2016 World Series Roundtable

Last week the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. Their victory inspired what’s been reported as the seventh largest gathering in human history in downtown Chicago. Millions of fans flocked to the streets to celebrate what has for generations been a mere fantasy. Millions more watched the World Series as its intense seven games served as a much-needed distraction from the 2016 Presidential Election, which continues to be stranger than fiction. The match up between baseball’s two longest suffering fan bases provided fascinating storylines and extra innings in game seven, solidifying the series as an instant classic.

Before America votes tomorrow, we thought one last distraction might be in order. This roundtable brings together historians that are either baseball scholars or Chicago and Cleveland partisans to provide their unique perspectives on the 2016 World Series and the current state of Major League Baseball. Our participants are: Eric Allen Hall, Leslie Heaphy, Tim Lacy, and Andrew D. Linden.

1) Now that the World Series is over, how do you view the state of Major League Baseball? Is baseball back?


I wouldn’t go that far.  The ratings would have been normal if the World Series had featured the Toronto Blue Jays and Los Angeles Dodgers.  The Cubs-Indians storyline was perfect: one team hadn’t won since 1908, the other since 1948.  The Cubs had fought against curses, while Cleveland, the Cavs aside, had slogged through decades of sports’ disappointments.  Baseball continues to suffer from long games and a long season.  Americans continue to prefer the faster-paced sports—football and basketball.


With the World Series over and time to reflect it seems baseball enjoyed a renaissance during the Series. TV viewership was the highest it had been in decades. Watching the scenes from historic Wrigley and downtown Cleveland remind us of the place of sport in our society, especially baseball. Major League baseball has an opportunity to capitalize on the history and goodwill from this year’s series and the young stars who everyone got a glimpse of. NPR did a great story on this idea.


If you mean back from the steroid/PED scandal of the past decade, I think the answer is most definitely yes. But I think it’s been back for a few years.  We’re in a new era where the sport, in general, feels more honest and authentic. This feels weird to say, but it’s good that we see players suspended regularly, at all levels and from all franchises.  All of the franchises seem to have to deal with injuries. There are very few statistical outliers, in terms of extreme offense.  The “analytics revolution” in baseball makes it feel like even more of a thinking person’s game than it was.


I will speak to this question (and most of them throughout this roundtable) as a fan of the Cleveland professional baseball team, a fan who is slightly emotional, perhaps irrational. Baseball was certainly back in Cleveland, albeit for a short time period. Thousands of fans flocked to Progressive Field over the last month to watch Corey Kluber, Francisco Lindor, and Jason Kipnis. Standing room only ticket prices soared to over $1,000 in Cleveland for games during the World Series.

So, is baseball back? I’m not quite sure. Cleveland’s year-long attendance hovered just over 19.5 thousand fans per home game during the 2016 regular season (I was surprised it was even this high when I looked it up). And this number wasn’t just skewed by April games when the weather is often poor in the city on the shores of Lake Erie. Just over 13,500 fans attended a thrilling Cleveland 2-1 victory over the defending World Series champion Kansas City Royals on a Tuesday in late September as the team closed in on an American League Central Division championship. I was able to sneak down to row five behind the visitor’s dugout during a late September Friday night game (I’m not ashamed). Cleveland pushed 2017 season ticket sales during the run to the playoffs, a typical strategy for teams that struggle to sell tickets. Guaranteeing a chance at playoff seats often persuades fans to buy ten- or twenty-game ticket packages. If that is the case, and season ticket-sales grew for next year, maybe baseball “will be back.”

But, I doubt it. Cleveland will never regain the magic formula of the late 1990s and early 2000s when the team was the hot ticket in town. The team sold out 455 straight games (once a record that now the Boston Red Sox fans hold) in response to a once-in-a-lifetime combination of sport marketing success. The team opened its new stadium (then Jacobs Field) in 1994. The NBA’s Cavaliers weren’t that good (they had some success, but LeBron James was only 10 years old in 1994 and really couldn’t help yet). The Cleveland Browns left for Baltimore in 1995/1996, leaving the city without professional American football for three seasons (and arguably for the next 18 seasons). And the baseball team, after years of ineptitude, saw its young talent all coalesce into superstars at the same time. Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel, Sandy Alomar Jr., and Jim Thome (just to name a few) became bona fide MLB all-stars. Manny Ramierz was the #7 hitter in the 1995 lineup! All in all, fans could not get enough of Cleveland baseball. Baseball will never “be back” in Cleveland as it was in the late 1990s. Can it continue to thrive in 2017? Who knows.

