George Will’s syndicated column provides weekly evidence that, even in 2014, the term “conservative intellectual” need not be an oxymoron. But Will is known not only for his erudite political analyses, but also for a love of baseball. The latter is a passion that has yielded three elegant books on the subject, and his latest, published this year, is A Nice Little Place on the North Side, Wrigley Field at One Hundred. Wrigley Field, as surely everyone knows, is the home of the Chicago Cubs, and Will is not just a baseball fan but a diehard Cubs fan, a distinction he shares with your correspondent.
Will’s book is a slender volume of great charm. While it is not necessary to be a Cubs fan, or even a baseball fan, to appreciate the book, some feeling for the sport will enhance the enjoyment of many readers. It is organized in a roughly chronological fashion, beginning with some pre-history (the Cubs before Wrigley) and culminating with the acquisition of the Cubs by its current owners, the Ricketts family. In between, it progresses and digresses through short and loosely connected essays. While the book is the story of Wrigley Field and the Cubs, it is considerably more. The essays present anecdotes and vignettes concerning the people and events that have touched the field and the team in the last hundred years. They also include commentary on social history in the city of Chicago, including stories of prohibition and race relations.
Wrigley Field first became the home of the Cubs in 1914 (six years after the Cubs had last won a World Series, a feat that now,106 years later, they are still seeking to repeat.) The new home of the Cubs was initially called Weeghman Park after the then owner, Charles Weeghman. It is bounded by Addison, Clark, Sheffield and Waveland streets and the depth of Will’s passion for the Cubs, and his ability to pass it on to future generations, is reflected in the fact that his grandchildren are named Wrigley, Addison, Clark, Sheffield, Grace Waveland, and with a nod to the famous foliage on the walls of the field, Ivy.
Will’s obvious affection for Wrigley Field is tempered by the fact that he holds it responsible in a major way for the dismal record of the Cubs during their tenancy. In Will’s analysis, Wrigley is such a pleasant place to spend an afternoon or evening (enhanced by attractively priced beer) that it can draw large crowds indifferent or forgiving with respect to the performance of the team. And the loyal patronage of those crowds has sapped the incentive of owners (principally the Wrigleys) to provide a better product on the field.
But Will’s thesis is presented in a manner that is entertaining rather than tendentious. He introduces us to a colorful parade of characters that includes the criminal (Al Capone and Harry Sinclair), the literary (Carl Sandburg and Theodore Drieser), the political (from Anton Cermak to Ronald Reagan) and the judicial (John Paul Stevens). Somewhat surprisingly, Will does not mention the Emil Verban Society, an organization founded by displaced Cubs fans in Washington. D.C., in 1975. Its membership has boasted not only Will but a diverse collection of politicians and pundits including Ronald Reagan, Hillary Clinton (who was a Cubs fan before she became a Yankees fan), Dick Cheney and David Broder and others less prominent (including for several years myself).
The group initially called itself the Emil Verban Memorial Society after a former Cub shortstop. Emil Verban had a career of several years in the National League in which he hit but a single homerun, and Will once described him as symbolizing “mediocrity under pressure.” However, when Verban learned of the Society he objected that he was still alive, that, while never a slugger, he had compiled a solid record, and that he didn’t like being made fun of. The Society members, being basically a kindly bunch, promptly dropped the “Memorial” and proceeded to treat Verban with great respect, even arranging an invitation to the White House to meet Society member Reagan.
In addressing performance on the field, Will describes several lowlights of Cubs history. Unfortunately, he gives rather short shrift to the Cubs last appearance in a World Series. Indeed, his reference to the event is distinctly disparaging:
[I]n 1945, the Cups won the pennant and took the Tigers to the seventh game of the World Series before losing. It is, however hard for Cub fans to take much pleasure from this tainted glory because the war had thoroughly depleted major league talent.
Well, perhaps. But Will was only four years old in 1945 and not in a position to appreciate the excitement of the season or its climax. I, on the other hand, was six years his senior and had a proportionately more mature perspective. I was taken to several games during the regular season and to Game Four of the World Series on October 6. The Cubs, as it happened, lost that one, 4-1, but no matter, it was a part of history. While it would not have occurred to me to name any progeny after the Cubs or their environs, my own children were raised to understand that the most significant historical event of 1945 was not the end of World War II, but the Cubs capture of the National League pennant. Nowadays, I find that I reflect increasingly on the fact that I am one of the annually-diminishing group of living Americans who have actually seen the Cubs play in a World Series.
Will gives more space to the “almost magical” 1969 season in which the Cubs led the Mets by nine games at one point only to finish in second place, eight games back. As it happens, I took in a sadly memorable game during that summer: on July 9, 1969 at Shea Stadium, the Mets shutout the Cubs behind Tom Seaver, who pitched a no-hitter before giving up a lone single in the ninth inning. If there were any other Cub fans among the crowd of 50,709 on hand that night, they (and I) kept pretty quiet about it.
Will also mentions the 1984 season in which the Cubs were matched against San Diego in a playoff series that would determine the winner of the National League pennant. The Cubs won the first two games at Wrigley, but Will recalls having dolefully predicted that San Diego would win the next three, and the pennant, at San Diego. Which, in fact, they did:
They lost the last [game] because an unchallenging ground ball went through the legs of the Cubs first baseman Leon Durham. This was two years before, in Game 6 of the Mets-Red Sox World Series, the Red Sox lost a chance to win their first World Series since 1918 because a softly hit ground ball went through the legs of former Cubs first baseman Bill Buckner.
