It’s easy to get sidetracked when you’re doing historical research. I wasn’t looking for anything that had anything to do with baseball history—I just happened to find it. This was about ten years ago. I was in the Harold Washington Library Center’s newspaper microfilm room, researching some murders and other events that happened in Chicago in 1903.
I scrolled through the pages of the Chicago American, a sensational newspaper that the famous publisher William Randolph Hearst started in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. The city had around a dozen daily newspapers back then , and Hearst’s paper was shaking things up. The American ran huge headlines. No one had ever seen such big letters on the front page of a newspaper before.
Something on the sports pages caught my eye. It was a headline about a baseball game. A headline about a team called the Chicago Microbes. That stopped me in my tracks. What the hell was that?
I kept scrolling through the pages of the American, and I saw headline after headline about the Microbes. Here it is, on September 26, 1903 — in a huge banner across Page 1:
It didn’t take me long to figure out that these were stories about Chicago’s team in the National League — yeah, that’s the one we know today as the Cubs. Here are more examples of how the American covered the Microbes in 1903 and 1904:
In the summer of 1904, Chicago’s players went carousing one night in St. Louis and had a “hilarious time of it.” As a result, when the Microbes played the next day, it was “a very inferior article of ball.” And the American’s headline hinted at their drunken behavior:
But why were they called Microbes of all things?
I looked at books about Cubs history. Most of them didn’t even mention the fact the Cubs were ever called the Microbes. The team did have plenty of other nicknames in its early years. When proto-Cubs played for the first time in 1876, they were called the White Stockings. They were the country’s best baseball team back in those early years, led by the era’s biggest star, the hard-hitting, slow-footed, umpire-baiting Adrian “Cap” Anson.
Anson played in Chicago for twenty-two years, including nineteen seasons as manager. After his powerhouse team won the championship five times from 1880 to 1886, it had to rebuild with a roster of fresh recruits in 1887. Most of these players were young and inexperienced, so people started to call them the Colts — or Anson’s Colts.
After the team played for a decade without winning another pennant, Anson lost his patience in 1897, memorably ranting at his players:
“You are rotten, and the stench of it is ascending to heaven.”
Anson was fired before the next season. It was difficult for Chicagoans to imagine the team without him. The players he’d left behind soon became known as the Orphans — because it was like they’d just lost their father figure.
The team couldn’t call itself the White Stockings anymore, because the uniforms were now maroon. “Appearance is half of the game with the average crank,” team president James Hart said. “The white stockings are unsightly after a couple of games. The men come up looking dirty, and some in various colored suits.” Besides, the Chicago Tribune speculated that a “hoodoo,” or curse, might be associated with the team’s old white color.
In the first years of the twentieth century, some of the players jumped over to the fledgling American League — including three who went over to a new team called the Chicago White Sox. The players who stayed behind got a new nickname — the Remnants.
I think you might start to notice a pattern here: Colts, Orphans, Remnants… None of these nicknames were likely to strike fear in their opponents.
And you might be wondering: Why didn’t the team’s management just come up with a name and stick with it? Well, back in this era, teams didn’t have official nicknames. To use a modern term, they were crowdsourced. Here’s how the author John Snyder explains it in his book Cubs Journal: “Many of the most famous nicknames in baseball … were created not by the clubs themselves but by an enterprising sportswriter. The name caught the imagination of the public and began to be used in everyday speech until it became part of the team’s identity.”
As far as anyone has been able to figure out, the first time anyone called them the Cubs was March 27, 1902. That’s when the Chicago Daily News used the term — alluding to how green the players were that year.
But here’s the thing about history — it’s hard to know for sure if something like that really was the first time. There might be another, older article that no one has found yet. In any case, the Cubs name didn’t become official right away. It was just one of several names that sportswriters were using for this team. They called them the Colts, the Orphans, the Panamas, the Zephyrs, the Nationals, the Spuds — and the Microbes.
The name appeared in newspapers around the country, including the St. Louis Republic…
and The World, a New York City newspaper:
I did find a couple of books that mentioned the Microbes, including Snyder’s Cubs Journal. These books said they were called Microbes because the players were so small.
Hmm. Well, that could be. The team did have one of the smallest players in Major League history, Johnny “The Crab” Evers. He was part of that famous double-play combo, Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance. He was 5-foot-9 and weighed 125 pounds—one of the baseball’s all-time lightweights.
