SABR

The Cubs Fan Paradox: Why Would Anyone Root For Losers?

By Bill Savage

This article was published in the Spring 2011 Baseball Research Journal.

Cubs fans raise a fundamental question about the nature of games and spectatorship. It seems paradoxical for a franchise that hasn’t won a World Series since 1908, or a National League pennant since 1945, to have such a large, loyal, and vocal fan base, not just on the North Side of Chicago but nationwide.

Explanations include the aesthetic allure of Wrigley Field, the lively neighborhood bar scene, and easy access to Cubs games via WGN television and radio.

Each of these explanations works to some degree, but then again, no. Wrigley is cramped and below current standards of food and amenities to be found even at some minor-league ballparks. Wrigleyville’s bar scene is an embarrassing delayed-onset frat party. In addition, many Cubs games are on local TV or cable only and as such not accessible to everyone in Chicago, much less nationwide.

I would offer an alternative that grows from a fundamental question posed in my baseball literature courses: what do we mean when we say “baseball” or “the game”? Writers and film-makers use these terms interchangeably, but the words we take most for granted always need analysis. Does “baseball” mean just the major leagues? Or professional baseball? What about little league, high school or college ball, sand-lot pickup games, or even the physical ball itself?

Is “the game” just the action on the field from first pitch to final out, or does it include fans, vendors, owners, gamblers, sportswriters, listeners and viewers at home, neighbors who rent their parking spaces, local bartenders, and barbers arguing stats with customers? In other words, what are the boundaries of “baseball”? For the Cubs and their fans, perhaps it’s not whether you win or lose but rather how you define the game.

In the case of the Chicago Cubs and their fans, those boundaries are broadly drawn, and examining Cubs fan loyalty in terms of the game and its definition synthesizes many different explanations for their seemingly inexplicable loyalty.

Of course, most major league franchises have their die-hard fans; nothing about the Cubs is entirely unique. But Cubs culture has developed many different ways to engage with the game, and that sets its fan culture apart.

The most germane comparison to the Cubs is their cross-town rival White Sox. If romanticized losing could by itself bring in fans, the White Sox, with their World Series victory drought from 1917 to 2005, should give Cubs fans plenty of competition. And at many periods during the 20th Century, the White Sox outdrew the Cubs. But differences between their media strategies, their ballparks, and their neighborhoods show how the broadly drawn boundaries of Cubs baseball create its fan base.

Both Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park (the original and its replacement, now U.S. Cellular Field) were built in densely populated neighborhoods. But the 1980s seem to be the turning point. While Wrigleyville flourished, the White Sox’ “reconstruction” of Comiskey changed its relationship to Armour Square and Bridgeport. Like too many modern ballparks, U.S. Cellular Field sits in the middle of a sea of parking lots, offering fans little to do before or after games; McCuddy’s, a family-owned tavern where Babe Ruth was renowned to have beers during Yankees games, was demolished and never rebuilt. The park is clearly designed to ensure that every dollar spent by fans coming to the game is spent inside the ballpark.

Wrigleyville, on the other hand, was transformed since the early 1980s from a working-class neighborhood into a year-round music and night-life district. Scores of bars allow tens of thousands of fans to participate in the Cubs experience without ever having to buy a ticket. Local businesses of all sorts get into the act: besides the inevitable souvenir stands and ticket brokers, a pet supply shop on Clark Street offers discounts with that day’s ticket stub, and at least one local tattoo parlor runs specials on Cubs logo tattoos.

The Cubs experience is not just inside the park, where “the game” narrowly defined occurs. It takes in the whole neighborhood, an expansive boundary which defines the game broadly and inclusively. Rooftop clubs offer some of the highest-priced tickets in town across the street from the ballpark itself. Due to its small size (even after bleacher expansion), batted balls regularly leave the physical confines of the field, and so 81 days a year, the ballhawks lurk on Waveland and Sheffield to snag batting practice and game home runs.

Freelance T-shirt and peanut vendors (some of whom are also scalpers) wander around. Street musicians play for spare change and rickshaw cyclists offer tourists rides back to their cars. Local homeowners make a few bucks by renting out their parking spaces. The Chicago Transit Authority’s Red Line stop at Addison is decorated with the team name and with original artwork celebrating Cubs players like Ernie Banks, Fergie Jenkins, and Ryne Sandberg. The neighborhood really is Wrigleyville; everyone can take part in the broadly defined game.

