- - Tuesday, November 7, 2017


By Rich Cohen

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26, 273 pages

The 2017 baseball season has ended, and while there’s no joy in Chicago, neither is there resignation. The Cubs didn’t quite make it this year. But after 108 years of waiting, they won it all in 2016, and with another starting pitcher and help at middle relief, may well repeat in 2018.

The famous curse, whether or not it ever existed, seems to have been exorcized. Either that, or passed on to the Washington Nationals through Dusty Baker, who was fired as their manager for losing to the Cubs in the playoffs. (Interestingly, the man replacing him comes from the Cubs.)

Mr. Baker, a baseball lifer, has had a rough ride with the Cubs. In 2003, he was the Cubs manager for the infamous Steve Bartman game, when they missed the World Series by five outs. Mr. Bartman, a fan who interfered with a catchable foul ball, set off a furor that resulted in the Cubs blowing a 3-0 lead. Thereafter, Mr. Bartman was a marked man, his life made miserable. In 2016, the Cubs awarded him a World Series ring, a gesture seen by many as a ceremonial farewell to all manifestations of the curse.

As Mr. Cohen tells it, the story of the curse began in 1934, when a truck carrying goats lost a passenger. A Chicago cop found the baby goat and brought it to a bar owned by William Sianis, who named the goat Murphy and changed the name of his establishment to the Billy Goat Tavern, then on Madison, now prospering on Lower Michigan Avenue.

“The Cubs reached the World Series in 1945 — that was the last time.” Mr. Sianis got two tickets and took Murphy. There were complaints. The owner, P.K. Wrigley, told Mr. Sianis that he could stay but his goat had to go because he smelled. Mr. Sianis then issued his curse — as long as the goat was banned the Cubs would not win. They lost the series in Game Seven, and Mr. Sianis sent Wrigley a telegram.

“It posed a question that has haunted Cubs fans ever since,” writes Mr. Cohen. “‘Who smells now?’”

Rich Cohen was introduced to the Cubs and curses when he was eight and his father took him to his first game at Wrigley Field. The Cubs were playing the Cincinnati Reds, the Big Red Machine. At some point he remembers, “We were ahead and could not lose and then we’d been beaten and it was all over.”

” ‘I want you promise me,’ ” his father said after the game, ” ‘you will not become a Cubs fan a Cubs fan knows he will lose. His team has taught him that all human endeavor ends in failure. That team will screw up his life.’ “

“Of course,” he writes, “this left me with only one option. I became the most diehard of diehards, a Cubs fanatic.”

As such, Mr. Cohen, a highly regarded author, chronicles much of the Cub’s history, featuring many of its most notable players — among them Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Mark Grace, Ryne Sandberg, Jody Davis, Kerry Wood, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo.

The curse clearly has little to do with player quality. But as one lifelong Cubs fan points out, there were other factors involved. The lack of lights at Wrigley meant that all home games were played during the day; and in a hard-drinking city, filled with fans and news people, and with bars surrounding the ballpark, it was natural for healthy young men to enjoy the night life. No lights also meant giving up home field advantage, as in 1984.

Also, P.K. Wrigley was an overly thrifty owner, and the Chicago Tribune was indifferent. Moreover, the park itself was at fault. Wrigley Field was a jewel, sparkling green and ivied, lake views and breezes, and day games. A fine family place, and it was a great pleasure to take my daughters there. But that was part of the problem.

“Wrigley is too damn nice,” writes Mr. Cohen. Going there was so pleasant that the game itself became secondary. Games were always well-attended, ticket sales always up. So why worry too much about winning?

That ended when the Cubs were purchased by the Ricketts family, who improved Wrigley without sacrificing any of its charm, and hired a wizard as GM, Theo Epstein, who was credited, coincidentally, with lifting the Curse of the Bambino at Fenway Park.

The Cubs curse was officially lifted in 2016. After the last game of the Series, Mr. Cohen could have joined the celebrations on the field. But instead, he returned to his hotel. “I was happy but sad too. A whole period of my life had ended. My childhood suddenly seemed much farther away.”

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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