My letter of thanks to Jack Brickhouse

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Dear Jack,

Today was the kind of day that makes cemeteries interesting. As I drove through Rosehill on the far north side of Chicago, I watched the dried leaves blowing across my path on the way to the mausoleum where you are interred. This is generally not baseball weather here in Chicago, but you never saw a team like this year’s Cubs, either.

As I arrived at the door and removed my Cubs hat, I was appreciative to live close enough to be able to pay a visit to you before the World Series began. Thanks to your broadcasts on WGN through the years, a person didn’t have to live in or around Chicago to become a Cubs fan. That was true for me, who grew up in Cardinals country near Springfield, Illinois.

The Cardinals games of the mid-1970s–when baseball entered my life–were broadcast on the radio on KMOX in St. Louis. Everybody knew the sound of Jack Buck’s voice, but nobody got to watch the team actually play, unless they appeared on NBC’s Game of the Week or ABC’s Monday Night Baseball. But the Cubs did it a different way in Chicago by putting every game on TV, and for me it made all the difference.

I loved being able to watch a few innings of the Cubs games after school, or even entire games during the summertime. Night games on the road were OK too, but afternoon baseball at that gem of a ballpark in Chicago was pure happiness to me.

Many of today’s Cubs fans aren’t familiar with your work, and I think that’s unfortunate. Without you and your broadcasts on Channel 9, the Cubs wouldn’t mean nearly as much to me as they do today. But the World Series is upon us, Jack, and I wish you were here to enjoy it. Ernie Banks never saw one, and Ron Santo didn’t, either. But Billy Williams is still here, along with names you used to call for me like Rick Monday and Jose Cardenal and Bruce Sutter. Cubs fans my age love names like Barry Foote and Mick Kelleher and Champ Summers, because they belong to a specific time and place, and the sounds they remember from that era are your “Hey Hey!” call and they way you pronounced every Cubs win a “thriller.”

There was no better way to remind myself of how I came to be a Cubs fan than to come and pay my respects at your gravesite this morning. I’ll make sure to enjoy these upcoming games against Cleveland, not only for myself but for you and all the other Cubs fans who weren’t able to see it. I hope you’ve got a great seat where you are, Jack, because you deserve to have it. Thanks again for helping me to take baseball in once upon a time. This week wouldn’t be the same without you.

Rob Harris

Chicago, IL

Feelin’ Weasley

I recently got back from a few days at Universal Studios in Orlando. The main attraction at Universal is the Harry Potter section of the Islands of Adventure park. The park opened at 9 AM when we were there, but since we were staying on the property, we were able to get in an hour early. Nearly all of the people who availed themselves of this option made a beeline for the Potter section of the park. And with good reason, since it does a very credible job of bringing J.K. Rowling’s work to life. The people who put this together really did it right.

I bring this up as a background for something that occurred to me today. I’ve read the Harry Potter books, and seen maybe half of the movies, so I’m generally aware of the characters and their stories. One of the primary characters, Harry’s friend Ron Weasley, came to my mind as I was putting up some pictures of old Chicago Cubs players at work today.

Rowling’s world of Hogwarts and Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley and all the rest works so well because it was invented out of thin air. Like Baum’s OZ, and Tolkien’s middle-earth, it draws you in and makes you want to believe it exists, even when you know that it doesn’t. A world of muggles, or munchkins, or hobbits seems much more interesting than the world that we actually inhabit, and so reading these books is a way–the only way, really–of spending some time there.

A major element of Harry Potter’s world is the invented game of Quidditch. Harry’s friend Ron is a big fan of the worst Quidditch team of all, the Chudley Cannons. They’re a terrible team that never wins anything, but Ron Weasley supports them, anyway. It’s a bit like Charlie Brown and his favorite baseball player, the inept (yet fictional) Joe Shlabotnik. Players like Shlabotnik, and teams like the Cannons, somehow have a following in the worlds they inhabit, even though they’ve given their fans nothing to get very excited about. And so it is with the Chicago Cubs and their long-suffering, yet still very real, fans.

I thought about this as I was putting up three pictures of Cubs players from the 1977 team at my desk at work today. The three were Jerry Morales, George Mitterwald, and Gene Clines. The 1977 Cubs were in first place halfway through the season, and they led me a younger and more naive version of myself to believe that great things would happen that year. But they fell apart in August and September, and finished far out of the running in their division.

