by Timothy Lane 9/4/15
George Will is a long-time Cubs fan, going back to childhood, and like any good conservative has maintained his loyalty regardless of their (usually bad) performance. In this book, he looks at the Cubs and the park that has been their home for nearly a century now.
Wrigley Field was built for the Chicago team in the Federal League, which existed for only 2 years (1914-15); major league baseball does well with 2 leagues, but efforts at a third haven’t prospered. After the team folded, the Cubs took over Wrigley. The Cubs at that time were a generally successful team, arguably the founding team of the National League. The 1906 team had the best record in major league history (though it lost the World Series to their crosstown rivals, nicknamed the “Hitless Wonders”). They won the World Series in 1907 and 1908 (unaware that this would be their last such victory, at least as of now), and a pennant in 1910.
But since then their performance hasn’t been as good. They had a good decade from 1929 through 1938, winning the pennant every 3 years (but only 3 games in the 4 World Series — combined), and also won pennants in 1918 and 1945. But since then they’ve usually been a mediocre or even poor team — and even when they weren’t, they were cursed.
Will is basically telling a general history of the park (and the Cubs), but it’s heavily anecdotal (and he has a lot of nice anecdotes). The Cubs were the last team to put in lights (though they would have done so decades earlier if it hadn’t been for World War II). As it happens, if they had instead been one of the first teams to do so, one of the great moments in Cubs history — Gabby Hartnett’s “homer in the gloaming” in 1938, which won the pennant just as the umpires were ready to call the game due to darkness (naturally, they were swept in the Series by the Yankees) — would have lost its drama.
But it’s regrettable, given the Cubs’ curse, that Will never mentions, much less explains, the Curse of the Billy-goat. This occurred in 1945, when the Cubs decided not to let a local fan bring his billy-goat to the park during the World Series (as he had regularly done during the season). He cursed them, and not only did they lose the Series 4-3 to Detroit (what the heck, that was as many games as they won in their 4 previous appearances before the curse), but ever since they’ve never made the Series at all. Will shows the results, and how much their fans have expected something to go wrong (and they’ve always been right), but not the explanation.
Will includes plenty of tidbits. There was a Wrigley Field vendor named Jacob Rubinstein who developed a bit of a bad reputation. He later did what so many Illinoisans have done in recent years and went elsewhere. In his case, he moved to Texas after changing his name to Jack Ruby, and eventually became far more notorious than he ever was in Chicago.
Just after completing my contribution on Lust for the Seven Deadly Sins symposium, I read Will’s account of 2 interesting incidents involving women stalking baseball players. One shot and wounded Billy Jurges in 1932, forcing the Cubs to get a new shortstop to finish the season. They chose former Yankee Mark Koeng, who helped lead them to a pennant and was then voted only half a World Series share. His former teammates were most unhappy about this (even though at the time they hadn’t always gotten along with him), which helped make that Series a very hostile encounter (which played a role in what may or may not have been a “called shot” by Babe Ruth). The other shot Eddie Waitkus after he was traded to the Phillies. The injury wasn’t serious — but it inspired Waitkus’s friend Bernard Malamud.
There are plenty of other anecdoates. There was the 23-22 game between the Phillies and Cubs. There was the fan who went after a foul ball that barely made it into the stands (someone else actually caught the ball), depriving Cubs outfielder Moises Alou of a catch — and, ultimately, helping cost the Cubs a pennant. (Will notes that the “Friendly Confines” certainly weren’t friendly for him after that.)
All in all, this is a very interesting book for baseball fans — particularly fans of the Cubs, of course.
Timothy Lane writes from Louisville, Kentucky and publishes the FOSFAX fanzine.
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