2) During the playoffs there is always chatter about pace of play, home field advantage tied to the all-star game, Chief Wahoo, and the DH. If you were commissioner of baseball would you change any of these rules? What else would you do to improve the game?


Even though they did not have home-field advantage, the Cubs benefited from the All-Star Game rule.  The Cubs were able to pencil Kyle Schwarber into the lineup as the DH for four games instead of three.  He batted .412 with a .500 OBP for the Series and sparked the Game Seven rally in the tenth with a lead-off single.  National-League rules, on the other hand, forced the Indians to start Carlos Santana in left, a position he had not played all year.  That said I still believe the team with the best regular-season record should be awarded home-field advantage in the World Series.

What’s most concerning to me was the inconsistent strike zone—Joe West being the main culprit.  The umpires struggled all Series calling the tailing (i.e. two-seam) fastballs of Corey Kluber, Jake Arrieta, and Kyle Hendricks.  I’d be surprised if MLB doesn’t move to an automated strike zone in the coming years with an umpire signaling the call.  Similar technology has been used in tennis for the betterment of the sport.


If I were Commissioner of baseball I would not worry about pace of play or home field tied to the All Star game. Home field advantage has added a bit of competition to the All Star game that had gotten a little stale and made it more important for the elected stars to show up for their fans. As for the DH I would eliminate it in the AL and put both leagues back to the original idea of having pitchers bat. I love the strategy this adds to the game and encouraging pitchers to learn one of the fundamentals of the game, bunting. I would also work with the Indians to address their mascot to be more sensitive and still resonate with their fans. History and tradition is important to the game so there are other options for the Indians to consider since their original name was not Indians. The biggest issue I would address would be efforts to attract young people back to the game, including girls and women. Baseball is out of touch with the other sports such as basketball which has the WNBA and has had female referees in the NBA. Given the large and increasing number of girls and young ladies playing the game in the US and around the world ML baseball needs to get involved in promoting opportunities to play, umpire and work in the game. Baseball has not had a female umpire move beyond Triple A even though Amanda Clement first umpired for pay as early as 1905.


Of all the factors you mentioned, the highest priority, to me, should be ending the Chief Wahoo fiasco once and for all. It’s been ridiculous for some time, especially since the 1970s with the rise of consciousness about Indian stereotypes. The insulting character of the “mascot” sullied for me, somewhat, what should have been a joyous World Series—i.e. two longsuffering fan-bases having a shot at the title.  After changing the mascot, I’d go back to letting the team with the best record own home field advantage for the World Series. It’s an unfair rule that let’s one team have an advantage for winning a game (i.e. All-Star Game) in which their players had potentially little or no part. That’s no way to let two teams square off in a situation in which home-field advantage is meaningful. As for the DH and the pace of the game, I’m okay with the former and agnostic on the latter.


I’m not really an expert on how sport should be played (any of them really, although my dad and I will take on any challengers in the Midwestern tailgate game known as corn hole). If people want the DH to be removed (or added), fine. If they want pace of play to increase, OK. If they hate the All Star game rule, so be it (although, I wasn’t complaining this year).

screen-shot-2016-11-06-at-9-01-09-pmWhat I really care about is the disgusting marketing and brand identity of my home town and favorite baseball team. Although I hope this feeling is altruistically based, it just makes me feel slimy to be a Cleveland baseball fan. As I write this commentary, I am sitting in a coffee shop in Cleveland’s Ohio City staring at someone wearing a jacket with this logo on it. Cleveland’s baseball team’s logo and name is racist and must change. Now. (Here is a petition to sign.)

