By: Jeffrey Newholm
“Cubs win pennant on bonehead play” the headline could have read. No, it’s not a headline from “Back To The Future II” or some too-unrealistic-for-Hollywood fictitious script. That’s really what the headline could have read the last time the Cubs won the World Series. Yes, you read that right: the Cubs won the World Series in part due to a really, really lucky break. In 1908 the Cubs were playing the New York Giants in a crucial regular season game (back then the pennant simply went to the team with the best regular season record). The Giants seemed to have won the game on a walk-off hit, but future Cubs Hall-Of-Famer Johnny Evers noticed that the man on first, Fred Merkle, hadn’t bothered to touch second. Evers, a stickler for the rules, pointed this out to the umpires. What happened next is uncertain-replay would have been helpful in this game-but the Umps eventually called Merkle out, leading to the game being called a tie. Today the play is rather impolitely referred to as “Merkle’s boner”. The Cubs won the makeup game, and the pennant by one game. And of course the team went on to win the World Series 4-1 over Detroit. So there you go, the Cubs don’t really have all the bad luck, they won the World Series thanks to a poor play from the other team. But of course the Cubs have been paid back with bad karma ever since, not winning the title since or the pennant since 1945. For the most part the team has just been bad, but there have been some frustrating close calls. I’ll take a look at some of the heartbreak the Cubs have suffered through since that title, and also look at where the team stands today.
The Cubs returned to the Series seven times within 37 years of their last title, coming up short each time. Interestingly, the Red Sox’s now obsolete title drought traced bask to 1918, when they beat-the Cubs of course. To date the team’s last chance at a world’s title came in that 1945 campaign, when the Cubs faced Detroit again. The Cubs managed to win the pennant thanks to ace Henry Borowy, who was called upon to close out a must-win game six at Wrigley. He succeeded, setting up an all-or-nothing game seven. Manager Charley Grimm was faced with a decision many managers face today: should the ace be rushed back for game seven, or should a lessor but fresher pitcher be given the ball? Grimm decided to throw Borowy out there one more time, and-go figure-it backfired as the Tigers scored five quick runs and cruised to a 9-3 victory. The good news for Cubs fans is there hasn’t been any World Series heartbreak since then. But considering what’s happened since that’s not much of a silver lining.
The Cubs really fell on hard times after Grimm’s poor managing, not making the postseason for decades. That seemed destined to change in 1969, when the team got off to a scorching start, taking a nine and half game lead on the Mets. Considering the Mets had never come close to making the playoffs, the Cubs seemed like a shoo-in for the division title. But the “Miracle Mets” started chipping away at the deficit until the unthinkable happened in late September: the Mets clinched the division, eliminating the Cubs from playoff contention. It would be another 15 years until the team made the playoffs, and all that led to was three losses in the National League playoffs. In 2003, The Cubs reached the NLCS, and took a seemingly safe 3-1 lead on the Marlins. The Marlins managed to win game five at home, but it seemed like just a trifle with the next two games at Wrigley and aces Mark Prior and Kerry Wood due up to pitch. Game six seemed to be going fine, with the Cubs up 3-0 in the eighth. The first batter was retired easily, and Juan Pierre followed with a double. In the next at-bat, Luis Castillo hit a pop fly that Moises Alou made a try for, but couldn’t quite reach.
Well, so what? It was still 3-0 with only five outs to go. But of course the only thing fans remember from that series is Steve Bartman touching the ball. Here’s the play in all its glory. Perhaps Alou had a play, perhaps not. But Alou’s temper tantrum made the whole team nervous. The Cubs, being the Cubs, self destructed and gave up eight runs, and came up short in game seven as well. The team couldn’t quite make the playoffs in 2004 and tanked in 2005, finishing 79-83. The team bought a bunch of free agents and were contenders in 2007 and 2008, but got swept each time. The Cubs even had the SI cover jinx thrown in there for good measure too.
In 2015, at long last, the Cubs lost a postseason series that wasn’t heartbreak city. After the Cubs were swept by the Mets in the NLCS Chicago fans could, with a straight face, say “wait ’till next year”. As I’ve written elsewhere, the Cubs built the 2016 team with the slow-but-sure draft and develop approach, and should have numerous chances to win a title. As of this writing the Cubs have the best record in the National League and are the Vegas favorites to win the World Series. Sure the snake-bitten franchise could disappoint this October yet again. But for now it’s still spring, and 108 years of waiting seems like long enough. So go ahead, Cubs fans: book your calendars for the fall classic. I think your team is about due for “next year” to arrive at last.
You can follow me on Twitter @JeffreyNewholm and our blog @NutsandBoltsSP.