Historically, the Cubs media outlets have had similar effect. The Cubs have long been on powerful WGN-TV, later a cable super-station, which helped maintain and expand their Chicago Diaspora fan base. The White Sox, in contrast, were early adopters of both UHF, with its lesser reach and poorer over-air reception, and cable TV, when much of the city had not been wired for it. Even when playing only day games at home, Cubs baseball was more accessible than White Sox baseball, and it was easier for young fans to be part of the game. In newspapers, the Cubs commonly appeared beyond the sports pages, with stories about the Billy Goat Curse, or in columns by Mike Royko, who wrote frequently about the team.

Inside the ballpark, the space is small and intimate, bringing fans closer to players. But other aspects of the Cubs experience also break down barriers between the fans and the game narrowly defined. The tradition, begun by Bleacher Bums in the late ’60s, of throwing back opposing players’ home run balls is not tolerated at most other ballparks, and is in fact in violation of major league rules (the fact that many of these balls are actually BP homers surreptitiously handed off by regulars notwithstanding).

Even the Cubs scorecard helps fans connect. Many teams only give fans the option of a bare-bones scorecard without much (if any) game day information, or the purchase of an expensive program with a better scorecard included. While the Cubs do sell such a program, the stand-alone scorecard is a work of art: the trifold cardboard scorecard has both teams on one page, eliminating the need to flip the card over every half inning. It includes all the information necessary to follow the out-of-town games on the center field scoreboard (numbers for all the MLB pitchers, for example, and umpires). The Cubs scorecard offers fans another way to connect to the game at Wrigley and beyond.

All of this happenstance and deliberate work to connect the team and fan base can, of course, change. A greater percentage of Cubs games now appear on cable or local UHF outlets, a process begun long before the Tribune Company sold the franchise to the Ricketts family. With more night games, the Cubs are less accessible to youngsters coming home from school (and, of course, more so to those who work 9-to-5).

Rising prices for game tickets have caused the Cubs fan base to age out: young people cannot afford games on their own, and their parents cannot bring them as often. So while one-game-a-year out-of-town fans populate Wrigley, the local fan base is in danger of shrinking.

But for time recently past and the time being, Cubs baseball has broadly defined and expansive boundaries, allowing many sorts of connections between fans and the game, regardless of the team’s lack of championships.

Sources

Much of the information in this essay comes from material to be found in the following sources, as well as my own personal observations and research.

  • Aherns, Arthur R. “Anything Can Happen in Wrigley Field.” SABR Road Trips. Ed. Jim Charlton. 92–93.
  • Bennett, Larry and Spirou Costas. It’s Hardly Sportin’: Stadiums, Neighborhoods and the New Chicago. De Kalb: Northern Illinois Univ. Press, 2003.
  • Gentile, Derek. Chicago: Baseball and the City. San Diego: Thunder Bay Press, 2006.
  • Glass, Darrin. “Fair-Weather Fans.” SABR The Baseball Research Journal. 32. Ed. Jim Charlton, pp. 81–84.
  • Holtzman, Jerome and George Vass. Baseball, Chicago Style: A Tale of Two Teams, One City. Chicago: Bonus Books, 2001.
  • Royko, Mike. “Jackie’s Debut a Unique Day,” “It Was Wrigley, Not Some Goat, Who Cursed the Cubs,” and “Are You Really A Cubs Fan?” One More Time: The Best of Mike Royko. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
  • Shea, Stuart. Wrigley Field: the Unauthorized Biography. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2006.
  • Swyers, Holly. Wrigley Regulars: Finding Community in the Bleachers. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2010.
  • Wisenberg, S. L. “Baseball Has Been Very, Very Good to Me.” New Letters: A Magazine of Writing and Art. Vol 68, Nos. 3 and 4. 47–50.

BILL SAVAGE teaches at Northwestern University, where he is Senior Lecturer in the Department of English. His course “Baseball in American Narratives” focuses on the ways in which baseball stories create a sense of American identity. His last SABR publication was “The ’59 White Sox in Literature: Haunted by the Ghosts of the Black Sox” in "Go-Go to Glory: The 1959 Chicago White Sox". A lifelong resident of Chicago’s north side, he is a Cubs season ticket holder.

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