If you don’t live around Chicago the expression, “die hard” is likely associated with a Bruce Willis movie. Otherwise, in the Windy City environs it refers to a person who needs to be put out of his or her misery- a Cubs fan. There is no logical explanation as to why a mature adult is willing to subject himself to yearly disappointment, abject failure and unrequited dreams of popping champagne after the last game of the World Series.
Cubs fidelity is genetic. My mother is a Cub fan; ergo, I am, too. My father was agnostic. He knew that there were major league baseball players on the city’s North Side but wasn’t sure why he should care. He held little interest in sports in general. It was Ma who taught me how to catch and hit a ball. Ma’s first Cub hero was Bill Nicholson back in 1930’s and 40’s. My allegiance didn’t germinate until the 1960’s. That’s when I took to revering Billy Leo WIlliams, the sweet swinging lefty from Alabama. (Lefties got to stick together.)
My first visit to Wrigley Field, perennial shrine of the Cubs, was in the early 1960’s. Ma and I sat on the first base side which was also where the visitor’s dugout was located. Ma conveniently pointed out to me opposing players as they stood on the on deck circle. Guys such as Jerry Lynch, Smokey Burgess, natural born Cub killers. It seemed like every guy who picked up a bat owned Cub pitching. If Mr. Wrigley told the general manager to go out and trade for a Cub killer, you could be sure that the guy would hit .220 for the time he spent with the Boys in Blue.
When I was eleven or twelve I had to give up my bedroom so that an older sister didn’t have to share with two other sisters and could have her own privacy. I was shifted to the dining room and slept on something that looked like a cot at night and resembled a couch during the day. To assuage my feelings I was allowed to pick a reasonably priced present. I chose a Cubs baseball uniform. That summer, even as I grew out of it, I proudly wore that uniform as many times as possible when I went to play ball with friends.
Until the late 1960’s there was not much to cheer about the Cubs. The most humiliating event was in 1965 as I listened late at night to my portable radio while in bed. Sandy Koufax of the Dodgers undressed my boys one by one systematically and pitched a perfect game. It seemed as if the announcer was presiding over a funeral in his glum description of each Cub batter muttering to himself while walking back to the dugout. There came a point where I didn’t care if the Cubs won or even scored. Just get one person on base, dammit!
I got my revenge the following year (like I was part of the squad). A buddy’s father was a cab driver who knew Barney Sterling, the Cubs official photographer. He wrangled a few tickets out of him and treated us to a very special Sunday afternoon, September 25, 1966, the day before my fourteenth birthday. We sat seven rows up from the backdrop to home plate. All that separated us from getting whacked by a 100 mile an hour fastball was netting.
Koufax and Ken Holtzman were dueling on the mound. Holtzman was being talked about as the next great lefty when Koufax would retire. Holtzman achieved his own fame several years later immediately after being traded by the Cubs. He helped the Oakland Athletics win three World Series in a row. Naturally.
Koufax and Holtzman both did not allow any hits into the seventh inning. Holtzman eventually outlasted the great Dodger and won 2-1. It was to be Koufax’s last lost in a regular season game. He retired after the World Series.
Like Woody Allen’s Zelig, I was there in person when several other noteworthy events took place at the North Side ivy-covered ballpark. Opening day 1969, I mulled leaving the park in the ninth after the bums blew a three-run lead despite a two homer performance by Ernie Banks. Slowly inching from the third base side of the stands toward the Addison Street section to the south, I looked around to make sure there were no Andy Frain ushers close by and casually sat in an empty seat just to the left behind home plate. The Phillies took the lead by a run in the top of the eleventh. Quickly, there was one man on and one man out for the Cubs in the bottom half of the inning. I got up and started to head towards the stairs anticipating the usual game-ending double play.
Pinch hitter Willie Smith, not known for his muscle power, came to bat. In an instant, his bat launched the ball into the right field bleachers. Just like that the game was over. The Cubbies had won out and it started a euphoric roller coaster ride. The talented group of young men- the entire infield went to the All-Star Game as well as Williams in the outfield- were managed by the legendary Leo ‘the Lip’ Durocher. They just had to win it all. It ended in deep despair not just for the players but also for a million and one half fans who were taken for the usual sucker ride.
On Sunday, September 8, 1985, I was at Wrigley the day Pete Rose tied Ty Cobb’s all-time hits record. Recently some baseball historians became convinced that Cobb’s record was overstated by one. So it was possible that I did see the record breaker. At that time, Pistol Pete was managing the Cincinnati Reds so he also controlled the lineup. The record-tying hit came early in the game and then it started to rain. Play was held up for quite a while. We left early because the rain delay took too long. We also figured Pete would anyway pull himself out so that he could get the chance to break it before his own home crowd two days later in Cincy. Pete did stay in the game when play resumed so that the commissioner wouldn’t get on his back. But, he did not get another hit that long afternoon. Stan Musial got his 2,000 and 3,000 hits at Wrigley Field back in the 1950’s even though he played his entire career for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Ironically, that same Sunday was the beginning of the NFL football season. The Bears were playing Tampa Bay. I looked up at the Wrigley Field scoreboard and noticed that the Bears were losing 28-14 at half time. I thought that it was also going to be a long football season. The Bears turned it around in the second half of the game and went on to win 38-28. It also turned out to be their most memorable season with a record of 15-1 and won the Super Bowl in a blowout 46-10.
More recently, I attended a night game where the Bear’s Superbowl coach Mike Ditka rushed upstairs to take his turn at singing “Take Me Out to The Ball Game” during the seventh inning stretch. Mike was winded and also rushed through the song off-key. The fans in the stands looked at each other not wanting to believe that “Da Coach” had embarrassed himself.
Another crazy night was when one of Ditka’s players from the 1985 Super Bowl Winners, Steve “Mongo” McMichael, was also asked to do the seventh inning cheering. Over the loudspeaker microphone, he threatened to beat up the home plate umpire who had made a couple of questionable calls. And he wasn’t kidding. He was quickly escorted from the ball park or the Cubs were told that they would have to forfeit the game.
I wasn’t at the ballpark for other “great” moments in Cubbie Baseball such as the “Bartman Ball” episode in the 2003 playoffs or the following year when Sosa uncorked a wild bat. They are mere pebbles in the sands of time that flow the mystique of Cub anguish. But, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Or Ma will take away my allowance.