Trying to avoid last place and facing an uphill crosstown battle against the merely mediocre White Sox this week, the Cubs are so much more than that.
"The Cubs have shaped the world as we know it," proclaims Scott Rowan, 44, author of a new book, "The Cubs Quotient: How the Chicago Cubs Changed the World." The book offers a collection of stories you've probably never heard, showing the Cubs' links to entertainment, race, scandal and even presidents and mobsters.
"One of the most fervent Cubs fans of the 20th century was also one of the most notorious bank robbers of all time," Rowan says Monday, as he stands under the Wrigley Field marquee. John Dillinger, the infamous bank robber, was a dandy shortstop as a teen and loved going to Cubs games. He saw his last Cubs game a month before he was shot dead.
"It's no coincidence he was shot a few blocks from Wrigley Field," Rowan says. "If you put his hideaways on a map, it looks like Wrigley Field has chickenpox."
On June 26, 1934, Dillinger was wanted by police and had a $10,000 bounty on his head when he "joined 17,000 other Cubs fans who saw Kiki Cuyler homer to help Chicago beat the Brooklyn Dodgers, 5-2," Rowan writes in his book. On July 22, 1934, Dillinger was killed outside the nearby Biograph Theater, and the Cubs dropped a 6-5 heartbreaker to Philadelphia in 12 innings.
Dillinger wasn't the only hoodlum who loved the Cubs. A photograph from the 1931 charity game between the Cubs and the White Sox shows Al Capone getting an autographed baseball from Cubs great Gabby Hartnett.
When baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis sent the Cubs catcher a telegram warning him not to have any more photos with Capone, Hartnett reportedly sent back a telegram saying, "OK, but if you don't want me to have my picture taken with Al Capone, you tell him."
Capone apparently was friendly with several Cubs during Prohibition, especially those known to be drinkers, Rowan says.
Cubs outfielder Hack Wilson was such a close associate that Capone reportedly assigned a thug named "T Bone" to make sure no one bothered Wilson or his wife and son. But the world might have changed for the better if Capone's Cubs dreams had come true, the author says.
"Capone wanted to buy the Cubs," Rowan says. Picturing himself pulling the strings behind a publicly palatable puppet owner, Capone planned to integrate baseball in the 1930s by signing standout Negro League pitcher Satchel Paige to pitch in Wrigley Field, Rowan says.
Instead, Capone went to prison for tax evasion and baseball had to wait until 1947 for Jackie Robinson to break the Major League Baseball color line.
A black player named Moses Fleetwood "Fleet" Walker actually played for the Toledo Blue Stockings in an 1883 exhibition game against the Chicago White Stockings, the team now known as the Cubs. The club, led by player-manager and outspoken racist Cap Anson, vowed never to play another game that allowed blacks, Rowan says, adding Anson had the support of team owner A.G. Spalding.
While Walker was the starting catcher in 1884 when Toledo joined the American Association, Anson's Chicago White Stockings demanded Toledo either field an all-white team or forfeit the scheduled game, sending a letter that concluded, "I think this is fair as we refuse point blank to play colored men."
That mindset prevailed for the next six decades.
The Cubs did, however, give us a president, Rowan says. Broadcasting Cubs games on Iowa radio station WHO, a young Ronald Reagan was on his way to cover Cubs spring training on the island of Catalina in 1937 when bad weather forced a layover in Los Angeles. With his new free time, Reagan took a screen test and two days later was signed to an acting contract, Rowan says.
The Cubs also gave us the concession stand, thanks to fast-food pioneer and former Cubs owner Charles Weeghman, who owned a chain of 24-hour restaurants that served only cold food so diners didn't have to wait. Weeghman also is credited with being the first to use Ladies Day promotions and to let fans keep foul balls and home runs. Of course, he also built Weeghman Park, which now is called Wrigley Field.
"For the research on this book, there were hundreds of books I had to go through," says Rowan, who cites all his reference material and also uses a GeoVerse service that allows e-book readers to click on links and see videos and photographs, hear audio clips or use a GPS-enabled device to find locations important to Cubs history.
Saying that his book grew out of barroom banter, Rowan includes odd Cubs facts such as:
• Hall-of-Famer Fergie Jenkins is the only major-league player whose ancestors used the Underground Railroad to escape slavery.
• Outfielder Ethan Allen first came up with the fantasy baseball concept of using statistics from real players.
• The first night game at Wrigley wasn't in 1988. To make games accessible to factory workers during World War II, the Cubs played a 1943 game that started at 6 p.m. and finished in fading sunlight shortly before 8:30 p.m. Cubs owner Philip Wrigley brought in temporary lights on July 1, 1943, for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League All-Star Game at night.
Rowan's final chapter is about how the Cubs, who haven't won a World Series since 1908, own the longest championship drought in professional sports. But he sees that changing under the new Cubs regime.
"They provide hope to millions of sports fans around the world, who know that one day, the Chicago Cubs will win the World Series," Rowan concludes.
"And when they do, we'll finally get to say, 'I told you so.'"