I remember some pretty good quotes attributed to “Lonnie Wheeler” a while back, so when I saw that name listed as the author of this book, I jumped at it.
The full title is “Bleachers – A Summer In Wrigley Field”. It was published in 1988. The subject is the Cubs season of 1987. Each month of the season is a separate chapter.
I’m sure many of you are familiar with this book, since it’s so good and it’s been around for so long. But is was new to me and I enjoyed it a lot.
Of course the 1987 team was one which Dallas Green loaded up with what the author refers to as “pre-owned Cubs”: Ryne Sandberg, Keith Moreland, Gary Matthews, Larry Bowa, Ron Cey, Dennis Eckersley, Steve Trout, Scott Sanderson, Dick Ruthven, Bob Dernier, Rick Sutcliffe, Jody Davis, Leon Durham, Lee Smith, Rafael Palmeiro, Chico Walker, Brian Dayett, Dave Martinez, Jamie Moyer, Gregg Maddux, Drew Hall, and Andre Dawson.
As I’ve said before, 1987 was the first year of my residency, so the Spring was spent preparing, June was spent moving and settling in, and from July 1st onward I didn’t come up for air, or see the sunlight, for over two years.
So I’ve heard of these names, but that’s about it.
I have to say that the characters and experiences depicted in this book are the exact ones I’m familiar with from the neighborhood, from the tavern, and from Wrigley Field itself. Mr. Wheeler nailed it. This is my Chicago.
Speaking of opening day at Wrigley, 1987, the author observes:
- “It was an interesting coincidence, though, that the election and the first game fell on the same day. It meant, if nothing else, that Chicago was guaranteed at least one winner on April seventh.”
Mr. Wheeler says that the Cubs starting pitcher that day, Rick Sutcliffe, “soon developed an acute disinclination to throw the ball over the plate.”
A Bill Veeck quote imparts the following bleacher wisdom: “I have discovered, in twenty years of moving around a ballpark, that the knowledge of the game is usually in inverse proportion to the price of the seats.”
A gentleman seated in the right-field bleachers is characterized as “a baseball fan of the highest order.” And that fan, remarking about a day at Wrigley with just over five thousand people in attendance, expresses a sentiment to which I can relate: “There are too few days like this. The crowds ruined it.”
- “A guy explained Wrigley Field’s universal appeal to his girlfriend. “Even if the Cubs are bad,” he said, “the weather’s usually good.”
The author goes over the differences between “Cubs fans” and “baseball fans”.
He also describes the generational nature of Cub fandom:
- “Like so many who were hopeless Cub fans, his dad had been one. His dad told him that the Cubs would win a pennant in his lifetime. ‘He died in ‘83,’ Terry said. ‘At the end, I’d tell him the Cubs were winning, and that would perk him up’.”
Another generational Cub fan, Jerry Pritikin, talked about his father:
- “The last thirty days of his life he didn’t say anything, except for one time, when he woke up and said, ‘We gotta get rid of Kingman.’ That was the only thing he said the last thirty days of his life.”
- “They say that because of the way the shadows fall, the team ahead at five o’clock always wins at Wrigley Field.”
- “There was no wanton racism in the bleachers of Wrigley Field, but a subtle bigotry still asserted itself randomly. One of the bleacher ethics held that nothing was off limits in the harassment of an opposing player, and race being a handy subject, occasionally there were overtly distasteful remarks such as the one concerning Strawberry. The same applied to Chicago’s black players. If one batted or pitched his way into disfavor with the fans – as Lee Smith had done in 1987, despite his fine numbers – it was not uncommon for the criticism to take on racial overtones. On the other hand, black Cub heroes such as Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ferguson Jenkins, Gary Matthews, and now Andre Dawson, were among the best-loved men ever to wear the uniform.”
- “The coldest and most successful of the gamblers had said, ‘Never bet on the Cubs after the Fourth of July’.”
Once again, describing the feeling of enjoying a game at Wrigley when it wasn’t crowded:
- “But nonetheless, as I sat alone in center field watching the Cubs beat the Mets 6-1 in a mid-August game of only moderate consequence, I decided it was a shame that the ballpark wasn’t like this more often. Other parks still were. Wrigley Field, make no mistake, was still the best of the ballparks, and the bleachers were the best of Wrigley Field, but the rare privacy on August fourteenth was so quieting as to be almost cathartic.”
On that same subject: “The bleachers had gotten to the point of miniature golf, and for those to whom watching baseball was not unlike watching a heron fish the water’s edge at dawn, it was unfortunate.”
- “…as they walked to their door, one of the guys on the steps said, ‘How ‘bout them Cubs?’ One of the other guys said, ‘They’re making their move.’
They were ten and a half out, in fifth place.”
In August of 1987, the Cubs were seventh in the league in runs scored. Explanation? “Somehow – the grand jury of the bleachers was ready to indict a ring of conspirators that included untimely hitting, reluctant running, and invisible strategy….”
In an interesting side note (interesting only in retrospect, perhaps,) one of the frequent occupants of the bleachers put forward his personal nominee for 1987 National League MVP: San Francisco Giants’ catcher Bob Brenly.
- To the weekday September crowd, last place was no reason to give up on baseball. “I hope they finish last,” said Leonard Becker. “It would be a distinction.”
The New York Mets are described as a team “whom the Cardinal fans feared on a competitive level and the Cub people loathed on general principle.”
The Ex-Cub Factor is discussed in the postlude chapter. In the 1987 postseason championships, it held true.
- “In the same way that a baseball season never really begins, it never really ends either.”
- “All through September, as the Cubs blundered and backtracked, people said to me what a shame it was that the summer I picked to sit in the bleachers had turned out, in the end, to be such an ordinary one. But I thought it had been a perfectly fine summer. I thought it was a quintessential Cub summer….”
Sometimes, the more things change, the more things stay the same.
“Bleachers – A Summer In Wrigley Field” by Lonnie Wheeler. I cannot recommend it highly enough.