- Before the Curse: The Chicago Cubs’ Glory Years, 1870–1945 ed. by Randy Roberts et al.
“One thing you learned as a Cubs fan: When you bought a ticket, you could bank on seeing the bottom of the ninth,” recalled former catcher and Hall of Fame announcer Joe Garagiola. The Chicago Cubs are one of the United States’ legendary sports franchises. Unlike the Yankees, the Steelers, or the Celtics, however, the Cubs are renowned for spectacularly bad seasons and for losing the rare important game in spectacular fashion. Its long-suffering fans seem to secretly revel in their futility. They pepper their conversations with coded references to past failures: the billy goat, the black cat, Leon Durham, f’in Bartman. Were the Cubs to actually shake the famous curse (or curses, depending upon the depths of one’s superstition) and win the World Series, their followers, having lost the thing that made their team special in the first place, would most likely swear off baseball forever.
As a lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan, I have spent many happy days booing the Cubs. It therefore pains me to say that Before the Curse is an exceptional anthology that transcends its intended goal. The book not only illuminates the Chicago franchise’s first seventy-five years, which Cubs fans born long after 1945 still think of as the glory days, it also offers a compelling window into professional baseball’s rambunctious opening chapters and a primer course on the evolution of sports writing over the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. [End Page 563]
Roberts and Cunningham adopt a deceptively light tone throughout, appealing to a general audience while imparting a considerable amount of information. A brief introduction situates the Cubs (by way of the White Stockings, the Colts, the Orphans, the Microbes, the Spuds, and the Zephyrs) within a succinct overview of baseball’s early years. Similarly useful head-notes place thirty-five documents within the broader landscape of sports, baseball, and Chicago history. Most documents provide contemporary, firsthand views of their subjects, although a handful of entries, most of them biographical, were written after the fact. Roberts and Cunningham focus primarily upon key individuals rather than on game summaries or sweeping surveys. Readers hoping to encounter Wiliam Hulbert; Cap Anson; Michael “King” Kelly; Billy Herman; Hack Wilson; William Wrigley; and the poetic trio of Tinkers, Evers, and Chance will not be disappointed.
Before the Curse also offers a capsule history of baseball’s evolution from a culturally suspect pastime into America’s Game. Pieces from the 1880s reflect the nation’s divided views on leisure: while some hail the Cubs for personifying American manhood, others decry the widespread gambling and shady characters surrounding baseball as harbingers of national decline. An 1881 New York Times article predicts that the more civilized sport of cricket will soon supersede baseball’s popularity. Such concerns faded once the major leagues cracked down on player misconduct and other nefarious activities. Before the Curse also provides a subtle if fascinating look at changes within America’s literary culture as early Cubs chroniclers who crafted elaborate word portraits of slabmen and batsmen gradually gave way to more straight-ahead writers. This shift should not be overstated; a fascinatingly verbose 1918 article by the young Ernest Hemingway noted that Grover Cleveland Alexander “ornamented a contract with his own peculiar style of hieroglyphics” (p. 118).
Before the Curse incorporates the usual high points of Cubs history. Merkle’s Boner is here as are Ruth’s Called Shot and Ronald Reagan’s oft-told tale about stalling for time when his telegraph broke down while he was recreating a 1934 Cubs-Cardinals game (he had Cubs infielder Augie Galan foul off pitches for nearly seven minutes). It also includes surprises that will intrigue the most knowledgeable fan. An 1876 Chicago Times article examining methods of quantifying player performance is a delight, as is an 1899 Chicago Tribune report from spring training. In an optimistic flourish, the...