Cleveland picked the name “Indians” In 1915 when sportswriters chose it. And it was intended to be racist from the start. I learned this from Louis Moore’s tweets during the World Series. He tweeted a cartoon from the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1915 that clearly shows the racist intentions of the team’s brand. Many fans in Cleveland grew up with Chief Wahoo as their logo and find it hard to shed this part of their identity. In fact, I have hundreds of pictures of me wearing Chief Wahoo paraphernalia (I do not wear that logo or the team name anymore and encourage everyone to join the #DeChief movement). However, one only needs to read stories like this to understand how damaging Native American mascots and team names are to the thousands of native and indigenous people living in the country (and elsewhere).

I want the team to change their name and logo back to the “Spiders,” the name of the team from 1887-1889. Do it, and we can all rock these badass t-shirts.

3) With Cleveland winning the NBA Championships and now the Cubs winning the World Series, the sports world appears to be curse free. Do you think this is true? And how might it impact the sports world?


The idea of a curse in sports has long been part of the lore. Fans love to keep these kind of stories alive, both as a way to entertain and explain failure to win a championship. Given the importance of the idea I think fans will simply look for a new one or another superstitious idea that they can rally around.


As a long-time Cubs fan (since roughly 1982), curses are bunk. The notion of a curse is fun for writers and superstitious fans, but they mean nothing in terms a team’s win-loss percentage. As Bill Savage noted recently in an ESPN column before the World Series, the Cubs lost for years because they had bad teams, bad management, a little bad luck, or some combination of all three. Fans, columnists, and observers had fun with billy goats, scapegoats (e.g. Buckner, Bartman), black cats, and “Cubbie occurrences” because, well, they make for colorful stories. But the team never won a world series because the franchise never did all it could, until recently, to field the best possible team.  In sum, the sports world has been, is, and will be curse free. You lose when you’re bad, and you win when you’re good—when you work hard and the ball bounces your way.


The Cavs winning the NBA championship seemed to alleviate much of the anxiety of Cleveland’s sports futility. Of course there are other bad teams (the Philadelphia 76ers say hi), but the media seems to adore the lovable, cursed loser narratives. I found it very interesting that the New York Times planned a story about the Cubs’ continuing ineptitude, not about Cleveland winning, if game 7 would have gone a different way.

I’m not sure which teams are going to become the next cursed darlings of the hegemonic sports world (i.e. ESPN and all of its followers), but presumably some team will, so that we can all cheer or rage at their joys or frustrations as the years go by.

a) How does winning the World Series affect or change the image/brand of the Chicago Cubs and its fan base?


Goats, black cats, Steve Bartman, and loveable losing have been major components of the Cubs branding for decades.  I suspect the Cubs’ marketing department will further draw out the stories and personalities of its players.  Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras, and Albert Almora, Jr. are likable and engaging.  They make the game and clubhouse fun for players, media, and fans alike.  The Red Sox made the transition and the Cubs will as well.


Winning the Series certainly changes the story of the Cubs moving forward as they are no longer the lovable losers. They have lost that part of their brand and will need to think about how to rebrand themselves to keep fans from drifting away now that they have won. Winning raises expectations with fans that are different than hoping against hope that your team will win.


This is where things get interesting for Cubs fans and the franchise. The Cubs have long relied on ambience and context to sell “the experience” (e.g. The Friendly Confines, The Loveable Losers, etc.). I do think a significant portion of the fan base was happy with the Cubs never winning it all. As I said elsewhere, the Cubs have been the team for people who feel that life throws them lots of curve balls. It’s part of the franchise’s identity. I don’t know how fans will handle the team being a frontrunner and a target. They really could—if luck breaks positively for them—become a New York Yankees type of powerhouse in the Midwest. The Cubs could become a hated team as have other winners (e.g. Cardinals, Giants, Red Sox, and the aforementioned Yankees). If so, the team will have been rebranded, whether the fans want it or not.


b) Has Cleveland exorcised its demons? Where does the Indians loss rank among the city’s history?