A few of Evers’s teammates were scrawny, too. The team’s median height in 1903 was 5 foot 9. That’s the same as the median height for the Major Leagues that year. So the Microbes weren’t especially short. They certainly weren’t microscopic. And the books that included this explanation for the Microbes didn’t offer any proof.
The ‘microbe mob’
One thing to consider here is that people were talking and writing a lot about microbes at the turn of the 20th century. The word “microbe” appeared in the Chicago Tribune 166 times in 1903, compared with just 24 times in 2015.
Back in 1903, people were still getting used to the idea that microscopic organisms could make them sick. Only a dozen years earlier, some Chicago doctors still believed the old theory that human illnesses were spread by a mysterious gas called miasma. In 1890, one Chicago physician laughed at the whole idea of microbes. He said they were a figment of imagination. But that same year, the Tribune declared that the “microbe mob” was a reality. The newspaper reported that mankind was being assaulted by “countless legions of minute snakes, dragons, salamanders, griffins, and other dire monsters lying in wait for him in the water he drinks, charging upon him in every breath of air, and swarming upon him in every whiff of dust he may stir up with his foot or hand.”
People also used the word “microbe” to describe a contagious phenomenon. Something like a pop-culture meme. It was similar to the way we use the word “bug” when we say: “She was bitten by the acting bug.”
For example, when Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison Jr. ran for re-election in 1903, he made this rather weird statement, comparing himself to an infectious disease:
“The people have got the Harrison microbe, and they can’t get away from it.”
To find out more about the origins of why the baseball players were called microbes, I had to go beyond the microfilm. I started looking at searchable databases of old newspapers. These have been a fantastic resource for historical research. Over the past 15 years or so, a lot of that microfilm has been scanned and digitized. Now you can quickly search through years and years of newspapers just by typing in the words you want to find. If you have a Chicago Public Library card, you can search the Tribune and the Chicago Defender. And other websites, including one run by the Library of Congress, include hundreds of other papers.
When I typed “Chicago Microbes” into these search engines, I found more articles referring to the baseball team. But I also found several stories that had nothing to do with baseball. When newspapers mentioned “Chicago Microbes,” they were often talking about bacteria and other microscopic gunk floating from the Chicago River. So I started to wonder if this had something to do with the baseball team’s nickname.
Reversing the river
1903 was just a few years after the Chicago River was reversed. The river originally flowed into Lake Michigan. The problem was that the city dumped its sewage into the river, and it got its drinking water from the lake. So Chicago was essentially drinking from its own toilet. The result was regular outbreaks of cholera and typhoid fever.
Chicago officials set out to fix this problem by reversing the flow of the Chicago River. It was the biggest excavation project in world history up until that time. Steam shovels, conveyor belts, horse-drawn plows, donkey carts, men pushing wheelbarrows, and blasts of dynamite moved 43 million cubic yards of earth.
When the canal was nearly complete in 1899, Missouri officials threatened to sue, fearing that Chicago’s “sewage matter,” “poisonous filth” and “noxious matters” would spread typhoid downstream into St. Louis. The Chicago Sanitary District hurried to finish the canal. After night fell on New Year’s Day, 1900, officials hastily attacked a temporary dam at Kedzie Street with shovels, dredging machines, dynamite, and fire, struggling to move aside the frozen earth. When the water finally broke through, people shouted, “It is open! It is open!” A New York Times headline declared:
“WATER IN CHICAGO RIVER … NOW RESEMBLES LIQUID.”
The article reported, “The impossible has happened! The Chicago River is becoming clear!” A few days after that, officials opened a dam at the other end of the canal. Chicago’s water — filth and all — began flowing south toward St. Louis that morning. Missouri filed its lawsuit in the afternoon, but it was too late to stop the water.
The case went straight to the United States Supreme Court, which spent six years hearing arguments and taking evidence, including eight thousand pages of testimony. Scientists looked for Chicago’s typhoid bacteria in the Illinois River. Fishermen collected water in pint bottles. People who lived near the river testified that the water actually seemed cleaner than it had before.
A bacteriologist working for the city of St. Louis with the great name Amand Ravold sent his brother on a secret mission to Lockport. The brother poured a whiskey barrel filled with a “broth” of a bacteria called Bacillus prodigiosus into the canal. Remember that name: Bacillus prodigiosus. Downstream, Ravold searched for similar microbes — and he claimed that he said he found several. This was supposedly proof that Chicago’s microbes were going to pose a health risk to the people of St. Louis.
