NOTE: This story was written in 2014, prior to the 2016 World Series championship. The statistics and facts revealing that the Cubs held the record for longest drought in pro sports history do not change, but, obviously, since this story was created we know that the Chicago Cubs won the 2016 World Series, ending the epic historic feat of futility.
By Scott A. Rowan
We now must finally address the one thing that the Cubs are most known for: losing. The Chicago Cubs have the world’s longest championship drought in any professional franchise’s history among teams playing in leagues at the highest level in their respective sport. There are a few other teams around the globe who know the year after year frustration that Cubs fans, players, and executives feel— but even in this “elite” group, the Cubbies have them beat.
Prior to winning the 2016 World Series, the Cubs went 108 years since last winning the World Series, in 1908. Most professional sports leagues weren’t even in existence yet when the Cubs lost to the Detroit Tigers that year. The Cubs had already had two dynasty runs (1880–90 and 1906–10) before the creation of the National Hockey League (1917), the National Football League (1920), the National Basketball Association (1946), and Major League Soccer (1996).
In the NHL, the Toronto Maple Leafs have the longest championship drought, having last won the Stanley Cup after the 1966–67 season. The longest championship drought in the NBA belongs to the Sacramento Kings, who joined the league in its third season (as the Rochester Royals) and won the championship in 1951—but haven’t won the title since. In the NFL, the Arizona Cardinals are the only charter member of the league never to win the Super Bowl. Major League Soccer launched in 1996, and each of the charter teams in the league has since played in the championship, though only three have never won (New York, New England, and Dallas).
Sports outside of the United States complicate our comparison because of the practice of relegation, which forces the lowest two or three teams (depending on the sport) to a lower level and promotes the best two or three teams in that lower level to the higher level. In major sports outside of America that do not employ relegation, the Australian Football League’s Western Bulldogs, founded in 1877, have the longest championship drought in the league, winning the title last in
The Japan Baseball League, founded in 1936 and reorganized in 1950 as Nippon Professional Baseball, is the highest level of baseball other than MLB play. The Hiroshima Toyo Carp have the longest championship drought in the NPB, last winning the Japan Series in 1984.
Wading into the murky comparisons of sports that do not have relegation takes us to cricket, one of the world’s oldest organized sports (evidence of the game dates back to the 1500s in England). Cricket has remained mostly an amateur sport, which is one reason that comparing it to major league baseball is difficult. Clubs have largely been made up of amateurs competing for bragging rights, rather than professionals in organized leagues. There are also different variants of the game, with one-day and multiple-day matches. Yet even in this realm, the Cubs have a longer streak of futility. In 1967, The Professional Cricketers’ Association was founded to oversee pro cricket in England and Wales, while American Pro Cricket was created in 2004 and the Indian Premier League began play in 2008. In Australian cricket, generations of athletes have competed for the Sheffield Shield, the country’s oldest competition, which began in 1892. Only six teams compete for the trophy. After Tasmania won for the first time in 2006–07, each team had claimed the championship at least once. Similar to the Sheffield Shield, the County Championship is England’s most revered cricket championship, with 18 teams competing for the title since 1890. There are three clubs that have never won: Gloucestershire, Northamptonshire, and Somerset. However, each of these teams has now been relegated to Division Two, ending their inclusion in our comparison with elite teams at the highest level of play.
That brings us to soccer (or football, or futbol, depending on where you were born), a sport with several teams whose fans can empathize with Cubs backers. Yet here again we find that the Cubs have a claim to history like no other team in the world. While MLB is the unquestioned dominant league in the world in its sport, soccer has six national leagues that experts regard as being at the top of their sport: Spain’s La Liga, England’s English Premier League (EPL), Germany’s Bundesliga, Italy’s Serie A, France’s Ligue 1, and Brazil’s Brasileirao.
