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Friday, October 17, 2003
Who's the goat now?

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

Yo. Dog in the house. The House that Ruth Built. Bambino Valhalla.

I'm here in my oversized Yankee ball cap with the flat bill, uncurved, the way Dontrelle wears his now. I'm here going bonkers like everybody else. Wish R-Dub was here, but he's down in Florida. This is his Page 2 hole I'm writing in. Dub's allowing me to interrupt the NFL season to bring you fact and speculations about this sick post-season of big-league hardball.

Florida Marlins
Florida is living large courtesy of the cursed Cubs.
Me & Dub love baseball, though we can't say it loves us, unconditionally. It's like ... family. Can't say I know about any "Curse of the Bambino" in Boston, or "Curse of the Billy Goat" in Chicago. But Dub can, at least about the Chicago part. Dub says a billy goat's got nothing to do with it.

As for Bambino Curses, if Boston's buying, I'll sure keep sellin' it to 'em.

"Dog, I guarantee the Curse in Chicago has nothing to do with any #@&%! billy goat. I believe it has to do with something else . . . people," said Dub.

From here on, Dub's explanation about the Curse in Chicago, the Curse of the Cubs, will get up close and personal, like your Uncle Tank talking about the time you picked up that fumble and ran the wrong way with it in high school, or about how he caught you "borrowing" your aunt's Chevy Impala for a joyride, or how he found those magazines and that cruddy towel under your . . . um, never mind. "But we're family," he protests.

Right. He's a Cubs' fan. He's a Cubs' fan now. But you knew him when, when he took you to Comiskey to see the White Sox and Dick Allen. No, you may not like it, when your family tells stories out of school on you; in fact, you definitely don't like it, but here we are, and there it is, laid bare. Nobody knows you like family, damn them all to hell. Certain family members you definitely want to avoid; certain historical facts you'd just as soon forget. But there they are, waiting to spoil the yearly family reunion called the post-season.

Anyway, here's Dub's story about the real curse of Chicago baseball. He swears it's true. Told it to me on the cellie, at the Stadium, before Game 7 of the Red Sox-Yankees, while I was standing with Howard Bryant, the Boston journo who wrote "Shutout: The Story of Race and Baseball in Boston." Not a bad book. A family book. Howie said there'd be some runs scored last night, wouldn't be a 2-1 or 1-0 game. "I like him," said Dub after talking with Howie on the phone. "Knows his applesauce."

Dub's theory on baseball curses is that everybody sort of avoids what he calls the truth about them; teams that were -- or are -- historically dismissive and smugly cruel about its black folks -- those are the teams that stay cursed.

"I don't know about Boston, but you've got Howie right there to ask about Beantown. Lemme tell you something about Chicago, Dog," Dub said. Jeet came by and high-fived me. Love Jeet. Jeet can date my sister anytime. He can have my sister for lunch if he wants. She and I should be so lucky.

"Forget that, Dog, you listening to me? Did you see the Cubs, that Poor F. Guy in the stands, mucking up that foul ball? Dusty not taking out Prior? Gonzo kicking one? Kerry Wood showing up without his slider? You see that? Had nothing to do with any billy goat. Chicago is doing penance for its sinful baseball ways. It goes back not any mere 58 years to any billy-goat curse during the 1945 World Series."

"What? I can't hear you, you're breaking up," I said.

"Sure I am. Listen up. The Curse in Chicago goes back 95 years, to the Before Time, back to when the Cubs last won the World Series, in 1908," Dub said. I settled in. I know when Dub's about to go on a roll. He's family.

"A week after the Series, the Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance Cubs played a team called the Chicago Leland Giants. There were a big-league quality club. They had been assembled by Rube Foster. Rube is probably the best baseball man you never heard of. From Texas. From McGraw. First time John McGraw saw him, he was pitching in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in spring training, at the turn of the century. McGraw was a hard Irishman, as hard as any Irishman in Southie today, probably. As hard as say . . . Matt Damon. At least. But he was a baseball man first. When he saw Rube pitch -- sheesh!

