From 1908 until now: Cubs' run of heartache finally ends

Sam Sianis, owner of the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago, acknowledges the crowd along with his goat before a playoff game between the Padres and Cubs in 1984. Sianis was attempting to lift the curse supposedly placed on the Cubs by his uncle in 1945. AP Photo/File

We want to say this all began in 1945 because a colorful tavern owner tried to drag a smelly goat named Murphy with him to a World Series game. We then employ what Joe Maddon likes to call "outcome bias" as proof of this alleged curse, bringing up such hobgoblins as the black cat in 1969, Leon Durham's glove in 1984 and Steve Bartman's eager hands in 2003.

In reality, this began long before any of that. It started with a poor soul named Fred Merkle, in the year 1908 -- the last time the Chicago Cubs won a World Series. On Wednesday night, the 2016 Cubs put an end date on that cursed year by winning the franchise's first World Series in 108 years, beating the Cleveland Indians in extra innings in Game 7, 8-7.

The reasons the Cubs didn't win it all for so long aren't easy to distill in a work less than book length. There are a few wide-umbrella factors that one can easily point to. With the 2016 World Series over after a stunning comeback from Chicago's North Siders, there's a good reason to revisit those factors. A very good reason in fact: They no longer exist.


There is an old book called "Baseball's Amazing Teams" by a writer named Dave Wolf. The book chronicles the most interesting team from each decade of the 20th century. Well, through the 1960s -- it's an old book.

The first chapter is about the 1908 Cubs. For the first decade of the modern era of baseball, beginning in 1901, the Cubs ran neck and neck with Honus Wagner's Pittsburgh Pirates as the most successful team in the majors, particularly during the second half of the decade when they won 69 percent of their games, took four pennants and won the only two World Series crowns in Cubs history.

The Cubs' first championship came in 1907, and they were favored to win again the following year. They ended up chasing the New York Giants of the John McGraw/Christy Matthewson vintage for most of the summer, but were always within shouting distance of the lead.

<Eventually, it all boiled down to the last few weeks of the season.

The Cubs were a team full of future Hall of Famers, including the almost mythical infield of Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance -- the player-manager -- and ace pitcher Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown, who won 29 games in 1908. The most interesting character of the bunch was Evers, a prototype of his era as a scrappy slap-hitter always quick to mix it up on the field and off. Evers later suffered a nervous breakdown, then came back in time to take part in another chapter from Wolf's book, the one about the 1914 "Miracle" Boston Braves.

On Sept. 4, 1908, the Cubs were locked in an extra-inning, scoreless road game with the Pirates. With two outs and the bases loaded, Pittsburgh's Chief Wilson singled, scoring player-manager Fred Clarke from third. Game over. Pirates win. But the Pirates' Warren Gill, the runner on first, stopped in his tracks when Clark touched the plate and took off for the clubhouse, never touching second.

This seems like an overwhelmingly stupid move, but here's the thing:

Everyone did that in those days. The rules have always clearly spelled out the concept of a force play, but the umpires of the time simply didn't enforce it in those walk-off situations. Evers wasn't a native Chicagoan, but he behaved like a denizen of what author Nelson Algren called "the city on the make." He was always looking for an angle.

Evers complained to Hall of Fame umpire Hank O'Day, and the Cubs later filed a protest with the league, which was denied. But the Evers and O'Day confrontation would come back into play later. On Sept. 23, the Giants beat the Cubs in the exact same way, though runners were on first and third.

The umpire that day was O'Day. The runner on first was Merkle. A wild melee broke out when the Giants scored and Merkle had broken off between first and second to make a mad dash for the Polo Grounds clubhouse. Eventually, Evers ended up with the ball (or a ball, anyway) and touched second. O'Day called Merkle out and declared the game a tie because fans were all over the field.

This time the Giants protested, but the league sided with Chicago. The Cubs and Giants, of course, finished with identical records after that, forcing a playoff game that the Cubs won 4-2. That set up Chicago's second, and last, World Series title.

Merkle never lived it down. In fact, he went on to play in six World Series, and his teams lost them all. His nickname to history is "Bonehead." And his curse began with the Cubs and Evers' playing of the angles. There's even a bar in Wrigleyville that bears Merkle's name, which seems a bit cruel.

So maybe it's karma for Merkle that the Cubs haven't won since. It wasn't his fault that Evers strong-armed O'Day, forcing the league to arbitrarily begin enforcing a rule that had been ignored. But of course, it isn't that. Merkle is simply the central character to the Cubs' great origin story, one that is reprised every year the Cubs don't win.


Let's be clear here: The Cubs didn't go 108 years without a title because of Fred Merkle, any kind of black cat, William Sianis' goat or anything like that. It was because of the lethal combination of bad moves and bad luck. One you can fix, the other should even out on a long enough time line.

