Streetwise Professor

October 23, 2016

They Did It, Dad

Filed under: History,Sports — The Professor @ 8:59 am

Last night the Chicago Cubs beat the LA Dodgers 5-0, to win the National League Pennant. It is literally true that I have been waiting for this all my life.

Baseball generally, and the Cubs in particular, were one of the most important things to my dad, as indicated by the fact that my first crib toys were a baseball bat rattle and a plush baseball. My dad lived and died by the Cubs, which meant dying, mainly.

There was a glimmer of hope in 1969. I attended opening day at Wrigley Field that year. I was there with my mom, because my dad couldn’t get off work. I waited patiently before the game and got Ernie Banks’ autograph–on a comic book, because my mom was too cheap to buy a program. (I was visible in a picture on the front page of the Tribune the next day, along with Banks and others waiting for his autograph.) Though Don Money hit 2 homers for the Phillies, Ernie Banks answered with 2 for the Cubs. The game went into extra innings when Willie Smith ended it with a pinch-hit homer. That seemed to be an omen, and the Cubs started off great, eventually building an 8.5 game lead. Yes, there were stumbles, like Don Young dropping two fly balls in a game against the Mets, but it looked like this was the year that would end a mere 24 years(!) of futility.

Then it all went wrong. An old team with thin and overworked starting pitching collapsed. My most vivid memory is Randy Hundley (my favorite player) jumping up-and-down protesting a close play at the plate involving Tommy Agee. (Would things have been different with replay?)

hundley_agee

Eliot wrote that “April is the cruelest month.” In 1969, April was the most joyous month for Cubs fans. It was September that was cruel beyond words. (Not that April hasn’t been cruel to the Cubs. April 1997 being a particularly acute example.)

The 1970s were miserable–I mean, if Dave Kingman is the most memorable thing about an entire decade of baseball, even “miserable” seems an inadequate description. The aging players of the 1969 team faded rapidly, and the skinflint ownership of the Wrigleys stinted on the farm system, meaning the team’s player development was abysmal.

The 1980s brought a glimmer of hope after a bad beginning. Dallas Green built a very good 1984 team, only to watch it all go for naught when an easy grounder went between Leon Durham’s legs in San Diego. (Ironically, the man Durham replaced, Bill Buckner, was the goat the same year when he infamously let a grounder go between his legs to give the Mets a victory. This was the living proof of the “ex-Cub factor.”)

In the Pirrong households there was much anguish.

The 1990s–another largely lost decade.

Things looked bright again in 2003. But again, the season ended in failure. It is hard to describe the gloom in the motel room in Franklin, Tennessee when my dad and I watched the Cubs lose game 7 to the Marlins the night after the infamous Bartman game. (We were in Franklin on our annual Civil War battlefield trip.)

2003 pretty much snapped it for me. I’d invested a lot emotionally with the Cubs since I could remember, only to experience repeated frustration and disappointment. Family, work, and other things pressed, and I paid only glancing attention to the Cubs until a couple of years ago, when there were glimmers of hope. Even then, I will admit that my commitment was somewhat tentative. Too many Charlie Brown moments had left their mark.

Not my dad, though. He soldiered on, loyally. (Loyalty being one of his many admirable traits, even though that loyalty had often been unrewarded–worse, actually–in his professional life.)

Here, in baseball as in work, his loyalty did not receive its reward. He passed away at the very beginning of the Cubs renaissance. Almost literally at the beginning. We put on the Cubs game in the room of the hospice where he lay dying. He passed away almost exactly at the first pitch of opening day of the 2014 season.

My dad was a second-generation Cubs fan. His father had been an intense fan too, and could claim (reasonably) to have seen the Cubs win a World Series game in a year when they won the World Series–1908. My grandfather grew up in the neighborhood near the old West Side Grounds at Polk and Wood where the Cubs played in the first decade of the 20th century. When my grandfather was an invalid, watching the Cubs on Channel 9 was one of the few joys in his life, even though that was during the nadir of post-War Cub fortunes (he died in September, 1968).

To give an idea of how big baseball was in the Pirrong family, my grandfather would routinely take my dad to see Negro League games in Comiskey Park. In my father’s memory, they were the only white people in sight, and my dad–a North Sider–grew up thinking there were no white people south of Madison Street. My dad was so obsessed with baseball that his ambition was to go into management. After getting his MBA at Northwestern, he left my pregnant mother to attend the Baseball Management Academy in Florida. It was money well spent: he realized that in that era, only family members of ownership had a shot at real responsibility. As he put it, an outsider would be lucky to be put in charge of the peanut concession. So he put his baseball dreams aside and became the picture of a 1960s-1970s middle manager in corporate America.

