W.P. Kinsella is probably best known for his 1982 novel “Shoeless Joe,” the inspiration for the film “Field of Dreams.” But the following year, Kinsella wrote a lesser-known short story titled “The Last Pennant Before Armageddon.”
In it, Al Tiller, the manager of the Chicago Cubs, is haunted by a prophetic dream that the world will end if the Cubs defeat the Los Angeles Dodgers to win the National League pennant. This puts Tiller in a bind: He must choose between momentary glory or the end of the world.
Those familiar with the short story may have braced themselves on Oct. 22, when the Cubs vanquished the Los Angeles Dodgers to win their first pennant since 1945.
The world didn’t end. Not yet anyway.
But if the Cubs defeat the Cleveland Indians to win their first World Series since 1908, it will end the longest period of futility in American sports – and forever put to rest the Curse of the Billy Goat.
Something else, however, could be lost. Failure, melancholy and heartache – not joy and triumph – inspire drama and comedy, and no team in sports has inspired better literature than the hapless Cubs. Over the course of their long, storied history of losing, their failures have played out on the page.
The best that never was
Ring Lardner was one of the greatest sportswriters of the early 20th century. He also wrote short stories that captured the distinctive voice of baseball players, and he inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, J.D. Salinger and Virginia Woolf. In “Alibi Ike,” Lardner’s protagonist is a Cubs player, Francis X. Farrell, who has an excuse for every error and every blunder.
In Bernard Malamud’s 1952 novel “The Natural,” 19-year-old baseball player Roy Hobbs vows that he will be the “best that ever was.” On his way to a tryout with the Cubs he meets the beautiful Harriet Bird. She invites him to her hotel room and then shoots him, leaving him critically injured, his dreams of greatness dashed.
The novel is based on the true story of Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Eddie Waitkus. In 1949, Waitkus, who once played for the Cubs, returned to Chicago for a game. An obsessed fan, Ruth Ann Steinhagan, invited Waitkus to her hotel room. Once Waitkus entered, she shot him in the stomach, nearly killing him.
A team of goats
For Cubs fans, legendary futility is the recurring punchline.
Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko has been dubbed the “poet laureate of Wrigley Field.” He helped perpetuate the story of the “Curse of the Billy Goat,” a spell cast on the team by the owner of the Billy Goat Tavern after being kicked out of Wrigley Field, along with his actual pet goat, during the 1945 World Series. (Fans had complained about the animal’s stench.)
Royko regularly pointed out in his columns that the Cubs failed to win not because a goat wasn’t allowed in Wrigley Field but because goats were allowed to play for the Cubs.
“The Cubs Reader” is a 1991 collection of essays that includes contributions from writers like Roger Angell, Roy Blount Jr., George Will and Ira Berkow. In Will’s essay, he admits that his gloomy conservative politics come from his decision to be a Cubs fans at age seven in 1948. “I plighted my troth to a baseball team destined to dash the cup of life’s joy from my lips,” he wrote.
In fact, the first joke I ever heard came from my father, a lifelong Cubs fan who is now 92:
“Will the mother who left her nine kids at Wrigley Field please come and get them,” the stadium’s public address announcer says one afternoon. “They’re beating the Cubs 7-2.”
“The Last Pennant Before Armageddon” was included in a collection of W.P. Kinsella’s essays called “The Thrill of the Grass.” In the story, the backdrop for the Cubs’ season is the threat of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. In one of the manager’s dreams, God says, “I think you should know that when the Cubs next win the National League Championship, it will be the last pennant before Armageddon.”
Tiller finds himself in the decisive game with a fatigued starter. He can leave in his starter, which could cost his team the game but save the world, or he can bring in his closer and probably win the game – and destroy civilization.
“The Thrill of the Grass” was published in 1984 – the year the Cubs were one win away from winning the National League pennant. They ended up losing three straight to the San Diego Padres.
Almost 20 years later, before the 2003 National League Championship Series between the Cubs and the Florida Marlins, Kinsella was asked if he thought the world would end if the Cubs won the pennant.
“We’ll just have to wait and see,” he said.
The Cubs were five outs away from winning the pennant in 2003 when things fell spectacularly apart – not because of spectator Steve Bartman reaching for a foul ball, as too many Cubs fans want to believe – but because of poor fielding, poor pitching and poor managing.
If the Cubs do win the World Series, Kinsella won’t see it. He died on Sept. 16, a day after the Cubs clinched the National League’s Central Division.
Chris Lamb does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.
Authors: Chris Lamb, Professor of Journalism, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis