Chicago Cubs: Yesterday and Today by Steve Johnson, (MBI Publishing, 2008), 144 pages.
After the Boston Red Sox’s two recent World Series triumphs, the Chicago Cubs now stand alone as the team that many baseball fans have a soft spot for. With their history of great players and a wonderful old ballpark, only the most hard-hearted fan would not want to see the Curse of the Billy Goat finally being put to rest. One hundred years since the Cubs last won the World Series, it is a fitting time for Steven Johnson to write this history of the storied franchise.
Scheduled for release later this week, Chicago Cubs: Yesterday and Today is a well-proportioned (28cm by 24), hardback book which clearly has been put together with a lot of care and attention to detail. On the title page, the reader is greeted by two fantastic photos. The portrait of Cubs great Ernie Banks is an instant reminder of the calibre of player that has represented the club over the years, but it is the shot of Wrigley Field that catches the eye. Taken from ground level, the photo shows a packed-out, two-tier main grandstand set beneath a stunning early evening red sky. With the Cubs playing their arch-rivals, the St Louis Cardinals, on the field below, it is a perfect picture and immediately compels you to start flicking through the pages to search for others of similar brilliance. Thankfully, the following 250+ photos do not disappoint.
In fact, the photos are so good that it is easy to overlook the accompanying text on first inspection. This is not a comprehensive narrative of the Cubs’ history; instead the book is split into more than forty short sections ranging from the story of how they arrived at their nickname, to a two-page spread on their minor league affiliate teams. A dedicated Cubs fan won’t find many new revealing insights in Johnson’s prose, but that’s not really his intention. Rather than being an authoritative text, it is an enjoyable overview that combines great photos with concise and engaging writing.
The Chicago Cubs have a rich history and tradition to explore and it is here that the text has the most impact. Johnson states that â€œsince the inception of the National League in 1876, the Chicago franchise is the only one of the inaugural eight still operating in the same cityâ€. As such, these sections provide not only an overview of the Cubs’ history, but also a history of MLB as a whole. The formation and development of the National League and the ‘Championship Series’ are covered as well as more general themes such as changes to uniforms and salaries over the years. The Cubs also offer a useful opportunity to look at the â€œbreaking of the race barrierâ€, with the team having a notable integration record with both players (the aforementioned Banks being a great example) and managers (most recently Don Baylor and Dusty Baker).
Cubs fans will be glad to know that the author successfully defends their honour by making a convincing case against the ‘loveable losers’ tag (the ‘losers’ bit at least). While the World Series may have alluded them for a century (and counting), Johnson notes that their overall record is very impressive, with only five franchises holding a better winning percentage. Their record is backed up by the group of players profiled throughout the book. Taking each position in turn, Johnson charts the lineage of stand-out players who have worn the Cubbies’ uniform. Third base for example begins with Ned Williamson, who manned the hot corner during the 1880s, before profiling the likes of Stan Hack, fan favourite Ron Santo and the current incumbent Aramis Ramirez.
With such a strong winning record and a host of good players, it’s not hard to understand why some of the more obsessive Cubs fans believe that their World Series drought is the product of mysterious forces. Johnson explains the dreaded Curse of the Billy Goat as well as the â€œgaffes and controversiesâ€ that have conspired against them. Fans of the Cubbies should be warned that this book does contain a photo of the ‘Bartman’ incident!
For all of the attention bestowed on other parts of the Cubs’ heritage, Chicago Cubs: Yesterday and Today is rightfully dominated by their home. Although the five pre-Wrigley ballparks are given due reverence, nothing can match the photos of Wrigley Field in all its splendour. The ‘red sky’ photo highlighted earlier is actually one of the few that shows the ballpark under floodlights. In the vast majority, Wrigley is bathed in sunshine and there can be few better sights. Of course, the Cubs resisted the move away from daytime baseball until 1988, yet it is interesting to learn that a project to install floodlights was set to start back in 1941, only for the onset of America’s involvement with World War Two to put it on hold.
There are separate sections on some of the key characteristics of the ballpark, from the bleaches (both the official bleaches and the ‘wildcat’ bleaches on the roofs of the surrounding buildings), to the scoreboard and the infamous ivy on the outfield walls. The wider ‘Wrigley Experience’ is also revealed in sections about the fans, game day snacks and the â€œvoices of the Cubsâ€, such as legendary announcer Harry Caray. If you have visited Wrigley Field, this book will bring the memories flooding back. If you haven’t, you will start saving up for a road trip straight away.
As one of the most-storied franchises in the sport, anyone building a baseball library needs to own at least one book about the Chicago Cubs. With its solid overview of all parts of the franchise’s history and features, and the exceptional collection of photos, Chicago Cubs: Yesterday and Today would be a great choice.
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