If you had walked up to a Cubs fan in 1946 and told him his team was cursed, he would have laughed in your face. From 1909 to 1945, only the Giants won more games in the National League. Chicago won pennants in 1910, 1918, 1929, 1932, 1935, 1938 and 1945 -- once every five years or so. The Cubs, Giants and Cardinals owned the National League. This was during the first 37 years of the title drought.

But the New York Yankees owned baseball during that era by forming the longest-running dynasty in baseball history, a run of excellence that didn't end until the 1960s. That they were able to do so illustrated a lot about the structures of the game that kept the haves as haves and the others as have-nots.

Still, the Cubs could certainly have won a few of those World Series, though the American League was generally the stronger circuit in those days because of the Yankees. That they didn't was just plain bad luck, really, based on what we now know about the randomness of postseason play.

After 1945, however, self-induced factors came into play, leading to what became known as the dark ages of Cubs baseball.


There were a lot of reasons why the Cubs struggled so badly in the decades between 1945 and their next postseason berth in 1984. And as with any team in sports, the common denominator is always ownership.

P.K. Wrigley, who inherited the Cubs from his father, was a largely absentee owner. Once when he attended two days in a row, a sportswriter called it "a Wrigley family record."

The Cubs were simply a franchise that lagged behind the progressive baseball executives of the era. They were slow to establish a minor league system, long after Branch Rickey proved the value of doing so with the Cardinals. They were slow to sign black players even after Jackie Robinson broke the color line. They eventually signed Gene Baker but kept him in the minors until Ernie Banks broke in with the Cubs in 1953. Decades later, they were among the last teams to get on the sabermetric bandwagon.

The Cubs finally developed a good group of prospects that included Banks, Billy Williams and Ron Santo. But it turned out to be a blip.

Chicago turned out few quality prospects over the years. When they did manage to field a competitive team, it was with lightning-in-a-bottle rosters that largely comprised free agents and trade acquisitions. Nothing was sustained.

After 1984, the Cubs would rise into contention from time to time.

There were playoff berths in 1989, 1998, 2003, 2007 and 2008. The core of the team was always made up of outside acquisitions, with the exception of the 2003 team, which featured homegrown pitchers Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Carlos Zambrano and Matt Clement. But after Prior and Wood began to battle arm problems, the lack of depth in the Cubs' minor league system again reared its head.

As the title-less years dragged on, theories abounded, and they weren't all about curses. They couldn't win because all the day games wore them out or left their players at leisure to go tavern-hopping at night. The irregular wind patterns at Wrigley made it impossible to field an elite pitching staff.

Then in the years after the Wrigley family sold the team to the Chicago Tribune, and the Cubs became national darlings because of Harry Carey and WGN, pundits decided that the Cubs didn't win because they didn't have to. The ballpark would attract the fans (which it does), and team management didn't worry about truly competing.

Whether or not there is any truth to those rumors, it all ended in 2009, when the Ricketts family bought the Cubs.


With Tom Ricketts as the face of the family ownership group, the Cubs focused on the organizational infrastructure during their early years.

They had to navigate the morass of Chicago politics to kick off a renovation of Wrigley Field, even threatening to move to the suburbs if they couldn't pull it off. They focused on maximizing revenue streams, often in ways that were unpopular.

On the field, the Cubs floundered. But after the 2011 season, the Ricketts era kicked into high-gear with the hiring of Theo Epstein.

This is all recent history. Epstein did what virtually no Cubs executive had ever tried to do, or even was allowed to do: He tore down everything and, from scratch, built a state-of-the-art baseball operation from rookie league to the majors. He implemented a rigorous set of procedures in, well, everything that has become known as the Cubs way. He modernized operations in every area, dragging with him a franchise long stuck in the days of radio and typewriters.

There is every reason to believe the Cubs aren't going anywhere. They are a young, complete team and an organization that is still churning out prospects. They won 103 games without Kyle Schwarber. They won without a dominant bullpen. They won with the fifth-youngest group of position players in the majors.

It's fair to look at the Cubs' World Series victory as the final chapter in what we thought was a never-ending book of misery. None of the old history matters to these current Cubs, because, as Addison Russell and Kris Bryant have both said, they are all about writing their own history. There are plenty more upbeat chapters to come.

Still, all of these old events inform the way we view this Cubs championship, the way their fans from Naperville to Uptown experienced this playoff run. This is a group of fans who not only waited their entire lives to see the Cubs win the World Series but have been told time and again that it couldn’t happen, that their team was banned by fate from ever doing so. It began with Merkle and the etching of 1908 on one part of the epitath. Now the second part is in place: 1908-2016.

Merkle, the goat, the black cat -- they are no longer with us. Make no mistake, the Cubs are in perfect position to go on an extended run as glorious as so much of their past was inglorious. For the first time in so long, the Cubs have gone about it the right way. They are built to last.