In context, the Indians’ loss to the Cubs—the best team in baseball from start to finish—should not be devastating.  Prior to the playoffs FiveThirtyEight predicted that the Indians were least likely to win the World Series (the Cubs were prohibitive favorites).  This was a team without two of their top-three starting pitchers and arguably their best position player.  They used Kluber, Trevor Bauer, and Josh Tomlin on three-days’ rest, which the Cubs didn’t do once with any of their starters.  The Browns of the 80s and Indians of the 90s were supposed to win.  Few outside of Cleveland expected this team to capture the title.


Cleveland as a city had a great boost with the Cavaliers win but the Indians now have the longest drought in baseball. Along with the continuous losses of the Browns Cleveland still has a desire to improve its sports history. Lost in all the talk about the Indians and Browns was also the win by the Lake Erie Monsters. The loss this year by the Indians was a tough one but not its worst. Taking the series right down to the wire made for an exciting and nail-biting finish but not as crushing as the losses in 1997 or even 1995. There is also a belief that the Indians will be around for a while at the top of the game given the rise of young players such as Francisco Lindor and Tyler Naquin.


Here I have to defer to others. Even though my American League team is the Royals, I’ve spent much less time thinking about the Indians and more about the White Sox, Twins, and Tigers, and even the Yankees and Red Sox.


People have tried to label Cleveland’s loss as one of the “The…” of Cleveland sport history—The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, The Move, The Decision, etc. However, nothing has yet taken hold (maybe it will become “The Collapse” as “The Ben Zobrist” just doesn’t flow as well).

4) What was your favorite moment from the 2016 MLB playoffs? Is there an individual player, game, or team performance that you think may get overlooked in the wake of the Cubs historic win?


To me it’s the emergence on the national stage of Javier Baez as a defensive and baserunning wizard.  This was not a revelation for those of us who follow the Cubs.  He stole numerous outs with his quick tags.  Twice he dropped liners on purpose to turn double plays.  Baez’s baseball instincts and ability to read the ball off the bat were on display all playoffs.  He showed us that defense and baserunning can be just as beautiful as a homerun.


I would have to pick two games that really stuck out for me. One was the Giants/Mets wildcard game. The pitching performance for most of the game by Syndergard and Bumgarner was just amazing to watch and has been compared by some to John Smoltz and Jack Morris twenty-five years ago. The second game was the Cubs victory over the Dodgers in game one of the NLCS. That game had a steal of home, a pinch hit homerun, a stellar performance from Jon Lester and Montero’s pinch-hit grandslam to put the Cubs back on top. Fans could not have asked for a better game.


For me, as a Cubs fan, it’s been watching Javier Baez’s coming out party. Just everything—lightning tags, key hits, and flair for the dramatic. Baez was the NLCS MVP for his defense and offense. For as terrible as Baez was in 2014, in terms of strikeouts and looking lost in the major leagues (95 strikeouts in 213 at-bats), he’s been just as great all through 2016. He cut-down the strikeout rate (108 in 421 at-bats), which allowed fans and management to see the other outstanding parts of his game (defense, baserunning, instincts, and sense of timing). Baez didn’t perform as well in the World Series, but I really look forward to tracking his career in 2017 and beyond.


If it wasn’t for the last moments of game seven of the NBA Finals, featuring LeBron James’ block, Kyrie Irving’s shot, and Kevin Love’s (improbable) stop, I might argue that Rajai Davis’ two-run homerun to tie game seven of the World Series was the most electrifying moment in modern Cleveland sport history. Had Cleveland won (I still am holding out hope that Jason Kipnis’ ninth-inning foul ball was actually a homerun), Davis would already have a statue at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario in downtown Cleveland.

Ben Zobrist and the rest of the Cubs ruined that fantasy. But, his homerun will be replayed time and time again as we recall the 2016 World Series.

5) Many scholars suggest that sports serve as a lens into society. How do you see the 2016 World Series helping historians and students in the future make sense of the current moment in the United States?