Chicago health officials mocked his experiment, noting that he hadn’t “branded” his bacteria, so he couldn’t be sure these were same ones. Chicago’s experts argued that the increased flow of water from Lake Michigan diluted Chicago’s sewage. By the time the water reached St. Louis, the pollution was barely noticeable, they said.
Meanwhile, jokes made the rounds about Chicago microbes. When the Illinois River was high, the Alton Weekly Telegraph sarcastically reported:
“Chicago microbes are going down the stream in bunches.”
The Chicago Tribune reported, probably in jest, that microbe parties were the latest fad in St. Louis. “The guests are all equipped with a microscope and four drops of river water, and the person who finds the biggest microbe menagerie wins the prize,” the paper explained. Summing up Chicago’s attitude in the case, a Detroit newspaper said:
“Chicago microbes would die of ennui in St. Louis…!”
On April 20, 1903, the Tribune printed a one-sentence item, offering a hint that all of this had something to do with a new nickname for Chicago’s National League baseball team:
“The St. Louis ball players, who call the Chicago Colts ‘microbes,’ do not appear to be at all remarkable as microbe killers.”
But at first, I didn’t find anything proving my suspicion that all of this was connected with the baseball team. I’ll bet the Chicago American wrote something about it. That’s the newspaper that seemed to use the Microbes nickname more than any other. Maybe it published an article explaining the whole thing. Unfortunately, that American hasn’t been digitized, so you can’t search it online. And there are big gaps in the microfilm where bound volumes were missing. The entire month of April 1903 — when this whole Chicago Microbes nickname apparently got started — is nowhere to be found.
I set aside my investigation for a while, but a few years later I decided to give it another go. By this time, more newspapers had been digitized — include the St. Paul Globe. That’s where I found my smoking gun — an article describing the Chicago team arriving in St. Louis in April 1903 for the first series of the season.
According to this story, the St. Louis Cardinals’ manager and star player, Patsy Donovan, greeted his Chicago rivals at the train station, shaking their hands and saying, “Welcome to our city.”
A crowd of newsboys was watching, and one of these “gamins” yelled out:
“Hey, there, Patsy! Yer shakin’ hands wid a microbe!”
Other people at the station craned their necks to see who or what the kid was calling a microbe. A hundred “urchins” began shouting:
“Ho, microbes — de Chicago microbes — is here ter get beat by Patsy!”
Explaining why the newsboys hurled this insult at the Chicago players, the Globe reported: “Of course Chicago’s drainage ditch and the bacillus prodigious [sic] are to blame.” (Yes, that same bacillus prodigiosus that St. Louis scientist Amand Ravold’s brother dumped into the water.)
Shouts of “Hey, there, you Microbe!” and “Oh, you Microbes!” followed the Chicago players as they went to their hotel. They heard the word “microbe” being whispered everywhere they went.
The Chicagoans reportedly scowled and clenched their fists at all this, but manager Frank Selee assured them “microbe” wasn’t a derogatory term:
“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.”
The newly christened Microbes went to a racetrack during their St. Louis visit. “I’ll give you 20 to 10, Mr. Microbe,” a bookmaker said as he took bets. The Chicagoans laughed.
Pitcher Jock Menefee remarked:
“It’s a whole lot better than being called a ‘Cub,’ anyway.”
First baseman Frank Chance interjected:
“Or a ‘Colt,’ either.”
Pitcher Jack Taylor said:
“And I’ve been called an Orphan so long that I almost forgot at times that 160-acre farm that is coming to me.”
Someone else added:
“Let’s give three cheers and leave it to a microbe to do business any time.”
With this St. Paul Globe article, had my proof. Well, anyway, it was about as close as you can get to proof of something like that. During a trip downstate, I stopped at the St. Louis County Library to look for more evidence, searching through the newspapers there, but didn’t have much to add to the story. And finally, in 2012, I wrote an article about my discovery for Time Out Chicago.
What happened with that lawsuit over the reversal of the river?
In 1906, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Chicago could continue sending its sewage and water—microbes and all—downstream toward St. Louis.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. concluded that making the Chicago River run backwards actually somehow improved the water in the Illinois River:
“There is … no visible increase of filth, no new smell. Formerly it was sluggish and ill smelling. Now it is a comparatively clear stream to which edible fish have returned. Its water is drunk by the fishermen, it is said without evil results.”
Over the next few decades, Chicago’s water did become cleaner, and the number of typhoid cases plummeted. The water and sewage flowing downstream flooded lands along the Illinois River and killed off most of the river’s fish.
