Why have the Chicago Cubs been so bad, for so long? Lore has it blame should fall at the smelly feet of a billy goat Since the day in 1945 when Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley blocked William Sianis from bringing his pet goat through the Wrigley Field turnstiles, the Cubs haven’t won a single National League pennant. In the decades following that rebuff, the Cubs became one of the worst teams in pro baseball.
The real reasons behind Chicago’s struggles don’t entail P.K. Wrigley’s refusal of a goat. They hinge more on his refusal to admit “G.O.A.T.s.” Wrigley worked within miles of some of the greatest Negro Leagues players of all time during the 1930s and early 1940s. Chicago hosted the league’s annual All-Star game and Wrigley Field itself was home to a Negro League team and occasional all-black barnstorming teams featuring the likes of Satchel Paige.
For years Wrigley was exposed to ample evidence black baseball players were as good as white baseball players. He had even more evidence after Jackie Robinson broke down the Major League color wall in 1947, and in the following years the likes of Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Larry Doby and Satchel Paige followed. After Robinson’s first year, “the bold and smart owners reached into the talent-rich Negro League and grabbed instant stars,” columnist Mike Royko wrote in the Chicago Tribune in 1993. By the time the Cubs started hiring black players, “they had established themselves as the most predictable klutzes in the National League. Had Wrigley the brains and/or the courage—he definitely had the money—the modern tradition of the Cubs might have been entirely different.”
In 1942, a local African-American committee advocating for blacks in the major leagues brought this issue directly to Wrigley’s office. Wrigley listened to a representative make his case, then told him while he would like to see blacks in the MLB, “I don’t think the time is now.” He feared the potential of rioting and didn’t think there would be “sufficient public demand” despite enormous crowds which the best black baseball players drew in Chicago at that time.
Wrigley appeared to thaw a bit in the following year. In 1943, he announced the Cubs would soon hire a scout to solely focus on the Negro Leagues. But when pressed on whether this hire meant he was ready to sign black players, Wrigley said “The middle of a war isn’t the spot to make such a departure from custom. I told [the committee members] that we would not stick our necks out now,” according to Steve Bogira’s 2014 article in the Chicago Reader.
Delaying integration wasn’t the only reason the Cubs franchise essentially nosedived after that 1945 World Series appearance. The Cubs depended heavily on purchasing players from independent minor league teams. After those teams folded, the Cubs were one of the last MLB clubs to assemble a minor league farm system. Even then, for decades, they struggled to develop their minor league talent.
Yet, for Chicago fans, it’s hard not to daydream about what could have been. What if P.K. Wrigley had even half the guts of Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers executive who signed the Negro Leagues stars and launched his franchise to the top?
No doubt, the question loomed large in the minds of Chicago Defender writers in May 1949 as the Cubs slogged through another dismal campaign. Robinson and Campanella had just helped the Dodgers twice clobber the Cubs, inspiring a Defender to take a jab at Wrigley: “Some years ago when efforts were made to get Negroes in major league ball clubs, the stock reply was that the public had to be ‘educated’ before this could happen. Branch Rickey, who is the kind of American that keeps democracy alive, simply hired Jackie Robinson and told those who did not like it to lump it. Now this is the kind of ‘education’ that really educates.”
The columnist continued: “Incidentally, the Cubs got two powerful lessons last week out at Wrigley field and the two professors were Robinson and Campanella.”
In the 1950s, the Cubs brought on board African-American star Ernie Banks, but their record still remained dismal. As I read through Steve Bogira’s article, I was struck by a couple Arkansas ties. I present them here simply for the sake of trivia:
- Banks convinced Arkansas City, Ark. native John Johnson, the publisher of Ebony and Jet, to buy Cubs season tickets for a year in the 1960s. “To Banks’s knowledge, Johnson was the Cubs’ first African-American season-ticket holder. But not long after Banks sold him the pair of tickets, Johnson ‘called me and said, ‘Ernie, I gotta cancel my tickets. I can’t get nobody to go with me!’”
- In 1964, the Cubs traded El Dorado, Ark. native Lou Brock (a future Hall of Famer) to St. Louis for Ernie Broglio, a pitcher who would win six games in two seasons. It has gone down as one the worst trades in baseball history. While some of the Cubs’ reasoning involved Brock’s subpar fielding, prejudice also played a role, according to an essay written by former Cubs coach Buck O’Neil.
When general manager John Holland was deliberating on the move, O’Neil warned him not to trade Brock away. Holland’s response involved pulling out a mass of letters from season-ticket holders. Complaints about the increasing number of black players signed by the Cubs filled them. O’Neil recalled Holland saying some of the fans wrote: “What are you trying to make the Chicago Cubs into? The Kansas City Monarchs?”