FOR DECADES, if you wanted a sure victory in Washington, D.C., you were wise to attach yourself to a loser. The Emil Verban Memorial Society, founded in 1975, was the nation's most elitist Cubs fan club. You might recognize some names on the roster: Ronald Reagan. Hillary Clinton. Dick Cheney. Donald Rumsfeld. Yes, Emil Verban Society members had power when many Cubs outfielders did not.
It started with an idea from lobbyist Bruce Ladd, a Chicago native. Like many lobbyists, Ladd asked what his country could do for him. He realized how many Washington power brokers were baseball fans, so he created the Verban Society, named after an obscure Cubs infielder from the late 1940s.
You could become a Verban Society member only if another member invited you; it was an exclusive club for people who already belong to exclusive clubs. It allowed Washington big shots to pretend they were champions of the downtrodden—a Reggie Jackson Society wouldn't have had the same allure. Whether he realized it or not, Ladd made the dorky kids feel cool by making dorkiness itself cool.
Every member was assigned a number. Syndicated columnist George Will joined early. Songwriter Steve Goodman, a Cubs obsessive who wrote the team's anthem, "Go Cubs Go," was a member. But Ladd got really lucky in 1980, when Reagan, a former Cubs radio announcer, was elected President. Ladd says the Great Communicator "was an enthusiastic Cubs fan," which meant there were a lot of people who were suddenly enthusiastic Cubs fans when they were with Reagan.
Emil Verban was not so enthusiastic—at least not at first. He thought the society was mocking him. Then Ladd invited him and his family to come to Washington from their home in Lincoln, Ill. "They weren't on the ground for an hour and a half, and we had him in the White House," Ladd says. "After that, Verban was the most enthusiastic fan of the Emil Verban Society."
Four years after Reagan left office, Bill Clinton arrived—along with the former Hillary Rodham of Park Ridge, Ill., where she had been a classmate of Goodman's. "Hillary Clinton would have us in [the White House] all the time," Ladd says. "I said, 'Who are your all-time favorite Cub players?' She named six, and we brought them all in."
Ladd held biennial luncheons for the Society's members, who included three Supreme Court Justices. There, you could talk about Ryno (Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg) with Nino (Justice Antonin Scalia) and perhaps tell a member of the Ways and Means Committee of some ways and means to help your company. It paid to be a Cubs fan in our nation's capital long before it paid off in the Second City.
While some people were dying to get into the society, others were dying to get out. Former U.S. commerce secretary William M. Daley, a Chicago native, was inducted against his will—he was a White Sox fan. Former President Barack Obama, another South Sider, had no interest in worshipping at what Goodman called the Cubs'"ivy-covered burial ground." A politician's views on gay marriage might evolve, but a White Sox fan will never come around on the Cubs.
"Obama tried to get out," Ladd says. "I said, 'Your number has been assigned to you.' They said, 'He's a Sox fan.' I said, 'I don't care. Tell him he has to live with it.' I had nothing to lose."
I would like to tell you that the Verban Society held a special meeting on Nov. 2, when the Cubs won the World Series—six days before Washington itself let in a new member from New York City. But the truth is that Ladd disbanded the club in 2005, for a simple reason: He no longer needed it.
Ladd retired in 1998 and now lives in Chapel Hill, N.C. He did watch Game 7 of the World Series, and he was happy for his favorite team. But there was no sense that the Verban Society's spiritual business was finally finished; Ladd wasn't thinking of the Cubs' title drought when he created the Emil Verban Society. The club was not about winning or losing. It was about playing the game at the highest level, and occasionally about baseball, too.
The Emil Verban Society allowed Washington big shots to pretend they were champions of the downtrodden; a Reggie Jackson Society just wouldn't have the same allure.
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