There were plenty of things to frighten a seven-year-old on the South Side of Chicago in 1983, but nothing struck fear into my young heart like the sight of a White Sox home run at Comiskey Park.
The park’s “exploding scoreboard”—a remnant of legendary Sox owner Bill Veeck, the P. T. Barnum of baseball—would whir and send up booming fireworks every time a Sox batter hit a home run. It scared the hell out of me. And in ’83, when the Sox won the American League Western Division, they hit lots of homers.
My dad had season tickets. As a self-employed executive headhunter, he took full advantage of Reagan-era tax policy, writing off the seats as a “business” expense. That meant bringing his business partner and me to the games. Before long, whenever a Sox player hit one out of the park, I was diving into my dad’s lap, anticipating the bombardment. “You don’t have to hide,” he’d say, while his partner routinely quipped, “Helluva Sox fan.” And though he didn’t realize it then, my dad’s partner was right: those terrifying hours at Comiskey Park were turning me into a diehard White Sox fan.
And as all Sox fans know, fear of success is endemic to the South Side faithful. You get a taste of victory, and you have to look away, because you know what’s coming. Collapse.
The sports media like to make hay out of team “curses”: the Boston Red Sox got over their “Bambino” problem last year. The Chicago Cubs, on the North Side of the city, continue to labor under their own blight—they haven’t brought home a championship since 1908. And the Pale Hose? Shoeless Joe Jackson haunted our clubhouse until last month; the infamous “Black Sox” allegedly threw the 1919 World Series for the benefit of bookies. According to today’s media, the Sox have been plagued by the curse of Shoeless Joe ever since.
Real Sox fans never bought it. Sure, they witnessed eighty-eight years of disappointing, if intermittently well-played, baseball. But over the decades, they learned that the failures were entirely human—nothing curse-like or supernatural about them. Sox fans grew accustomed to the botched plays, the stranded base runners, the missed pitches. As a consequence, the deadliest impulse of a Pale Hose fan was hope: Banking on South Side success was the surest way to guarantee failure.
On Wednesday night, October 26, that eighty-eight-year drought ended. The Sox routed the Houston Astros in four games, finally winning their first World Series since 1917. For some, it was a quasi-religious event. Having thrown off the yoke of the vastly more popular Cubs on the North Side, Sox fans finally found redemption.
Or not. Comparing popular sport to organized religion is a pastime of some sports writers and theologians. Look at the similarities: the masses gather at the appointed time to follow a prescribed ritual. They put their faith in larger-than-life figures who carry out near mythical stories of triumph. The tradition, the emotion, the commitment, the sheer intensity of it all. How else to explain the hopeless devotion of Sox fans except by chalking it up to religion?
I’m more inclined to credit tribalism. As deep and as old as organized religion, clannish impulses form the foundations of fandom. Why do I—born and raised in Cubs territory—root for the White Sox? My parents were South Siders, and no baseball season passed without my being inculcated with renewed doses of Sox pride. In the end, blood wins. I am a Sox fan, just as my father was a Sox fan, and his father before him. We were taught from birth to cheer for the Sox, and the desire for their victories, for the demolishment of their opposition, bound us to the team and to Pale Hose fans across the country.
Sports writers prattle on about the redemption of the White Sox, alluding to notions of fate, even claiming that the dedication of long-suffering fans provides evidence of some sort of elusive civil religion. That’s a bit much. The reality is far less complicated. It’s a matter of battling the antipathy of the other half of Chicago, of defying the expectations of every expert and what often seemed like the dictates of basic reason. White Sox good. Opponents bad. Yes, loyalty has its value. But in sports, loyalty can easily warp into less-than-wholesome impulses. I’ve seen it in myself, in my cheers when the other team fails (a 4-0 sweep, even better!). After nearly nine decades of drought, after my gauntlet of exploding scoreboards, I deserve a little vindication, right? But if the sports writers are on to something, if the White Sox championship really is a sign of redemption, then why do I feel like I need to go to confession?