Think about 1908 for a second. This is the year the Model T debuted, the year the Wrights finally unveiled their flying machine to the public. Theodore Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor William Howard Taft was elected as president. The Dow closed at 60.7296, a solid recovery after one of the many panics.
In 1908, there were 88.7 million people in the United States, and more of them died of tuberculosis — around 67,000 — than any other disease. The average age was 49. Infant mortality was a huge killer. There were 2,468 suicides by firearms. Now it’s roughly 21,000, which means that today more Americans per capita take their own life with a gun, even though the chances are they have much better living conditions than a hundred and eight years ago.
The Singer Building was the tallest in the world. Bette Davis was born. Mother’s Day was invented. Classical music was just music, organic food was just food, there was no such thing as an electric guitar or a cake mix. Coca-cola was sold at a pharmacist’s in an amber-colored beer bottle.There was no such thing as a world war and oceanic travel was dependent on the amount of coal a ship could carry to fuel its boilers. Jack Johnson was the heavyweight champion of the world, but institutional racism slammed the door shut behind him until Joe Louis opened it back up thirty years later.
The World Series was created in 1903, and in 1908 the Cubs had won three out of five. After that, nothing. The longest unbroken losing streak in sports, or anything else. And amidst the joy and celebration, I find myself inexpressibly sad.
As long as the Cubs lost, history was alive. The losing streak was unchanged. As far as I can tell, it is one of the only things in public life that has remained unchanged throughout the modern dynamism of the 20th (and now the 21st) century when we measure obsolescence in three-year cycles and every generation has a catchy moniker to distinguish it from its predecessors. Celebrities like Lauren Bacall and Jessica Tandy, who died long ago as old ladies, weren’t even born in 1908. But now this streak is consigned to the dustbin of history. It had a beginning, a long middle, and an end. It’s history, but not living history.
Ask any Boston fan whether they resent that the Southie kids of today see the Sox as winners. Winning streaks never last so long. One loss and they’re over. Maybe there will be another. Look at the Yankees. Who cares?
There’s something special about a losing streak, about a legacy of continual failure that galvanizes people in a way success never can. And when it stretches back a century or more, it connects you to the past like nothing else. My Uncle John was born in a world where the Cubs were losers, and he died in that same world. Same with my dad. Long live failure.
On the positive side, we only had eight planets then. We have eight planets now. Maybe everything merely circles back upon itself in the end, anyway. Maybe Henry Ford was right and history is bunk.