The Baseball Chronicle

Personal stories, August 2009

50 Years a Cubs Fan, Part Two

By Al Ottens

(Continued from Part One)

For men of Ed’s era, a hat finished off a person’s appearance and made one presentable in public. Hats even occupied a niche among the Cub traditions. Ed chuckled as he once described to me a ritual that occurred during the post-World War I years following the last out of the last game of the season at Wrigley. “All us fellows would toss our straw hats out onto the field. The field would be covered with ‘em. Somebody must’ve had a swell time picking ‘em all up.” As the hats were sailed Frisbee-style into the gloaming, the end of summer was brought to a symbolic close. The young rakes had no further use for their creased and sweat-stained boaters.

In 2009 the male fan base at Wrigley is anchored by status-conscious Millenials who bring along attractive girlfriends. But on that day, when I got to the park, I would see a lot of unattached old-timers wearing straw fedoras just like Ed’s. They shared a taste for semi-transparent nylon sport shirts, worn untucked, that revealed sleeveless tees underneath; and they’d be shod in beige summer shoes made of a breathable fabric with side eyelets for extra ventilation.

Many of those men would be smoking cigars. A baseball game really brought out cigar smokers. I just hoped I wouldn’t be sitting amongst them. Their smokes of choice weren’t fancy hand-made Cubans but the cellophane-wrapped ones—LaPalina, Muriel, Roi-Tan, King Edward—you could buy by the handful out of a drugstore display. Ed favored White Owls. They came in a yellow five-pack. I think he smoked them because they were one of the sponsors of the White Sox radio broadcasts. Ed listened to all their games. I even helped him by setting his AM radio to WCFL. In those days, the Sox radio announcer was the colorless, monotone Bob Elson. Now and then a Sox player popped a home run and that aroused Elson from his torpor long enough to declare it a “White Owl Wallop!” That meant the slugger just won for himself a box of fifty, eight-cent panatelas. Imagine, in the current age of eight-figure salaries, we used to think a ball player hit the jackpot by winning four dollars’ worth of cheap cigars.

Our bus pulled up to the stop. “How ya doing, Ed?” the driver asked. Ed was on a first-name basis with many of the drivers. “Oh, you got your grandson with you? Well, you both have a nice time at the game.” Their barest of an acquaintance was worth about two courtesy seconds from the driver, allowing Ed and me to get our balance and lunge to a seat, before the bus lurched forward. Our trip, which culminated at the Addison Street station, would encompass two bus routes and two El lines, with two transfer points in between.

What I most vividly, most indelibly remember of Chicago public transportation is the smell and the noise. The odor of the CTA cars was unmistakable but hard to describe. To my nose it was an aromatic admixture of two principal components. The first is derived from humidity—the perpetual earthy dankness of the subway plus the mugginess of scores of Chicago summers plus the moisture exuded by the bodies of the working-class ridership. When that humidity permeated old newsprint—acres of newsprint—the smell was released. Buses and subway stations and elevated cars and platforms were littered with decaying newspapers. Everybody carried a paper. CTA veterans like Ed were wonderfully adept at folding the unwieldy sections of the Tribune into manageable thirds no matter how the cars swayed. The humidity/newsprint odor was infused in Ed and his clothing, like coal dust beneath a miner’s skin.

The noise of the El was increased by a factor of three when the train descended underground. As it sped through the narrow concrete subway tube, there was a crashing, screeching racket produced by sound waves ricocheting and reverberating from train against tunnel. In those days before air conditioning, the cars’ windows were cranked all the way down, treating me to a full decibel assault so painful I had to cover my ears. It appeared that I was the only one affected: two dough-faced nuns in front of me carried on a normal conversation; a black guy across the aisle was sound asleep, head lolling, as we pitched along.

When we pulled into the California Avenue El station, Ed pointed beyond to his old neighborhood. Fifty years earlier, somewhere in the urban landscape beneath us, Ed had found a bride and embarked on young adulthood. “St. Mark’s was our church,” he reminded me. St. Mark’s Lutheran at 23rd and California was the glue that held their German-American community together. “Ossie Bluege, he was a member of the congregation,” Ed said with pride. “Most would say the Pirates’ Pie Traynor, overall, was the best glove man at third, and that might have been true, but Ossie was the best in the American League.” Oswald Bluege spent eighteen years at third base for the Washington Senators. His career spanned most of the Roaring Twenties and Great Depression. St. Mark’s fielded a church-sponsored team. “We were pretty good,” Ed said, liberally including himself among that talent pool, “what with Ossie and his younger brother Otto.” Otto Bluege never achieved big league stardom, but he was the starting shortstop for the ‘33 Cincinnati Reds. I’m sure Ed was right. A team comprised of the brothers Bluege and seven Humpty-Dumpties could probably thrash most comers.

A bit further east, by the Polk Street station, we rambled past the former site of West Side Park, hallowed ground for old-time Cubs fans. West Side Park was where the Tinker to Evers to Chance legend was born, where the 1906 Cubs achieved most of their 116 wins, where the Cubs and the John McGraw-managed Giants tangled for National League supremacy. “It was where Polk and Wolcott intersect,” Ed told me. “The stands were made of wood. They even caught on fire once.” In fact, the place was so dilapidated and such a fire hazard that at the first opportunity the Cubs moved into an almost brand new stadium. That was Weeghman Park, erected only months earlier to house the Whales, Chicago’s franchise in the upstart Federal League. When the Federal League went under after the 1915 season, the Cubs appropriated the Whales’ digs. Weeghman Park morphed into Wrigley Field.

