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The Curse of Anson

The World Series begins this evening. The Cubs will not win it for the 107th year in a row. For the 70th year in a row they won’t even be in it. The planets remain in their orbits, the earth rotates on its axis, and tradition is preserved.

Why is this? Some people, at this point, start talking about a curse: something about someone fornicating with a goat in Wrigley Field, or some such. I have never bothered to figure out the details, because it is obvious bullshit. The goat curse is a pathetic attempt to piggyback on the Curse of the Bambino, which kept the Red Sox from winning the World Series for 86 years.

Now there is a great story! It’s not merely that the Red Sox traded away the greatest player in the history of the game. Baseball history is littered with bad trades. It’s not that they mistakenly thought that Joe Shlabotnik was destined for greatness. Rather, they sold Babe Ruth for cash in order to finance No, No, Nanette. The genius of the story is that No, No, Nanette is something that we have vaguely heard of, but couldn’t tell you anything about. Were the story about some production we have never heard of, it would lack the impact. And were it about financing Porgy and Bess or the like, then there would be an argument that this was a good tradeoff. No, No, Nanette makes the story perfect: a perfection so perfect that it is unblemished by the trivial detail of its being demonstrably untrue.

That goat story? A pale imitation. The best that can be said for it is that it is so lame that I assume it is a fabrication by bored sports writers, and not a real thing.

My goal here–and a noble goal indeed!–is to propose a much better curse: The Curse of Anson. It is a quasi-familiar story, about how Adrian “Cap” Anson put an end to racial integration in baseball. It even is true, sort of, if the light is dim and you squint.

Professional baseball had a period of limited integration. (What does “limited” mean? Perhaps twenty or so players total. It is hard to say exactly. There are no clear lines between professional and semi-pro and amateur clubs in this era.) This begins in 1878 when Bud Fowler shows up on a couple of teams in New England. New England was one thing, the rest of the country was another. It took a general expansion of professional ball to get blacks in. Baseball was booming in the early 1880s, and clubs were prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to recruit talent: even to hire blacks.

One of the best was Moses Fleetwood Walker. In 1883 he was with the Toledo Club of the Northwestern League, just one step below the majors. The Chicago Club engaged to play them in an exhibition game on August 10. Before the game, Cap Anson announced that they wouldn’t play if Walker was in the lineup. As it happens, Walker wasn’t slated to play that day. Catchers had it rough back then, and needed days off even more than they do today. Charlie Morton, the Toledo manager, rose to Anson’s challenge by putting Walker in the outfield. I know absolutely nothing else about Morton, but I like him based on this alone. If Chicago forfeited the game, they would also forfeit their share of the gate receipts, so Anson backed down: what a schmuck.

This action didn’t segregate baseball overnight. Fleet Walker and his brother Welday were both with Toledo the following year, when it played in the major American Association. Anson took the precaution that year of insisting on a written guarantee that neither would play in any exhibition games against the Chicagos. In 1887 Anson reprised 1883, this time with the Newark Club of the International League, which had Harry Stovey pitching and Fleet Walker catching. This time it was the Newark manager who backed down, and Stovey and Walker sat on the bench. The International League owners subsequently agreed not to sign any black players in the future. By 1897 all organized major and minor leagues had this rule, whether de jure or de facto.

The simple version is that Anson segregated baseball. The more complicated reality is that Anson wasn’t an outlier. Any number of people were nodding in agreement, and his wasn’t the only club that refused to play teams with blacks. It is defensible to hold that Anson played only an incidental role in the segregation of baseball. On the other hand, he was one of the most prominent ballplayers of the era. At the very least, he made himself the public face of racism in baseball, and an argument can be made that things could have gone the other way.

Baseball is very tradition-bound. It always has been: it’s traditional. Racism is essentially arbitrary. Blacks were assigned certain roles in society that they were permitted to fill, while being excluded from other roles. There was no intrinsic reason why blacks could be boxers and jockeys but not baseball players (at least not on white clubs). It is not implausible that had the limited integration held on another few years, it would have become tradition and no one would have given it another thought.

