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Surely, it was one of the most peculiar team nicknames in the history of Major League Baseball—the Chicago Microbes.
Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of the Microbes. Almost no one has. And yet, if you scroll through the murky microfilm of William Randolph Hearst’s Chicago Evening American from the early 1900s, you’ll see headline after headline following the ups and downs of a team known by this moniker.
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There it is in a banner across page one on September 26, 1903: microbes lose second place to giants.
This was Chicago’s team in the National League, the one we know today as the Cubs. Other early names for the team are familiar to trivia buffs—White Stockings, Colts, Orphans, Remnants—but most books chronicling the team’s history don’t mention Microbes.
On March 27, 1902, the Chicago Daily News first used the term the Cubs, alluding to the team’s many young, inexperienced players. Within a few years, the name would become official. In the meantime, sportswriters called them all sorts of things—including Microbes, which was the American’s regular name for the team from 1903 until 1905.
But why Microbes?
Two books, John Snyder’s Cubs Journal and Glenn Stout’s The Cubs, posit that they were called Microbes because of their small stature.
That could be. The team did have one of history’s smallest players, Johnny Evers, who weighed 125 pounds, and a few other lightweights.
But clues to another explanation emerge when you look for “Chicago Microbes” in early 1900s newspapers. Many articles that pop up have nothing to do with baseball.
Chicago was notorious for its microbes—especially the ones lurking in the Chicago River, where the city dumped its sewage, tainting the drinking water.
Local officials fixed this problem by reversing the river’s flow. In January 1900, the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal opened, and Chicago’s sewage began flowing into the Des Plaines River, which carried it into the Illinois River and then the Mississippi.
A few hours after the canal opened, Missouri and St. Louis officials sued to stop Chicago from sending its “microbes” in their direction. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which spent six years taking evidence.
“Chicago microbes are going down the stream in bunches,” the Alton Weekly Telegraph said in 1902. In 1901, the Chicago Tribune reported that “microbe parties” were the latest fad in St. Louis. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat joked in 1903 that Chicago microbes were impossible to get rid of, so St. Louis might as well use them for sport, holding microbe races.
In April 1903, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch began calling Chicago’s National League players “Microbes,” without explaining why. But a Minnesota newspaper, the St. Paul Globe, revealed all.
The Globe described Cardinals manager-player Patsy Donovan greeting his Chicago rivals at a St. Louis train station. A crowd of newsboys was watching, and one of these “gamins” yelled, “Hey, there, Patsy! Yer shakin’ hands wid a microbe!” A hundred boys began shouting: “Ho, microbes—de Chicago microbes—is here ter get beat by Patsy!”
Cries of “Hey, there, you Microbe!” followed the Chicagoans as they went to their hotel. They scowled, but their manager, Frank Selee, said, “I think it is a pretty good name, and as long as the people of the city persist in saying they have come to drink Chicago’s microbes which come down through the drainage canal, the name will stick to you.”
When they visited a St. Louis racetrack, they laughed as a bookmaker said, “I’ll give you 20 to 10, Mr. Microbe.” Pitcher Jock Menefee remarked, “It’s a whole lot better than being called a ‘Cub,’ anyway.”
The Chicago Evening American took up the Microbes nickname, but the moniker vanished within a few years and “Cubs” became permanent. Meanwhile, unconvinced by Missouri’s scientific evidence, the Supreme Court ruled in 1906 that Chicago could continue sending its microbes downstream.
Lately, Asian carp have been swimming upstream, prompting some people to suggest the Chicago River should be re-reversed. And the Chicago Water Reclamation District recently agreed to start disinfecting sewage before dumping it in the river.
The Chicago Microbes may be forgotten, but we’re still trying to kill off Chicago microbes.
The Cubs open the season playing the Nationals on April 5 at 1:20pm.