Essex column: The curse and the charm of the Cubs |

Essex column: The curse and the charm of the Cubs

Ernie Banks' 1969 Topps baseball card

Forty-seven years ago today, the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the first-place Chicago Cubs 13-4.

(Maybe that will help Pirates fan Josh Carney, the Post Independent sports editor, feel better about this season. Or not.)

After that game, the Cubs, who on Aug. 19 had been 9 games ahead in the National League Eastern Division, were up just 3½ games on the surging Mets, who would go on to win the World Series.

The Cubs’ collapse made the 1969 season one of the more fabled chapters in a long history of disappointments.

Like this year’s Cubs, they had been in first all season and had packed the NL All-Star team, then with Ron Santo, Ernie Banks, Glenn Beckert, Randy Hundley and Don Kessinger.

At age 11, I had all of those Cubs’ baseball cards, plus those of non-All Stars Fergie Jenkins and Billy Williams, two of my favorites.

Back then, we typically got one baseball game on TV each week. Because I lived in Nebraska and NBC’s Saturday telecasts often were regional, I saw the Cubs on TV more than any other team.

I began having bouts with an affliction that has befallen many baseball fans and even non-fans through the years — being charmed by Wrigley Field; the brick, the ivy, the fans on the apartment roofs across the street.

My dad was a Cardinal fan. Before the Giants and Dodgers moved to California in 1958 and the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966, St. Louis was Major League Baseball’s westernmost and southernmost team. It marketed itself (and certain beers after August Anheuser Busch Jr. bought the team in 1953) on a vast radio network that still covers much of the South and Midwest.

In 1945, the late Harry Caray, who’s now a Chicago icon, started a 25-year run as Cardinal play-by-play man, and his often-boozy voice was a big part of the soundtrack of my childhood summers.

Even though I was in a Cardinal household, I felt badly for the Cubs in ’69. I didn’t follow baseball as closely in my late teens and early 20s, but my affinity for them grew even as I called myself a Cardinal fan.

In the early ’80s, full conversion occurred. The Cubs were on WGN TV every day with Caray as the play-by-play guy. Moving to Boise in ’83, WGN was on the cable system, so I started following the Cubs in earnest.

I made my first trip to Chicago in 1984 — another year that is a chapter in the Cubs’ book of mind-boggling disappointments, when they won their division and became the only team ever to blow a 2-0 lead in a best-of-five league championship series.

I made it to Wrigley on Friday afternoon, Aug. 24. Rick Sutcliffe, who won the Cy Young award that year, threw a 5-hit shutout; Ryne Sandberg, the ’84 NL MVP, hit a homer onto Waveland Avenue, and I got Caray’s autograph on a poster. It was sort of a dream come to life.

I have endured the indignities of being a Cub fan ever since, and visited Wrigley many times while I lived in Detroit and Des Moines (home of the triple A Iowa Cubs). In good years like this one, I’ve learned to wait for the shoe to drop.

In 2003, with the Cubs just five outs from making it to their first World Series since 1945, my then-16-year-old son and I suffered the playoff collapse together.

I passed along this Cub disease to Dustin, and, bless him, he’s been more loyal to my team affiliation than I was to my father’s. To help make amends for my disloyalty, in 1987 I took Dad to two Cubs-Cardinals games in St. Louis, the only time he saw his beloved Redbirds in person.

As I write this column, the Cubs are more than 15 games in first. Most of the players are too young to know about goats, black cats and Bartmans. Their Saturday game with the Giants is playing in a window on my computer and, while my father is no longer with us, all season I’ve texted my son in California during key moments. We even made it together to the Cubs’ opening game this year in Anaheim.

The Cubs, in their century-plus of ineptitude that at times ascends to heartbreak, somehow bring out a childlike optimism and wistful innocence in their fans.

No one expressed that feeling better than Chicago native and lifelong Cub fan Steve Goodman, an accomplished songwriter whose credits include “City of New Orleans.” In 1984, he wrote “Go, Cubs, Go” as a ditty for WGN Radio.

Goodman died of leukemia that September, with the Cubs in first place and before that year’s playoff collapse. His spirit inhabits Wrigley, the song now an anthem sung after home wins:

“They’ve got the power, they’ve got the speed / to be the best in the National League. / Well this is the year and the Cubs are real / So come on down to Wrigley Field.

“We’re singing, now Go, Cubs, Go! Go, Cubs, Go!”

Labor Day in election years traditionally marks the beginning of the campaign stretch drive. We need some wistful innocence and optimism.

Randy Essex is publisher and editor of the Post Independent.

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