When my grandfather was failing, my dad would say “I hope the Cubs win a pennant before dad dies.” Then for years he would say about himself “I hope the Cubs win a pennant before I die.” He skipped over me altogether. When my girls were young he told them “I hope the Cubs win a pennant before you die.”

Sadly, his hopes for himself were not realized. He–we–reveled in the Bulls championships of the 1990s, and especially in the Blackhawks wins in 2010 and 2013. But those things would have paled in comparison to a Cubs pennant, if they had been able to achieve it. (He always said “pennant” rather than “World Series.” I’ve been pondering why in recent days.)

But alas, that was not to be. I am trying to share it with him, vicariously, through memory. I remember the first time we went to a game together–Cubs-Reds, 1967 (the Cubs won.) I remember his uncanny ability to turn on the car radio at the very second that the pitcher was winding up for the first pitch. (Even when we watched on TV, we listened to the radio because my father detested Jack Brickhouse. Not that the radio duo of Jack Lloyd and Lou Boudreau were much better: dad called them “fumbles and mumbles.”) I remember his intimate knowledge of the game–pitch selection, pitch location, positioning, calling hit-and-run plays, etc. And yes, I remember him waving his hand and yelling “BULLSHIT” at the TV in response to a bad call or a bad play or a bad managerial move. Because he was into it. (And no, the apple did not fall far from the tree.)

I know there are many Chicagoans who can tell similar stories right now. Because, after all, there have literally been generations of futility. It’s only a game, and it’s only a team, but a particular team playing a particular game have had a profound impact on many people. And the most profound impact has been to forge memories of shared experiences between parents and children–fathers and sons, especially (though they have contributed to shared experiences between me and my girls, too). So last night, being in the moment actually meant scrolling through myriad moments past.

In a few weeks, the 2016 season will fade from most people’s minds, regardless of what happens in the World Series. Life presses. New seasons begin. But it will leave behind the residue of memories, and some future event will bring those memories flooding forth. It would be a blessing to the rememberers if the recollections that do come are as intense and poignant as the memories of my dad that I experienced last night.

 

 

 

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18 Comments »

  1. I don’t care about the Cubs but this is a wonderful piece of writing. I’m sure your dad appreciates it

    Comment by Lee — October 23, 2016 @ 10:06 am

  2. @Lee-Thanks.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 23, 2016 @ 1:35 pm

  3. So much to love and hate about the Cubs. All the hate was washed away last night. I was at the game. When the first batter in the ninth got on base, I looked at my friend and said, Double play. And, seemingly on command there it was. No one wanted to leave Wrigley. It seemed surreal. I mean, this never happened.

    Harry Carey would have shouted, “The Cubs win the pennant”. That’s how the old baseball guys spoke.

    http://pointsandfigures.com/2016/10/23/flythew/

    Comment by Jeffrey Carter — October 23, 2016 @ 7:36 pm

  4. Agreed, this is wonderful writing.

    As for the subject itself…well, it’s your own fault: you lot should have been more tolerant towards goat-whiff.

    Comment by Tim Newman — October 24, 2016 @ 1:09 am

  5. It was my grandparents on my mother’s side. They were south siders, but for some reason, they were always cubs fans. I still remember our trips to their house and in the middle of an afternoon, my grandfather would be in his pants and white undershirt, beer in hand, watching a cubs game. I hope they are all smiling.

    Comment by JeffreyL — October 24, 2016 @ 1:37 pm

  6. Enjoy the Series! – Best, Matt

    Comment by Matt Jacobs — October 24, 2016 @ 2:48 pm

  7. Outstanding!

    Comment by TomHend — October 24, 2016 @ 6:01 pm

  8. @Professor
    If you don’t already have plans to do so you need to suck it up and attend at least one game in person. I haven’t checked ticket prices but imagine unbelievably high.

    Comment by pahoben — October 25, 2016 @ 1:43 am

  9. http://www.cleveland.com/metro/index.ssf/2016/10/indians_fan_brings_goats_to_pr.html#incart_river_home_pop

    CLEVELAND, Ohio – Cleveland Indians fans want to make sure the Chicago Cubs’ Curse of the Billy Goat lives on. So they brought two goats to Progressive Field on Sunday.

