In Chicago, accompanied by a group of travel media armed with SLRs, video cameras, smart phones and the traditional pad and pen, I am engaged in a secular pilgrimage on
Opening Day at Wrigley Field.
In 1963 as sports editor of our high school newspaper, I obtained press credentials to hang out with Toronto's elite jock media at the annual Sportsmen's Awards at the Royal York Hotel where, I met two of Chicago famed athletes, the Cub's
Ernie Banks and the Bears'
"Bronko" Nagurski, Windy City legends who both played here at Wrigley.
Banks was a superb Major League Baseball shortstop and first baseman for 19 seasons: 1953-1971, an All-Star for 11 seasons, and in 1958, he hit .313 and led the NL with 47 home runs and 129 RBIs.
Decades later, I talk baseball with another Cub All-Star, Canadian
Ferguson Jenkins, right-handed pitcher and three-time All-Star as well as the 1971 National League Cy Young Award winner. In 1991, he became the first Canadian to be inducted into the
Baseball Hall of Fame.
We sit in a media room deep in center field, and Jenkins is modest and affable; yet, despite complimentary food and beer and chit-chat, I need to experience the fans outside in the bleachers so off I go.
Wrigley celebrates its 100th birthday this season, and the stadium is packed despite cool weather during this early series with the Phillies. The sun shines on the Cubs who sport a 7-1 lead and the centerfield stands reflect a giddy mood that permeates the frigid air with laughs and smiles and beer and well-lathered hot dogs. A Cub loyalist rebukes a nearby Philly antagonist with, "Our team has a significant lead over yours," and his allies shout out a chorus of, "Significant! Significant!" amidst chuckles and playful pats on the back.
It's too early for the ivy to cover the outfield brick walls, but later in the season, balls become lost in it. An outfielder signals a lost ball by raising his hands; the umpires then call time and may rule the play a ground-rule double. If the outfielder opts to try to find the ball amidst the ivy, the ball remains live and base runners may advance, making Wrigley Field managerial strategy both flora and sport.
I notice other fans enjoying the game as well, lounging on nearby rooftops on residential streets that surround the park in this community, Lakeview, the bars, restaurants and other establishments collectively called
Wrigleyville. The flat
rooftops of the apartment buildings across Waveland and Sheffield streets pre-date the ballpark.
Wrigley was built in 1914 as Weeghman Park for the Chicago Federal League baseball team, the Chicago Whales. It was renamed for the Cubs team owner and chewing gum magnate, William Wrigley, Jr. From 1921-70, it was also home of the NFL Chicago Bears and Mr. Nagurski a Canadian-born American football player from Rainy River, Ontario. Nagurski was also a successful professional wrestler.
The oldest National League ballpark, it's the second oldest active major league ballpark after
Boston's Fenway Park, but it has yet to see the Cubs win a World Series, which leads me to explain "the curse." Yesterday, I had lunch at the
Billy Goat Tavern, a busy restaurant that was the inspiration for SNL's skit that featured comedian
John Belushi portraying a stubborn cook who accepted only orders of "Cheezborger! Cheezborger! No fries, cheeps! No Pepsi, Coke!"
Now, it's one of a chain of taverns in Chicago, including
Navy Pier, the Merchandise Mart, O'Hare Airport, the West Loop, and even Washington, D.C. Founded by
Billy Sianis, a Greek immigrant, it achieved fame through newspaper columns by Mike Royko, who disclosed a curse on the Chicago Cubs when Mr. Sianis was not allowed to bring his pet goat to a baseball game. Hence, no World Series winners since, but at the Billy Goat Tavern, you can order a double cheeseburger (with no fries!) for $4.55 and a draft beer for $ 6.
Terrry Sullivan of
Walk Chicago Tours is my guide, a pro baseball scout for the Boston Red Sox at high school and college games, covering Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin and St. Louis, Missouri. He explains the entrepreneurial rooftop rules - the allotment is 150 people per roof, and the 15 rooftop owners must all provide the Cubs with 17% of their $70 per person charge which includes booze and food for the happy spectators. Looking past the centrefield bleachers and scoreboard, I note that most rooftops are full!
With two pro baseball teams established here, Terry says that Chicago locals tend to introduce themselves in three distinct ways - first they ask what parish each belongs to, then what park they live near, and finally and most importantly, the Sox or the Cubs? Terry says that the "teams are an economic engine," in Chicago, and given the success of the NBA champion basketball Bulls with
Michael Jordan, the
Stanley Cup Black Hawks and the
World Series champion White Sox, Cubs fans must really hate Billy Sianis and his damn Billy goat.
Sadly, both the Cubs and the Sox lost their home openers while I was here, the fans fanatical in their support and my 1963 pilgrimage complete.
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review, Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Geographic Traveler, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine.
Harry Caray and the Wrigley Field "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" Seventh Inning Stretch tradition
Wrigley Field Turns 100 Years Old
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