50 Years a Cubs Fan, Part One
By Al Ottens
Summer 2009—August 13th to be exact—marks my golden anniversary as a fan of the Chicago Cubs. It was on that date in 1959 that I made my first visit to Wrigley Field. A Thursday afternoon, Cubs vs. Giants. One game—a remarkable case of single-trial learning—was all that it took to hook me for life.
I didn’t go with the purpose of falling for the Cubs. But in retrospect, I see that at age 12 I was on the cusp of making a shift in my fidelity from the team I first embraced when I had become just old enough to have a concept of the game, its players, bubble gum cards, pennant races, and the World Series. I awakened to baseball in 1954 a Yankees fan. Who could blame an impressionable seven-year-old for such a choice? The Yankees were winners. They had golden players: Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Allie Reynolds, Phil Rizzuto, Whitey Ford. I went for them just as sure as a raven goes for the shiniest bauble in the bag.
By the late 1950s, however, it was getting harder in my world to be a Yankee rooter. My grandfather Ed and my uncle Ray, who lived across the street, were huge White Sox fans. I took a fair amount of gas from them, more now that the White Sox had become legitimate contenders. Our blue-collar/no-collar southwest suburb was gaga for the “Go-Go Sox.” Chicago swarmed with Sox fans. Yet, unlike almost everybody else, I couldn’t get excited by the small ball the White Sox played: bunts, bingles, stolen bases, low-scoring games. I got satisfaction knowing there were others annoyed by the Sox pesky style. Jim Brosnan, in his classic baseball diary, The Long Season, called the ‘59 Sox “a bunch of Punch-and-Judys.” That’s exactly what they were.
To complicate matters, my adolescent cognitive development was kicking in. It allowed me to grasp the competition involved in and to feel the shame attached with the New York/Chicago, First City/Second City split—a split that was playing out in 1959 between the Yankees and White Sox. True, Chicago didn’t have the powerful financial or swanky entertainment industries or colossal skyscrapers like New York. But we had plenty to be proud of. What about the Magnificent Mile? Frank Lloyd Wright? The Stockyards? Bozo the Clown? Vienna all-beef wieners? So, wouldn’t I be doing the honorable, loyal deed to stand by a team from my hometown?
The trouble was that the other hometown choice was the Cubs. There was a palpable distinction in tone and technique between the Wrigley Cubs and the Comiskey Sox. Think of it as the ponderous North Side Cubs playing day games in an outdoor mausoleum backed up by a polka band, and the lithe, nimble-footed Sox in their jumping South Side “nightclub” boogying to bebop. The White Sox approach could be reduced to a simple objective: squeak out a victory. The Cubs appeared to operate from a different sporting rule: bludgeon or be bludgeoned.
So that’s some of the context, the back-drop, for the story to come. It’s a story of one day from my life, one afternoon at Wrigley Field, and the grandfather who took me out to that old ball game.
It was probably around 9:30 that Thursday morning when my grandfather, Ed, suggested we take in the afternoon Cubs game. I remember not being too keen about the idea. It didn’t make much sense for at least three reasons. First, like I said, I was still a self-identified, albeit waning, Yankee fan. So why go to the game? Second, Ed rooted for the White Sox and so did his son, my uncle Ray. I was genuinely surprised when Ed volunteered to squander time and money at Wrigley Field. Years ago both Ed and Ray followed the Cubs—Ed enthusiastically so—but they resigned their allegiances in the late 1930s.
“They leave all their good young talent go, and then old man Wrigley tells his front office to pick up has-beens,” Ed gave me once as his reason. The last straw for Ed came in 1938 when the Cubs signed sore-armed Cardinal castoff Dizzy Dean. So why go to the game? I knew the Cubs would lose—and lose ugly. Ed would cluck about each muffed chance, chalking up the loss as further justification for his sticking with the Sox. When we got home and my father asked how the game went, Ed’s response would be completely predictable. With a downward flap of his arm, he would disgustedly pronounce final judgment on the results of the day: “They stunk.” Those two words would induce in me feelings of regret and hollowness and yield the ultimate moral of an afternoon unwisely spent: We should have stayed home. So, I thought, why go to the game?
On the other hand, why not? Summer vacation, now in its third month, was dragging. My neighborhood chums and I had exhausted about every diversion, including the most recent escapade: a Nellie Fox impersonation. Fox was the scrappy White Sox second baseman who always played with a cheek-bulging, tennis ball-size chaw of tobacco. His tumescent jaw stoked our curiosity and begged to be emulated. Just a couple of days earlier a buddy and I sidled into Mraz’s pharmacy to pilfer a pouch of chewing tobacco. He distracted old man Mraz at the front of the store, while I snatched the goods. There were a lot of brands to choose. With no time to waste, I went for Beech-Nut. Right there on the pouch it claimed to be “sweet as a nut,” and to me that meant I was in for a satisfying, tasty chew. It didn’t occur to me that “sweet” doesn’t describe any nut I ever tasted. I needed to wad about half the pouch into my mouth before I achieved the desired spherical distension—but it wasn’t a look I could hold for long. I gagged and choked. It took about fifteen brutal minutes to remove every shred of tobacco from my mouth.
