An essay by Chet Coppock from For Cubs Fans Only by Rich Wolfe
Published by Lone Wolfe Press, Chicago; 2003
I took my boy to see Game 6 of the League Championship Series with Florida, when Prior was on the mound and saw the occurrence with Moises Alou and the young kid from Northbrook, Steve Bartman. And to hell and be damned with all those people, in my opinion, who tried to lay the blame for this most recent Cub failure on the kid, who did what, basically, any fan in the world is going to do – that is to instinctively reach out for a foul ball. And it wasn’t just the kid for heaven’s sake. It was a living, breathing British soccer scrum with all these people who were reaching for this foul ball.
I’m in Las Vegas, I had to leave on Wednesday morning, so I saw Wednesday night’s seventh game from a hotel along The Strip. And when it was done, there wasn’t any feeling of desolation or desperation. There was no feeling of “where’s the arsenic,” let’s rewrite “Leaving Las Vegas.” It was just a feeling of something that had been said to me when I was about ten years old. That was, “Kid, remember, the Cubs are on earth to break your heart.” And to revise that to be more metaphorical in terms of where I was on that given night, I think that slot machines, the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox all have been placed on God’s earth for one express reason, and that is to break our hearts. But, in my case I was very, very fortunate.
Early in life, my father was very close to Jack Brickhouse, who, of course, for many years, was not only the voice of the Chicago White Sox, the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago Bears, but was the single, most powerful individual in Chicago during the so-called Eisenhower years, next to Mayor Daley. And, I’m going to throw you one that probably nobody else will give you. Jack Brickhouse did more for race relations in the city of Chicago than either Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson or any politician of any color or any extraction that you can name. And the reason why is very simply because, when I think about Ernie Banks playing for the Cubs back in the mid-1950s at a time where we’re still looking at Brown v. Board of Education, we had yet to get to Meredith in Mississippi, we had yet to have Wallace standing with defiance outside of the University of Alabama, when Gene Baker was playing for the Cubs and to flip a coin when Chico Carrasquel and Luis Aparicio were playing for the White Sox, Jack Brickhouse made it known in very vivid and very colorful terms over black and white television mind you, on WGN, that blacks were to accepted, that Latinos were to be accept in our living rooms in Chicago with the same sense of grace and the same sense of warmth that we would offer our next door neighbors, as Caucasian as they may be. So, this sounds crazy, but for a young Chet Coppock, the Chicago Cubs became a life-growing situation for me in that my first sports hero was Harlon Hill, who played wide receiver for the Chicago Bears and is arguably one of those so-called “greatest football players never to have earned a ticket to Canton and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”
I just fell in love, like any other kid did, with Ernie Banks, and it became almost a religion. I went to Sunset Ridge Grammar School out in Northfield, Illinois, which is just west of Winnetka, which, of course, is the Big Wind from Winnetka. This ultra rich, very tony suburb is the home of New Trier High School, which I attended. I would run home every day, and I ran home really with two express purposes. One was because you were dying to see Ernie Banks swing the bat hoping that he was going to hit a walk-off home run. And number two, to hear the incredible passion and the remarkably friendly, strikingly Midwestern delivery of Jack Brickhouse. And I don’t think there is a broadcaster in Chicago, who is over the age of 40, for example, maybe even over the age of 35, who wouldn’t tell you very honestly and openly that, at least, part of his or her style is the direct influence of Jack Brickhouse. And over the years, my gosh, from the time I was born in ’48, this ball club’s in a window where it doesn’t even get a look at the first division until 1968, but there was always an attachment about the Cubs that was, at least for me, stronger than the White Sox.
Because there was Ernie Banks and then, around ’60 or ’61, the arrival of this pugnacious bulldog of a third baseman named Ron Santo, who at once was like Jake LaMotta in baseball spikes, tough and tenacious. I remember him running out of the dugout at Cubs Park to get into a fight with Gene Mauch. Not too many people know about this, but there was a terrible feud between Durocher and Jack Brickhouse. Durocher could not stand the popularity of either Banks or Brickhouse, Leo being a very markedly selfish individual. And to the everlasting credit of both “Brick” and Ernie, they really took the high road with Leo Durocher at a time when Leo was making their lives absolutely “H-e-l-l, which a capital H.”
In 1969, opening day, cold as hell, I’m in Cubs Park, I’m a young punk, I’m only 20 years old, I’m working for WFLD as a sports writer and sports reporter. I’m in the house when Willie Smith hits this dramatic, Sistine Chapel, Caesars Palace, Rembrandt of a home run to beat Philadelphia, and this cascade, this wave of jubilation, began in the City of Chicago, and, of course, it would up being in typical Cub fashion, massive, massive disappointment. But it’s really ironic to me because I’ve never seen this with any other club in my life. Thirty-four years after the fact, here is a ball club that finished second, won 92 games and finished eight games back, behind Seaver, Koosman, Gentry, and Gil Hodges, who is a brilliant manager, terribly underrated for the New York Mets. Thirty-four years after the fact, this town still has a love affair that is as rich, as textured with that ball club as it was in 1969.
