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Against All Odds

The dogged futility of Chicago's two baseball teams has defied logic for 74 years

Once again a baseball season draws to a close, bidding the fair city of Chicago adieu. It was a pleasant enough time for the Cubs and the White Sox—each team frolicked on lovely grass fields in friendly stadiums, drew lots of fans (a combined five million or so), and, in the case of the White Sox, even made a gentle run at first place in the American League West. As of Sunday, however, the Sox were a gracious eight games behind the first-place Minnesota Twins with 12 games to play, and the lovable Cubbies, already eliminated, were 19 games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League East.

All of this is very familiar, even comforting, to Chicagoans like myself. A season such as this is a legacy from Chicago baseball fans of yore. That is to say, today's fans will see what their fathers and their fathers before them saw: no Chicago team winning the World Series.

Indeed, in one of the most remarkable strings of—what shall we call this?—sporting failure, corporate ineptness, civic single-mindedness or simple coin-toss improbability, neither the Cubs nor the White Sox will have won the Series in 74 years. The Sox last were crowned champs in 1917, the Cubs in 1908. That's 157 nonstop seasons of losing. For one city. Now, we often hear those whiny Boston Red Sox fans lamenting their team's chronic failure to win the World Series. And it's true that the Red Sox have not won it all since 1918. But let's not make more of Bostonians' chowderheaded wailing than is merited. According to the eggheads at the Elias Sports Bureau, the odds against the Red Sox not winning a world championship in 73 years are a hefty 54 to 1. But the odds against the Cubs not doing so since 1908 are 116 to 1.

Moreover, the Red Sox make it to the World Series every decade or so, only to lose when the ball rolls between their first baseman's legs. But not since 1945 have the precious Cubs been good enough to win a pennant and get to the Series, where they would at least have had the luxury of losing. The odds against such a prolonged pennant drought, says Elias, are 130 to 1. Jose Canseco has a better chance than that of being given a safe driving award by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

And the citizens of Cleveland who feel that their hapless Indians are the epitome of failure need to be wised up a bit. The Tribe hasn't won a World Series since 1948. Big deal. The odds against a team going from then until now without a crown are a paltry 7 to 1. You hear some complaining from California Angels fans, too, about their team never even having gotten to the Series since its founding in '61. But the Angels are only bucking 13-to-1 odds, about the same as your dentist's getting his first script optioned by a major studio. Same with the Houston Astros, who also haven't reached the World Series since their birth as the Colt 45s in '62. The odds against that happening in the National League (which in recent years has had fewer teams than the American League) are 14 to 1, exactly the same as the chances of your finding a rattlesnake on your front lawn.

And while the Chicago baseball teams are extraordinary individually, collectively they are mind-boggling. Remember, what we're talking about here is a city's inability to produce a World Series champion. Sure, Boston, Cleveland and Houston have had some tough luck, but each has only one team. And so does Anaheim; no fair counting the Los Angeles Dodgers. With two teams, you get a geometric progression that is almost psychedelic. The odds against the White Sox not winning the World Series since 1917 are 58 to 1; the odds against the Cubs not winning since that year are 64 to 1. But—hold on to your programs—the odds against both teams going winless since then are 3,823 to 1. This has something to do with algebraic equations that escapes me, but trust those numbers; they come from Elias, and they confirm what I can't prove on paper but feel deep in my bones: Something is going on in Chicago.

I was warned by the statisticians that these figures have meaning only if we assume that at the start of each season each team has an equal chance of winning the World Series. O.K., let's assume that. Over time, all individual team advantages should even out, shouldn't they? At any rate, proof that Chicago has achieved this degree of futility more or less on purpose is that you couldn't, by the laws of probability, do it by accident. After 74 years, one of two properly functioning teams in a closed system—that's math talk—should have won a championship if those two teams had simply been left alone. But Chicago's team owners must be just smart enough to have messed things up for years. Of course, other forces may be at work. Remember the 1919 Black Sox scandal? The South Side air-raid siren that frightened the city half to death when the Sox won the pennant in '59? The '69 folding Cubs?

What a wonder this legacy is—it cuts through all apparent attempts to end it. Consider that the White Sox have the newest stadium in baseball and that the Cubs spent $27 million on free agents last spring. No matter. This fall is like all others in the Windy City since before the advent of radio. These two teams' skein of failure is the one thing that whole families can share, from great-grandpa to Junior in the crib. And this needs to be seen for what it is—a blessing that separates Chicago from the 23 other grasping, sticky-fingered cities with major league teams. For either the Cubs or the White Sox to win a World Series now would be shocking and disruptive. More than that, it would be oh so common of them.