Also, if I could stay above Ed’s encrusted negativism, the afternoon had some potential. The Cubs were hosting the talented Giants, whose marquee outfielder, Willie Mays, was the biggest star in the National League. In my first year of baseball consciousness I was aware that the Giants, somewhat miraculously, had snookered the Cleveland Indians in the 1954 World Series. Mays, of course, made The Catch in Game One, and the Indians never recovered.
“Well, are you going or not?” My mother had to know in order to pack a lunch for us. There was no avoiding the sack lunch. To my family, ballpark food was vastly overpriced. A hot dog was 30 cents, a hamburger 40. I should expect at the game Ed will find multiple opportunities to remind me, (1) how Phil Wrigley gouges the fans at every turn, and (2) how great the social order was back in 1913, when you could walk into almost any Chicago saloon and get a schooner of beer, a piled-high corned beef sandwich and a sour pickle big as a zeppelin, all for a dime. Although it wasn’t stylish even in 1959 to carry a brown bag into Wrigley, the Cubs’ marketing tactics gave some face-saving allowance for it. To attract more fans to the park—in those days an attendance of 10,000 was considered a decent gate—TV ads beckoned all the nonworking women to come out to the afternoon games, take in the fresh air and green grass, and make a picnic of it. I was no housewife, but if I could convince myself I was picnicking, I might not feel so much like a dork. “Yeah, I guess I’ll go,” I said, and that was the signal for her to reach for the waxed paper and lunch meat.
I had to hustle to be ready to leave on time, which meant being out the door by 10 a.m. for a 1:30 game. That’s how my family was. Get anywhere early—a rule that went double for a trip to a major league game. I’d been to about half a dozen games already, always with my dad, Ray or Ed, all at Comiskey. I’ll tell you this: The men in my family didn’t settle for the cheap seats. We always sat in the $3.50 boxes. Given my family’s penchant for thrift, this surprised me. It only later dawned on me that by arriving early not only was there ample time to stake claim to choice seats, but also to consider the dimensions of the park, gauge the wind direction, study the hitters during batting practice, watch infield drills, follow the arc of fly balls off the fungo bat, monitor the grounds crew as they smoothed the dirt and set the chalk lines—two hours of pre-game activity that added margin to the entertainment value of the tickets!
The first hour and a half was spent getting to Wrigley Field via public transportation. Ed never learned to drive. Nor could he dial a telephone number—even answering the phone tested the ceiling of his technical comfort zone. You might as well have asked him to operate a cyclotron, much less a retractable ballpoint pen. He was a relic, a denizen of the 19th century, a nonparticipant in and apprehensive observer of virtually all the century’s technological advances.
But did that old man know how to get around Chicago on the CTA! He knew the bus routes and elevated train lines like the back of his veined hand. Then in his 70th year, Ed still worked part-time as an itinerant piano tuner for the big Chicago musical instrument firm Lyon & Healy. L & H gave him tuning jobs anywhere in Chicago or its environs—Skokie, Hyde Park, Park Forest, you name it—but as long as there was a bus or trolley stop nearby, he’d get there. To me the public transportation network was a labyrinthine mystery. Train lines—Douglas Park, Ravenswood, Englewood, among others—penetrated unfamiliar city neighborhoods; busses appeared to ply streets on esoteric schedules. To further confuse me, certain elevated stations were designated either A or B stops, and sometimes they were both.
I was about ready to leave when my mother beckoned. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”
“Like what?” I said.
“I’ve got the lunch.” She also handed me a jacket.
“What’s that for?” I wanted to know. “Last time I checked it was August.”
“Don’t ‘August’ me, mister. What if the wind’s blowing off the lake? You’ll freeze. Or what if you’re sitting in the shade?”
I had just come up against the application of another family rule, maybe the biggest: Prepare for any contingency. You never knew when something would go haywire. Better to be doubly safe than sorry. Wear a pair of suspenders in case your belt breaks. My mother was at times anxiously incapacitated by the syntax of the hypothetical. She could get unnerved by filling in the blank behind a “what if …?” with the disaster of her choice. This drama played itself out in countless ways. For example, at a restaurant she’d surreptitiously slip a few packets of saltines into her purse. My sister and I jumped all over that maneuver. “Mom, that’s crass!”
“Well, what if you get hungry later on?” she countered.
I should have known that it wouldn’t do to challenge her. This was not logic sprung from her frontal lobes. It must have been embedded at some archetypal stratum and represented a vestige of the cataclysms and famines experienced by generations of her forbears that eventually drove them to emigrate from east central Europe.
At 10 a.m. we sprung out the door. We were on time, and I was prudently equipped against starvation and exposure. I quickly waved back to my mother. She poked her head out to remind us, “I’ll be watching for you during the seventh-inning stretch.” Ed set the brim of his straw fedora and tucked a pack of White Owls into his shirt pocket, and we plunged ahead to the bus stop.
(Continued in Part Two)
About the author
Al Ottens is a retired professor of counseling from Northern Illinois University. His grandfather, Ed, was one of the last persons who could claim to have been born in the Territory of Idaho.