By Daniel Hubbard | November 2, 2016
This is an odd time of year for any fan of the Chicago Cubs. November is the time to consider who should be traded, wonder if there is hope for next year, wonder if they will ever return to the World Series, and generally think off season type thoughts. Yet, somehow this year there is one precious game still to be played.
I never met any of my great-grandparents. Of course, as a genealogist, it isn’t so surprising that I know a great deal about them. I know for example that one of my great-grandfathers was a Cubs fan. My mother has told me that she remembers him listening to games on his radio. The Cubs were founded as the Chicago White Stockings in 1870, when my great-grandfather was only a few months old. They joined the new National League in 1876 and won the first league pennant behind a starting pitcher who won 47 games and a batter with a 429 average. Those numbers alone tell any baseball fan that it was a very, very long time ago. Today a pitcher that wins 20 is rare and a batting average one hundred points lower would be remarkable. In the first ten years of the league, Chicago won the pennant six times. Perhaps that is when my great-grandfather became a fan.
The turn of the last century brought the somewhat ominously named “dead ball era” when hits were few and runs were hard to come-by. I certainly hope that my great-grandfather was a fan by then. Supposedly the Chicago Colts, as they were then known, had so many young players, that they got the nickname “Cubs.” Their star pitcher was the aptly nicknamed Mordecai “three finger” Brown. Their double play combination of “Tinker to Evers to Chance” is still remembered, even if people don’t know who they were or even for what team they played. In 1906 the Cubs won 116 games, and recorded the highest winning percentage ever for a major league baseball team by winning over 76% of the time. In 1907 they won the fourth ever World Series, and they won again in 1908, and have not managed to win the World Series since. Until this year, they hadn’t even been in the World Series since 1945. The longest championship drought in professional sports currently stands at 108 years.
Perhaps the length of that drought is where some of my genealogist’s appreciation of deep time originates. Most people think in terms of years, or perhaps, decades. Cub fans and genealogists must think in terms of centuries. Outside Wrigley Field, the home of the Cubs, is a sign giving the year according to the “Anno Catulorum,” the Year of the Cubs. Yes, the Cubs have their own, unofficial, calendar system. You have to have been around a very long time for that. Two digits give the number of years since winning their division, 2 digits give the number of years since winning the pennant (the league championship), and three digits for the number of years since winning the World Series. We have reached AC0000108. Few fans can remember a time when the pennant digits would have been 00. No one is known to be alive who would have considered themselves a fan when all the digits would have been zero.
When a team goes 108 years without winning a championship, legends grow up; family stories, if you will. There is the supposed “Curse of the Billy Goat” and the story of the black cat than ran across the field in 1969 to name but two. It does make you think about what continuity means. It is true that the legal entity that is the Chicago National League baseball franchise has not won the World Series since 1908 but what does that really mean? As we try to reconstruct the identities of our ancestors, in what sense were they the same people in old age that they were in youth? What common thread stretches back through generations of a family?
People have said for years “The Cubs will never win” based on their history of not winning. Yet at some point that history has to become meaningless. Players might play for a bit more than a decade, but often not with the same team. Managers and coaches might be around for about that long but often shorter. Owners are fewer, but none lasts more than a few decades. Wrigley Field seems eternal, but it has changed over the years and wasn’t even where they Cubs played 108 years ago. What remains are the stories—Tinker to Evers to Chance, Gabby Hartnett’s “Homer in the Gloamin,'” and, of course, the Billy Goat. What remains are the traditions—singing “Go, Cubs, Go” after a win, singing “Take Me out to the Ball Game” done at every home game since 1982, flying the “W” flag, flown after every Cubs win at Wrigley Field since 1937.
It seems much the same as the continuity of a family. The surname might stay the same, but the members change. The continuity comes from what is inherited: a name, some DNA, perhaps some property, but mostly those stories and traditions. The continuity is perhaps something we achieve ourselves. The stories and traditions are from the past. Keeping them alive, keeping them meaningful, even giving them meaning, are things for the present.
Well, great-grandpa, as I write this, the Cubs have re-earned their nickname with very young players. They’ve robbed that Curse of the Billy Goat story of its meaning. They have one game left to play. One way or another, the result will add to the Cubs family stories. We’ll see how it goes, you and I. These passed 108 years started with the Tinker to Evers to Chance of your day. Maybe it will end with Russell to Baez to Rizzo, and with Anno Catulorum 0000000…Twitter It!