"Only Rube was black. The ball didn't know that. But, apparently, most people noticed, and wrote him off, just for that. Rube pitched for assorted independent black ball clubs, including one in Philly, for whom he won 45 games. In one year. McGraw brought Rube in to teach his two best pitchers -- Ironman McGinnity and one C. Mathewson -- a pitch. Today, they call it a scroogie. Carl Hubbell had one later. So did Fernando Valenzuela. Christy Mathewson went on to become a Hall of Famer with his, the one taught to him by Rube Foster.

Wrigley Field
The Curse of Rube Foster lives on as Wrigley is quiet for yet another October.
Christy and McGraw's Giants did well. Well, there was nothing McGraw could do to appreciate Rube Foster. Couldn't sign him, not even as pitching coach. Cap Anson had seen to that, effectively barring all black participants. Although McGraw, Irish or not, did sign Jim Thorpe, the Indigenous Imperial, to play the outfield, and tried to get people to believe that this Cuban guy who could play wasn't black, because he was Cuban. It was kinda of like today, in a way, when they don't count Caribbean players as black, or what they call "American-born blacks." Whatever that is. All I know is, if Sammy Sosa shows up on your doorstep, you ain't gonna think, "Say, that guy's . . . Dominican." Either way, Cap Anson had seen to it. They were barred either way back then. Which was fine by McGraw. Unless they could pitch like Rube. McGraw knew that true, great big-leaguers of any hue were orchid rare; and if you are a baseball man, you never, ever blow one off just for the hell of it. So McGraw showed Rube about baseball organization.

"So Rube became a baseball man in that image. He wound up coming to Chicago, Dog. He brought in some of the best Cuban, Latin and also black players he could find, and put them together on the field at the behest of a Chicago doctor named Leland, and called them the Chicago Leland Giants. Privately, they say, he told McGraw he'd get his team into the big leagues one day, and compete against the Cubs, Giants and Red Sox. The Yankees, at the time, were an afterthought. The Cubs, Giants and Red Sox were the real powers, or, in the case of the Red Sox, the coming power. Rube set his sights high. Too high, most thought, when they saw how black Rube was.

"Somehow, Dr. Leland got the Cubs to agree to play the Leland Giants after the Cubs won the World Series. He probably offered a stipend to the players, Tinker to Evers to Chance to the bank. The Cubs' players were not as well-compensated as they are today, not by a long shot and a fur piece. Challenge accepted.

Here is where the story gets fuzzy. Rube's reputation as a pitcher preceded him, of course. The story goes that the Cubs played an exhibition against the Leland Giants, and lost 1-0, then demanded a rematch, with the condition that Rube not pitch. The other version of the story has it that they agreed to the first exhibition only under the condition that Rube not pitch.

"Well, Rube could still manage the game, and call pitches, and he had taught the scroogie to a couple of good pitchers he'd brought in from the Philly and Newark teams, like he'd taught Mathewson and McGinnity.

"Now, the legend goes that the World Champion Chicago Cubs and the Chicago Leland Giants were locked in a 0-0 tie, going into the tenth inning. And then a couple of the Cubs looked meaningfully at the umps, who, in the bottom of the 10th, called no more strikes on the Cubs. Rube's pitcher walked four straight batters on sixteen pitches. The Cubs won the exhibition, 1-0.

"Rube figured his point was made anyway. In a way, it was. But not in the way he thought. The better team Rube had, the worse it was. No big-league team would ever play a Rube Foster-managed Chicago team from them on. But Rube Foster still had the whole of the South Side of Chicago, and other sides of towns all across America, to work with. So, a few years later, with the help of a sportswriter, one undoubtedly like that troublemaking Howard Bryant, drew up the charter for the Negro National League, whose teams would include his own club, now named the Chicago American Giants, just so that inconvenient yet salient point wouldn't be missed.

"By 1921, in Rube's dreams, one day his team would compete against the Red Sox, and the Yankees, since they'd gotten the big kid, Babe Ruth, and were about to embark on a bit of a run to where you stand right now, Dog.

