An Hour of Triumph: How Baseball Unites Us

Originally posted November 4, 2016

Laura Ingalls Wilder was forty-one in 1908, when the Chicago Cubs won the World Series.  She was a farm wife then, especially adept at keeping chickens and sometimes taking in boarders to keep her beloved Rocky Ridge Farm afloat.  Three years later, in 1911, she launched her professional writing career with The Missouri Ruralist, her first step down a decades-long path toward literary celebrity.  But no one could have imagined her achievement one hundred and eight years ago.

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 39,466 Days

The world has obviously changed dramatically since Laura Ingalls Wilder took in boarders and the Cubs won their first World Series.  Much of what we now take for granted in everyday life didn’t exist in the 39,466 days it took the Cubs to win again.   There were just forty-six states back in 1908; Theodore Roosevelt was president. That October his successor, Republican William Taft, was campaigning against Democrat William Jennings Bryan in the final days of the presidential campaign.  Laura Ingalls Wilder, like most American women, didn’t vote in that election—she couldn’t. The 19th Amendment, granting American women the right to vote, came over a decade later in 1920.

 The first radio broadcast of a major league baseball game dates from the following year—1921, the Pittsburgh Pirates against the Philadelphia Phillies.  Television entered the picture in 1939, with the limited broadcast of a game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Brooklyn Dodgers.  But it took decades before American households could afford the luxury of TV.  Regular television broadcasts of major league games began after World War II, in 1946, but it wasn’t until the mid-1950s that a majority of Americans had TV sets in their own homes, and could routinely watch the broadcasts.  Even then, their TVs were old fashioned black-and-white sets, usually with rabbit ears—mid-century wire gizmos--  perched on top for better reception. 

As for the Cubs’ iconic radio announcer—Harry Caray—he was born in 1914, six years after the Cubs won their only twentieth century World Series.  And he was associated with the Cubs for little more than a decade, from 1982 until 1997.  He’d spent most of his broadcasting career with the St. Louis Cardinals: twenty-five years, to be exact.  I grew up with his radio voice on long, summer Missouri nights, listening to his play-by-play, describing Lou Brock steal second; pitcher Bob Gibson hit one of his position-defying home runs; catcher Tim McCarver (my favorite Cardinal) make a great play at the plate.  “Holy Cow!” Harry would exclaim. 

Shifting Values and Expectations

In other words, a look back at history shows us how much life in these United States has changed or defies our collective memory.  Even a superficial glance like this one underscores how we have evolved as a society, how our values and expectations have shifted with technological, cultural, and political upheaval.   In 1908, the twentieth century was still young.   Americans hadn’t yet experienced two World Wars, the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, the Sexual Revolution, Vietnam, Watergate, or AIDS; nor could it envision what the twenty-first century would bring.

Unexpected Continuity

And yet, the Cubs’ World Series win of 2016 provides a hopeful glimpse back and unexpected continuity over those 39,466 days.  Think about it. The same team, in the same American city:  the Chicago Cubs.  Generations of fans supporting one baseball team year after year after year, and building lasting relationships around this team and its struggle to win.  My niece and nephew lost their father in January, and as my niece described him, “he WAS the Cubs.  He bled Cubbie blue.”  My nephew wrote today that despite losing season after losing season, the Cubs had given him and his dad a gift.  “After the games,” my nephew wrote, “we would always go out and play catch and talk about the game win or lose.”   The Cubs drew father and son together; they bonded over baseball and the love of their team.  Like so many Cubs fans last night, my niece and nephew missed their dad and regretted that he wasn’t with them to experience that long-awaited World Series win.

At a time when American society hasn’t been this divided culturally, socially, racially, or politically since the 1850s and the coming of the Civil War in 1861, it’s reassuring to know that some things in life still unite us, year after year, generation after generation. 

As for Mrs. Wilder herself, she left no record of her interest in professional baseball, but she did play baseball as a girl.  Writing in Pioneer Girl, she remembered that she “led the girls into the boys’ games,” and when the boys “saw how well we could play, in an hour of triumph they took us into their baseball game and we played the rest of the summer….”  She was about ten years old, and her memory dates from the late 1870s, over one hundred and thirty years ago. 

Some things never change.   

Holly Atkinson