Two things: First, the 2016 World Series was a wonderful respite from the presidential election.  Francisco Lindor, Jason Kipnis, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, and others were guys that you wanted to root for.  You could tell that Terry Francona and Joe Maddon had tremendous respect for one another.  Both teams were historic underdogs that Americans could get behind.  The Cubs and Indians were my Shirley Temple during the Great Depression, offering rays of happiness in a dark world.  Second, the Cubs’ championship reinforces the necessity of using analytics to make decisions.  In Boston and now in Chicago, Cubs’ President Theo Epstein has employed advanced metrics and technologies to build a dominant ballclub.  Gut feelings are a thing of the past.  And the numbers obsession has transcended sports.  Nate Silver, perhaps the most-trusted polling analyst in the United States, began his career as a writer for Baseball Prospectus.


Sports often serves as a cultural lens into society. We can look at such events as Jackie Robinson integrating baseball, the AAGPBL in the 1940s and 1950s, and their impact on race and gender issues in America. The 1968 Olympics and Joe Louis’s victory over Max Schmelling brought America’s attention to race issues here at home. With the current state of American politics as seen in the election campaigning for the past year the rivalries and interactions between opposing fans can help us see the impact of politics on other aspects of American life. I think that the outpouring of support and huge viewing numbers during the World Series reaffirm the importance of sport in American society. This continues to tell us that sport cannot be ignored as a way to understand American culture.


I think there are two factors at work here. First, I believe the popularity of this World Series will be linked to, or contrasted with, popular disenchantment with the 2016 election cycle. I think many fans and citizens wanted to see good clean competition in baseball as an antidote to the nastiness of—I’m going to say it—one particular Republican candidate in general.  In this sense the World Series, and sports in general, fulfill the classic diversionary role. But the Cubs also did something historic in terms of their franchise and have a huge fan following. The team’s regular season and post-season accomplishments would’ve, therefore, drawn attention even if both candidates were popular and the political cycle felt reasonable or aboveboard.  Second, I also think that the Cubs’ success will be linked to the larger “analytics revolution” that has swept, and is sweeping, society through the ubiquity of smartphones.  A smarter Cubs franchise will be linked to the better use of data and information. The Cubs are a data-driven, or data-informed, franchise in an increasingly data-driven world.


Does sport shape society or does society shape sport? I don’t know. If I did, I could write a fantastic book that would excite tens of people at academic conferences across the world.

But, the 2016 World Series may go down as the last time that Cleveland adorned a terribly racist caricature of human life on their hats and sleeves. It may go down as an exciting national sport event which masked American minds from an election that would negatively affect the course of human development. Maybe it will be a good comparison for the study of police reactions to large crowds—how they react poorly to #BlackLivesMatter protesters compared with joyous and heartbroken “fans” in Chicago and Cleveland certainly makes for an intriguing study of twenty-first century racism. Perhaps it will be remembered as a time when people thought a Rust Belt town was “saved” by white suburbanites flocking to the downtown area for a few hours before taking the highway back out-of-town.

Maybe the series will just be remembered as a great sports story. This will be for the future generations of scholars to decide as they reflect.

Eric Hall is an Assistant Professor of History at Georgia Southern University. He is a lifelong Cubs fan, and author of Arthur Ashe: Tennis and Justice in the Civil Rights Era. You can find him on Twitter @EricAllenHall.

Dr. Leslie Heaphy is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Kent State University. An admitted New York Mets fan, Dr. Heaphy has published several works on women in baseball and on the Negro leagues. She has also been the editor of the journal Black Ball since 2008 and is highly active in the Society for American Baseball Research.

Tim Lacy is a graduate adviser in Northwestern University’s School School of Professional Studies and teaches adult education seminars in Chicago. He co-founded both the U.S. Intellectual History Blog and the Society for U.S. Intellectual History. He is also the author of The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea. Tim is a lifelong Cubs fan and you can find him on Twitter @T_Lacy

One thought on “2016 World Series Roundtable

  1. Pingback: ICYMI: An Overview of Nearly Everything We Wrote in 2016 | Sport in American History

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