A true study in Americana: Cubs hold off the Indians

As happens now and again – at least every decade or so – we get a World Series that sort of hits the national sweet spot and is not so much just a mere blistering tussle for sporting glory and treasure as a rare slice of Americana. So it was with the 2016 Cubs-Indians opus.

It was one of those gems you didn’t want to end, at least not until the season’s first blizzard carved across the heartland. It was a championship series without a true loser. You may recall we here enjoyed something memorably comparable back in 1975.  

None of which takes anything away from the Cubs, whose legendary anguish stirred the entire republic’s profoundest sympathy, even though said misery had been over the many decades overwhelmingly self-inflicted. No one begrudges the Cubs their joyful moment, not after 108 bloody years. But in the end, it’s fair to say the Indians emerged equally admired while the Cubs should regard themselves mighty, mighty lucky.

Consider for the fun of it what might have happened had it been the Indians due to bat after that curiously fateful 10th inning “rain-delay” in Game Seven. Luckily for the Cubs, it was their turn to hit, and after gathering their wits in the clubhouse throughout that 17-minute hiatus, they not surprisingly emerged sufficiently renewed to jump on the Indians reliever. If it was their last gasp, they sure made the most of it.

Had it been the Indians turn to hit, one can easily imagine the same scenario occurring in their favor, especially with Chicago’s relief pitching in a shambles, the team frazzled, and Manager Joe Maddon in a state of apparent befuddlement. Sometimes the margin of difference is a razor’s edge.

Out-manned, out-gunned, and bone-weary with a bevy of injuries and a much weaker lineup, Indians skipper Terry Francona cleaned Joe Maddon’s clock in the managerial battle of wits. In the last two games, Maddon made at least a half dozen blunders that would have been hashed over ferociously for the next 108 years had the Cubs blown it. Sometimes fate intervenes mercifully.  

So the Cubs survived, raising smiles the width and breadth of the land, while the Indians retreated with new respect for their valor. And now, at last, Bill Murray can get a life.  What’s not to like about any of that.

Otherwise we have the 2016 Fall Classic to thank for dredging up a mother lode of rich anecdotal esoterica, the sort of stuff this, above all games conjures, preserves, and thrives on. Is baseball never better than when we’re wallowing in distant and tender memory of moments unforgettable as long as a big fat Baseball Encyclopedia rests at the hearth of every enlightened American home? It sometimes seems so.

So it was we got re-introduced to 1908, when last the Cubs won by vanquishing the Tigers in five, their second straight stomping of a Detroit powerhouse built around the incomparable Ty Cobb. The ‘08 Cubs were a terrific outfit, part of modern baseball’s first mini-dynasty, really. Anchored, if somewhat whimsically, by the poetic double-play combo of Tinker, Evers, & Chance, they also featured swarthy sluggers named Jimmie Sheckard and Wild Fire Schulte, and the answer to everyone’s favorite baseball trivia question, third-baseman Harry Steinfeldt.  Pitching, however, was their crown jewel with the hellacious rotation of Messrs. Pfiester, Overall, Reulbach, and Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown winning 80 games. 

In a bonus, we also got to kick around poor old Freddie Merkle once again. Dead and gone 60 years, Merkle still is obliged to pay for his rather innocent base-running blunder that handed the ’08 NL pennant the Giants should have won to the Cubs. However long ago, they remain irked in those crusty uptown New York ‘hoods where a gritty old ballpark long graced Coogan’s Bluff. In Chicago, on the other hand, they conveniently forget that if it hadn’t been for Merkle neglecting to tag second base, they wouldn’t have had 1908 to moan, groan, and weep in their cups over these last 108 years.  

As for the Indians, they allowed us to revisit 1948, a year that still rankles Red Sox Nation at the mere mention but remains hugely important in baseball history, thanks to another incomparable character, beloved Bill Veeck.

It was pleasing to see and hear the re-telling of how the Indians smashed the game’s infamous “color line” in the AL much as the Dodgers had done in the NL. It happened in Cleveland only 11 weeks after Jackie Robinson arrived in Brooklyn, and that’s never been properly appreciated. In that ’48 Classic, Larry Doby became the first black player to homer and Satchel Paige the first to mount the pitchers’ mound on the unique national stage that is the World Series, richly seminal moments not only for baseball but also for America.  For which Veeck, who remains fiercely in my opinion every bit Branch Rickey’s equal as hero of baseball’s epic integration struggle, has never received that true credit he greatly deserves.

So it is over. The Cubs are redeemed, although even in Chicago they may part with 1908 with a certain sweet sorrow. As for the Indians, may we all pull for them to have their “next year” very soon. Given their service to the game’s history, and to that of the nation, they deserve it.