So What If They Never Win - They're Loved

Wrigleyville: A Magical History Tour of the Chicago Cubs

By Peter Golenbock

St. Martin's Press

541 pp., $24.95

At first glance, one might expect a book with a title like "Wrigleyville" to appeal to a very limited audience - former or current residents of the Windy City plus the occasional beyond-help baseball addict who simply never gets enough diamond lore.

But Peter Golenbock's previous oral histories of the New York Yankees, Brooklyn Dodgers, and Boston Red Sox do serve to cut him a bit of credibility slack, and once the reader gets into his "magical history tour of the Chicago Cubs," he realizes that the famous baseball author has done it again.

Indeed, this latest work represents the best evidence yet of Golenbock's ability to pull us into a subject about which we knew or cared very little starting out. The Yankees, after all, were no real test: all those larger-than-life heroes like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle, all the World Series glory, and a team the whole country loves or hates.

The Dodgers were also a natural: the lovable Ebbets Field "Bums" famed in story and song; the star-crossed teams of the '40s and '50s with their perennial regular-season triumphs and October failures; and of course the "noble experiment" of integrating the game pioneered by Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey.

Finally, the Red Sox were also an easy sell to one who has lived in New England for the past several decades.

The Cubs, however, were a different story, and I must admit that I approached with some trepidation a 500-plus-page book about a team, a ballpark, and a city with which I had no connection. It didn't take long, though, for Golenbock to kindle the spark with his vivid recreation of those long-ago days when the game was in its infancy and when Chicago teams led by such legendary figures as Cap Anson, Albert Spalding, and Mike (King) Kelly dominated the scene.

In addition to the rich anecdotal material that fills this portion of the book, there are some great dj vu lessons in both baseball and social history.

We learn, for example, that the labor-management strife that exploded a century later had its seeds in those earliest days with player holdouts and revolts culminating in the formation of a short-lived rival league, the creation of the reserve clause, the institution of a salary cap - a veritable litany of the very sort of things we continue to hear about today.

We also learn how it was primarily Anson's antipathy toward blacks, coupled with his great popularity, that led to the creation of the infamous "color line" which continued until 1947.

But baseball, of course, is the core subject of the book, and there is an intriguing on-field history to tell as well. Chicago teams dominated organized baseball in its initial stages, winning the inaugural National League championship in 1876 and forming a dynasty that won five pennants in seven years between 1880 and 1886. Then in the early 20th century the Cubs rose to the top again, winning four more pennants in one five-year stretch, climaxed by back-to-back World Series triumphs in 1907 and 1908.

The Cubs were one of the era's glamour teams, inspiring scribes in rival cities to wax poetic about their star players ("Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance"), participating in the greatest rivalry of the time (with John McGraw's New York Giants), and being involved in what is still the game's most famous controversy (Fred Merkle's "bonehead play").

All this is described in fascinating detail, as is the futility of the ensuing years, when not even the frustrations of the "wait 'til next year" Dodgers or the "curse of the Bambino" Red Sox can match those of the Cubs and their fans. For despite great stars like Rogers Hornsby and Hack Wilson, and some outstanding all-around teams, the Cubs have not managed to win another World Series since that 1908 success.

No wonder Golenbock devotes a disproportionate amount of time to those early years and another goodly portion of the book to the bittersweet success of the 1920s, '30s, and '40s, featuring another half-dozen pennants and plenty of October anecdotes (Babe Ruth's "called shot" home run, the time the A's beat them by erasing an 8-0 deficit with a 10-run inning, etc.), but no more ultimate triumphs. There is not as much to say about the team's more recent history, for not only has it not won a World Series in almost 90 years, it hasn't even been in one since 1945!

This hardly means that younger fans won't find plenty about their own era and its heroes, for even in their frustration and failure, the Cubs of the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s provide much good reading.

We travel with Hall of Fame manager Leo Durocher through 1969 and Chicago's still-inexplicable collapse and loss to the "miracle" New York Mets. We feel for great players like Ernie "Mr. Cub" Banks, Billy Williams, and Ryne Sandberg, who never did get a chance to play in the World Series. And we suffer with the team and its fans most of all in 1984, when the big prize was finally in their grasp only to slip away once again in San Diego.

All-in-all, it is an epic saga stretching over 120 years. And while most of the glory came long, long ago, the drama and pathos of the ensuing years are a fascinating story in their own right.

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