You'd have to be living under a rock or worse, someone who wasn't interested in baseball, not to have heard that the Cubs are playing in their first World Series since 1945. While that is true, it actually undersells how long that franchise has been floundering.
Alex recently looked at the records for every team since 1947, which with the advent of integration is often considered the modern era of baseball. During that time, the Cubs .470 winning percentage is worse than all but five current MLB teams, and all of those teams were expansion teams which joined the league sometime after 1977.
Setting aside that 1945 pennant, the Cubs were a perennial cellar-dweller stretching all the way back to 1938. Their fluke 1945 season interrupted what was probably the greatest dynasty in Cardinals history.
1945 is perhaps the high-water mark for Weird Baseball. While some form of a military draft had been in place since 1940, and some players such as Ted Williams had volunteered for military service, the number serving in the military peaked in 1945. By some estimates, nearly 400 active major league players were at war - almost the entire league.
Imagine 1945 as a season played entirely by replacement players and you're not too far from the reality. The St. Louis Browns gave 253 plate appearances to one-armed outfielder Pete Gray. Washington sent a pitcher with a peg leg to the mound. Washed-up former players who were well into their 40s came back, and teams gobbled up semi-pro and amateur players like Danny Gardella.
The Cardinals came into 1945 on a run of three straight World Series appearances and two wins. But like many teams, the draft board would hit the Cardinals hard. Among the players from the 1944 World Champions to miss all (or very nearly all) of the 1945 season due to military service were Stan Musial, Walker Cooper, Danny Litwhiler, Max Lanier, Red Munger and Freddy Schmidt. Collectively, they had been worth 24.1 fWAR in 1944.
The Cubs, by contrast, lost only Dom Dallesandro and Bill Fleming to the war between 1944 and 1945. They collectively had been worth 4.0 fWAR.
Now, the easy thing to do here would be to chalk this up to some kind of moral superiority or call the Cubs "draft dodgers." But the same charge has been made against the Cardinals who managed to retain superstars like Musial and Lanier until 1945. I've seen several Trolls in print and online decry the corrupt "St. Louis draft board" for supposedly overlooking star ballplayers, and similar charges abounded throughout the league.
Those kind of allegations are gross and often inaccurate. Musial, for example, had his draft eligibility managed by his hometown of Donora, Pennsylvania, not St. Louis. There were certainly occurrences of draft manipulation by boards around the country, and given the stakes involved, it's understandable emotions would run high anytime someone seemed to get an unfair advantage. There were also many seemingly physically able players classified 4F for things like punctured ear drums. That caused some grumbling from fans, but honestly, what can you have expected those players to do?
At the end of the day, it was a very difficult time for men of military age, and for teams of baseball players assembled from men of military age. Every team was dealt their cards and had to play their hand.
The Cubs caught a very good hand.
Whereas many clubs fielded teams that were a patchwork of regulars and replacement players, the Cubs rolled out nearly the same starting eight and rotation as they had the season before. The day before the All-Star break, the Cubs climbed into 1st place. The All-Star game was cancelled that season, but during the break, the Cubs signed "All-Star" Hank Borowy from the Yankees for $100,000. They would not relinquish 1st place for the remainder of the season.
The decimated Cardinals still won 95 games, but finished three back of the Cubs.
The Cubs would ultimately lose the series 4-3 to the Tigers, who were bolstered by the return of Hank Greenberg, who had sacrificed four full seasons to military service.
With the war over, teams across baseball returned to full strength in 1946. The Cardinals would win 98 games, the NL pennant, and another World Series. The Cubs would finish a respectable 3rd, but still 14.5 games off-the-pace. From there it was back to the cellar. They would not finish in the top half of the league again until 1967.
What I'm saying is the Cubs have actually been much worse than they are being given credit for. If you want to go back to the last Cubs teams to legitimately and consistently even make it to the World Series, you'd have to go back to the depression era of the 1930s.
Those Cubs teams of the 1930s were formidable, going to four World Series (I'm including 1929) and never finishing lower than 4th. This current team looks like it has the potential to make perennial playoff runs as well. Will they get over the hump?