I feel sorry for those who haven’t or don’t have a team. No memories then of Dad taking you to your first game at Wrigley Field. That’s where I’ll be talking about here, but it can be any field, just about anywhere, if it’s a special place Dad shares with his oldest son, and his son’s best friend that he’s let you bring along. Best girls have their own stories to tell, but this is a boy’s story
We lived in Indiana, way out of Chicago, and a trip to Wrigley involved a long drive up US 41 before the Interstates, and after they were opened, a scary trip up I-65, with all its trucks, to I-80/94 which went west on the underbelly of the city to north on the Dan Ryan up to the Kennedy, then all the way to the Addison Street or Irving Park exits. A little bit later, we’d drive straight up 65 to the Skyway, exiting on Stony Island Avenue, which you took, in ways that mystified me back then, to the Outer Drive, then also up to the Addison exit, where we were brought to a crawl for the few blocks left to Wrigley.
Dad knew Chicago pretty well, and when he was adventurous, he’d drive up to 80/94, take the Dan Ryan to Congress Parkway, drive under the old Post Office building and park underground in the Grant Park lot, close by the Art Institute, where we’d also have to go if mother was along. Slowly, ever so slowly, she’d take us through the museum and spend what seemed to us like hours in the Impressionist section, her favorite, before we could finally hop on the El and go up the Red line to the Addison Street exit, right in front of Wrigley.
For me, when I was a kid, it was the slow ride on Stony Island through the Southside that spooked me out because there were so many black people driving or walking along Stony until we’d, miraculously, get to the Field Museum and then, onto the Outer Drive.
We always had good seats. They weren’t so hard to get back when the Cubs played day games, but Dad never bought the most expensive seats close to the field. He had seats with a bunch of old friends who bought a block of tickets each year and divvied them up.
My best friend and I wanted to be really close to the field. We’d sneak down to the expensive seats in the lower level and find a place to sit in some empty seats we’d spied out from behind, or we’d move over to the first base side, or even into the bleachers, letting Dad stay higher up on the third base side (always on the third base side behind the Cubbies dugout) with Mom, if she were along, or by himself with his buddies drinking Old Style beer together.
He’d say, “You boys get back here by the bottom of the eighth to watch the Cubs bat,” who were usually, but not always, behind, then he’d say, “or I’ll tan your hides.”
There, with Dad for the day, my best friend and I always bonded. If the games were slow, we’d wander around under the stands. With the couple bucks Dad gave us, we’d buy hotdogs; peanuts from the vendors, and to save our money, we’d drink water, from the fountains outside the men’s toilets, where we’d piss big streams in the urinals that ran all the way from one end of the john to the other, sneaking peeks at the big dicks of the older men around us.
That’s when we were nine or ten. When we were fourteen or fifteen, Dad would take us along with some of his friends from home to whom he gave free tickets, and we’d take the Red Line from State Street up to Wrigley. After the game, we’d take a trip or two to one of the many bars around the park. “What’s the best bar, we’d ask?”
“They’re all just fine,” Dad would say. And they all seemed the same to me. I can’t remember any special bar the men went to. Each bar had plenty of beer to drink, in pitchers now, and bar food to eat. Me and my buddy would walk around outside the park and buy souvenirs with money we earned back home mowing yards and delivering papers.
After a while, we’d find the men, hop back on the El, pick up our car with a designated driver already paid or bribed with T-Bone steaks from Dad’s freezer, or a couple cases of Old Style from his garage, and he’d drive us home. No one went on these excursions who didn’t drink Old Style, thus the bribing. Just as well, since we all fell asleep, us kids from the food and huge plastic glasses of Cokes and Mountain Dews we got at the park; the men from the Old Style, or from the whiskey some sneaked in hanging from their belts, under their pants, sticking down their legs like a guy with a hard-on.
Of, course, we didn’t go to every game, but we listened to most on the radio Dad kept permanently tuned to WGN on a dirty shelf full of old weights and hooks and monofilament line, too tangled to unwind, on the porch of his fishing shack that stuck out only a few feet above his dock on the Tippecanoe River.
Dad’s friends all owned or ran something. None of them worked for anyone, or could have. Dad ran the grain elevator; Pete was the Oldsmobile dealer; Bud had a slaughter house on the Wabash, a few miles away outside Delphi, and Henry was a plumber. Mitch ran the Legion, and old Harold ran fish traps in the Wabash and sold the catfish he trapped to Mitch’s son, Muggins who owned a Catfish restaurant, also on the Wabash.
These men worked as little as possible in the summer. They came to Dad’s place and they fished, and when the weather got too hot to fish in the afternoons, they sat on the porch and listened to the Cubs; drank Old Styles, and fiddled or whittled around with something, or nodded off until the 7th inning stretch, when they’d rouse themselves, listen to the end of the game, then go fishing.
