Rich Cohen is having a better life than I am. He’s younger, handsomer and his books sell more. Keith Richards thinks Rich Cohen is cool. The only whisper of coolness I can claim is that I know Rich Cohen.
Most galling, he’s a better writer than I am. His recent book — he’s written 11 — was about the Rolling Stones. I ate it up, even though I have no interest in the band. That’s the definition of a good writer: someone who can hold your attention on a topic you otherwise care little about. I had zero curiosity about Lyndon Johnson until Robert Caro hooked his fingers into my nostrils and led me through three thick books about LBJ like a drover pulling an ox with a ring through its nose.
Before the Stones, Cohen wrote “Monsters” about the 1985 Bears. I enjoyed that, and know little about football and care less. I spent more time reading Cohen’s book about the team than I’ve spent watching Bears games over the past decade.
How does he do it? Sharp writing spiked with fascinating facts, like the unexpected connection between the name “Bears” and the Cubs, the topic of his latest book, published Wednesday, “The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse.”
In it, he offers three things: first, a history of the team filled with amazing trivia — Zachary Taylor Davis was the architect of both Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park — and unexpected juxtapositions. I knew Hack Wilson lost a ball in the sun, and I knew he had a great season, hitting 56 home runs. But I didn’t realize one followed the other, that the standout season was poor, sodden Wilson’s desperate attempt to erase the shame of missing that ball.
Second, Cohen, who grew up in Glencoe, chronicles his own lifelong love of the Cubs, despite their curse, “a futility that lasted so long we turned it into a religion.”
And finally, he reports on last year’s epic Cubs season and World Series victory. Cohen is not only good but quick. My last book took five years to write and publish.
Maybe you know all this stuff. Maybe you know that Cubs President Theo Epstein’s grandfather co-wrote “Casablanca.” But you haven’t heard Epstein explain to Cohen how he pulled apart the team to put it back together to win the championship.
Maybe you know of the “happy accident” that brought up Ernie Banks in 1953: the Cubs hired Gene Baker, from the Negro League, and the general manager figured he needed another black player so Baker could have a roommate on the road.
I am open to the possibility that this delight might be a function of my ignorance. When the first pitch of the seventh game was thrown last year, I was — kid you not — sitting in an auditorium in the Field Museum, listening to a lecture on tattooing in the South Seas. So I’m not the biggest sports fan.
But the way Cohen describes things has to appeal to fan and non-fan alike, and is a great way for the latter to get up to speed. In the early 19th century, the various factory, mill and mine teams were “the protozoan pond scum from which all professional sports emerged.” Hack Wilson was “a pocket Babe Ruth . . . an eighteen-inch neck and a size six shoe.” The riotous game between the Cubs and the Giants in 1908, making up for the match scrubbed by “Merkle’s Boner,” is absolutely frightening, a scene from Bruegel.
In brief: Rich Cohen has written the best book about the Chicago Cubs ever. Well, I can’t say that, because I haven’t read them all. In fact, I haven’t read any of them. But this one sings. “Story of a Curse” is a marvelous distillation of all things Cubs, the history, the jinx, the glorious redemption of 2016, complete with a rainstorm sent by the Lord God Almighty. You’ll rip through it faster than a plastic cup of Old Style in left field on a hot day, but with more pleasure.