The Chicago Microbes team nickname didn’t stick.
The Tribune never used it, but the Chicago American used it a lot in 1903, 1904 and 1905. It faded away after that. In 1907, the team printed the name “Cubs” on scorecards at the ballpark. And when the team played in the 1907 World Series, the new uniform had a picture of a bear on the sleeves. The Cubs became one of the first teams in history with a uniform indicating a nickname.
Here’s what the uniform looked like in 1908, when the Cubs posed with a rather creepy-looking bear mascot. (Or is that actually a giant rat?!?)
(For more about that, see the Chicago Reader’s article “Cubs mascots: A dark and tragic history.”)
After my story came out in Time Out Chicago, someone asked me if I had any pictures of Chicago Microbes logos or uniforms, but of course, no such things ever existed.
The Stanford Law Review carries on the story
This spring, I typed my own name into a search engine and I discovered a new article about the Chicago Microbes. In June 2015, the Stanford Law Review published an article titled “When Nicknames Were Crowdsourced: Or, How to Change a Team’s Mascot” by Stanford law professor emeritus Richard Craswell, a “leading scholar of the economics and jurisprudence of contract law.” In his prologue, Craswell notes:
Today, nicknames or mascots … are almost always chosen by the team’s owner, or by school officials in the case of a college team. In the early days of spectator sports, though — roughly from 1890 to 1930 — things were different. If a journalist in the early 1900s wanted to change a team’s nickname, he simply picked a new name and began using it in his stories about the team. (Or in her stories, of course, but back then it was almost always his.)
To be sure, many of these journalistic nicknames made no impression on fans, and soon disappeared. However, some nicknames proved more catchy or attractive and got repeated by other fans and journalists. The result was an almost Darwinian competition, in which the nicknames that survived were the ones that happened to appeal to the reporters that covered the team and to the fans that followed it. In modern terms, we might say that nicknames were selected by the crowd.
Except among dedicated sports historians, the crowdsourcing of early team nicknames is now largely forgotten. Indeed, many fans today find it hard to imagine how nicknames and mascots could possibly be left to the whims and fluctuations of the market. If nobody (including team officials) had the power to designate one nickname as the team’s official nickname, how did fans in the 1890s know who to cheer for?
Craswell looks at the stories behind several team nicknames: the Washington Sailors, the Nebraska Cornhuskers, the Michigan State Spartans, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Washington Senators and the Chicago Cubs — including the various nicknames the team had in its early years. Craswell writes:
…we need to complete the story of Chicago nicknames by considering the least likely nickname of all: the Chicago Microbes. For years, baseball historians conjectured that Microbes must have referred to the small size of some of the team’s players, just as Cubs and Colts referred to their tender years or lack of experience. However, recent work by Robert Loerzel has traced the nickname to a different source — one that owed more to local and regional politics than to anything on the baseball diamond.
Craswell quotes a 1903 article from Sporting Life I hadn’t previously seen, which reports that some Chicagoans surprisingly did not object to being called Microbes:
The St. Louis fans have dubbed the Chicago team the Microbes. This news was received resentfully at first, but is now accepted with much enjoyment. Of course, this title came from the famous drainage canal war between the cities, as the St. Louis natives accuse Chicago of sending millions of bacilli down the Mississippi to pollute the Missouri drinking water. “We are microbes they can’t swallow,” grinned Selee, as the tenth inning brought victory yesterday.
Craswell also offers this theory about why the Microbes name appeared in the Chicago American but not in the Tribune:
This difference in the newspapers’ responses can be understood as one more episode in a long battle between the Chicago Tribune and William Randolph Hearst, the owner of the Chicago American (together with its morning sibling, the Chicago Examiner). That battle reached its peak a few years later, in 1910, when twenty-seven people died during a circulation war between the newspapers. No, that’s not a misprint. In gangland Chicago, a circulation “war” was a literal description, not a mere figure of speech. Standard tactics included the use of hired gunmen to hijack other papers’ delivery trucks.
Even before their hostility reached the shooting stage, the Hearst papers and the Tribune often opposed each other. For one thing, the Tribune supported the Sanitary Canal. Robert R. McCormick, who would later serve as the Tribune’s president and editor-in-chief for more than thirty years, had been elected chairman of the Chicago Sanitary District’s board of trustees from 1905 to 1910. The Hearst papers had opposed his election, and criticized his performance throughout that five-year term.
