C-SPAN Book Discussion with Rich Cohen

Watch Rich Cohen discuss The Fish That Ate the Whale here.


Rich Cohen takes on Wrigley…and I could not disagree more


Why Wrigley Field Must Be Destroyed

By Rich Cohen

The Chicago Cubs were a feared franchise until they moved into the above pit of disappointment and despair nearly a century ago. They haven’t won a World Series since. It’s time for Wrigley Field to go.

Having not won a World Series since 1908, and having last appeared on that stage in 1945—a war year in which the professional leagues were still populated by has-beens and freaks—the Chicago Cubs must contemplate the only solution that might restore the team to glory: Tear down Wrigley Field.

Destroy it. Annihilate it. Collapse it with the sort of charges that put the Sands Hotel out of its misery in Vegas. Implosion or explosion, get rid of it. That pile of quaintness has to go. Not merely the structure, but the ground on which it stands.

I’m a Roman, and to me, the expanse between Waveland and Addison on Chicago’s North Side is Carthage. The struts and concessions, the catwalk where the late broadcaster Harry Caray once greeted me with all the fluid liquidity of an animatronic Disneyland pirate—Hello, Cubs fan!—the ramps that ascend like a ziggurat to heaven—it’s a false heaven—the bases, trestles, ivy, wooden seats and bleachers, the towering center-field scoreboard—all of it must be ripped out and carried away like the holy artifacts were carried out of the temple in Jerusalem, heaped in a pile and burned. Then the ground itself must be salted, made barren, covered with a housing project, say, a Stalinist monolith, so never again will a shrine arise on that haunted block. As it was with Moses, the followers and fans, though they search, shall never find its bones.

The Cubs moved into Wrigley in 1916, when it was known as Weeghman Park. Before that, it was the home of the Whales of the Federal League. The Cubs, founded in 1870, had been wanderers, playing on fields scattered across the breadth of booming iron-plated Chicago. The grandest was West Side Park, an opera house for the proletariat, with its velvet curtained boxes, at the intersection of Taylor and Wood on the West Side.

Most importantly, the Cubs won there. The glory years before Wrigley are like the age before the flood, when exotic species thrived on the earth, among them the feared Chicago Cub.

The team was a powerhouse. Performing as the White Stockings (1876-1889), the Colts (1890-1897), the Orphans (1898–1902) and finally the Cubs, they won with regularity. In 1906 they went 116-36, a .763 winning percentage that remains the greatest season in major-league history. In 1907 they won their first World Series; in 1908, with the unhittable Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown and the Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance double-play combo that was death to nascent rallies, they won it again.

The Cubs then made the fatal mistake of taking up in Wrigley, where the evening sun streams through the cross-hatching above home plate and the creeping shadows form a web that has ensnared the club for a century, where sometimes the wind blows in and sometimes it blows out, and the only constant is disappointment.

The entire story can be told via two statistics:

The Cubs pre-Wrigley: 2,971 wins, 2,152 losses.

The Cubs since (before Monday): 7,382 wins, 7,703 losses.

When a house is haunted, you don’t put in a new scoreboard, add ivy, get better food or bigger beers—you move!

There are probably an infinite number of reasons the Cubs have not won in Wrigley Field, but I’ve come up with three chief explanations:

1. The park is schizo.

A few years ago, when I was traveling with the Cubs for a story, I had a long talk with Andy MacPhail, then the team’s president. MacPhail had just come from Minnesota, where he won two World Series.

In Chicago, he told me, the big challenge was building a team that could win in Wrigley, a stadium that suffers multiple-personality disorder. In Minnesota, he’d been able to fashion a roster designed to win in the Metrodome, where the Twins played; as the Yankees were long able to design a team for their stadium, where left-handed power hitters take advantage of right field’s so-called “short porch.”

But Wrigley has no such peculiarity. It looks like a home-run hitter’s park, and when the wind blows out, it is. But when the wind screams off the lake, the park turns nasty. Even balls headed for the seats are reduced to routine flies. For the Cubs, MacPhail said, every game might as well be away. Which means the front office has to build a kind of All-Star team, perfectly rounded for every kind of park. Which is impossible.

