By Phillip Naylor
A new baseball season is starting, but like so many other fans (including departmental colleagues Kristen Foster and Dave McDaniel), the Cubs’ 2016 season remains an inimitable existential experience. Actually, it seemed more like a temporal displacement still leaving me in disbelief over its monumental achievements—103 regular-season wins (celebrated by ubiquitous “W” flags even here in Milwaukee), the National League Pennant (dreamt of since childhood), and the World Series Championship (beyond reverie). Perhaps I had entered an alternate universe? Or should I invoke Michel Foucault and an idea of a disrupted, discontinuous episteme, i.e., the displacement (and replacement) of configured relations and knowledge? Was my condition postmodern as well as existential, if not metaphysical? Ontology (being) and epistemology (knowing) were also at play during the 2016 season.
Oh sure, I perceived a couple of years ago while attending a late season Brewers-Cubs game of the potential of young players like Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, and Jorje Soler (now a Kansas City Royal). The Cubs won that one. Ironically, when Kristen, Dave, Kitty, and I went to a game last September, the Brewers pummeled the Cubs 12-5! I tried to repress the thought that this signaled a cosmological corrective. Nevertheless, future National League Most Valuable Player (MVP) Kris Bryant did not play (to Kristen’s particular disappointment) as Manager Joe Maddon rested him—apparently preparing for the postseason—and to my astonishment, the Cubs’ victories subsequently mounted.
An extraordinary discourse developed along with a shifting episteme—Cub fans now talked positively and anticipated winning rather than losing. Oh sure, there was a vestigial fatalism, perhaps a dreadful Ted Savage-like out-at-the-plate moment (against the Cardinals in 1967). Nevertheless, I discovered that the season sparked long dormant synapses activating currents of memory and history, e.g., my impression of Wrigley Field when the Macks took me to my first game (I had never seen a venue so verdant); a Memorial Day double header when my friend Kenny and I explored Wrigley’s empty upper grandstand during the second game; my sunburn while sitting in the sizzling right field bleachers with my father and brother; and introducing my children to Wrigley’s ambience with its faint organ music allowing reflection regarding the game’s subtleties between innings (unlike Miller Park’s electronically generated cacophony producing sensory overload).
Then there were memories of the Cubs themselves. Foremost was Ernie Banks. Yes, Ernie, that slender slugger from the Negro League’s Kansas City Monarchs whose baseball prowess and power earned him the respect, if not adoration of fans. Indeed, he was indirectly, like African American players of his generation, a Civil Rights figure by his very presence on the field. Banks’s positive attitude (“Let’s play three”) and dignity profoundly impressed. His love of the game transcended the ineluctable team losing streaks. I was proud that he was the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1958 and 1959.
As a boy, I poured over my Cub yearbook, which introduced me to (Joe) Tinker-to- (Johnny) Evers-to (Frank) Chance, “Three Finger(ed)” Mordecai Brown, and Gabby Hartnett (and his twilight home run against the Pirates in 1938). Yes! There had been great Cubs like Lewis “Hack” Wilson who in 1930 hit 56 home runs and drove in 191 runs (the latter statistic remains a record). I learned about Phil Cavaretta and the 1945 pennant winners. The Cubs had been winners, but the World Series Championship (last won in 1908) remained elusive.
The 2016 season reminded me how my friends and I avidly collected baseball cards. I cherished my Cubs collection—now long gone. Each card was an archive with biographical and statistical data. I learned about geography too, i.e., the location of minor league teams. (Trading cards provided early experiences of the role of utility in assessing a player’s value!) Memory recalled a great blunder—the Cubs’ trading of outfielder Lou Brock (a Hall of Famer) to the St. Louis Cardinals for pitcher Ernie Broglio in 1964. Brock immediately helped lead the Cardinals to a World Championship while, sadly, Broglio’s arm became sore.
And the Cubs chronically lost. I would check team standings in the home-delivered Chicago Tribune to see how close the Cubs were to escaping the cellar. If they lost, how bad was it? An 8-6 loss was palatable; at least “we” came close. Yet I kept on being a fan. While at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle (UIC today), I watched for the “W” or “L” flag fluttering from the scoreboard as my northbound Englewood/Howard A or Jackson/Howard B (now Red Line) or Evanston Express train approached the Addison stop. Oh sure, I had my moments when Cubs teams frustrated if not alienated me. Yet no matter what I said, denounced, and even renounced, I still could not let go.
