Laurent Pernot is the executive vice chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago. Pernot came to the U.S. as a Chicago-area foreign-exchange student in 1988 and caught ’89 Cubs playoff fever. He answered some questions about his book Before the Ivy: The Cubs’ Golden Age in Pre-Wrigley Chicago.
Q: The Cubs have suffered through 100 years of frustration at Wrigley Field. Would anyone have expected they’d be cellar dwellers before they moved to the North side park?
Laurent Pernot: The “Cubs”—I use quotes because they didn’t go by that name consistently until 1907—had some glorious decades before they moved to Wrigley Field. Three great teams in the 1870s, 1880s and the first decade of the 20th Century won nearly a dozen pennants and two World Series. That said, a fan in the 1910s who thought the Cubs were invincible would have suffered from amnesia: the team was a perennial also-ran in the 1890s and at the turn of the 20th Century, to the point that L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz who lived near West Side Grounds, wrote an 1896 poem about the team meeting its doom. Still, to me, the main lesson for today’s fans is one of hope: in 1901, the team had what was then its worst season to date, compiling a .381 record. By 1906, the Cubs were in the first of their four world series in five years, of which they won the 1907 and 1908 editions. So the Cubs could be on pace to win it all by 2018 on the heels of their dismal .377 season in 2012.
Q: The current Wrigleyville renovation has been controversial. Were there controversies in the club’s old neighborhood on the West side?
Pernot: Around the time the Cubs went to four World Series between 1906 and 1910 on the West Side, they were in court with the rooftops, whom they accused of stealing their product. The resulting ruling really hurt both sides, but the Cubs eventually got the last word by erecting a huge billboard that blocked the view from most rooftops. The team also was embroiled in the controversy in the 1890s over playing on the Christian Sabbath. Ever the buck-chaser, Al Spalding moved to capitalize on Sunday games when popular sentiment shifted in favor of it, but that didn’t keep the whole team from being arrested after Observants found a sympathetic judge.
Q: How did the Cubs get their name? Weren’t the Cubs actually originally named the White Sox?
Pernot: The team went by a half-dozen names in all, most of them picked by the local newspapers. They did start off as the Chicago White Stockings (but never White Sox) and the name was abandoned in 1890; Charles Comiskey was all too happy to capitalize on the brand in 1901 by naming his new American League franchise the White Sox. The name Cubs first came into episodic use beginning in 1902 when a new manager brought in a bunch of younger players, including a trio of unknowns: Tinker, Evers and Chance.
Q: Sometimes the Cubs don’t even win when they win. When the club first captured a pennant, the title came under dispute? What happened?
Pernot: After the Civil War, the game really took off and by 1870, there was a loose league made up of a mix of amateur and pro teams mostly from the Northeast and Midwest. The Chicago White Stockings established themselves by bringing down the legendary Cincinnati Red Stockings and going 62-7. But without a set schedule or teams even playing the same number of games, Chicago and New York both claimed they won the title.
The two teams by chance were supposed to face off in Cincinnati at the end of the season, which would have settled things, but New York hightailed out of town. While it was never official—there wasn’t a strong league to render a verdi—the Cincinnati and New York newspapers declared Chicago the champion. Things got zanier the next year when the White Stockings seemed destined to win but the Great Chicago Fire burned their ballpark to the ground. They tried to finish out the season on the road in borrowed uniforms but fate had spoken.
Q: Can current Cubs leadership learn anything from how the owners built a winner 100 years ago?
Pernot: The first thing is that rooftop fights are a double-edge sword, but I think today’s Cubs have a much stronger hand to play. The second is that the Cubs started largely from scratch in 1902 after a decade of utter futility, and you could say Tom Ricketts is rebuilding the ballpark and the roster right now after a similar stretch. . . . OK, a much longer stretch. It paid off 100 years ago, because the team they built on ’02 win in ’07 and ’08. The biggest lesson is don’t destroy history: When West Side grounds was demolished, the Tribune wrote that the buzz of the wrecking ball was destroying the dreams and memories of thousands. So at least the Cubs are not repeating that mistake and they are taking a stand right where they are. One newspaper writer in 1906 wrote of the Cubs as they melted against the White Sox in the World Series that they had a severe case of the Rickets. One can only hope Ricketts has the antidote to the Rickets.
Q: You were born and raised in France. When did you become fascinated with the Cubs?
Pernot: You know how in the movie City Slickers Billy Crystal describes the chills he got walking down the dark tunnel at Yankee Stadium and coming up the steps and taking in the field in all its glory for the first time? I had deja vu with that scene, because that was exactly the moment and the feeling I experienced during my first visit to Wrigley. Then, late in the game, the pitcher threw the ball and the batter didn’t swing, and the catcher caught the ball. Nothing had just happened and the whole place erupted. Those moments, and the crack of the bat. . . . how can you not be hooked? Also, while we had no clue what baseball was when I was growing up, our pro soccer team had been without a title since 1938, so that probably prepared me to be a Cub fan.