"And for the next 10 seasons, the Chicago American Giants were the best ballclub in Chicago, if not the planet. Willie Wells, Judy Johnson, Smokey Joe Williams, they all played for the American Giants over at old Comiskey. Frugal Charlie Comiskey may have had "social concerns," but not so many that he was turning down rent money. Whenever his White Sox were on the road, Rube's American Giants would be at Comiskey, drawing big crowds to play against the Kansas City Monarchs, Indianapolis Clowns, Detroit Stars, and other teams. In 1919, the White Sox had rebelled at Comiskey's frugal ways, and threw the Series, at which point people began calling them the "Black Sox," a sobriquet that made Rube grind his teeth in frustration.

"Then Ruth was traded by the Red Sox to the Yankees -- I don't know why, you'd have to ask Howie, or other people from Boston, but it was probably for much deeper reasons than financing some bad theater -- and the rest is history, a history that, for the most part, doesn't include Rube Foster of the Chicago American Giants. And after all that work he'd put into it, too . . .

"Well, the North Side of Chicago, and the scions of big-league baseball like Ban Johnson, never did embrace the Chicago American Giants. Baseball recalls the Black Sox of Charles Comiskey much more fondly than Rube Foster's Giants. Don't believe it? Well, those Black Sox have had at least two movies made about them, 'Eight Men Out' and 'Field of Dreams.'

"Rube? Squat. He eventually died in a mental ward downstate, in Kankakee, and, as the story and legend goes, he swore that no Chicago team would ever beat the Yankees, until this confusing history was somehow made right.

"Now that's a Curse for you, right there, Dog!" Dub said.

Grady Little
Was Grady Little possessed by a curse? Fiction would make more sense than fact.
"Wow Dub," I said, yawning. "Glad I'm not a Chicago baseball fan. This is N'Yawk."

Then I thought about 1969, when the Cubs blew that big lead to my then-beloved Amazin's, and that black cat ran rings around Santo, and the Mets won. I remembered the crowds at Wrigley Field; remembered that big Confederate flag waving around in the stands . . . and I stopped yawning.

"Most all big-league baseball teams have some past history and past issues with race," said Howie Bryant to Dub. "It's really just a question of how they dealt with them, historically, and how they deal with them, today . . . "

Howie Bryant then told Dub that there'd be some runs scored last night, and there were. It was 5-5, before Boonie came up and went out. Pedro pitched good. Just pitched a little bit too long. Grady Little did what Dusty Baker did -- went too long with his horse. That's why they called Sparky Anderson "Captain Hook." That's why Sparky has rings, and no curse. Once, Sparky came in to get a tiring starter from a World Series game. Don Gullet said, determinedly, "Skip, I can get 'em!" Sparky took the ball from Gullet and said, "Yeah. You can get 'em, on Channel 9, back in the clubhouse . . . "

Grady Little, who did a great job for the Bostons, and the Red Sox, who had a good team, fell just one pitch short of beating the Yankees, and continued their own version of the Curse. Neither me nor Dub know much about the Red Sox's version of the Curse. You'd have to ask Howie Bryant about it.

All Dog knows for sure is that the Florida Marlins have a damn good club, who play in the National League, non-sabermatrician style, and have some live arms, and can run the bags, and can steal a base, and score from first on shot doubles, and an old manager like Captain Hook, and a couple kids in the outfield named Pierre and Cabrera that I wish we had at Shea, or in Yankee Stadium, for that matter, and a catcher named Pudge who's an all-timer, like Campy, only better. They don't know from Curses, because they haven't been around long enough. Too young to be accursed, or to know better.

Maybe one day the Cubs and the Red Sox will get out of historical denial, ante up and kick in, pay off whatever their psychic debt is, and move on.

Maybe not in Dog's lifetime, though ...

Hey Boonie! Over here! Yeah!

Ralph Wiley has written articles for Sports Illustrated, Premiere, GQ, and National Geographic, and many national newspapers. He was one of the original NFL Insiders on NBC. His many books include "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir," "Why Black People Tend To Shout," "By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X" with Spike Lee, "Dark Witness," "Best Seat in the House" with Spike Lee, "Born to Play" with Eric Davis, and "Growing Up King" with Dexter Scott King and the children of Martin Luther King Jr. He contributes to many ESPN productions, and bats cleanup on a weekly basis for Page 2.