Civil rights debates have four parties. The most interested party is, of course, the people whose rights are being debated. The other three parties are within the dominant group. There is a group that believes on principle that these rights should be extended widely; a group that fervently opposes extending these rights; and a much larger group that can be persuaded either way. Much of the discussion is the two outer groups trying to persuade the large middle group.

This model applies whether we are talking about gay marriage or the integration of baseball. Baseball, however, has a key difference. The middle, persuadable group also has an imperative to build winning teams. A baseball manager may not give a damn about “the rights of the Negro,” but be intensely interested in signing a certain pitching phenom, even if said phenom happened to be black. John McGraw a few years later famously tried to sneak in Charlie Grant, a black second baseman, calling him “Chief Tokohama” and claiming he was Cherokee. There is natural opposition to the color line from the neutral middle in a way that isn’t there for many otherwise similar debates.

The segregationists countered this by making it more trouble than it was worth. Exhibition games were a significant source of revenue.  A club couldn’t just blow them off. The segregationists made it so that having black players was guaranteed to be a hassle: either a fight every time, or every time rework your lineup (in an era when a minor league club might have only eleven or twelve players). If you have no principled opinion one way, then the pragmatic reason to care the other way will eventually win out, especially if you know no one else is going to pick up this black player and use him against you.

In other words, baseball became segregated because segregationists were prepared to throw a temper tantrum every time. Anson was the most important and visible of the lot. Suppose Anson had sat on his hands. Would this have made any difference? Maybe. Someone else would have been the most important and visible segregationist, but that someone else would have been a less prominent baseballist than Anson. Maybe segregation would have come anyway, but then again maybe not. What about Bizarro Anson, the principled advocate of equal rights for all? Bizarro Anson could have signed Walker and Stovey and dared anyone to complain.

But this post is about a curse. The genre does not deal in nuanced analyses. It is lucky if there is a kernel of truth buried somewhere down there. For this purpose we are on plenty solid ground: Baseball was segregated due to the singlehanded efforts of Adrian “Cap” Anson as he cackled evilly and twirled his mustachio (and truth is truth: a fine mustachio it was indeed!)

I hear what you nattering nabobs of negativism are saying: Sure, Cap Anson was evil incarnate, and probably personally responsible for the designated hitter rule too, even if we aren’t quite sure how. But the Chicago Club was really good during his captaincy. Then it was really good again in the early 20th century. How can Anson’s evil deeds of the 1880s explain the Cubs sucking so badly so much later?

I’m glad you asked. Pull up a chair. You have to look at the eras. The club was generally good from the 1870s into the 1940s. This included two dynasties, from 1880 to 1886 and from 1906 to 1910. Outside of those dynasties they had good years and bad years, but more of the former. Then they had nearly four decades of intense suckitude from the end of World War II to 1983. Since then they have reached the playoffs seven times in 32 years, which is about what you would expect on average. They haven’t made the World Series, but this is not remarkably improbable, given the rat fight that is the playoff system. So really what we have is one long period when they were truly awful, followed by another period when they were OK but not lucky.

What also happened after World War II? Black soldiers returned home from the war and build the nascent Civil Rights Movement. Oh, and Jackie Robinson.

Clearly the Universe (and by “the Universe” I mean the United States: what are we, French?) was not ready to implement the Curse of Anson before 1945. At that point there was over a half century to make up. The Cubs were really terrible for forty years. The Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years? Coincidence? I think not!

So when will the Cubs win the World Series? Back to the Future II got the math wrong. We are going Old Testament here, so it will last unto the third and fourth generation. I’m going with four. A generation traditionally is twenty years, and obviously we are starting from 1945, so look for this to happen in 2025. Of course people are marrying and having kids later nowadays, so it might be a bit longer. Best to sell all your worldly goods and send me the proceeds now, just to be safe. You heard it here first.

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Richard Hershberger is a paralegal working in Maryland. When he isn't doing whatever it is that paralegals do, or taking his daughters to Girl Scouts, he is dedicated to the collection and analysis of useless and unremunerative information.

