had gotten the stone to the top? Then what?
If disappointment is the coin of the realm, we know no other. If anticipation of success is the air we breathe, it is as vital as oxygen.
Long live the kingdom.
References & Resources
I wrote this originally for the book Cubs: From Tinker to Banks to Sandburg to Today, with Joe Hoppel, published by The Sporting News in 2005. The book is still available from online booksellers, and from fine bookstores within a long fly ball of Wrigley Field.