I mean, that was the ball club that never had to say, “We’re sorry.” A couple of years later, “Love Story” was released with Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal, and the classic line was, Ali saying to Ryan, as she was dying of cancer, “Being in love means never having to say you’re sorry.” And the same thing can be applied to the Cubs in ’69, the Cubs in ’84 with San Diego, or the Cubs in ’03, being ahead and then losing to the eventual World Series champion Marlins in the NLCS. Basically, the application is being in love, as this city is with this ball club, means never having to say you’re sorry. Now, I’m telling you if the Cubs are taking on the chin in New York the way they got bopped, the way they just caved in, in ’69 or the ay they caved in against San Diego in ’84 when Durham had the wickets and let that ground ball slip through his legs, or here in 2003 where Baker clearly made blatant managerial errors in Game 6 and Game 7 with the bullpen and with Kerry Wood, if he’s in New York with the tabloids, if he’s on his own in Philadelphia, good God, they’re going to drop kick him in – choose one – the Hudson River or the Atlantic Ocean. Or worse than that, leave him in some strip joint in Atlantic City. But, here in Chicago, it’s like, well, “They sure gave us a great run.”
One thing that I found to be strikingly atypical of Cub fans was, and I really blame this on my people in the media and Steve Stone, the Cub color announcer, who is one of the big perpetrators of this, the Bartman kid who reached out for that foul ball. It was the most harmless, most innocent act in the world. You are at a ballpark, you but a ticket, it’s a playoff environment, he’s not conscious of what he’s doing for God’s sakes. He’s no more conscious of Moises Alou that a guy running the Boston marathon is of the people who are lining the hill when you get to the twenty-three mile mark. All he knows is that this is his chance at a foul ball. And again, there was this collision of human flesh trying to get the sucker. You can’t blame him because Alex Gonzalez blows the lock on a double play ball a couple of moments later, but Stoney goes on the air and, in this very whiny voice, says, “I just can’t believe any Cub fan who would want us to win would do something like this.” I heard it by relay and I wanted to say, “Stoney, for gosh sakes, will you wake up and realize not everybody played the game. The problem with you is that you’re so high and mighty, having been a Cy Young winner and then occupying this seat in the broadcast booth, you can’t see reality. He did what any fan would do for gosh sakes.”
But here again, it’s so far in the deep dark past because eternally, eternally with every Cub fan it’s interesting. In my office at Sporting News Radio, as I began to piece together my show, guys were not talking about, “Gosh, we could have gone to the World Series, son of a gun, the New York Yankees and Joe Torre could have been here – Jeter and Giambi and Posada and Mariano – the Cubs could have been in the World Series for the first time in 58 years.” Instead, all the people are talking to me about what the Cubs should do in 2004.
And that’s the very essence of why next year, they’ll draw 2.9 million, and even though they have the worst parking facilities in North America, they will always draw; and, why despite the irrevocable charm of the outdoorsy, almost-Disneyland atmosphere that exists at Wrigley Field, it’s also a place of just terrible facilities, the longest concession lines in North America. It’s hard to explain, but ultimately with the Cubs again, being in love means never having to say you’re sorry.
To carry it one step further, being in love means, not only is next year this year, the next one hundred years are going to be this year. Brickhouse had a great line with it. I was with him in ’81 when he did his last home game for WGN television. He was kind enough to invite me up to the booth with my TV crew for Channel 5 and it was a stirringly emotional moment. The Cubs were playing a meaningless doubleheader against Philadelphia. After the ball game, Jack and I were walking down and, I remember Lou Boudreau and Vince Lloyd hopped up before we did, they gave Jack his space because they sensed that there would be some type of response for “Brick.” When they got down to what was known as the “catwalk” right by the Pink Poodle, which used to be the old press room in Cubs Park, all of a sudden, there must have been about 2000 fans that began chanting, “Jack, Jack, Jack,” and it went on for about fifteen minutes. Two ironies emerged within me. One was the incredible display of passion for this man, who probably broadcasted most losing ball games that any man in baseball history. Number two was, being as close to Jack as I was – Jack was the godfather of my daughter, Lyndsey – I was crying harder than jack was.
To me it captured the kind of, gosh, how would you define it really? It’s like a core that exists between the Cubs and their fan base. And, no matter how bad things are, I mean Baker should be getting torched in this town right now. If this was San Francisco for heaven’s sakes, if this was Los Angeles, I’m convinced that Dusty right now would be absolutely woodshed bound, he’d be tied at the wrist and people would be clobbering him. But, even our media in town, when it comes to the Cubs, is remarkably passive because we all fall into this, this little niche of realizing that the Cubs are Maui in their own way. The Cubs are the south of France. The Cubs are the eloquence and the old-fashioned European feeling of being Montreal. But yet, the Cubs are also Des Moines, Iowa. And they’re Rockford. And they’re a hick town down in central Indiana and they’re these nomads who come in every year from Fort Wayne or come in from Benton Harbor, Michigan, who are lured to the ballpark.
So, ultimately to be a Cubs fan, to me, is the most enjoyable experience in the world because there’s no pressure. It’s not like being a Yankee fan. I mean, heaven forbid, now that the Yankees lost to Florida in Game 6 in the World Series, all of Staten Island will triple their dosage of Prozac. But in Chicago with the Cubs, we still have the coolest marquee in the world on the corner of Clark and Addison. We still have the Cubbie Bear, we still have Sluggers and Hi-Tops, we still have the Harry Caray monument, we still have “Hey, Hey” and Ernie’s retired, we still have this charcoal-broiled oven with twenty-four ounce strip steaks just simmering to the point where you can just smell how good they really are. We have that flavor. It’s a flavor that does not exist at Fenway Park, no matter what they say, doesn’t exist with college football at Legion Field in Birmingham or down at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge of beneath the Golden Dome at South Bend. It only exists in Cubs’ Park. And forevermore it means being in love means never having to say you’re sorry.