The Cubs didn’t win a lot during most of those years until Leo Durocher came along and managed them in 1966; ’67 was their great year. In ’69 they busted, but they had Ernie and Billy and Santo, and later Ryno, and for most Cub fans, winning wasn’t as important as listening or going to Wrigley to watch them play.
That was most Cubs fans. None of the “wait’ll next year” from Dad’s crew. When they were awake, they bitched at every bad play, every bad pitch, and when they’d swear, as they always did, they’d swear softly, under their breath, then say ‘excuse me’ when I was there.
Oh, but we had a team, and those memories I have of those old boys, who liked to call themselves, ‘river rats,’ are especially sharp now the year we won the World Series. and all of them are gone.
Later, when I got old enough for a driver’s license and girlfriends, my Cub fan friends and me would take a girl we’d like to get to know better to a game. You know what I mean by wanting to get to know them better, and the game was the perfect place to start the rituals that led to where we wanted to go.
Baseball games are loud, or lazy and quiet. Both types led naturally to us getting to know our girlfriend better because girls don’t usually know as much about baseball as young men do. So, we took on the important task of helping them understand the intricacies of the game, which were always too complicated for any girls I took to Wrigley.
When a batter came to the plate, I’d lean in close to my girl and whisper to her the different pitches we’re seeing; making stuff up mostly, because you can’t really see anything up thirty rows, halfway down the third base line.
I’d whisper in her ear, put my arm around her, talking even softer, so she’d have to move closer to me; easy to do in those Wrigley seats.
Soon she’d be brushing the side of her breast against the side of my belly, and soon after that, maybe, I’d stick my tongue in her ear and, maybe, if she really needed lots of baseball instruction, I might be able to kiss her on her neck — and Wait— whew— the game’s over! Time to hurry back to my car and, maybe, get a beer or too in one of the bars. No ID’s C’mon, this is Wrigleyville!
Maybe then, we’d get off 65 and take backroads going home. It’s been an extra inning game. It’s getting dark outside. On the way, we’ve been singing, “Go Cubs Go,” Steve Goodman’s great tribute to our team, and then later, maybe, we pull off the side of the road, turn the radio on to WLAC, Nashville Tennessee, and listen to all the songs our mothers wouldn’t let us listen to when we were younger. Well, Mom’s not here now, and Elvis’s “Heartbreak Hotel’s” on the Radio…
And who knows after that…
Ah, the fun of having a team. After those teenage years, most of us had to grow up, get married and have some kids of our own. The lucky ones married a Cub fan. I sure did, and before she died of ovarian cancer several years ago, Eileen and I went to a lot of Cubs games, driving from Indiana or staying overnight with her parents in Elmwood Park, taking the Oak Street El, transferring at Lake Street downtown, and riding up to Wrigley.
Before we were married, I thought I’d try some of the shenanigans with Eileen that I did with girlfriends when I was a teenager, but Eileen had a scorecard in her backpack, which she filled out while I was trying to pretend that I knew more about the Cubs than she did and, of course, she showed me up.
After we married, we went up a half dozen times from our home in Indiana, and when our kids got old enough to care, we took them along. Sometimes, I’d take them up by myself. Eileen had to work more and harder than I did, and for many a hot summer day for me, it was a ballgame or going to Dad’s shack to fish and listen to games there.
When Haley and Scott were old enough to leave them alone in Wrigley, they did many of the same things I did as a kid, though it’s harder now: not nearly the number of empty seats to sneak in to. More security guarding the prime seats in the lower level. But Haley and Scott were just as determined as I had been, and usually, they’d sneak in somewhere, and when they got to be teenagers, they’d sneak Old Styles too. I could smell it on their breaths, which they’d blow at me, just to show off.
Today, Wrigley’s still a charming place. The Ricketts are trying to change it to make even more money, but they’ve left up the old wooden scoreboard and added a garish digital one I can live with.
They’ve continued Harry’s seventh inning stretch, and celebrities come to each game and sing, none as horribly as Mike Ditka did at a game we all attended together. You know the song:
Take me out to the ballgame
Take me out with the crowd
Buy me some peanuts and crackerjack
I don’t care if I never get back
For its root, root, root, for the Cubbies
If they don’t win it’s a shame
For it’s one, two three strikes you’re out
At the old ballgame.
So, as I said at the beginning, I feel sorry for all those of you who don’t have or haven’t had a team. No memories then of Dad and the boys; no listening to a game on an old beat-up radio, always tuned to WGN when the temperature’s close to 100 degrees; no girlfriends to drive home on country roads, listening to Elvis on WLAC; no watching your own kids doing the same silly things you did, and a couple more, before joining you before the Cubs come to bat in the last of the 8th; no Eileen, who knew more about baseball and life than you ever will; no Take Me Out to the Ballgame; no World Series champs of 2016 to help you try to forget what’s going to happen with Donald Trump in the White House, and most important of all, no more, “Wait’ll next year.”
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