When I was a kid, well — a high schooler, I might leave school just a little bit early some spring days. A friend’s mom worked for the Tribune, which was in its glory in the 1980s, and had just bought the Chicago Cubs. As a result, we could just make the 3:05 pm “Businessman’s Start” most weekdays, and enjoy outdoor, daytime baseball at Wrigley Field as God had meant it to be.
Now if you have been to Wrigley in recent years, let me tell you — this was a different place altogether. The Cubs had not seen a World Series since 1945 (and that was a war year), much less their last win in 1918 (also a war year). And while that had been home to some great players, over all — it had been a pretty mediocre place since the 1930s. For the record, the Cubs would have won at least one World Series in the 1930s, had it not been for the New York Yankees.
I have a recollection of my first Cubs game, going with my stepmother’s mother — who was a huge fan. But, it was summer work that made me a true Cubs fan. I had a job at L. Karno & Company bagging insoles and heat sealing 12 packs. And let me tell you, that got old fast…
But I had a transistor radio, and through the magic of day time baseball, WGN and my imagination - I soon found sanity in rooting for the Cubs.
The Cubs were truly a bunch of lovable losers. The ballpark was never full, and you could easily get a ticket the day of the game: $12 for a box seat, $4 for a bleacher seat. A hot do was $3.
What is today Wrigleyville was then East Lakeview. The abandoned building well outnumbered the bars and souvenir shops. And, there was Wrigley Field - a wonderful old ballpark. It featured old wooden seats, green ivy, a hand-operated scoreboard and no digital anything — just a great old throwback to what baseball had been played in the good old days.
As George Will so astutely pointed out, the ballpark was the draw. Not the team.
Being a Cubs fan was never easy. Playing to .500 was a good year. The other teams were a long line of astro-turf playing, v-neck wearing teams with more money, horrific ballparks, and in the case of the Pirates, truly ugly hats.
But, the Cubs with all their flaws were something special. Yes, they could blow any game, and break your heart, but loving a team that just did not have a chance was a privilege and an honor. It is easy to root for a winner, and rather hard to support a non-winning team.
For me, they were something out of Don Quixote. Then the Tribune came along, and we thought things were going to change. Wrigley got a lot of fresh paint, they built a stadium club, there were cheerleaders, and a brass band. They even introduced nacho cheese and chips. Go Cubs Go became the song of choice.
For 1984 the Cubs looked good! They had “the power and speed to be the best in the National League.” And they made the playoffs for the first time ever (there were no playoffs in 1945). Then, they drew the Padres, an expansion team that wore brown as their color. Because the Cubs had no lights, the first two games of the best of 5 were played in Wrigley, with the last 3 in San Diego.
The Cubs handily beat the Padres in the first two, and went to San Diego just needing to take one of three.
In 1945, legend has it, the Greek immigrant who ran the famous Billy Goat Tavern bought two tickets to the 1945 World Series - one for him, one for his goat. At the turnstiles he was given the bad news, no goats allowed in the ballpark. Unhappy, he put a curse on the ballpark, that until the Cubs admitted his goat — they would never play another World Series in Wrigley Field.
Steve Garvey was in the autumn of his years in 1984. He was the veteran who led the Padres, and in playoff games 3, 4 and 5 he tore through the Cubs. They dropped all three games, and broke all of our hearts. and the big leagues said that the Cubs had to add lights, or pay future playoff games in... St. Louis…
A few years later I moved to New England to attend Boston University. And, I was excited to go to my first AL game, as well as my first night game. Fenway was an old gloomy place, and the fans were far less kind than those at Wrigley, but they loved their team — and while the city lacked the diehard approach that made the Cubs so beloved, they made up for it in attitude. At least, my childhood hero, Bill Buckner, was on 1st base. The next year they made it to the Series!
It broke my heart to see Cub’s legend Bill Buckner blow a World Series for the Sox. But for me — he would always be Johnny Hustle, the kid who gave 150%.
So, to end this long look back, being a Cubs fan is something special — part of a cult of people who see the games as more than just a winner. I will never forget that late night in the fall of 2016. No fingernails left to bite, no tears left to cry — seeing a site I could barely imagine — the Chicago Cubs World Champs. So many generations of Cubs fans had lived without ever seeing the Cubs win it all. It was an honor.
The irony of this is that the same author of Go Cubs Go, Steve Goodman, wrote this:” Do they still play the blues in Chicago when baseball season rolls around? When the snow melts away, do the Cubbies still play in their ivy-covered burial ground? When I was a boy, they were my pride and joy, but now they only bring fatigue to the home of the brave, the land of the free — and the doormat of the National League.”