2. Wrigley Field is too damn nice.

Going to the park is so pleasant, the game itself has become secondary. The sunshine, the lake air, the red brick—that’s what draws the crowds. The bleachers are filled even when the team is terrible, which takes pressure off of the owners.

Cubs fans are the Buddhists of the game, free from the wheel of profit and loss, happy to live in the now of Wrigley, to enjoy the sun as routine grounders are booted and bodies wither and die.

There’s a conspiracy theory: following the death of William Wrigley Jr., the chewing-gum tycoon who bought the franchise, his successors, not really caring about the game, made a decision to substitute the park for the team, turning the experience into the attraction.

This is when Bill Veeck Jr., the great baseball man, planted the ivy, and people began lauding Wrigley Field as the greatest space in the game. My view on this changed when I moved to New York from Chicago and took the Yankee perspective: It’s not ivy that makes a place beautiful. It’s winning. Conversely, a century of stinking renders even the loveliest of parks a monstrosity.

3. Losing some of the time makes you want to win; losing all of the time makes you a loser.

The many decades of ineptitude have become the truth. They call it a curse, and it is, but not the kind summoned by Greek tavern owners (the curse of the Billy Goat) or slighted shortstops (the curse of Ernie Banks). It’s the kind known as a complex.

A bad century has made winning seem like a fairy tale. It doesn’t matter what wizard managers the team hires, players, executives—once it was Lou Piniella; now it’s Theo Epstein. People who have won everywhere lose in Chicago. The tradition is just too powerful to deny.

For years I dismissed this as hocus-pocus, the mumbo jumbo of psychologists. Then I saw it with my own eyes in the eighth inning of Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series. This was the infamous Bartman game, in which a foul ball, which might otherwise have been caught by Moises Alou, was grabbed at by Steve Bartman, a Cubs fan. The Cubs, up 3-0 and just five outs from their first World Series appearance since 1945, immediately allowed eight runs, lost the game and, a day later, the series.

And whom do Cubs fans blame? The million-dollar players who couldn’t overcome the slightest turbulence? Of course not. They blame the fan. That’s what 100 years of losing does to your psyche.

What will happen when the Cubs walk away from Wrigley? They will forget, and as they forget, they will win. Think of 100 years in Wrigley as 40 years in the wilderness. It’s time for a new generation to be born, untouched by the slavery of endless defeat.

Only one team has ever won consistently in Wrigley: the Chicago Bears, who dominated the NFL in the 1930s and ’40s. But even they had trouble with the park. One afternoon, Bronko Nagurski busted through the line at Wrigley, head down, carrying the ball, protected only by his leather helmet. He went through the secondary, then through the end zone, then into the brick wall along right field. As he stumbled back to the bench, dazed, his teammates watched him with concern. “You OK?” one of them asked.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” said Nagurski. “But that last guy, he got me pretty good.”

Of course, he did. His name is Wrigley Field and he’s been knocking the crap out of the Cubs for 100 years.

—Jared Diamond contributed to this article.

Corrections & Amplifications
The original name of Wrigley Field was Weeghman Park, not Weegham as mentioned in a previous version of this article. Also, the Cubs were founded in 1870, not 1876.

Samuel Zemurray: A Life in Pictures

Samuel Zemurray
“Sam the Banana Man”
Lake Lawn Metairie Cemetery
New Orleans, Louisiana


The famous face of the United Fruit Company

In 1941, his admirable philanthropic sense prompted him to create Zamorano, an ambitious project dedicated to promoting the region’s development by means of technified agricultural education.

ImageA United Fruit Co. banana plantation in Costa Rica. Locals called U.F. “the Octopus” since it had tentacles everywhere.

