Back When Tattoos Cost A Nickel and Steam Was King

The historic, drought-busting nature of this year’s World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians has even my old friend Mike Maehle – not generally a sports fan – uncharacteristically interested. The last time I heard him talk about baseball was…. well, never. But, as a knowledgeable student of history he was talking about it today and we got to kidding around about how unimaginably long ago 1908 was, and how vastly different the world was when the Cubs last won a championship that very year.

As a friend of Mike’s once put it about the distant past, “Tattoos were only a nickel and steam was still king!.” Teddy Roosevelt was President, though in the last year of his second term. Keeping a promise not to seek a third term that November, Roosevelt persuaded the Republicans to nominate William Howard Taft, while William Jennings Bryan was the Democratic candidate for the third straight time that autumn.

Yes, that’s right – it was so long ago, the Bible-thumpers were Democrats instead of Republicans, and Presidential candidates had desirable qualities like integrity, dignity and a grasp of the English language. Not to mention statesmanship, considerable oratorical skill, manners, and other refinements.

It was clearly another planet, though some things remained the same – as recently, there was trouble in Serbia, Herzegovina and Macedonia. But World War One was still six years away and nobody had a clue who the hell Archduke Franz Ferdinand was yet, nor would they have cared.

You could buy the first-ever Ford Model T for a mere $825 – a small fortune back then, yet they sold a record 10,000 in 1908. Also on the transportation front, Thomas Selfridge would be the first person killed in a flying machine, with Orville Wright piloting. Doh! And people were just starting to talk about what a great idea a big, unsinkable luxury liner like the Titanic was.

Most everybody still thought Czar Nicholas of Russia was a swell guy, except for a few incipient and grumbling Bolshies, who would prove to be far, far worse. Nineteen-year-old Adolf Schicklgruber fell on hard times in Vienna and for the second straight year that city’s Academy of Fine Arts turned him down for undistinguished painting; his horizons would later brighten considerably.

Speaking of organized youth and uniforms, Baden Powell’s Boy Scouts were just getting off the ground in the U.K., but didn’t exist yet in America. And speaking of earning merit badges for exploration, Robert Peary set sail for the North Pole and Ernest Shackleton left New Zealand for Antarctica, aboard the Nimrod. The Hoover Company started making the first portable vacuum cleaners that spring. Bette Davis and Jimmy Stewart were born, but movies were still in their infancy and Hollywood was about fifteen years away from becoming a cultural force, for better or worse.

Women wouldn’t be allowed to vote for another twelve years, and black people would have to wait much longer than that. Hell, Jackie Robinson wasn’t even a gleam in his father’s eye yet and the closest any African-American came to playing major-league ball in 1908 was shoveling horse shit off the streets in front of the stadium. I don’t even know where the Cubs played then, because Wrigley Field didn’t open for another six years, and Fenway Park not for another four.

On the baseball front, the American League was a mere eight years old and people were only just cottoning on – so to speak – to what a holy terror Ty Cobb was, on and off the field.

That year, young Giants’ rookie Fred Merkle earned himself – forever and unfairly – the cruel nickname of “Bonehead” for his base-running gaffe in a crucial late-September game against the Cubs, the loss of which would ultimately cost the Giants the pennant by the slimmest of margins – one game.

George Herman Ruth – not yet known as “Babe” – was thirteen and Lou Gehrig only five; the Yankees were then called the New York Highlanders and were thirteen years away from winning the first of their forty pennants. Think about that. The last time the Cubs won, the most famous and iconic baseball team of all time was a virtual non-entity.

Jazz wasn’t music yet, but a racy name for sex. As in “Give her the jazz, Johnny, attaboy!” Duke Ellington was nine and Louis Armstrong seven; Lester Young wouldn’t be born until the next year.

My grandfather, who’s been dead for 32 years, turned nine in 1908. There’s no one left alive that actually saw the Cubs win that year. That’s how long ago it was.

As George F. Will put it, “The Cubs, ladies and gentleman, are overdue.”

Think about this the next time you hear some drooling knuckle-scraper of a Maple Leafs’ fan bitch about how long it’s been between Stanley Cups in Toronto, or any of the other lame complaints you’re likely to hear from people who don’t understand what Cubs’ fans have known intimately for over a century – what it truly means to suffer.




© 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Back When Tattoos Cost A Nickel and Steam Was King

  1. A fascinating look into the past.Einstein maintained that the past still exists somewhere.He just didn’t tell us how to get there.I recall Ronnie Scott talking about the wonderful music that had been played in his clubs.He said that the music must have been absorbed into the club walls and was probably still there waiting to be released for hearing.Talking about steam brings to mind Gerry Mulligan who liked trains.I read somewhere that his father worked on the railroad.You write about the movies.Now in my eighties I grew up on a diet of black and white films from the USA.This was a time when the cinema seats had ash trays affixed to them.Your older readers will remember this.Has John told you the Phil Seamen anecdote.It’s priceless.Keep on writing.

  2. Fascinating post, Steve. My father, a late dad, would have been 15 that year. I just turned 80 this year. He died in 1966.
    Sam Levene

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