West Side Park was also where Ed took baseball and the Cubs to his heart. It was understandable how Ed gravitated toward the Cubs and no doubt identified with them. In the early 20th century, their rosters were studded with German-American players, many the top stars of their day: “Circus Solly” Hofman, Jack “The Giant Killer” Pfiester, “Wildfire” Frank Schulte, “Rabbit” Slagle, Harry Steinfeldt, and Heinie Zimmerman. Johnny Kling, the crackerjack catcher on those fabled teams, can’t be forgotten either. The Germans claim him because Kling always asserted he was Lutheran—a Missouri Synod Lutheran, to boot. But so do the Jews, who argue that Kling’s “Lutheranism” was only a ruse he used to avoid prejudicial treatment by bigoted fans.

In contrast, the White Sox fielded teams that were heavily represented by sons of the Emerald Isle: “Jiggs” Donahue, Patsy Dougherty, Bill O’Neill, Roy Patterson, Billy Sullivan, and Big Ed Walsh. To my grandfather, that German-Irish contrast couldn’t have been taken lightly and thus made more significant his later switch of allegiance to the Sox.

When I prodded Ed about favorite memories of that era, he was apt to recall those of southpaw Jack Pfiester besting the Giants’ Christy Matthewson in low-scoring nail-biters. He lit up most, however, when he reminisced about outfielder Frank Schulte. “Wildfire” was a legitimate slugger despite playing in the days when the dead ball was at its deadest. “He had the smoothest swing—a thing of beauty,” Ed said with a smile.

“Even smoother than Billy Williams’?” I once asked.

“Even smoother.”

Wrigley, only a block away, loomed into view as we reached Addison Street. With our destination just within reach, I was gripped by an urgency to cover the last eighth of a mile. I felt a tug at my feet and my pace quickening. After clambering down the wooden El platform, I had almost left Ed behind. There was a maddeningly slow single-file line through the spokes of the exit turnstile. Finally, I burst onto Addison. “Come on,” I shouted back to Ed. “Let’s get tickets!”

It seemed to take forever, but we got to the front of the line at the ticket window. “Two box seats,” was Ed’s order, “behind the third base dugout.” My box seat luck still held.

About twenty-five feet into Wrigley, a fellow behind a big desk on a podium hawked programs. “Oh,” I whined, “we gotta get a program!” Ed shelled out a dime for an 11” x 17” piece of folded construction paper that contained little more than a scorecard grid inside. “And a pencil, too!” Ed winced. I’m sure it was not so much the added nickel that caused him pain as it was the fact that we were barely in the park and I’d succumbed to the first vendor. Ed had to be wondering if I had the gumption to withstand the legion of vendors who would ply me all afternoon with hot dogs, cotton candy and frosty malts—and even more dangerously tantalizing merchandise like team photos, pennants and $3 phony autographed baseballs. That’s no doubt why he pulled me aside for a teachable moment. “Look,” he told me, “the vendors see you coming. To them you’re an easy mark.” As we headed further inside, I concentrated on keeping my guard up.

I had to blink a couple of times to accommodate to the dinginess of this general concession area underneath the grandstand. The concrete looked like it could benefit from a good sandblasting; grease from a dozen fry grills hung in the air. I ducked into the men’s room and got acquainted with the long urinal troughs that were off-putting in the major league sense of the term. Not a good first impression.

But once up the stained concrete ramp to the field, the view that opened up jolted me like a Technicolor vision—like the one that gave Dorothy pause when she emerged from the black and white of Kansas into the brilliant palette of Oz. Wrigley looked shockingly grand: ivy green, lakefront blue, infield tan, uniforms pristinely white, a big red Baby Ruth sign looming beyond Sheffield Avenue. Years later I heard on a baseball broadcast a little known item about the day Lee Mazzilli of the New York Mets was called up to make his big league debut on the road against the Cubs. As the story goes—and I believe it’s valid—when he stepped out onto the Wrigley Field grass from the visitors’ clubhouse, the panorama of ivy, dominating scoreboard, brick and tradition moved him to tears.

We got to our seats that, if truth be told, were closer to the left field bullpen than the third base dugout. Nevertheless, they gave me a sweeping vista of the playing field which felt disconcertingly close to us. I was starting to like the way things were shaping up. Ed had a different perspective. “We should demand our money back!” he groused. “They call these box seats?” Another bone to pick with P. K. Wrigley.

There was a lot of time to while away before the first pitch. The pregame drill seemed to take forever, but I noticed in the methodical progression of events—players finally vacated the field, the batting practice cage got carted away, the grounds crew hosed down the infield dirt and groomed the pitching mound, beefy black-jacketed umpires clustered at the plate, lineups were exchanged—hopeful signs that a baseball game was on the verge of breaking out. The start of the game took a significant step forward when, from his station behind home plate, Cubs field announcer Pat Pieper, always clad in a mouse brown suit, gave his unvarying and not very articulate instructions to those assembled: “‘Tention, ‘tention please! Get your pencils and scorecards ready …”

(Continued in Part Three)

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.

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