In League With Theo


Another jinx broken, another notch in the bat of a Jewish prodigy.

The Chicago Cubs’ victory in the World Series last week not only broke a putative 108-year-old curse, but cemented the reputation of general manager Theo Epstein.

By resurrecting a franchise that had not become the champion of major league baseball in more than a century, Epstein for the second time rebuilt a storied team that had not won the World Series for a long, long time. The first time he did it was with the American League Boston Red Sox, who won the World Series under his front office leadership in 2004 and 2007. They won again in 2013, with a roster that Epstein, who had departed two years earlier for Chicago, had largely put together.

Before that, the Red Sox had disappointed their fans for decades, victims of the “Curse of the Bambino.”

Bambino was Babe Ruth’s nickname. The Red Sox traded Ruth, their star pitcher and slugger, to the New York Yankees in the 1919-20 off-season. The fortunes of the Red Sox, who had been one of baseball’s most successful teams, quickly declined. Winners of five World Series between 1903 and 1918, they didn’t do it again until Epstein arrived.

Meanwhile, the Yankees flourished.

Through wise trades, Epstein, a Yale University graduate who joined the Red Sox at 28, built a roster that has become one of the strongest in the sport.

He did the same thing for the National League Cubs, “de Bums,” who, according to baseball lore, were subject to their own curse.

In the case of the Cubs, who had played in – and lost – the World Series six times since winning it in 1908 and winning the National League pennant again in 1945, it was the “Curse of the Billy Goat.”

William Sianis, owner of the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago, brought his pet goat, Murphy, to Wrigley Field, the Cubs’ home ballpark, during Game 4 of the ’45 Series against the Detroit Tigers. Murphy smelled like … well, a goat. He and Sianis were ejected. According to legend, Sianis, outraged, declared, “Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more.”

Which they didn’t, until, again, Epstein arrived.

His latest success earns him a spot — besides an inevitable place in Cooperstown’s Baseball Hall of Fame — in the pantheon of MOT (Members of the Tribe) baseball leaders who have achieved legendary status in North America’s four major team sports.

Our nominees for the Jewish Mount Rushmore:

Red Auerbach (1917-2006): Cigar-chomping, wise-cracking Arnold Jacob Auerbach, who grew up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, coached the National Basketball Boston Celtics to nine champions in 10 years, then won another seven NBA championships as the team’s president and general manager.

He was known, according to the website, as a sharp motivator and talent evaluator who “outsmarted the rest of the league in drafting, trading and signing players.” Auerbach was the first NBA coach to draft a black player, hire a black head coach (Bill Russell) and to start five black players.

Auerbach was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1969.

Al Davis (1929-2011): A native of Brockton, Mass., who also grew up in Brooklyn, Davis popularized the expression, “Just win, baby.”

A maverick with slicked-back hair and dark sunglasses and a Brooklyn accent (“the Rayduhs”), he was best known as principal owner and general manager of the National Football League’s Oakland Raiders. He also served as commissioner of the American Football League, head coach (Raiders) and assistant coach (Los Angeles Chargers), the only man to hold all those positions.

A civil rights supporter, Davis refused to let the Raiders play in any city where black and white players had to stay in separate hotels. He was the first NFL owner to hire a black coach and a female chief executive.

His Raiders won one AFL championship and three Super Bowls, in 1977, 1981 and 1984.

Born on the Fourth of July, Davis died on Yom Kippur.

He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992.

Finally, hockey.

Many Jewish hockey fans would include Sam Pollock (1925-2007), the general manager who built the National Hockey League’s Montreal Canadiens’ dynasty of the 1960s and ’70s on this list. They would be penalized for doing this – Pollock, whose teams won the Stanley Cup nine times in 14 years, was Catholic. But Cecil Hart (1883-1940), an earlier Canadiens leader, qualifies.

Hart, a Quebec native who was descended from Canada’s first Jewish settler, Aaron Hart, coached the Montreal team to three NHL championships – in 1924, 1930 and 1931.

Hart’s father, David, had donated the Hart Trophy, awarded to the league’s most valuable player, in 1923. The original trophy was retired to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1960, and replaced by the Hart Memorial Trophy, named after Cecil Hart.