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.