An essay by Chet Coppock from Great Chicago Stories authored by Tom Maday & Sam Landers, Published by TwoPress Publishing Co., Chicago; 1994
You gotta begin with this basic premise: I don’t want to sound treasonistic, and I don’t want to sound communistic, but in the arena of sports, wins and losses don’t mean that much to me. I’m the kind of guy who likes big crowds, likes noise, loves the pure sex appeal of it all – the absolutely Picasso-like color of a tremendous crowd, a full house. What I love about Chicago, and the entire sports ambience of this town, is the excitement generated by an arena packed with people. For sheer electricity, for pure drama, you can’t match Chicago Stadium for a big hockey game. Or when the Bulls are playing a big playoff game, that roar of the crowd. That feeling when you get 19,000 separate sets of vocal chords that almost become one. When it comes to sheer flavor for sports. Chicago delivers.
Generally speaking, there is no group quite like Bears fans. Those tickets are handed down from grandfathers to fathers to sons. I got to see every home game that Mike Ditka played in a Chicago Bear uniform. I remember the hit he made on Bobby Boyd (a defensive back for Baltimore) after Johnny Morton caught a pass and was headed downfield, in Wrigley Field in ’62. Ditka threw a block on Boyd that was so crushing it looked like a car wreck on the Dan Ryan. I swore I thought that Boyd’s head was gonna wind up in Lake Michigan. I had never seen a block so devastating in my entire life. Neither had the fans.
Chicago also has had the pleasure of witnessing two of the finest football players ever to play the game. Pound for pound, inch for inch, nobody comes close to Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus. As great a player as Walter Payton was, as a pure runner, he could not begin to compare to Gale Sayers. Keep in mind that he only played 68 games and still made the Hall of Fame, and was chosen a starter on the NFL’s first 50-year team. That’s how great this man was. Sayers was Baryshnikov in shoulder pads, Brando in The Godfather. He was the elixir – I mean, there was nothing quite like the guy. And he played in our town.
Two thoughts come to mind about Dick Butkus. One is seeing him for the first time as a rookie. He had that crew cut and that snarl; what a frighteningly imposing man he was. It was as if the Bears had called central casting and said, “Send us a football player.” The second thing is that he’s never been given the credit he deserved. He literally gave it his all, right up to the last game, when his knees finally gave out on him. Today, Dick walks with a very pronounced limp and he’s bow-legged, but I honestly don’t think it makes a damn bit of difference to him because all the man ever wanted to do was play football.
As for the fans’ affection for their sports figures, I can’t ever remember a town having a love affair with anybody the same way this town had with Ernie Banks. Here’s a guy who never played with a big winner. The bulk of his career was played with a bunch of guys who were out of the race before Mother’s Day, if not sooner. But this town loved Ernie.
He coined the phrase, “The Cubs Will Shine in ’69,” and Wrigley Field was just magical that year. I’d be hard-pressed to pick a sports event I’ve attended in Chicago and say that I’ve felt goose bumps the way I did on Opening Day, when Ernie Banks homered in his first two at-bats with 43,000 people in the stands. When Willie Smith came up to the plate in the bottom of the 12th and hit a home run in to the right field bleachers, my God, I have never heard an ovation like that in my life. You would have sworn that the President had just made an 86 percent tax cut across the board. That game set the tone for the first six months of the ’69 season. You could hardly wait to go to the ballpark because there was a different hero every day.
As far as any defining moment for Chicago fans, I recall vividly in ’88 when the White Sox were on the verge of moving down to St. Petersburg. At the request of a White Sox board member, I served as emcee at a couple “Save Our Sox” rallies in Daley Plaza. The attendance was not overwhelming; at the time the White Sox were very, very down. During one of the rallies, an electrical worker walked up to me and asked if he could just say a few words. I game him an introduction and he got up there and said more in five words than Ernest Hemingway could have written in The Old Man and the Sea, or Michelangelo could have brushed with the most vivid colors imaginable. He talked about his father and his grandfather and what the White Sox meant to him. When he was finished, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. Chicago fandom has been depicted, all to often, as being Archie Bunker-like. And nothing could be further from the truth.
Chicago has also been blessed by a string of play-by-play announcers over the years who, whether you like them or not, became an integral part of the event. Jack Brickhouse was Cubs’ baseball. And, for almost a quarter of a century, he announced the Bears games with Irv Kupcinet. Kup had a great line about those years, “Well, Jack and I had done football for 24 years and there was only on problem. Jack and I were generally describing the game that was actually taking place on the field.”
There is no town that delivers the goods like Chicago. There’s no city in the world that’s quite like this one from an anticipatory sense. This town will not buy a play-by-play man who doesn’t root for the home team. There are some people who take a poke at Johnny Kerr because he would scream like a Gordon Tech cheerleader when Jordan whet in for a slam-dunk. But that’s the beauty of Johnny Kerr. He doesn’t have to tell fans all the details. Instead, he’s roarin’ with that guttural explosion. It’s like Gable saying to Vivian Leigh, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” It couldn’t be more appropriate.
People in this town are galvanized by sports, yet they’re very accepting. I think it’s characteristic of the way this town operates. It’s not about winning or losing; it’s all about ambiance.