Yes! We Have No Bananas

“Yes! We Have No Bananas”
Written by Frank Silver and Irving Cohn (1922)
Originally sung by Eddie Cantor

Yes! We Have No Bananas [1930] Screen Songs Cartoon Version

The Muppet Show Version

Scene from Sabrina where Audrey Hepburn sings

The Music

The story goes that one day in 1922, songwriting duo Frank Silver and Irving Cohn were on their way to work in New York City when they stopped for a snack. At a greengrocer’s, the Greek immigrant owner told the tunesmiths in his broken English, “Yes! We have no bananas today.” The reason the grocer had no bananas? A blight in Central America had caused a shortage. The songwriters made the phrase into the title of their next song. In a Broadway revue called Make It Snappy, the tune was introduced by star Eddie Cantor, and it zoomed to number one on the Hit Parade for five straight weeks. “Yes! We Have No Bananas” went on to be recorded by hundreds of artists over the years, from Louis Armstrong to Benny Goodman to The Muppets.

The History

Americans love bananas. The average person eats between 20 and 30 pounds of bananas every year. And though we may consume more apples and oranges, those are often processed in juices or prepared foods. Bananas are the fruit we prefer fresh, as nature intended.

Though bananas appeared in the Americas as early as the 15th century, our love affair with them began in 1876, when they were introduced as an exotic snack at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Wrapped in tin foil and sold for a dime, they were the hit of the event.

There are over 1,000 varieties of banana, but the particular one that America preferred back in the early 20th century was called the Gros Michel, or Big Mike if your French wasn’t so great. The Big Mikes were hardy and slow to ripen, which made them ideal for export and long-distance shipping. But shortly after they were planted and cultivated in Central America, a fungus began to invade the crops.

Panama Disease, named after the country where it was first discovered, is a virulent fungus (Fusarium oxysporum) that is transmitted through soil and water. It enters through the roots, disrupts the plant’s vascular system and, basically, chokes off its water supply until the plant wilts and dies. Panama Disease can ravage an entire plantation in a matter of months, then move quickly on to the next plantation.

Banana Splits

And bananas are particularly susceptible to disease. The Big Mike, along with most bananas we eat today, can’t reproduce on its own. These bananas have no seeds and the male flowers produce no pollen. Therefore, farmers grow new plants by trimming off a fleshy bulb (the rhizome, sometimes called the sucker) from an old plant. It’s like a form of cloning. Because of this, there is no genetic variation in bananas. That’s great for getting consistently perfect bananas, but bad when it comes to any sort of disease. When one banana gets sick, all of its neighbors get sick.

There may have indeed been a shortage in 1922 that sparked the hit novelty song, but really, the Big Mikes were under constant siege from Panama Disease from 1910–1960, when they were in effect wiped out. A new seedless banana variety called the Cavendish was developed in their place, and that’s the one that most of us have been enjoying for the past fifty years.

But now the Cavendish is also being attacked by a new fungal disease called Tropical Race Four. The disease has wiped out crops in Asia and Australia, and it’s believed that it’s just a matter of time before it reaches Latin America. That could mean the end of bananas as we know them. Scientists are racing to find a cure, or genetically modify the Cavendish to make it resistant to TR4.

Let’s hope they find an answer soon, before Justin Bieber covers “Yes! We Have No Bananas.”

By Bill DeMain for mentalfloss.com

Meet Rich Cohen

Author Rich Cohen

New York Times bestselling author Rich Cohen is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone and the author of seven books, including Israel Is Real, Tough Jews, and the widely acclaimed memoir Sweet and Low. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Magazine and Best American Essays. He has worked on the Starz show Magic City, and is currently developing a project for HBO. He lives in Connecticut with his wife, three sons and dog.

Courtesy of http://authorrichcohen.com/bio.htm.

Check out his website for more of his books and links to his awesome articles.

CBS interview with Rich Cohen

“The Fish That Ate the Whale” by Rich Cohen

August 13, 2012

Jeff Glor talks to Rich Cohen about his new book, “The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King.” The book chronicles the life of Samuel Zemurray, who made his fortune in the banana trade and became a symbol of the best and worst that American business had to offer. Cohen, a New York Times bestselling author, as well as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, is also the author of “Tough Jews” and “Sweet and Low.”