Ivy Leaguer

June 27, 2005
June 27, 2005

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June 27, 2005

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Ivy Leaguer

What can we learn from an anthropologist who studied Cubs fans? That there is no telling why some teams are more fascinating than others

Margaret Mead, the mother of modern anthropology, focused her early work on the tribes around Samoa. Holly Swyers, a University of Chicago anthropologist, has based her current work on the tribes around Sam Sosa. Giving new zest to the term "field research," Swyers spent innumerable afternoons over the past four seasons perched in section 147 of the Wrigley Field bleachers, observing the behavior, habits and rituals of fellow die-hard Cubs fans.

This is an article from the June 27, 2005 issue Original Layout

Her findings? The self-proclaimed Regulars (never, pointedly, Bleacher Bums) form a bona fide community that demonstrates the essential traits of a neighborhood, a church congregation or even a family. The Regulars--several hundred adults of mixed age, sex and ethnicities, ranging from millionaire CEOs to retirees on fixed incomes--commune together, rejoice and mourn together, and even marry among themselves. "For all the talk that Americans don't know how to form emotional connections in the 21st century, this argues against that," says Swyers, whose study is titled And Keep Your Scorecard Dry, a nod to Mead's 1942 book, And Keep Your Powder Dry. "Just because bonds aren't formed the same way as they once were doesn't mean we're not forging connections."

Like different sects of the same tribe, the three bleacher sections even have what Swyers calls "a different energy, different centrality of organization, a different moral order." Regulars from right, left and center can mingle before games, visit between innings and even attend the same Halfway to Opening Day parties during the winter. But ultimately they pledge their fealty to one section. "I'm Holly from Centerfield, like it's my last name," says Swyers. "I can go to rightfield, but it's like hanging out with the family down the street, not the family you live with."

But what about the family 10 miles south, in the ivy-less confines of U.S. Cellular Field? How do Wrigley Regulars compare with fans of the White Sox? The answer is, Nobody knows. And nobody, candidly, cares. It is safe to assume there are no scholarly White Sox works in the offing.

What Swyers's study does effectively--if inadvertently--is underscore the notion that there are teams we embrace and teams we shrug off, and no amount of marketing, no upsurge in victories, changes that. In Chicago the Cubs will always be fawned over, the Sox more or less ignored.

The contrasting fates of the teams are now in particularly sharp relief. Through Sunday the Sox were 46-22, the best record in baseball, while the Cubs were a typically middling 34-33. Yet the Sox were drawing 24,000 a game, 14,000 fewer than the Cubs. When the teams play at the Cell this weekend, the home fans could be outnumbered by the visitors'.

The South Siders have plenty working against them. The team plays in a dodgy neighborhood in a park devoid of charm. Ever since Shoeless Joe Jackson and his teammates threw the 1919 World Series, the franchise has been vexed (Veeck-sed?) by a mix of bad decisions (when the Go-Go Sox won the '59 pennant, city officials unleashed air-raid sirens, scaring half the town), bad promotions (Disco Demolition Night), bad uniforms (the shorts experiment of '76) and bad trades (Sammy Sosa for George Bell--to the Cubs, no less). But most important, the Sox share a market with the Teflon franchise.

It may be impossible to alienate Cubs fans. When the Tribune Company, the team's owner, ousted longtime broadcaster Steve Stone last season or played hardball with local rooftop owners watching games for free, there was scant backlash. When ticket prices rise, demand stays strong. (The Cubs are playing at 98% capacity this season.) When stars like Kerry Wood underachieve, they remain beloved.

And when the Cubs lose, it isn't merely overlooked. It adds to the charm. That the team hasn't won the World Series since--all together now--1908? That the Billy Goat has replaced the Bambino as baseball's biggest curse? It imbues the franchise with a perverse cachet. As Gene Wojciechowski, author of Cubs Nation, recently put it, "Cubs and Red Sox fans share fatalism, but Cubs fans' fatalism had always been wrapped in cotton balls, still soft, a little bunny. Sox fans' fatalism was wrapped in razor wire."

One of the Regulars suggested to Swyers that if the Cubs ever win the World Series, bleacher bonhomie will end; the Regulars' community will die. Swyers doesn't necessarily agree but concedes, "Highs and lows cement the bonds. We just have more lows."

Placed, as they are, before this fun-house mirror, some White Sox players have sarcastically suggested the team needs to lose more to draw better. Maybe they're on to something. The Sox are too good now. But as they're fond of saying at the Friendly Confines, wait till next year.

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