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27 thoughts on “The Curse of Anson

  1. This is perfect in every way except for one. Somehow, somewhere in the piece should be the phrase, “You could look it up.”

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    • D’oh! You are right. That was a missed opportunity.

      Also, Jackie Robinson’s uniform number: 42. The answer to life, the universe and everything: 42. Coincidence? I think not!

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  2. And here I thought it was karma, or who(what)ever, punishing Cubs management for coming up with a marketing campaign for Wrigley Field instead of the team that played inside it. Cubs fans, being credulous nitwits, were apt to put up with the likes of George Mitterwald and Dave Kingman since they were playing in such a beautiful park. Hoodwinking credulous nitwits never sits well with those looking down at us.

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    • I just now finally saw the video of that play. The center fielder really screwed that one up. The left fielder might have had a shot at catching the ball, but that play is the center fielder’s. He got a bad jump, didn’t call for the left fielder to take it, and then booted the ball. Not a triumph. Most inside-the-park homers are to some extent the result of bad fielding, but this was really bad fielding. It’s one thing when a corner outfielder misreads how a ball is going to bounce, and it rattles around in the corner. But this was just bad.

      Not that I am complaining. While I don’t root for either team, I do root against the Mets.

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  3. They won’t win because they’re a utter pile of garbage that will never amount to anything. They’re the reason I quit baseball forever. They’re bastards, the lot of them.

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  4. The last time the Cubs won a championship, in 1908, they got to the Series by cheating. They got a pennant and their victim got the nickname “Bonehead”. What better justice than 100+ years of curse?

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    • How do you make the Cubs’ role in Merkle’s Boner out to be cheating? They clearly had the letter of the law on their side, and the league backed them up. There is a good argument that the league made the wrong decision, but the Cubs’ case was not frivolous.

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        • This seems a stretch. Accounts differ on this point. There are three variants: (1) Cubs centerfielder Hofman retrieved the ball and threw it to Evers. (2) Giants base coach McGinnity intercepted the ball and threw it into the crowd. Someone–perhaps Evers or perhaps Cubs pitcher (not in the game) Kroh retrieved a ball, which might or might not have been the game ball, to make the tag. (3) The ball was lost amid the Giants fans pouring onto the field, and Evers got a random ball to make the tag.

          Version (1) is factually straightforward. There is a legitimate debate about how the rule should be enforced, but that was a matter for the league to decide.

          Version (2) (which, FWIW, I think the most likely to be true) is also straightforward. It is blatant interference. The runner should be called out regardless of the ball. (O’Day, the home plate umpire, some years later claimed that he had called Merkle out due to this interference before the putative tag was made. My suspicion is that he made the call retroactively in his mind, since it doesn’t seem to have been part of the contemporary discussion. This doesn’t mean, though, that it wasn’t the right call.) (That being said, I just looked up the rules from the day. I don’t see anything that explicitly states that a coach can’t go onto the field and interfere. But still…)

          Version (3) is the most problematic from a rules point of view. There was not yet a rule about fan interference per se. This was the tail end of the era where the outer edge of the outfield might be used as standing room for fans. There was a rule about “block” balls, i.e. a live ball touched by an outsider. How block balls was very weird from the modern perspective. In any case, the rule did not contemplate fans entering into the active field of play and interfering, but rather balls entering the area where the fans were. I suspect that there was precedent for what to do when a fan entered the field of play, but I don’t know what it was and it had not yet made its way into the rulebook.

          Regardless of the rules technicalities, even stipulating that Evers never got the game ball, it seems counter to the spirit for the Giants to benefit from interference: especially by its coach, but also by its fans.

          I subscribe to the school of thought that the league made the wrong call. Merkle was following accepted practice, regardless of the text of the rule. It is perfectly reasonable to declare that henceforth the letter of the law will be enforced. It is not reasonable to declare that it will be enforced retroactively, beginning with the ninth inning of an important game. But I don’t blame the Cubs for playing the angle and winning.

