There are certainly more radical forms of childhood rebellion than swearing allegiance to the Chicago Cubs. But when eight year-old Rich Cohen’s father, a Brooklyn native and New York Yankees fan, tried to exact a promise from his son that he would never become a Cubs fan, Cohen knew he had but one option.
“I became the most diehard of diehards,” he writes in his new book, The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse, “a Cubs fanatic, the biggest fan not only on my street but in my town, which seeing as it was a Cubs-crazy town, made me among the biggest Cub fans in the world.”
The Chicago Cubs’ century-in-the-making World Series championship in 2016 has inspired a rash of books commemorating the victory. Cohen, acting as historian and memoirist, has delivered one that is at once personal and universal. Any sports fan who has ever been in thrall to a woebegone team can relate to the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune that have befallen the Cubs (and by extension their fans) over the decades.
Cohen’s is no bandwagon-jumping tome. The New York Times bestselling author has written on a variety of subjects, including Jewish gangsters (Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams), rock and roll (The Sun and the Moon and the Rolling Stones), Cohen family history (Sweet and Low: A Family Story), growing up in Glencoe (Lake Effect), and The Chicago Bears (Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football).
What does the Cohen canon have in common? “I’ve written about the Cubs in every one of them,” Cohen says. “It’s completely central to my view of the world and to my life and identity.”
Take the book about the Bears. “The reason the 1985 Bears (who were Super Bowl champions) were so important to me was the ‘84 Cubs (who in a best-of-five post-season series lost three straight games to the San Diego Padres after winning the first two games at home). They killed me and left me for dead. The ‘85 Bears revived me; it was penicillin for Cubs fans.”
This may be what Cohen’s father was getting at, as Cohen relates in Story of a Curse. The first Cubs game Cohen ever saw at Wrigley Field was an 8-3 shellacking at the hands of the Cincinnati Reds. It was 1976 and it was just one more terrible game in one more terrible year for the Cubs.
On the drive home, Cohen writes, his father dad-splained, “The Cubs do not win. And because of that, a Cubs fan will have a diminished life determined by low expectations… A Cubs fan knows he will lose. He’s sitting there, waiting for it to happen… His team has taught him that all human endeavor ends in failure. That team will screw up your life.”
As a writer, Cohen considers the Cubs to be a fount of “great stories and great material.” He has written about the team and its players for Sports Illustrated, Harper’s magazine, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. A 2012 article for the latter, in which he argued why Wrigley Field, aka “the Friendly Confines,” must be destroyed, did not sit well with the more tradition-bound die-hard fans.
Wrigley Field is just one of the factors that Cohen posits have contributed to the Cubs’ “bad century.” Era by era, Cohen chronicles Cubs’ history, the good, the bad, and the goat. The story of Billy Goat Tavern owner William Sianis and his goat that was ejected from Wrigley Field, prompting him to curse the team, gets a definitive telling.
Cohen plums the heartbreak of the 1969 season when the Cubs ultimately blew a four-game lead over the New York Mets. Conventional wisdom is that the rigors of day baseball did in the Cubs over the long haul of a season. But Cohen puts some blame on manager Leo Durocher and team captain Ron Santo, who Cohen recalls, undermined the team following a late season 4-3 loss to the Mets in which center fielder Don Young committed a key error, and disparaged him to reporters.
Cohen reports that Ernie Banks told him that Mr. Cub identified that as the moment when the Cubs were never the same and “stopped being a team.”
There’s more, much more. The book, as does Cubs history, contains multitudes. The entirety of Cubs history, from Tinkers to Evers to Chance to Sammy Sosa to the Cubs’ gradual but deliberate culture transformation under the Ricketts family, who bought the team in 2009, and team President Theo Epstein, is essential to fully appreciating what the Cubs accomplished last year.
But what now for a Cubs fan who’d been waiting for a World Series championship his whole life and had now seen it attained? “When something you’ve been waiting for your whole life happens, it’s great, but also bittersweet,” he shares. “The Cubs, as they were, was always such a big part of what it meant to be a Cubs fan. Now, it’s different.”
And while Cohen isn’t a proponent of a curse, he does admit that one can be spooked by something in which they may not believe. “You may not believe in ghosts,” he says, “but you can still be scared of a house if people tell you it’s haunted. Nobody really believes the Cubs are cursed, but when the team fell apart in the Steve Bartman game (in 2003), or win that ball went under Leon Durham’s glove (in 1984), they might ask, ‘Was that a ghost?’”
On the historic night when the Cubs won the World Series, Cohen did call his father, who was watching the game with his sister in New York. Cohen says that his sister told him that his father laughed quietly to himself when Cleveland tied the score in the eighth inning. “See?” his father reportedly observed. “This is what they do; every time.”
But when Cohen talked to him, he did seem genuinely happy for his son. “That’s the thing about my old man,” Cohen says. “He loves being right, but he loves his kids more. My father was right (about the Cubs) and my father was wrong. Anything good that I’ve done, I owe to the Cubs.”