Very recently, I found a video of the winning play of every World Series since 1980. Given my limited knowledge of the wonderful world of baseball, I was never going to fully appreciate so many historic moments, however there were two elements to the video that piqued my interest. Firstly, the World Series is rarely won on a home run which, coming from the goal hungry culture of soccer, I found interesting. The other was how often the commentator would say “For the first time since..” after the victorious side had made their winning play.
That video opened my eyes to something that I had, subconsciously anyway, always been aware of; No other sport does title droughts like baseball. A long wait for a title isn’t something any sports fan is unfamiliar with, but few non-baseball title droughts capture the interest or the fame like the ones in baseball do. The famous dry spells of the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox, for example, had been well known to all sport fans, not just baseball ones. Upon making this realisation, I felt compelled to delve deeper into the world of baseball title droughts and I’m bringing you with me.
An introduction into baseball title droughts
There are few pedantisms to a baseball drought in contrast to other sports. The main one being that the only trophy that really matters in baseball is the World Series. Although there are other forms of success like reaching the postseason or winning a pennant, most franchises judge their campaign on if they finish with the Commissioner’s trophy at the end of it.
The World Series was first played in 1903 by 16 teams with all of those teams having since won it since. The Philadelphia Phillies were the last original franchise to win the World Series, finally taking the title in 1980. Since 1961, 14 expansion teams have joined the MLB and half of them have won the World Series.
Currently the longest suffering fanbase is the Cleveland Indians, who will be 71 years without a World Series should they fail to break their duct in October. Indian fans can take comfort in recent winners however, with the three longest World Series droughts in MLB history ending this century (Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox and Boston Red Sox).
Why baseball droughts are special
Baseball droughts are special for a few reasons; they are long, there are a lot of them and most of them have some interesting curses to explain them. Length certainly stands out as the defining feature of a baseball drought. Given its status as one of the oldest sports in the world and the oldest sport in America, MLB franchises aren’t strangers to multi decade waits for titles. One need look no further than some of the major sides of this century for an example of the ridiculous length of a baseball drought.
Outside of the big three mentioned above, the Astros ended a 55 year wait for a first World Series in 2017, The Giants ended a similarly long 56 year wait for their fifth while the Royals, Phillies and Cardinals all ended nearly three decades worth of suffering. All this has happened in the last 19 years.
To further my point, I took the last three full decades of baseball (i.e discounting 1990-99 and 2010-18) and looked at the average waiting time for a title among each World Series participant in those three decades. The results were 31.8 years (2000-09), 28.3 years (1980-89) and 12.7 years (1970-79). For runners up, it was 19.8 years (1970-79), 19.7 years (2000-09) and 18.7 years (1980-89). Interestingly, heading into the final World Series of this decade bracket, the average wait among winners has been a stunning 33.8 years and 39 years for runners up!
There are naturally some flaws to these numbers, however, it should be noted that 14 different teams reached the World Series between 2000-09, the most since the 1980s when 13 different teams reached the showpiece. So far this decade, 11 have achieved the feat, the third most. Hence, although separately, these figures are flawed, together they demonstrate just what a common and gruelling average length baseball fans are forced to suffer before their teams are successful.
Another unique quality baseball droughts have over other sports is the unique tales that surround long ones. Although baseball is a sport enjoyed international, its firmly an American tradition and each franchise is rooted in its local area. Given the age of the sport, myths and legends have developed around almost every franchise who have suffered long droughts. Most famous is the sale of Babe Ruth by the Boston Red Sox in 1919 which is a tale known by most sports fans let alone baseball ones. Some of the “curses” are quite bizarre, for instance, in 1945, a Cubs fan tried to bring a goat to the game, when he wasn’t allowed in, he put a hex on the team saying they would never win a World Series game at Wrigley Field. Ultimately, the curses add a flavour to the drought but probably fail to explain them.
Why is the World Series so hard to win?
Good question, of which, there is no easy answer. Although it may seem like a cop out, long droughts exist in baseball because the World Series is a hard trophy to win, particularly these days. No team has retained the title in nearly two decades, a telling number in just how hard a title the World Series is to win.
Generally, only a select number of teams have the historical precedent and finance to win the big trophies. In baseball, 23 teams head into each season with the objective of either building towards or challenging for the World Series with the draft providing even the worst teams to build heading into the following season. The current play-off format also means that you don’t have to be the best team over a regular season to win the World Series with only four teams having managed to lead the major leagues in win and secure the World Series; 1998 and 2009 Yankees, 2016 Cubs and the 2018 Red Sox.
Baseball droughts are a weird and wonderful world and though no fans wants to suffer through them, they do add a lot to the character of the sport that we all know and love.
Cover image courtesy of USA Today Sports/Reuters