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  5. There was no intrinsic reason why blacks could be boxers and jockeys but not baseball players (at least not on white clubs). It is not implausible that had the limited integration held on another few years, it would have become tradition and no one would have given it another thought.

    One reason is possibly that being a jockey or a boxer is an individual activity, and thus a black person did not need to be a peer of a white person, the way necessary for any team sports (or the Army). So it fits with the underlying theory of racial apartheid. Even at that, more aggressive (maybe the right word is ‘systemic’) racism took African Americans out of of e.g. the Kentucky Derby for 3/4 of a century. Jack Johnson was convicted of the crime of being a boxing Heavy Champion with Unforgivable Blackness. Thus, even though Major League Baseball was a ‘northern’ sport (Washington and St Louis being the geographic extremes until the 50s, as of course everyone knows), the fact that social and government racism went into high gear in the wake of the Plessy decision and then the Wilson administration, I think would have pushed African Americans out of the big leagues in the early 20th century.

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    • Nah, it’s that there were multiple attitudes about racism. And backwoods Louisiana (where they still run minor-league horseraces) has a pretty different attitude towards black people than starched up Georgia or South Carolina.

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      • right, but the most dominant sport in America is going to take cues from the dominant social mores, which, in turn of the (20th) century America, was strict social segregation in the South, (because the economic lives of whites and blacks were thoroughly intertwined) and deliberate economic segregation in the North (because people there didn’t have a problem with African americans as long as they out of sight and out of mind).

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    • Maybe. We are in alt-history here, which is to say largely hand-waving. But I can hand-wave too. If the process of pushing African Americans occurred gradually, this would have given a competitive advantage to those teams retaining and recruiting black players. Racism would come at a cost. Some would be willing to pay it, but the others would have a positive incentive to resist the process. Or, if there was an attempt to legislate segregation all at once, some clubs with more black players (likely correlating strongly with less racism) would have an incentive to resist the legislation. This isn’t to say that it might not have been pushed through, but I don’t see this as a slam dunk (to switch sports) either way.

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      • Did pre-20th century clubs spend a lot of time scouting outside the mid to large cities? My impression from your writings is that they mostly poached talent from other clubs that had a hometown guy become a breakout star.

        Between the fact that in 1900, the portion of the US population that was African American had declined to less than 12% (and would still go down on a percentage basis for 4 more censuses), and the fact that 90% of the population lived in the South (and was substantially, perhaps even overwhelmingly rural), the pool of African American talent easily accessible to turn of the century clubs would be necessarily small.

        This would all change in the Great Migration (and that, plus, as you said, WW2, is what led to the breaking the color barrier), but the nominal start of that was still a few years in the future when the Cubs last one a world series).

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        • They didn’t have scouting in the modern sense, but they were pretty mobile and kept their eyes open. Monte Ward, when he was with Providence, played winter ball in San Francisco one year and brought a local player, Sandy Nava, back east. Nava was ethnically Mexican, though born in San Francisco in 1860. I’m not sure if he was the first in MLB history. He certainly wasn’t the first Hispanic, but I think the earlier ones may have all been Cuban.

          Beyond that, both individuals and clubs had been playing winter and/or early spring ball in New Orleans since the 1870s, and were experimenting with playing in Cuba. There also was a lot of mobility by players on the (proto-)minor league level. Essentially, the lower-tier clubs were the de facto scouts for the higher-tier clubs. They sometimes complained, but not as much as you would think. Everyone knew how the system worked. My local town had a good semi-pro club in 1885. They had an outfielder poached by the Baltimore Orioles midseason. They were quite proud of this. They gained prestige by being good enough for a major league club to poach from them.

          Also, there were colored clubs in the South in this era. Even if Southern baseball remained segregated, there was potential for northern clubs to recruit in the South.

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  6. The prevailing opinion at our house is that the “Curse of the Bambino” was something built up by radio and TV to avoid any dead spots in coverage of the Red Sox. Needing to say something while at a loss for words can easily be accomplished by retelling the story of the “Curse.”

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