Monday, October 30, 2017

Book Review and interview with author Rich Cohen on The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse

What if something happened that not only invalidated everything you had come to know and accept, but also ripped out the very core of your existence? And what if that event was the one thing you had been hoping for your entire life?

This is the dilemma faced by long-term Cubs fans after their team won the World Series in 2016, after a drought of 108 years. Rich Cohen addresses this deftly in his thoroughly enjoyable new book The Cubs: Story of a Curse.

A lifelong Cubs fan who spent many childhood afternoons sitting in the Wrigley Field bleachers, Cohen mines the rich history of the Cubs to help the reader understand the "stinking heartbreak of history" and "what a hundred years of losing does to your psyche." 

In examining the dreaded curse and all its impact--on players, management and fans--Cohen leads the reader on an entertaining tour of  "years of blown leads and late-season collapses." He also reminds readers that long ago the Cubs were actually one of the best teams in baseball for more than a decade. It's all there, the good times and the bad: Tinkers, Evers and Chance, Mordecai Brown and his three-fingered curve ball, the great pennant race of '08, Babe Ruth's called shot in the 1932 Series (against the Cubs in Wrigley Field of course), the long years in the nether regions of the National League cellar, Ernie Banks, Leo and the collapse of '69, Joe Pepitone, Dave Kingman ("it's strange how a player who hit so many home runs . . . can leave such a bad taste in your mouth), the San Diego ground ball and the Bartman episode. And he does so with an unmistakable flare that makes the book a very easy and enjoyable read.

In analyzing the pathos that inevitably afflicts those rooting for a bad team, Cohen's words ring true for fans of other long-suffering teams. His examination of the past half-century for the Cubs begs the question: did the actual curse cause the drought or did the fear of the curse, like belief in voodoo, cripple the organization and its members?

Cohen includes a lengthy interview with Theo Epstein which provides insight into the equally difficult tasks of dismantling the curse and building a championship team then takes the reader through the thrilling 2016 postseason that changed everything.

Due to connections from his famous father (negotiator extraordinaire and author of the best-selling book You Can Negotiate Anything Herb Cohen, who incidentally grew up with Sandy Koufax in Brooklyn) Cohen had access to the playing field and stars as a child and he includes anecdotes of meetings with Ernie Banks, Bill Buckner, Joe DiMaggio and Koufax. These experiences give added perspective and color to the narrative. Although Cohen is non-sports writer in his day job (contributing editor for Vanity Fair, former contributing editor at Rolling Stone among other gigs), he has written frequently about the Cubs in the past for Sports Illustrated--including one of the last major interviews of Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks--and wrote an extended piece on the Cubs curse for Harper's in 2000. So he comes with the necessary credentials to do justice to this subject.

Cohen is a great writer and shows it early and often. The guy can turn a phrase as well as Bryant and Rizzo can turn on a fastball. When he writes of the well-known habit of Cub fans throwing back home run balls hit by opponents, he says they, "vomit it back, reject it like a bad kidney."

For all those Cubs teams with no hope of postseason, "Autumn was storm shutters pulled over outfield grass."

"Hitting well is like being cool in high school. The more you want it, the harder it is." And during a Cubs World Series rally, "the piñata had been busted open, the candy was spilling across the floor."

I recently caught up with Rich Cohen to discuss his book, his thoughts on the Cubs, the infamous curse and its affect on its fans.

What made you decide to take time out from your busy regular writing jobs to write this book?

"I've been a Cubs fan longer than I've been a writer. It's a primal relationship. Most of my sports stories have been about the Cubs. A significant part of the book I did about the 1985 Bears [Monsters] was about what the Cubs did to us all in 1984. There is such great material with the Cubs, such a great history. It's fun to dive deeper into that history. And, finally, when they won the World Series last year I knew it was the end of something we had come to know. This story is real. It's deep to me. This is my life."

You mentioned fun. You seem like you enjoyed writing this.

"I did. It was just so much fun to go back through the history of the Cubs. And to read about Eddie Waitkus and The Natural and to examine all these connection that wind the story of the Cubs together. There are a lot of things you've known forever as part of the culture being a fan, but when you dig deeper you get a much greater appreciation and understanding of the strategic structure of how it all fits together."

What are you're thoughts on the curse, was it real?
"Cubs baseball has really had a long tragic history. The great Chicago fire in 1871 actually destroyed the ball park of the Chicago White Stockings, who were the precursors to the Cubs. It destroyed their park and all their equipment and uniforms. They were battling for first place at the time, but had to finish the season on the road wearing piecemeal borrowed uniforms and they lost. It sort of set the trend for Chicago baseball as we've come to know it. And even when the Cubs had those great teams in the early part of the century, they should have won a lot more Series, but they didn't. Things just happened, to the team and its players. So the curse was there, even though it didn't actually happen or become formal until 1945. Once you know about the curse and look back you recognize that the team had a tragic history long before that but they didn't recognize it as a curse. So I think the curse identified something rather than caused it. But later, the weight of all those things, of history, caused more pressure on the team. Everyone knew the Cubs always lost in the end. Each time the team got close, they almost were waiting for something to happen."

What now, that the curse is broken?

"Winning the World Series changes the persona of Cubs fans. Forever Cubs fans have had this thing--believing in lost causes. They weren't ever going to win so they became baseball purists, they could cling to the beauty of the park, the game itself, the bleachers, appreciate all the little things. Now that they've won, we've entered a new era. That's good and bad. This group of players and front office broke the curse and they look like they're going to enter an era in which they will be competitive for a long time. But an entire generation will grow up not understanding how we felt."

Overall, this is a well-written, entertaining book that is not just for Cubs fans. Anyone who enjoys baseball will understand and appreciate the history of the game and the thoughts on losing teams and their fans. This is quite possibly the best baseball book of the year.

1 comment:

  1. Doug: As a lifelong Red Sox fan, I find Cohen's answer to your last question so true that I might buy this book. I still find the "book", "Win it For...", which is essentially a long thread from the Red Sox blog SOSH to be one of the most moving baseball books in my own library.