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The Chicago Cubs: Futility by the Numbers
No other team in American professional sports—and perhaps the world over-- can light a candle to the futility of the Chicago Cubs. But why? What is behind it? How has it happened? Is it a self-fulfilling prophesy? All those day games? Bad management? Voodoo? Too much carousing? God’s wrath? Or is it really due to The Curse of the Billy Goat?
First, it’s instructive to get the facts and the full background.
The Chicago Cubs wrapped up 2012 with one of their worst seasons ever. The 2012 season was their 67th consecutive season since their last World Series appearance and their 104th consecutive season since they last won the World Series. The Cubs finished a dismal 5th in their six-team division for the third consecutive year in a row, in spite of a new General Manager and a recent change in ownership.
To understand exactly how profound, unusual, and significant the Cubs’ 67-year National League Championship drought really is, consider the following facts:
1. If the National League standings and playoff winners were selected entirely on a random basis for the past 66 years (not counting the 1994 strike season), the Chicago Cubs should have represented the National League in the World Series 5.6 times.
2. In the 16 seasons between 1946-1961, there were only eight teams in the National League, and every National League team EXECEPT the Chicago Cubs reached the World Series at least once.
3. In the 15 seasons between 1948-1962, three of the eight original National League franchises not only reached the World Series more than once, they did it in two different cities—the Boston/Milwaukee Braves, the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers, and the New York/San Francisco Giants.
4. In the 26 seasons between 1982-2007, 14 of the 16 teams currently in the National League appeared in the World Series at least once—the only two exceptions were the Chicago Cubs and Washington Nationals. In 2012, the Washington Nationals have the best record in the National League, so the Cubs may soon be more conspicuously alone in their dubious accomplishment.
1876-1938: The Chicago Cubs' Phenomenal Success
But it wasn’t always like this for the Cubs. From 1903 (the year of the first World Series) to 1938 (the year most teams in baseball began playing night games under lights), the Chicago Cubs were one of the best teams in the National League, and perhaps only behind the New York Yankees in terms of success and consistently excellent play. During the 36 seasons from 1903 to 1938, the Cubs were 3131-2334 (an amazing average winning percentage of .573 over a span of three and a half decades). They won 2 World Series, recorded the best-ever single season (116 wins, 36 losses, and three ties for a winning percentage of .763 in 1906), finished with the best record in the National League 9 times, and finished last in the league only once.
The Cubs were no pushover before 1903, as well. From their inception in 1876 to the last season before the advent of the World Series, the Cubs were 1741-1389 for a .556 winning percentage. All told, in the 63 seasons between 1876-1938, the Cubs averaged a winning percentage of.567 by winning 1149 more games than they lost—an average winning percentage often good enough to win a division in modern baseball.
Does a curse have anything to do with the Cubs' unprecedented 67-year absence from baseball's World Series?
The Curse of The Billy Goat
Many people-- even some very smart people-- will sometimes superstitiously, sometimes facetiously draw a direct line from The Curse of the Billy Goat to the Cubs’ downfall. During the 1945 World Series against the Detroit Tigers, tavern owner Billy Sianis and his pet goat were kicked out of a Game Four of the 1945 World Series at Wrigley Field. According to Wikipedia, Sianis is thought to have declared the Cubs would never appear in the World Series. The Sianis family claims that an outraged Mr. Sianis sent a telegram to Phillip Wrigley reading, “You are going to lose this World Series and you are never going to win another World Series again. You are never going to win a World Series again because you insulted my goat.”
Whether true or legend, the Cubs have indeed been kept out of the World Series ever since, often through bizarre plays and misfortunes that lend credence to the mythology. From the beginning of the 1946 season through the end of the 2011 season, the Cubs have compiled a 4895-5523 record (.470). Their 2012 performance—challenging their mark for their worst record in 137 years of playing baseball-- has dropped that percentage to .469.
Moreover, the Cubs have maintained their losing ways through three different owners, before and after adding lights to Wrigley Field. They've lost before and after youth movements and free agency, through literally dozens of management regimes, and all in spite of sometimes having some of the best All Star/Hall of Fame talent in the game.
So what really happened? How could the Cubs turn from six and a half decades of phenomenal success to seven decades of below average play, futility, and hard luck?
First, it’s important to understand that at the end of World War II, most teams in the National League had ballparks similar to Wrigley Field in amenities. But by midway through the 1946 season, every National League ballpark was equipped with lights EXCEPT Wrigley Field. By midway through the 1948 season, every team in the Major Leagues had lights for night games except the Cubs. And by 1950, every major league team besides the Cubs were playing more than half their games at night.
In the early 1960s, many teams went through a wave of new stadium construction, many of them adopting artificial turf, expanded modern locker rooms, and expanded training facilities. Wrigley Field, however, remained largely unchanged from the addition of bleachers and ivy-covered outfield walls in the late 1930s. Night games became the norm, and almost no day games were played except on Sundays. In 1971, the World Series began playing games at night. The Cubs, however, did not play their first home night game until late in the 1988 season, and still play less than half their home games at night.
From 1946-1968, the team with the best record in the league throughout the regular season went straight to the World Series (unless two or more teams were tied for the best record, resulting in a playoff game or series). But since 1969, there had been a division and playoff system to decide the league’s representative to the World Series. In the 43 years since the playoffs began, the Chicago Cubs have actually had the best record in the league three times—1984, 1989, and 2008. Each time, the Cubs lost their bid to make the Series. In 2003, the Cubs won their division and defeated the Atlanta Braves in the first round of the playoffs. They held a 3-run lead at home, with eight outs left to get to the World Series, before a freak play—a fan reaching slightly over the railing to prevent an opposing player’s foul out—opened the floodgates for a big inning and a crushing loss from which they couldn’t recover.
What is the answer? Is it really a curse? Is it the unusual strain of playing most home games during the day, and having to adjust back and forth from a day to night schedule? Is it the lure of Chicago nightlife while having many evenings free? Is it the ancient ballpark and its facilities? Is it just general, unrelated bad luck? Is it all in the players’ heads?
Having been a former season ticket holder and having worked at Wrigley Field from 2003-2007, I personally think each one of these factors comes into play. I’ve seen players arrive at the game looking miserably hung over. I’ve seen the facilities behind the scenes. I’ve seen how other teams come into the park looking like they’re attending a board meeting, while the Cubs players look like they came straight from the beach. I’ve seen promising players go lame, and mediocre players become stars with a change of scenery. I used to refuse to believe there was a curse—until Game Six of the 2003 National League Championship Series. Even if there isn’t a curse, if enough players believe there is, there might as well be. There’s one thing that absolutely can’t be denied: the statistical likelihood of one team experiencing the kind of futility and losing ways the Cubs have-- just by chance alone, over such a long period of time—is extremely unlikely.