If you were to draw up the perfect baseball franchise, chances are you might come up with the Chicago Cubs. Here you have a long-established team in a large city with a fanatical fan base, an impressive roster of Hall of Fame players, and a beautiful, timeless ball park that reeks of unique traditions and is actually part of the personality of the team and the city.
Alas, nothing is perfect and the blemish that prevents the Cubs from being that perfect franchise is the interminable lack of success they have suffered on the playing field. It has been more than one-hundred years since the team's last World Championship and over half a century since their last World Series appearance. Still, they embody much of what makes baseball uniquely great and magical.
No baseball team in any city has the length of lineage the Cubs have in Chicago. They were originally formed as an amateur team less than a decade after the Civil War (1874) and joined the National League for its initial season. Playing their first professional game on April 25, 1876, exactly two months before Custer's Last Stand and while Ulysses S. Grant was President of the United States, they defeated the Louisville Greys 4-0.
Ironically, at this time they were known as the White Stockings. Their star player was Hall of Famer Adrian "Cap" Anson, the first player to accumulate three-thousand hits (hi accepted total for over a century / adjusted on site to 2,995). He played and managed in Chicago for twenty-two years.
Chicago greeted the 20th century by changing the team name to the Cubs and changing superstar players — dismissing Anson in 1897 and replacing him with Frank Chance in 1898, considered the best first baseman of his time. Called the "Peerless Leader" for his ability to manage and motivate players, Chance became player-manager halfway through 1905, and began guiding the Cubs down a road that would lead them to one of the greatest seasons of all time.
The 1906 Cubs had it all: a great manager, first baseman and hitter in Chance, the immortal Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance infield and a virtually unhittable pitching staff with Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown (26-6, 1.04), Jack Pfeister (20-8, 1.56), Ed Reulbach (19-4, 1.65) and Carl Lundgren (17-6, 2.21). The team won one-hundred sixteen games, a record that still stands, and finished twenty games ahead of the competition. The only thing the Cubs did wrong in 1906 was lose the World Series. They were upset by their cross-town rival White Sox in six games in what remains the only all-Chicago World Series ever played.
Undeterred, Chance led the Cubs back to the World Series in 1907 and 1908, both times against Ty Cobb's Detroit Tigers. The Cubs won both series and these back to back championships are the only two the franchise has ever won.
The Cubs won one more pennant for Chance in 1910, and another in 1918 behind new manager Fred Mitchell and twenty game winners "Hippo" Vaughn and Claude Hendrix. They lost both World Series.
They did, however, pick up a new owner. Phillip Wrigley of the Chewing Gum Wrigleys bought the team from Charles Weeghman in 1921. Weeghman had originally owned the Federal League"s Chicago Whales (the Federal League was a third Major League that played in 1914-15). Weeghman built the Whales a handsome ballpark on the north side and called it Weeghman Park. After Wrigley bought the team, he changed the name of the park to Cubs Park in 1920 then Wrigley Field in 1926.
The Cubs roared back to the top of the National League in 1929 and began a pattern of winning the pennant every three years (1929-32-35-38) although they lost all four World Series. The Cubs had their share of great players during this decade, including Hall Of Famers Hack Wilson, who, in the prime of his short career, was a home run and RBI machine (setting the then National League record fifty-six home runs and still-record one-hundred ninety-one RBI in 1930), Rogers Hornsby, Kiki Cuyler, Billy Herman, Gabby Hartnett and Chuck Klein. They also had solid performing veterans like Stan Hack, Ripper Collins, and Phil Cavarretta.
The Cubs managed one more pennant in this era, winning in 1945 for Charlie Grimm. As was their growing habit, the Cubs lost this World Series, too. However, eight pennants in the first half of the century was a respectable showing. The problem with the Cubs was what happened in the second half of the century. They managed only three winning seasons between 1945 and 1966, finishing last twice as many times.
Under veteran manager Leo Durocher, the Cubs rebounded in the late 1960's. Ernie Banks had been the heart and soul of the Cubs for the previous decade. He was called Mr. Cub for his loyalty to the franchise and optimistic disposition ("Let's Play Two!"). His five-hundred twelve career home runs and two Most Valuable Player Awards helped cement his reputation. Banks was finally surrounded by strong supporting talent including Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Don Kessinger, Glenn Beckert and Randy Hundley. A veteran pitching staff led by Ferguson Jenkins made the Cubs a contender, but never a winner. The 1969 campaign was the toughest of all for Cubs fans, as the team blew a nine game lead in August to the miracle Mets.
The Cubs returned to their losing ways until Dallas Green came on board and rode the offensive talents of Ryne Sandberg, Jody Davis, Ron Cey and Gary Matthews to the 1984 National League East title. What put the Cubs over the top that year was the in-season acquisition of pitcher Rick Sutcliffe who won seventeen of his eighteen decisions. This magical Cubs season ended on a sour note when they lost the National League Championship Series to the Padres in five games after winning the first two.
The Cubs brightened Wrigley Field with the installation of lights in 1988 and a fair amount of success afterwards with division titles in 1989 and 2003 and a wild card berth in 1998. The '89 and '98 teams exited the playoffs quickly, but the 2003 team went down especially hard, with one particular play summing up life as a Cub player and fan.
With the Cubs needing only one more win against the Marlins to make it to their first World Series in almost fifty years, and leading 3-0 in the sixth game, a fan named Steve Bartman deflected a foul ball hit near his seat along the left field line, preventing outfielder Moises Alou from catching the ball for the inning's second out. The batter, Luis Castillo drew a walk, and before the Cubs could get the next two outs, the Marlins scored eight runs, won the game and won Game Seven the next night.
For Bartman, a lifelong and loyal Cubs fan, life became a nightmare. A half-century of fan frustration poured out on him like venom. He had to be escorted out of the stadium by security guards and go into seclusion for months. The anger of Cubs' fans was not tempered by the fact that Cub pitchers allowed the walk to Castillo or that shortstop Alex Gonzalez booted an easy double play ball two batters later that would have gotten the Cubs out of the inning without allowing a run.
In desperation, Cubs fans ceremoniously destroyed the Bartman foul ball before the beginning of the following season, hoping it would change the karma of a team that had suffered through a half century of abject misery punctuated by occasional near-miss heartbreaks. It didn't work. Until the Cubs find that player or play that reverses the karma, they will have to settle for the sixteen pennants (six in the 19th Century and ten in the 20th Century) and two World Series they have won.