Conventional wisdom has it that the Cubs are either cursed—by a billy goat, a black cat, a fan whose name we shall not speak—or, less cosmically, just plain unlucky. But are they really? A University of Chicago economist, Tobias Moskowitz, asked the same question a few years back and arrived at a startling conclusion: The main source of the Cubs’ curse was the fans themselves.
They are too loyal.
If this sounds like a terrible case of blaming the victim, I never said it wasn’t. But Moskowitz bleeds Cubs blue. He grew up in West Lafayette, Indiana, watching Cubs broadcasts and hearing over and over again that the Cubs were simply star-crossed, always finding a way to come up just short. Only years later, while researching his 2011 book, Scorecasting—a lively Moneyball-meets-Freakonomics collaboration with the sportswriter L. Jon Wertheim—did Moskowitz revisit this narrative and find that it didn’t hold up.
Some teams, he found, did have a legitimate history of last-minute downfall. The Boston Red Sox made an art of it, pushing four World Series to a definitive Game Seven between 1946 and 1986 before finally winning in 2004. But this sort of choking requires opportunity. The Cubs have not even made it to the World Series since 1945. In fact, they’ve made it to the postseason only seven times since then, and five of those trips ended in series they lost 4–1, 3–0, 3–0, 3–0, and 4–0. Since World War II, Moskowitz calculated, the team has finished last or second-to-last in the standings more than 40 percent of the time. The odds of that happening by chance are 527 to 1.
Why, he had to ask, didn’t the Cubs field better teams?
Another economist, Philip K. Porter, of the University of South Florida, had wondered two decades earlier whether fan loyalty might have a perverse effect on winning. Baseball teams, after all, make money not by winning games, but by filling seats. And if lost games do not translate into lost customers, the economic incentive to improve approaches zero. Crunching 25 years of data, from 1966 to 1990, Porter found that the teams most likely to win were not those with the loyalist fan bases, but those with the ficklest.
Porter wasn’t speaking of the Cubs in particular. But Moskowitz ran his own numbers and found that no team better illustrated Porter’s findings. For the crosstown White Sox, a 10 percent dip in winning percentage translated, on average, into a 12 percent drop in attendance the following year. For the Cubs, that drop was just 6 percent—the smallest of any team in the majors. Cubs fans were insensitive not only to prices (paying the second-highest ticket prices in baseball), but also to losses.
Surely the Cubs wanted to win. But Moskowitz believes that the fact that they didn’t have to—“I think [just making the playoffs] is already enough for Cub fans,” a local news anchor said with a smile last fall—was not lost on executives or players. If young talent isn’t paying quick dividends, then sure, trade future Hall of Famer Lou Brock to your archrivals in St. Louis. If teammates don’t like the volume of your salsa music, then handle it the way Sammy Sosa once did: “Fuck my teammates,” he said.