    “Everyone was really excited that I did it,” Alan Mancuso said Monday. “Especially those that know about the curse.”

    Many Cubs fans believe their team hasn’t been to a World Series in seven decades because of a goat.

    On Oct. 6, 1945, Billy Sianis, owner of the Billy Goat Tavern, arrived at Wrigley Field for game four of the 1945 World Series with his pet goat, according to history.com

    Sianis, who had a ticket for his goat, was either turned away at the gate or was allowed to enter but later asked to leave because his goat smelled, according to the website.

    Regardless, an angry Sianis allegedly declared “Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more.”

    The Cubs lost in 1945 and have not appeared in a World Series until now. They last won the World Series in 1908.

    Comment by elmer — October 25, 2016 @ 8:34 am

  10. http://www.oklahoman.com/curses-jinxes-and-hexes-are-dying-in-sports-are-the-cubs-or-the-indians-next/article/5523963

    CURSES!: Jinxes and hexes are dying in sports; are the Cubs or the Indians next?
    Chicago Cubs fans take photographs under the marquee Monday at Wrigley Field. The team will play in the World Series for the first time in 71 years, a drought that some fans attribute to the Curse of the Billy Goat. [AP PHOTO]
    Chicago Cubs fans take photographs under the marquee Monday at Wrigley Field. The team will play in the World Series for the first time in 71 years, a drought that some fans attribute to the Curse of the Billy Goat. [AP PHOTO]
    Tuesday, October 25, 2016 | by Jenni Carlson

    Curses are made to be broken.

    Or so it seems nowadays in the sports world.

    It’s not just because either the long-suffering Chicago Cubs or the long-suffering-until-very-recently City of Cleveland is soon to win a World Series. But on the day their series starts, there’s no doubt this matchup provides powerful evidence of the curse-busting times in which we’re living.

    Cleveland went 52 years without a championship. The city’s curse was defined by “The Drive” and “The Fumble” and “The Decision,” but of course, LeBron and the Cavs provided healing balm with a title earlier this year.

    Still, it has been 68 years since the Indians won one, some fans believing the 1960 trade of Rocky Colavito led to their own curse.

    Of course, that looks like kid’s play compared to the Cubs’ Curse of the Billy Goat, a legend born after a bar owner brought his goat to a game, then vowed misery on the Cubs when he and his four-legged friend got tossed from Wrigley Field.

    The result?

    No World Series in 71 years. No championship in 108 years.

    It’s been so long that Dexter Fowler will become the first black player to wear Chicago blue and red in the World Series when he leads off Tuesday. The game hadn’t even been integrated the last time the Cubbies played for a title.

    And yet sometime next week, either the Cubs or the Indians will be planning a parade. It’s fitting, really, considering the curses killed during the past decade or so.

    Maybe it’s the law of averages. After all, the sports world claims more curses and hexes than a Wiccan festival.

    Search the internet for “curses in sports”, and you’ll find there’s actually a Wikipedia page devoted to them. All told, there are 43 curses listed, and they span the sports world. Baseball. Football. Basketball. Golf. Curling. Snooker.

    Some come from afar. The Hanshin Tigers, a pro baseball team in Japan, claim to be under the Curse of the Colonel after fans snatched a Colonel Sanders statue from a KFC and threw it off a bridge.

    Some are closer to home. A few years back, Kevin Durant got into a social-media spat with rapper Lil B, who cast a “BasedGod Curse” (whatever that is) and said KD would never win a championship.

    If that goes by the wayside, it would just join the trend.

    In 2004, the Red Sox broke the Curse of the Bambino after 84 years.

    In 2005, the White Sox broke the Curse of the Black Sox after 85 years.

    In 2008, the Phillies broke the Curse of Billy Penn. Philadelphia had a long-standing policy that no building be taller than the statue of William Penn atop city hall. That changed in 1987, and for two decades, the city’s four pro franchises went title-less. But in 2007, when the Comcast Center became the city’s tallest building, workers attached a Penn figurine to the final beam. The next year, the Phillies won the World Series.

    In 2010, the Giants broke the Curse of Coogan’s Bluff after 53 years. When the baseball team went to San Francisco from New York City where it played at the Polo Grounds at Coogan’s Bluff, angry fans vowed a hex. Before the Giants’ recent run of titles, they had World Series games delayed for three days by flooding rains in 1962 and for 10 days by a massive earthquake in 1989.

    Weird, huh?

    This Cubs-Indians World Series feels a bit weird, too. But frankly, it’s the way of the sports world these days. Curses are endangered. Hexes are dying.