The worst was the 1969 season. After a phenomenal start, “Cub Power” dissipated. The Mets’ eventually overtook the Cubs and capped their “miraculous” success vs. the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. Decades after that season, a new Western Civilization Varsity Theater Program teaching assistant (TA) entered my Coughlin Hall office and introduced himself. He wore a Mets hat. I immediately informed him that he was not to wear that hat again in my presence. Of course, I told him that I was kidding (Yeah, kinda!) and he ended up being one of my finest TAs that I had the pleasure to work while “in the Varsity.” Of course, there were other disappointments such as the 1984 National League Championship Series loss to the San Diego Padres after the Cubs won the first two games in Wrigley but lost the next three on the West Coast. Despite the heroics of Mark Grace in the 1989 National League Championship Series, the Cubs were outhit by Will Clark and the San Francisco Giants. In 2003, with five outs needed to win the National League Pennant and return to the World Series, a fly ball drifted foul toward the stands in left field tracked by the Cubs’s Moises Alou…‘nuff said! Despite that loss and other heartbreaks, 1969 remained the most odious season.
There was also tragedy concerning the Cubs that had nothing to do with the game on the field. In 1962, Ken Hubbs was Rookie of the Year. (Hall of Famer Billy Williams won the award in 1961.) Hubbs was a brilliant, seemingly flawless second baseman and set major league records for his errorless fielding. He was the first rookie to win a Gold Glove award. The future looked very promising, but Hubbs perished in a plane crash in February 1964. (See: https://miscbaseball.wordpress.com/2012/01/07/remembering-1960s-cubs-second-basemand-ken-hubbs/ airplane) I was also moved by the death of Jack Quinlan in March 1965. Jack was the Cubs’ superb radio announcer who died in an automobile accident in Arizona. Quinlan’s broadcast partner was Lou Boudreau, the former brilliant player-manager who led the Cleveland Indians to their last World Series Championship, 68 years ago. As reiterated often during the 2016 World Series, Cleveland’s been waiting a long time too.
Favorite Cubs paraded through my consciousness during 2016. There was Walt “Moose” Moryn who habitually and heroically (and repeatedly) collided with right field foul line brick wall chasing line drives and fly balls. With no padding, man, that had to hurt! His most famous catch was in left field where he grabbed a sinking line drive to preserve Don Cardwell’s no hitter in May 1960. He could slug, too, and was an all-star. Dick Drott and Moe Drabowsky had fire-balling right arms. I remembered Gene Baker, Don Hoak, Hobie Landrith, Bob Rush, and Cal Neeman among so many others on losing teams. I must add here that these are names that my esteemed colleague, Professor Emeritus Tom Jablonsky, knows well. (I miss you, man!)
I never subscribed, however, to the cachet image of the Cubs as “lovable losers.” The Cubs were simply the Cubs; a baseball team that usually lost games. When I taught at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts, I readily identified with the Red Sox. Marquette history doctoral graduate Pete deRosa (who is a professor at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts and a baseball scholar) and I used to compare the Red Sox and the Cubs while watching games in Fenway Park. Red Sox memorable losses were, however, much more dramatic, if not Sophoclean, i.e., Johnny Pesky’s hesitant relay in the 1946 World Series or Bill Buckner’s error in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series (against the Mets!). I highly recommend Stephen Jay Gould’s article on history and memory: “Jim Bowie’s Letter & Bill Buckner’s Legs,” Natural History, 109, no. 4 (May 2000): 26-40. (My undergraduate seminar students read it this semester.) I must add, Pesky was a great Red Sox (“Mr. Red Sox”) and humanitarian. Buckner played well with the Cubs before being traded to the Red Sox. (Overlooked, he had a distinguished career with over 2,700 hits.). Gould argues that Buckner has been unfairly portrayed and blamed regarding the Red Sox loss in the sixth game and the World Series. See also: http://weldbham.com/blog/2011/10/27/bill-buckner-shouldn%E2%80%99t-be-blamed-for-a-red-sox-loss-in-the-1986-world-series/. Of course, after 86 years, the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 and then in 2007.
I particularly appreciate how the Cubs’ success in 2016 evoked fans’ memories and histories—for some, even at deeper ontological and epistemological levels bringing them to tears when the Cubs secured their World Series win. Will the Cubs repeat in 2017 as they did in 1907 and 1908? I can entertain such thoughts now. I feel quite existentially comfortable with this new episteme and thankful for it.
Phil Naylor is professor of history and author of France and Algeria: A History of Decolonization and Transformation and North Africa: A History from Antiquity to the Present, among other books. He teaches courses on the Middle East, North Africa, and Rock and Roll.