However, several of these leagues are relatively new compared to MLB and its nearly 150-year history. The EPL began play in 1992, Brasileirao in 1971, and Bundesliga in 1963, eliminating any teams in those leagues from any comparison to a championship drought begun in 1908. Serie A was founded in 1929, and eight of the founding teams have never won the championship, but each of them has been relegated to Serie B for most of the intervening decades and were not playing in Serie A as of 2013. That brings us to two top-flight soccer teams. Spain’s La Liga was founded in 1928, and charter member R.C.D. Espanyol has never won the championship. Likewise, France’s Stade Rennais was part of Ligue in its inaugural year of 1932 and is the league’s only team still playing at the highest level without winning the title (the team has been relegated several times over the past decades, however, so we include them here reluctantly). While fans of Espanyol and Stade Rennais may know something like the pain of Cubs fans, the Cubs still claim the victory: their century-plus without a championship tops that of Espanyol’s, which began in 1928, and Stade Rennais, which started in 1932.
The Cubs are the only team playing at the highest level in their sport that has not held their championship trophy over the course of several generations. So why would fans continue to cheer for them? No other professional sports team can make such a claim, and yet the organization is still as popular as ever. Cubs attendance totals have fallen below the top half of the NL’s rankings only once since 1983. And even then, when the Cubs went 65–97 in 2000, the team still finished with the ninth-highest attendance numbers out of 16 NL teams.
An old-fashioned ballpark that reminds fans of yesterday is surely part of the answer. Another element is the leisurely attitude of the Friendly Confines, which encourages adults to play hooky from work and relax at a game. Still, there must be more to it than that.
One reason fans are so dedicated to seeing the Cubs succeed is the desire to see history unfolding before our eyes. Whether the event is positive (Barack Obama’s 2008 victory speech in Chicago’s Grant Park) or negative (the morning of the 9/11 attacks), everyone has a visceral desire to say “I was there” or “I saw it happen.” Each moment of witnessed history allows average Americans to think that anything is possible. In 2004, the Boston Red Sox overcame a 3–0 deficit against the hated rival New York Yankees to win the AL Championship Series 4–3 (becoming the first MLB team to overcome such a deficit in the postseason), and in so doing they provided generations of sports fans with the knowledge that anything is possible. The Cubs winning the World Series would be even bigger than that. Cubs fans return to the Friendly Confines every year just like the swallows to Capistrano because they want to have a ticket stub from the season when the Cubs finally win it all. They want to say that they saw it happen in person, that they were part of it. And if that game doesn’t end up as part of history, it’s okay. They had a good time anyway sharing the day with friends and family.
The Cubs winning the World Series would be even bigger than that. Cubs fans return to the Friendly Confines every year just like the swallows to Capistrano because they want to have a ticket stub from the season when the Cubs finally win it all. They want to say that they saw it happen in person, that they were part of it. And if that game doesn’t end up as part of history, it’s okay. They had a good time anyway sharing the day with friends and family.
And that is the next reason why millions of Cubs fans continue to support the team: family tradition. Few things in life can be shared between generations. Children rarely enjoy the same things their parents and grandparents did. But all those differences are forgotten in the realm of sports. Worries can be dismissed for a brief spell when generations talk about their favorite team. And that is why, even though the child of a Cubs fan may not know the score of the previous day’s game, when the Cubs finally win the big one, that son or daughter will smile, knowing they are seeing something their parent always hoped to see.
Through it all, the Cubs provide hope. More than a century of failing to reach the big game is not the same thing as losing. The Cubs haven’t gotten there in a long time, but they will. And that is the lesson that the Cubs have taught the world. After all, is it not the journey, rather than the destination, that is the point of life?
Like most sportswriters, I was a frustrated athlete growing up who was always second string. Whether the sport in question is baseball, football, soccer, softball, tennis, darts, or even adult kickball, I own no championship trophies for any of the dozens of teams for which I have played. But whenever the score was against us and my team began to drag, I would call my teammates together and say the same thing: “Look at that score. Look at how bad we are losing right now. Just imagine how great our story will be when we tell everyone how we overcame this deficit to win!”
This same philosophy is why the Cubs have changed the world more than other team. They provide hope to millions of sports fans around the world who know that one day, the Chicago Cubs will win the World Series—and when they do, we’ll finally get to say “I told you so.”
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