    Next thing you know, athletes will be stepping on foul lines, talking to pitchers during no-hitters and begging to be put on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

    Comment by elmer — October 25, 2016 @ 8:45 am

  11. Well, normally, I’d leap to congratulate you, but I must tell you that I’m a lifelong Dodger fan. Though much shorter, our drought is getting uncomfortably long.
    Regardless, you made an immediate link to family when speaking about the Cubs. I can relate to that perfectly. This year, Vin Scully retired after 65 years of service to the Dodgers. For me, that ended a long chain of continuity from when my.grandmother listened to Scully on the radio when the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn all the way to today when I’ve been listening to his game calling on my iPad. On his last game recently, I was pretty choked up; not just for the loss of him, but for the loss of my wonderful grandmother who started this whole baseball tradition in our family.
    Glad you’re dad is happy.

    Comment by Howard Roark — October 25, 2016 @ 10:24 am

  12. It is claImed that a student in Mission Vilello high school during the 70’s claimed in the yearbook that the Cubs would be World Champs in 2016 so signs are good.

    Comment by pahoben — October 25, 2016 @ 12:00 pm

  13. Given this is Chicago, how long before Obama turns up and makes it all about him?

    Comment by Tim Newman — October 25, 2016 @ 2:04 pm

  14. That 1969 team was loaded — Santo, Hickman (with a career year), Banks, Hundley, Beckert, Kessinger. Jenkins simply couldn’t carry the pitching staff by himself. Seaver, Koosman and Gentry were simply awesome for the Mets down the stretch of that season. Great memories.

    Comment by Tom Kirkendall — October 25, 2016 @ 5:58 pm

  15. @Tom-Yes, it was loaded, but it had some weaknesses. Most notably an appalling lack of speed–which was fatal when they played in the Astrodome. They were horrible against the Astros during that era.

    Re pitching. Bill Hands was a reliable #2. Ken Holtzman was a good #3 (though he really hit his stride with Oakland) but lost many starts due to National Guard service. I’ve often wondered if having him available for the entire season would have made a difference. Probably not, because of what you say regarding the Mets’ starters.

    I mentioned Jenkins and Seaver on Twitter after game 5 of the NLCS. Those guys would routinely match up in games that would take less than 2 hours. They could have pitched 2 extra-inning games in the 4:18 it took to play game 5.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 26, 2016 @ 8:41 am

  16. This post intrigued me, so I went into my sabermetrics database to see if my impressions of the 1969 Cubs were accurate. I’m glad I did.

    Most of my impressions were dead wrong. In reality, the 1969 Cubs had a well above league-average pitching staff and a slightly below average team of hitters.

    Incredibly, the Cubs staff was just slightly less productive than the Mets’ staff! Bill Hands — who I didn’t even remember (!) — saved a remarkable 45 more runs than a league-average pitcher would have that season in the same number of innings.

    The Cubs staff was third in the National League that season in terms of saving runs relative to league-average. The Mets staff was second in the NL, and saved only 8 more runs than the Cubs staff.

    Jenkins was the second best pitcher on the Cubs staff — he saved 22 more runs than a league-average pitcher would have. Holtzman was at 8 and virtually the rest of the staff was at least marginally above league-average in terms of saving runs.

    On the other hand, the Cubs hitters were not all that great as a team, generating 6 fewer runs than a league-average team of hitters would have using the same number of outs.

    Santo generated 29 more runs that season than a league-average hitter would have and Billy Williams (how did I forget him?) generated 22 more than league-average, but most of the rest of the Cubs hitters were below league-average. Hickman, who I recalled as having a great season, generated a total of 4 more runs than a league-average hitter would have using the same number of outs (what a career year – Hah!)

    So, the reality of the 1969 season was that the Mets were slightly better than the Cubs, but nowhere near 8 games better (the final difference in the standings).

    The reality — as opposed to my myths — is that the Mets were substantially luckier than the Cubs that season.

    Always good to check the numbers before relying on a faulty memory!

    Comment by Tom Kirkendall — October 26, 2016 @ 5:55 pm

  17. Very pleased for you and the other Cubs fans.
    As a New Zealander I tend to have the other problem, nothing really threatens my favorite team these days, the All Blacks just set a world record for consecutive test wins.

    Comment by Andrew — October 27, 2016 @ 2:31 am

  18. @Andrew. Thanks and congratulations. We should have such problems 😛

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 27, 2016 @ 10:55 am

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