When I was about two years old my folks moved to a large apartment on Roscoe and Broadway Streets, on the north side of Chicago, about one mile from Wrigley Field. This was during World War II and apartments were scarce. My grandmother lived with us and at least one of my mom’s brothers.
In those days the city was still known as “the Hog Butcher of the World,” as Carl Sandburg called it. Not only did the city house the meatpacking industry but also the steel industry, textiles, and electronics. But all of these industries, the heart and soul of Chicago, were centered primarily on the South, West, and near North sections of the city. The smells (particularly the Stockyards), the sounds and the worldwide image of the city came from these centers of production, unionization, and commerce. But where I grew up, even during the World War, the atmosphere was shaped by the baseball team, the Chicago Cubs, at Wrigley Field a mile from where I lived. The air was infused with a narcotic, the more you breathe the more you forgot about victory, success, pride in workmanship, and even athleticism. Yes I was born to be a Cubs fan.
When I was about 7 years old, a friend of the family took me to my first Cubs game, a double-header. Only one image stands out from that initial experience. Phil Cavarretta, the Cubs first baseman, and batting champion in 1945 when most men were still in Europe or Asia fighting World War II, hit a game leading home run. However, as he rounded the bases he forgot to touch second base, or at least that was what one of the umpires ruled. Cavaretta’s homer was ruled a double. That decision led fans to shower pounds of paper products across the beautiful grass along the outfield. It took an hour to clean up the mess, to get the fans calmed down and for the game to resume. My host had to leave so I don’t know if we ever found out who won that game. But in retrospect, what was significant was not so much whether the game would go in the Cubs win column or whether Cavarretta would have his hit count as a homer. The significance, I suppose, was that I was left with a feeling of passion for the Cubs at least until last week, a blind loyalty to the team even after I lost interest in the sport.I still remember my first sports hero, outfielder/third baseman Andy Pafko. He was a slow fielding power hitter who was a Cubs star for about five years. When we moved further North in the city (I was about 10 years old), my hero Andy Pafko appeared at the Little Men’s store on Devon Avenue to sign autographs. I was pretty mad at my parents for not taking me to see Andy but that anger passed as I heard, the very next day , that Pafko was traded to the old Brooklyn Dodgers for Gene Hermanski. Maybe that shocking trade was the first planting of a seed of anger at big capital that would manifest itself in subsequent years in my radical and activist politics.
In the years since 1950, one event after another dashed my hopes about a bright Cubs future, even as my commitment to this sorry team deepened. Shortstop Roy Smalley, an athlete with a terrific arm, regularly threw balls intended for the first basemen into the stands miles beyond its target. The Cubs at one time acquired Ralph Kiner, aging home run hitter to traverse the outfield with home run star Hank Sauer. These almost immobile home run hitters played beside poor Frankie Baumholtz, the center fielder whose career was shortened by years because he had to cover the entire outfield.
In the mid 1950s the Cubs reluctantly broke the Chicago “color line.” They recruited the great Negro League home run hitting shortstop Ernie Banks and a good second baseman, Gene Baker, to complete the double play combo. Later, they acquired a Hall of Fame African American outfielder, Billy Williams.
Ernie Banks coined a slogan that to me was as meaningful as “Workers of the World Unite” when he would say at the end of each season, “Wait til Next Year.” Unfortunately next year never came and the great Ernie Banks became a Republican. (I won’t even remind the reader that a young Ronald Reagan would broadcast Cubs games from a ticker tape, making up what was going on in the field without even being there. In addition, one of the Cubs major supporters until this day from the world of punditry is George Will!)I could go on. The Cubs did make post-season playoffs in 1984, 1989, 2003, 2007, and 2008 but nothing inspired a fan’s enthusiasm more than the Cubs fifth place finish in 1952 (before the National League was divided into divisions). Radio commentator Jean Shepherd was reminiscing about his youthful indiscretion once; his support of the cross town losing rival the White Sox. He said one time he and his friends watched the White Sox lose a game 4 to 3 and they afterwards went out and held a victory celebration. That has been what life is like if one is a Chicagoan in residence and in spirit.
Well, my wife declared last year that “enough was enough.” Being a Cubs fan for 60 years without any positive reinforcement she felt is more than any person should be expected to endure. The loss of six playoff games in a row in 2007 and 2008 was more than she could take. I felt she was betraying a sacred trust, an obligation that we Chicagoans were ordained to honor. But she said no.As I hinted at above, news stories last week have forced me to join my wife in redirecting my life. I could take 100 years without a World Series. I could adjust to the trade of the greatest Cub, Andy Pafko. I could remember with fondness Smalley’s wild throws into the stands. But what I cannot accept is the effort by Joe Ricketts the father of the current Cubs ownership, to fund a $10 million anti-Obama campaign that would highlight a racist attack linking the incumbent to his former minister Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Reverend Wright, an articulate and militant opponent of racism in the United States was unfairly tarnished during the 2008 election campaign and Obama, instead of defending his former minister, separated himself from him.
By revisiting the Wright/Obama affair, this proposed campaign was designed to stigmatize those who oppose racism, link the president with so-called “Black militancy,” and in the main use another coded form of racism to build opposition to the president. And to make matters even more bizarre, the senior Ricketts funds Koch brothers-like campaigns while his children seek massive tax breaks from Chicagoans to renovate my beloved Wrigley Field.
There comes a time when loyalties borne in impetuous youth must take a back seat to political principle. In this case, the billionaires of this world, unleashed by the Supreme Court, are working to reverse our political and economic life, returning to the extremes of class exploitation, racism, and sexism. The vision of “workers of the world unite” must take precedence over “wait til next year.”