Do They Still Play the Blues in Chicago? The Virtues of Being a Cubs Fan


On November 3rd, Cubs fans everywhere woke up—many of them happily hung-over—to the reality of the Chicago Cubs as World Series champions. For people of my generation and older, this is a truly bizarre feeling that changes the existential meaning of what it means to be a Cubs fan.

Professional sports can easily be dismissed as little more than a bread-and-circus diversion in our consumer society, but they also obviously function as dramatic ritual—providing a civic, cathartic experience of the agonistic nature of life, and, at their best, instilling some kind of wisdom or virtue along the way. So what are the virtues of being a Cubs fan, and how does that change now that the most epic losers in the history of American sports are, incredibly, the champs?

Most Cubs fans of my age became fans when we were too young to know better, to realize that rooting for a team that in 1963 (when I was born) had already gone 55 years without a World Series was potentially dooming oneself to a lifetime of sports-fan misery. But if as a kid, you walked up the ramps into the seats at Wrigley and saw that field of dreams tucked into the North Side of Chicago, watched countless of the 130-plus games a year televised on WGN, and imbibed the optimism of Cubs’ announcer Jack Brickhouse, you were hooked.

If suffering is indeed good for the soul, then for those of us who are not religious in any traditional theological sense being a Cubs fan has provided a regular dose of salutary expiation. A constant reminder that life is full of failure and absurdity–lots of absurdity. From billy goats, to black cats, to ground balls through Leon Durham’s legs, to that poor Cubs fan Steve Bartman who was only doing instinctively what any fan does when a foul ball is hit their way. George F. Will even wrote somewhere that if the Cubs ever won the World Series, it would be a sure sign of the apocalypse, because the meek would finally have inherited the earth. On this logic, the Cubs’ victory felt eerily like a harbinger of an apocalyptic result in the presidential election.

Will has argued that being a Cubs fan offers training in a conservative world-view, testifying that his own “gloomy temperament received its conservative warp from early and prolonged exposure to the Chicago Cubs.” Decades upon decades of losing drives home the conservative wisdom that “the world is a dark and forbidding place where most new knowledge is false, most improvements are for the worse, the battle is not to the strong, nor riches to men of understanding, and an unscrupulous Providence consigns innocents to suffering.”[1] Presumably, such experience instills conservative virtues of individual responsibility in a world where one should expect no help, and obedience to traditional authorities and values that have been forged as bulwarks in this hostile world.

But Cubs-inspired lessons of perseverance do not belong to conservatives alone. MSNBC host and Cubs fan Chris Hayes has suggested that the Cubs victory—snatched in the tenth inning of game seven from the jaws of a 109th straight year of defeat—is best understood in terms of existential philosopher Albert Camus’ “Myth of Sisyphus,” which Hayes reports is his father’s favorite essay. Facing the question of how “we find joy or meaning in a world that so reliably deals us disappointment, cruelty and heartbreak,” Hayes quotes Camus’ conclusion that “the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” even as he is eternally doomed to roll that damned stone back up the hill each day with no prospect of success. This attitude, Hayes, argues, is “a pretty great guide for a life of work in social justice like my dad, or education like my mom, or organizing like my brother, or politics, or broadcasting for that matter.” Hayes’ father reminded him of this ethos as the Cubs victory appeared to be slipping away in the bottom of the eighth inning of game seven, and Hayes concludes that the Cubs’ subsequent victory has not changed but only reinforced this essential truth: “as joyous as that moment of victory was, … the fact is even if they had lost that game, as heartbroken as I would have been, it still all would have been worth it, honestly. … [K]eep pushing that rock no matter what, is a pretty damn great way to go through life. Thanks to the Cubs for teaching me that.”[2]

I find Hayes’ formulation fitting, but as a scholar of the American pragmatic tradition, I would be more inclined to describe the virtues of being a Cubs fan in terms of the meliorism that runs from Emerson through William James and John Dewey. After all, doesn’t the national pastime deserve an American philosophy? Meliorism, as James defines it, is a tragic optimism that posits a genuinely pluralistic world, one with real contingency and tragic loss, where our human beliefs and actions are meaningful because they may help create a better future. Meliorists are optimistic because they believe that a world like ours, with its ever-present possibility of tragic failure, is not only endurable but in fact well-suited to our agonistic human nature, to our need for meaningful struggle. Pragmatists posit a world that is malleable, but resistant, where our virtues have meaning because they must struggle against the failures we face in life, and where conversely life’s failures are to be embraced because they call forth our virtues.[3] As Emerson puts it, in a Nietzschean mood, “Passions, resistance, danger, are educators. We acquire the strength we have overcome. Without war, no solider; without enemies, no hero. The sun were insipid, if the universe were not opaque.”[4] Or, as he puts it in the more muted optimism of his great essay “Experience,” “Never mind the ridicule, never mind the defeat: up again, old heart!”[5]

Such philosophizing—whether of Will’s, Camus’, or Emerson’s variety—may be too earnest and high-toned for the lowly case of the Cubs. For the Cubs fans I know, dealing with decades of failure has not bred gloom and doom or even an existential courage in the face of it. Instead, being a Cubs fan has instilled a self-deprecatory humor and a sense irony that is itself a powerful resource to carry through life. Being able to laugh at the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune not only cushions the blows, but perhaps more importantly prevents you from taking yourself too seriously. The humor of rooting for the hapless Cubs, if tinged with a black sense of the absurd futility of life, was always suffused with that sunny, misplaced optimism of Jack Brickhouse and Ernie Banks, and saturated with the Falstaffian gusto of Harry Caray, whose creedo that “You can’t beat fun at the old ball-park” was true even when the Cubs lost 100 games.

