FRIENDSHIP, N.Y. - In 1908, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series.
105 years later, they are in fourth-place in the National League Central. They have lost eight more games than they've won this season. Since defeating the Detroit Tigers in 1908, they have failed to win another championship, leaving them with the unfavorable distinction of enduring the longest title drought in American sports history. A decade ago, they had a chance to reach the World Series, but a fan interfered with a foul ball, the shortstop made an error and the team unraveled to lose the pennant. They haven't made the playoffs in six years.
Times are tough.
The Town of Friendship was established in 1815. If you think that's a bizarre name for a city, note that the town was originally named Bloody Corners because of the two gangs who used to fight each other in the middle of Main Street. To ease the tensions, the town changed its name to Friendship in the late 19th century, at which point it became a pinnacle of the manufacturing industry. Doctors, dentists and lawyers lived in some of the large houses downtown. There were shops. A positive, upbeat vibe.
Then the people with money retired and either moved away or left very little money to their children. Over the next several decades, Walmart and K-Mart and Target and Sears opened across the country, and little towns like Friendship, off the beaten path of Interstate 86 in the rural Southern Tier of Western New York, lost most of their local business revenue.
Nowadays, Friendship is ranked by Business First as the poorest town in the region. Most of the residents live paycheck-to-paycheck. About one-fifth of them simply rely on welfare. There is no industry. Beautiful Main Street has mostly transformed into rubble. At the edge of downtown, across from the firehouse and Town Hall, three once-proud buildings have been abandoned for a decade.
Times are tough.
"It is heartbreaking," said Susan Stickley, the town supervisor.
The people of Friendship aren't Cubs fans. You'll spot some of them wearing Yankees hats, but many of them probably don't watch baseball or even know who the Cubs are. Chicago is 600 miles away.
But they're just like Cubs fans. At the turn of the 20th century, the Chicago Cubs were one of the best teams in Major League Baseball, and now they've gone a century without another World Series. Friendship used to flourish; now it's floundering. Stickley estimates the town needs about $250,000 to rebuild some of the vacant spots on Main Street, and they've set up a group called Friendship Revitalization Economic Development (FRED) in a desperate plea to save their town.
They're taking any donations.
"We'll take 10 dollars," Stickley said.
At least it'd be a start.
"When you have this many people who don't work, who move to a town like this," Stickley said, "there is no pride in this town. There is no vested interest."
"We want to make this what it once was."
Spoken like a Cubs fan. Except the Cubs and the Town of Friendship aren't just a random, "sports-to-life" analogy. They are tied together by a real, tangible bond, and it all began in the early 20th century.
And it just so turns out that Friendship might be the reason the Cubs won the World Series in 1908.
In those days, there were no divisions in baseball-- just a National and American League. The winners of each league would play each other in the World Series. In 1908, the New York Giants and Chicago Cubs were embroiled in a late-September pennant race. On September 23, 1908, the Giants had runners on first and third in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth inning. The Giants' Al Bridwell hit a single, which appeared to score the run from third and give his team the win.
Except the runner on first, Fred Merkle, never touched second base. He tried to escape the crowd, which had rushed onto the field in celebration of the apparent victory. When the Cubs realized they could force him out at second base -- and nullify the run -- they got the ball to the second baseman so he could step on second base. The umpires stripped the victory from the Giants and called the game a tie, which wound up costing them the pennant and forced them to play a one-game playoff with the Cubs after the regular season. Chicago won, of course, and qualified for the World Series.
The event now has a name: "Merkle's Boner." It is one of the most infamous blunders in baseball history, but it wouldn't have happened without one of the Cubs' players retrieving the baseball after Merkle missed second base.
That's where Friendship comes into play.
"There were stories around here," Stickley said, "that we had a famous ballplayer."
Wellman Field sits on the edge of downtown Friendship, just a short walk from the school and town library. It has sat in the same spot for a century, and at one point, Stickley said it was considered one of the top fields in all of the Southern Tier. The maintenance crew still does a fine job on Wellman Field, but it is no longer a palace. Instead, it's just a little-league baseball field with oversized grass, metal bleachers and wooden dugouts.
In 1886, Floyd Kroh was born in Friendship. He started playing at Wellman Field almost immediately, and in 1904, he played for the town team. He was a prodigy. By 1906, he played professionally for the Boston Americans. They promptly released him during the 1908 season.
The Cubs signed him. He rarely pitched, since Chicago's pitching staff was so talented and Kroh was only a youngster. Known to his friends as "Rube" Kroh, the 22-year-old pitcher officially appeared in only two games during the 1908 season.
But even though he didn't play much, he was physically present at the Polo Grounds on September 23, 1908. He watched Bridwell single to center for an apparent walk-off RBI hit, and he saw the crowd storm onto the playing field.
Apparently, he also noticed Merkle fail to touch second base. So, as his teammates described to local newspapers, Kroh is the man who stole the ball away from a fan, threw the ball to the second baseman and thus won the Cubs the pennant and subsequently the World Series in 1908.
Most of Friendship doesn't know Kroh ever existed, nor that he played an integral role in the Chicago Cubs last World Series victory.
"It's unique to Friendship," Stickley said. "We try and hang on to those things."
It's also fitting. The man who helped the Chicago Cubs win the World Series before 100 years of despair grew up in a town that would also slowly deteriorate.
But Cubs fans don't give up. They pack Wrigley Field all summer long. Eight games under .500? There's always next year. They'll win the World Series again some day, right? It may be 104 seasons and counting without one, but if it happened back then, maybe it can happen again.
If Main Street in Friendship used to have shops, and people, and hope, then maybe that can happen again, too.
"I hope so," says Scott, sitting comfortably at the diner on Main Street. "But I doubt it very much. It still is a nice town. They have a beautiful school."
"And they're great on baseball."
Not even the Chicago Cubs can claim that.