Before reading any further, I want you to think of an unlucky number. I’m willing to say that the default answer is the number 13. Absent some searing personal tragedy–like someone who lost their job on January 6 and now considers 16 to be unlucky–most people just accept that there’s something unfortunate attached to the number 13.
I bring this up because, once again, I was fortunate enough to be listed on the mlb.com/blogs monthly leaders list for May. Each time I’m on the list, I use my position as a jumping off point for a blog post related to that number. Last month it was Dusty Baker and the number 12, and before that I have written about Ron Santo and others, Bobby Murcer, and Greg Maddux and Ferguson Jenkins. There are others, too, but those are the ones I can think of off the top of my head.
This month I won’t be focusing on a player at all, even though Starlin Casto, the Cubs’ incumbent number 13, is a very good player. No, I’ll be discussing the number and its association with the Cubs, in a way that you might not know about.
There was a story in the news recently about some Cubs fans who left Arizona and walked to Wrigley Field with a goat in tow. They arrived at Wrigley Field this week, having achieved their fifteen minutes of fame, while at the same time raising funds for cancer research. Kudos to them for coming up with the idea, and for doing what they see as something constructive to help end this terrible drought that all Cubs fans are suffering through.
But their efforts won’t make a difference, because the goat isn’t the reason why the Cubs have been losing for so long. No living thing–be it a man, a billy goat, or those infernal seagulls that invade the field sometimes– has the power to put such a hex on a professional sports franchise. And yet, fans, the media, and everybody who knows anything about baseball continues to eat up the billy goat curse. Those people are actually missing an even more powerful force, and that’s the federal government. Yes, Uncle Sam has been keeping the Cubs down all these years.
The building above is the post office that serves the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago. To get there from Wrigley Field takes about five minutes in a car, and less if you don’t get stopped by either of the two traffic lights along the way. It’s the post office that would handle any correspondence you might care to send to Wrigley Field. I’m sure that in the age of email and texting that there’s far less mail going into and out of the ballpark than there once was, but it’s still there, and always will be.
A fun bit of trivia about this post office is that it is named for Cubs fan Steve Goodman, whose “A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request” is required viewing for anyone who fancies themselves a Cubs fan. Goodman wrote this song in the early 1980s, but the reference to the Cubs as a “doormat” probably ruffled some feathers, and so he wrote the much happier “Go Cubs Go” as a protest song. It may be the biggest inside joke there’s ever been in baseball, the way the song has caught on with Cubs fan in the decades since.
The mail has been delivered in Chicago for more than a century, but the invention of ZIP codes to help route the mail officially dates back to the summer of 1963. That year, the Cubs had four–count ‘em, four–future hall-of-famers on their everyday roster (Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, and an up-and-comer named Lou Brock) along with what would turn out to be the National League’s rookie of the year that season, the late Ken Hubbs. With so much talent, the Cubs were positioning themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the National League.
But in the offseason, Ken Hubbs died in a plane accident. And early in the 1964 season, when the Cubs traded away an African American player because of complaints from their fans, they decided to trade Brock for a pitcher with a more agreeable pigmentation. And you had probably chalked that trade up to front-office incompetence.
These two moves seemed to set the Cubs back, and even though they made a run at the pennant in 1969, they never got to the point where they were playing in meaningful games in October.
In the summer of 1963, there were twenty teams in the major leagues. Some have moved since then (the Milwaukee Braves now play in Atlanta) or changed their names (Houston’s Colt 45s are now called the Astros) or both (Washington’s Senators are now known as the Texas Rangers). But of those 20 teams, there is just one that hasn’t played in a World Series since then. And I’m quite confident you already know which team it is.
So how does the post office come into this? Well, Chicago ZIP codes typically begin with the numbers 606, with the last two digits depending on which post office serves that neighborhood. And the post office above, the one that carries every piece of mail that goes into and out of Wrigley Field, has the ZIP code 60613. Uh-oh. Didn’t you identify that as an unlucky number at the beginning of this piece? And yet there it is, the federal government’s cruel joke on the Chicago Cubs.
So unless the U.S. Post office steps in–which is unlikey, given that the president is a known White Sox fan–the Cubs may well continue their long pennant drought. And if you’re willing to believe in the billy goat story, don’t you also have to allow for the possibility that it’s something else entirely? Something as simple as two numbers, arranged in such a way that it has gotten a bad rap over the years.
Here’s hoping that the Cubs can prove me wrong in all this, preferably at some point in my lifetime and yours.