Will does not appear to have been present for that episode in San Diego and neither was I. But I do recall vividly having watched it from my living room in New Jersey, my disappointment heightened immeasurably by the fact that I had obtained tickets for the World Series games at Wrigley and was even planning to whisk my daughter Heather away from her boarding school to accompany me.
To indulge in a brief digression of my own, I cannot resist mentioning that the sadly unusable tickets for the 1984 World Series had come to me through the good offices of my one-time client and later good friend, Peter Bavasi. Peter was the President of the Toronto Blue Jays in 1981 when my law firm was hired to fend off an attempt by the Boston Celtics to steal away the third baseman of the Blue Jays, Danny Ainge. In college, Danny was a celebrated basketball star but spent his summers playing baseball for a Blue Jays farm team. When he graduated, Ainge decided on baseball and signed a contract with the Blue Jays which included a bonus for agreeing never to play basketball. Nevertheless, as the baseball season got underway, Danny was hitting something under .200 and became depressed. When he was drafted by the Celtics, and received a phone call from the legendary Celtics coach, Red Auerbach, his thoughts and his heart began to turn to basketball.
After a brief investigation of the facts and the law, we filed suit against the Celtics in federal court in New York, seeking to enjoin them from interfering with Danny’s contract. It was an interesting affair. The witnesses, in addition to Bavasi, Ainge and Auerbach were Blue Jays General Manager, Pat Gillick and Blue Jays coach, Bobby Doerr, both of whom would later be elected to the Hall of Fame. To the shock of the lawyers on both sides, the Judge suddenly decided to expedite the case and we went from the filing of the complaint to a jury verdict in exactly six weeks –a record that I suspect still stands in the Southern District of New York. The Blue Jays won the case, but the Celtic’s bought out Ainge’s contract and he went on to a successful career in the NBA, ultimately becoming President of Basketball Operations for the Celtics.
Getting back to George Will and the Cubs, Will went on to recount in some detail the most well-known Cubs game in recent memory—the notorious “Bartman game.” This was the game in the 2003 playoffs in which the Cubs, seemingly on the verge of clinching the National League pennant, managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. By then I was retired and living on Cape Cod and my friend Bavasi, though no longer a baseball executive, was again able to help me get tickets. So with the Cubs leading in games 3-2, I flew out to Chicago for games 6 and 7, confident that I would at last see the Cubs win another pennant. After all, they only had to win one game out of the next two on their home field.
In Game 6, the Cubs were ahead 3-0 in the top of the eighth inning with one out. Then, only five outs from the World Series, fate intervened. In this case, fate took the form of interference by a fan, one Steve Bartman, with a foul fly ball that might otherwise have been caught—and Cubs fans were certain that it would have been—by the Cubs left fielder. Because Bartman’s effort took place in foul territory, it did not count as interference under the rules, and the batter had another chance. At that point the Cubs became unglued. The batter walked, a hit, an error and then more hits followed and the Cubs lost 8-3.
Will and I were both present at the Bartman game, though not together. We were both seated behind home plate but Will was in an upper box with Cubs president Andy MacPhail. Will describes in vivid detail the uproar in the stands as belligerent fans vented their wrath against Bartman, who had to be escorted from the stands for his own safety by security guards. How much of that Will saw with the naked eye and how much on MacPhail’s television set is not clear. From where I was sitting, not much was observable and I was personally more upset by the ensuing error on what should have been a routine double-play ball. Indeed, I recall thinking as I left the park how good-natured and well-mannered the fans were after such a painful loss. I returned the next night for Game 7 retaining some hope, but the die had been cast and the Cubs lost that game and the series.
I have not been back to Wrigley Field since 2003. I have not ruled it out, but given my current residence in California, and the abysmal performance of the Cubs in recent years—unusually poor by even their historical standards—it seems unlikely. One disappointment in Will’s book is that he makes no mention of the performance of the current owners and the supposed geniuses of the front office, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, whom they lured away from Boston and San Diego respectively. The one time slogan of the Brooklyn Dodgers, “Wait ‘til next year” seems to have segued into “Wait ’til…. lemme get back to you on that.”
Nevertheless, I still do not regret my seven decades as a Cubs fan. One segment of Will’s book discusses another book, Your Brain on Cubs: Inside the Heads of Players and Fans, published in 2008. As described by Will, it is “a collection of essays by doctors and others knowledgeable about neuroscience and brain disorders associated with giving one’s allegiance to a team that last won a World Series exactly one hundred years before the book was published.” As might be expected, some of the conclusions reported by Will were encouraging, others considerably less so. One in particular, however, caught my eye
According to Jordan Grafman of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke:
The scientific literature suggests that fans of losing teams turn out to be better decision-makers and deal better with divergent thought, as opposed to unreflective fans of winning teams.
I experienced an “Aha moment:” Is not the ability to deal comfortably with divergent thought the very essence of being a RINO? (And, to strike a bi-partisan note, perhaps Hillary Clinton had something like that in mind when she once said “Being a Cubs fan prepares you for life — and Washington.”)
I have to admit that, much as I admire George Will, I have never thought of him as a RINO. And I am reasonably confident that that he would recoil from any such label. Nevertheless, a trip to Google confirmed a sudden suspicion when I found that Will has indeed been assailed as a RINO by the likes of Laura Ingraham. Will’s principal apostasy appears to be his support of immigration reform that includes, in the eyes of his critics, “amnesty.” Moreover, Will has also pointed out the uncomfortable circumstance that the Republican Party has become too dependent on the support of Southern states. He is, in short, a man who is able not only to deal with divergent thoughts, but to express them.
To conclude, RINOcracy.com is pleased to recommend A Nice Little Place on the North Side and to welcome George Will as at least an Honorary RINO.