I will never understand the rivalry that exists between the fans of Chicago’s two baseball teams. I think it is something that develops at birth. I was not born here. I did not grow up here. I missed out. I came to Chicago as an adult. Granted, a tabula rasa when it came to professional baseball– but I still missed out. I think it is too late for me.
I understand that a division exists: as much as Chicago likes to describe itself as a diverse collection of peoples, places, things and ideas I’m convinced that what is really important to Chicagoans is not Chicago, but the local block. So we have a city of almost three million people. In that city I see more people describe themselves by their sports teams, political alliances, and neighborhoods than the city at large. “I’m from Bridgeport.” “I’m a Bulls fan.” “Me? Wicker Park hippy-artist.” That trend plays on stereotypes both good and bad. I mean both kind and unkind. Whirl expressed that she has never lived anywhere where so many people were so concerned about how she ate something. Pizza has to be like this. Nobody puts ketchup on a hot dog! We’re fat and happy and God damn it all we want you to be fat and happy, too.
As a curious counterpoint, I notice most suburbanites identifying themselves as Chicagoans rather than Palos Hillfolk, Oakbrookians or Schaumburgers.
I am straying off course. I mean, I understand having a rivalry in sports. I understand rivalries exist for reasons that are sentimental, personal, historical, and financial. They are sustained, promoted and passed down from father to son. I believe the classic rivalry is the one where two teams meet up at times of significant importance. The end of the season, when the pennant race is on. The last playoff spot is yours if you can just win this one final game. That is a rivalry. This Cubs-Sox conflict, it just strikes me as odd.
I do know a little something about rivalries. I like them. I like them a lot. They appeal to the sentimentalist in me. I know: imagine that, me a sentimentalist. My alma mater has been involved in the “greatest college rivalry west of the Alleghenies”. The rivalry between Wabash College and Depauw University goes back to 1890. The two schools play for a 300-pound locomotive bell from the Monon railway: the Monon Bell. Having the bell is both important and frivolous. My four years at Wabash we won the game only one time, my senior year. Some Wabash men stole the bell just before my freshman year. We promptly lost it come the fall and that was the last I saw of it until my senior year. It still makes me smile to remember that I graduated with the bell. Centennial, my high school, also had a significant sports rivalry symbolized by a victory bell. During my four years in high school, we fared somewhat better, defeating Central all four years.
There is no bell in Chicago. But more than that up until ten years ago, the Cubs and the White Sox did not even play each other unless it was in the World Series. They did that once. In 1906. Yeah, the Cubs and White Sox met in a “City Series” from time to time, or in some exhibition games in the intervening ninety years. But those games did not count for anything. No records were at stake. Not even a token trophy. In the nearly hundred years of baseball in this town– before the advent of interleague play– the Cubs and White Sox played a meager six games when it counted for something. And that year it counted for everything.
That does not sound like a rivalry to me. How can you have a rival you never face? What sustains competition? What measures do you use to even talk about it? Does it just devolve into brutish “us-good, them-bad” mentality without even a shred of fair play or sportsmanship? — Playing the sport must be a prerequisite to sportsmanship. Right?
Ten years ago, Major League Baseball introduced interleague play. Interleague play has its proponents and its detractors. I am a detractor. I do not like interleague play. I think it dilutes the significance of the World Series. I am probably wrong, but there it is. I do not like it. The most common reason I hear in support of interleague play is that it allows fans of teams who might never see half of the professional baseball teams a chance to see them play. The Atlanta Braves may be nationally televised on WTBS, but they would otherwise never appear at Kauffman Stadium. As I live in one of the two cities that has teams from both leagues, I do not suffer this problem. If I want to see the Braves or the Phillies or the Dodgers I jump on the ‘El and go see them when they play the Cubs. If I want to see the Yankees or the Orioles or the Mariners, I jump on the ‘El and go see them when they play the White Sox. (It is the same ‘El train, by the way. Just different directions.)
Ten years strikes me as just at the cusp of necessary longevity to describe a rivalry. Maybe. But the Cubs-White Sox rivalry extends back a lot longer than ten years– it goes back generations. I think Cubs-White Sox interleague play capitalizes financially on a pre-existing sociological phenomenon. But that does not explain why the phenomenon exists. Maybe the rivalry exists because of the greater Chicago business traditions of patronage and aggression. Charles Comiskey moved his new team into Chicago, was forbidden to use the word “Chicago” in the name of the team and forced to play south of 35th Street by the political machine of the day. Comiskey responded; he co-opted the Cubs’ original name: the White Stockings. The Chicago Tribune shorted the name to White Sox for headlines almost immediately. The team officially adopted the shortened form in 1903. It has been that way ever since. In 1981, The Tribune Company bought the Cubs. In and has announced they will sell the Cubs at the end of the 2007 season. I nominate Mike Veeck. — Just, you know, to further confuse the issue.
I attended Game 3 of the Cubs-White Sox series at Wrigley Field yesterday. Cold rain halted play for an hour at the start of the ninth inning. I do not leave ballgames early. The rain stopped; the sun did not come out. The teams finished the game. I cheered. The White Sox won Game 3: 10-6. There were lots of typical Cubs-Sox rivalry mischief. The White Sox had dropped the first two games of the series in spectacular fashion and were facing a sweep at Wrigley Field. The series was not disappointing. Two grand slams, hit batsmen, salty language on the radio from the White Sox manager.
At the end of the ninth inning, I am still just as throughly confused about the source of the mean-spirited vitriol between the two fan-bases as I ever was. I admire this city and the people who live here, but– particularly at times like this– I am reminded that even after fifteen years I am not from Chicago.