When that ballpark was Wrigley Field, Cubs fans always had a reason to love baseball, no matter how pathetic their team was. Brickhouse, Banks, and Caray, (not to mention Ron Santo) never lived to see the Cubs win the World Series, just like the countless departed parents and grandparents who I know were on the minds of Cubs fans during this World Series run (like my own departed mom and uncle, both born and raised on the North Side). But this sad fact doesn’t dispel the optimism or the humor. The optimism of being a Cubs fan has, for me, always been funny precisely because I know it’s misplaced. To express a Brickhouse-ian optimism about the Cubs has always been a self-conscious exercise in being ridiculous. And that comic attitude is, for my mind, probably the most salutary virtue of being a Cubs fan.

This self-deprecating ability to laugh at the futility of being a Cubs fan is perfectly captured in the sardonic humor of Steve Goodman’s classic ode “A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request.”[6] (In a whole other league than the saccharine “Go Cubs, Go” he also penned).[7] Goodman wrote the song when he was himself terminally ill with leukemia. He died four days before the Cubs clinched the National League East Division title in 1984. Of course Goodman didn’t miss a championship, since the Cubs choked away that opportunity for a Series berth when they lost the last three games of a five-game series against the Padres and that no-good lout Steve Garvey. The refrain of the song runs as follows:[8]

Do they still play the blues in Chicago
When baseball season rolls around?
When the snow melts away,
Do the Cubbies still play
In their ivy-covered burial ground?
When I was a boy they were my pride and joy
But now they only bring fatigue,
To the home of the brave
The land of the free
And the doormat of the National League.

In one sense, the Cubs’ victory has now changed all of this. The Cubs team Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have put together is young and extremely talented, and will likely be a threat to go deep into the playoffs for a number of years to come. What is truly different is that, if and when they do, Cubs fans will be able to enjoy the ride without any existential dread of impending doom hanging over our heads. We’ll be able to root, root, root for the Cubbies, and, if they don’t win it will be a shame indeed—but, no worries, wait till next year!

Of course this victory signals something of an identity crisis for Cubs fans. I’m happy for the young Cubs fans who won’t grow up with the kind of angst fans of my age have lived with, and I was ecstatic when the Cubs got the final out in that wild game seven. But decades of losing has been essential to the love I feel for the “loveable losers” from the North Side. Would I trade that for the life experience of a Yankees fan, or a Patriots fan, or a St. Louis Cardinals fan? Where’s the challenge in that?

So whither now, Cubs fans? Do they still play the blues in Chicago, in the words of Steve Goodman’s anthem? Where will we go for the salutary dose of losing the Cubs have reliably provided for the past century-plus? What do we do now? Root for the vanquished Indians, who’ve taken over the honor of baseball’s longest run of futility?

Chicagoans needn’t worry. The Bears are 2-6, haven’t won the Super Bowl in over 30 years, and the Aaron Rodgers-led Packers promise to humiliate us for years to come. I predict plenty of sports futility in our future.

[1] George F. Will, “The Cubs and Conservatism” (1974), in Bunts, New York: Touchstone/Simon and Schuster, 1999 [1998], 21. I am indebted to my childhood friend Phil Rosenthal—a life-long White Sox fan—for pointing me to this essay of Will’s.

[2] Chris Hayes, All In, November 3, 2016. Transcript. Web.

[3] For a discussion of the melioristic philosophies of Emerson, James, and Dewey as they relate to a democratic ethics of individualism, see my study Reconstructing Individualism: A Pragmatic Tradition from Emerson to Ellison, New York: Fordham Univ. Press, 2012.

[4] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Considerations by the Way,” in Essays and Lectures, New York: Library of America, 1983, 1084.

[5] Emerson, “Experience,” Essays and Lectures, 492.

[6] You can see Goodman performing this classic on a rooftop overlooking right field at Wrigley on YouTube:

[7] Wikipedia reports that Goodman “wrote “Go, Cubs, Go” out of spite after then GM Dallas Green called ‘A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request’ too depressing.” Whether or not this bit of crack reporting is true, the story is too good to give up. Surely the fate of the 1984 Cubs shows Goodman’s sardonic take was wiser than Dallas Green.

[8] For the complete lyrics, go to:

Jim Albrecht is Professor of English at Pacific Lutheran University.