At this point, I have to rely on conjecture, for the historical record runs out. It is plausible, though, that McCormick and the Tribune would not have wanted the public to be constantly reminded of microbes, especially while the canal was still under legal attack for arguably carrying too many of the creatures. On the other hand, Hearst and his editors may have been happy to keep the microbe issue alive and in the public eye, reminding Chicagoans that their new and expensive canal was full of microbes. If they could bring up that issue even on the sports pages, by using Microbes as a nickname, then so much the better.
Actually, some sources say as many as forty people died in the newspaper wars, but the Chicago Police Department’s records from that era include only a few homicides clearly linked to the struggle. This violence began as soon as Hearst came to Chicago and began publishing the American in 1900. Hearst hired thugs to get his newspaper out, while goons working for other papers menaced anyone who dared to sell the American. Regardless of how many people actually died in these circulation battles, Craswell is correct about the fierce rivalry between the papers.
It’s always gratifying to see my own research cited in someone else’s work, but I was rather astonished to see a comment in Craswell’s footnotes. After noting that other writers have suggested that the Microbes name came from the small size of the players, Craswell concluded: “Robert Loerzel has done research demolishing this conjecture.”
Ah, sweet vindication! Now, all we need is a World Series win.
Go, Microbes … er, Cubs!
On the early history of the Chicago Cubs and the team’s nicknames:
Howard W. Rosenberg, Cap Anson 4: Bigger Than Babe Ruth: Captain Anson of Chicago (Arlington, VA: Tile Books, 2006).
“White Stockings Go,” Chicago Tribune, February 16, 1898.
John Snyder, Cubs Journal: Year by Year & Day by Day With the Chicago Cubs Since 1876 (Cincinnati: Emmis Books, 2005).
“Name Is Selected for Selee’s Ball Team,” St. Paul Globe, April 19, 1903.
“Selee Places His Men,” Chicago Daily News, March 27, 1902.
Richard Craswell, “When Nicknames Were Crowdsourced: Or, How to Change a Team’s Mascot,” Stanford Law Review 67, no. 6 (June 2015): 1221–1267.
Articles that call the team the Microbes:
“Cartoonist Briggs Sees the Microbes Shut Out the Giants in Opening Game of Crucial Series,” Chicago American, September 18, 1903.
“‘My White Sox Will Beat the Microbes’—Comiskey,” Chicago American, September 24, 1903.
“How the Fight for Second Place Between Microbes and Giants Looks to Cartoonist Edgren,” Chicago American, September 25, 1903.
“Microbes Lose Second Place to Giants,” Chicago American, September 26, 1903.
“Microbes Had Hot Time,” Chicago American, July 7, 1904.
“‘Microbes’ Easy for the Cardinals,” St. Louis Republic, September 4, 1903.
“Giants Losers in the First Game,” The World (New York), July 5, 1903.
… And see many other Chicago American articles from 1903 to 1905.
“Doctors disagree,” Chicago Tribune, January 11, 1890.
“The Microbe and its Mission,” Chicago Tribune, January 12, 1890.
“Wordy War on the Mayor,” Chicago Tribune, February 27, 1903.
On the reversal of the Chicago River:
Libby Hill, The Chicago River: A Natural and Unnatural History (Chicago: Lake Claremont, 2000).
Richard Cahan and Michael Williams, The Lost Panoramas: When Chicago Changed Its River and the Land Beyond (Chicago: CityFiles Press, 2011).
Carolyn G. Shapiro, “The Scientific Community and Typhoid Prevention: Public Health and the Chicago Drainage Case, 1900–1906.” PhD diss., Yale University, 1993.
“Turn the River Into a Big Canal,” Chicago Daily Tribune, January 3, 1900.
“Water in Chicago River,” New York Times, January 14, 1900.
“St. Louis’ Latest Visitation Makes Chicago Experts Smile,” Chicago Daily Tribune, March 11, 1903.
Newspapers mentioning “Chicago microbes” in the water:
Alton Weekly Telegraph, April 3, 1902
“Chicago Water Microbe Party, New Fad in St. Louis Society,” Chicago Tribune, January 29, 1901
Detroit Journal, quoted in editorial, Chicago Tribune, June 10, 1900.
The newspaper war:
William R. Weaver, “When Night Hoods Were in Power,” The Chicagoan 10, no. 12 (February 28, 1931): 11–12.
Homicide In Chicago 1870–1930, website by Leigh Bienen, Northwestern University School of Law, 2012.