Had this late-season collapse been a sign of things to come in the decades ahead, I might have switched my team allegiances back to the St. Louis Cardinals, who are much the preferred team in the town where I grew up. But the bond had been forged, despite (or maybe even because of?) the team’s losing ways. Unlike the Cardinals, I could watch the Cubs’ games on TV, and I liked hearing the way that Jack Brickhouse called a game on WGN. He talked about Waveland Avenue and Sheffield Avenue as places that, like Hogwarts, I wanted to believe actually existed.

It would be a decade before I went to these places myself, and confirmed their existence on the North side of Chicago. But in the meantime, the Cubs became my version of the Chudley Cannons. They lost all the time, and that’s never an easy thing to cope with, but when you love a team, and the game that they play, their losses somehow strengthen that bond, rather than dissolving it.

Should anything ever happen to chase the ghosts of Jerry Morales and all of the other Cubs from the past away, well, that will be a fine day, indeed. May I live long enough to see it. I sometimes think that Ron Weasley’s Cannons will win a championship before my Cubs will. And if you were to tell me the Cannons don’t really exist, my reply is that’s exactly my point.

Reconstructing an old memory

As a kid who wore glasses from an early age, I identified with ballplayers who wore them, too. One of the most prominently spectacled players was Jeff Burroughs, who had a long career in the majors, with most of it spent in the American League. For some reason, though, I have a partial memory of him from my childhood. The memory goes like this:

It’s a Saturday afternoon, and I’m in my parents living room watching a Cubs game on WGN. I’m dressed for church, because we would sometimes go to mass at 4 PM on Saturday to fulfill our weekly obligation. And that’s all it ever was in my family; we went to mass once a week for school, and once on the weekend. And we went on the holy days too. But it was never something we wanted to do, and I always saw it as a pointless exercise. That must explain why I haven’t been a Catholic for thirty years.

But all that is beside the point. I remembered having a Cubs game on, and the game ended in the bottom of the ninth when Jeff Burroughs let a routine ground ball go through his legs in left field. I remember thinking that I could have made that play, but somehow he missed it. I then turned off the TV, and we went to mass like we had done a hundred times before, and would continue to do until I went away to college and stopped going altogether.

With just that sketchy bit of information–Jeff Burroughs, left field, and a game at Wrigley that ended on an error, I wanted to see if I could reconstruct the game to find out exactly how old I was at the time. And as it turns out, it took less than 5 minutes to accomplish this.

I started off by using baseball-reference.com to determine which seasons Burroughs played in the National League, which turned out to be 1977 through 1980. The only National League team he played for was the Braves, so I was already able to establish the Cubs’ opponent on that day.

From there, I was able to eliminate 1977 as a possibility, since he played in right field only that year. In 1978, he was moved over to left field, where he played for the remainder of his time in Atlanta. The next step was to look for one run games in Chicago that ended in the Cubs’ favor, which eliminated all games from 1978. I was getting closer.

From there, I was able to identify the date of the game as Saturday, July 21, 1979. Jackpot. I was eleven years old at the time. From there, it was a simple matter of pulling up the retrosheet boxscore for the game, and filling in the early-40s me on what the eleven-year old me had witnessed and largely forgotten about.

The Cubs went into the ninth inning of that game behind 2-1. Mike Lum, who would one day come to the Cubs for the final season of his career in 1981, hit a pinch hit home run off of Mike Krukow to break a 1-1 tie and provide the ┬áslimmest of all margins to Braves’ reliever Gene Garber. Garber had pitched the 8th inning already, and was in line for the win if he could get the final three outs.

In modern baseball, the ninth-inning closer would have been ready to go out and get the last three outs to save the win for Garber. But that practice didn’t begin until Tony LaRussa, Dennis Eckersley and the Oakland A’s of the late 1980s. Garber was already in the game, and it was his game to finish out.

The Cubs pushed the tying run across in the bottom of the ninth, when Dave Kingman came through with a pinch single to score Miguel Dilone. The words “Kingman” and “single” don’t always get used in the same sentence, but this was clearly an exceptional day at Wrigley Field. The Cubs’ next batter was Scot Thompson.

My neighbor across the street at that time was also named Scott, but his name had two t’s at the end, as did every other Scott I had ever met or heard about, with the exception of Scot Thompson of the Cubs. If you ever get stuck for a word in Scrabble, “scot” with one t means a form of taxation. It’s where the term “scot-free” comes from. ┬áSo don’t say you didn’t learn anything today.

Scot Thompson delivered a single into left field, the ball rolled through Burroughs’ legs, Kingman came around to score, and the game came to a happy end for the 28,000 in attendance that day. Every game the Cubs won was a “thriller” to Jack Brickhouse, but this one legitimately fit the bill. And I have to believe that the ending of the game made mass more tolerable that evening, too.

The internet helped me to fill in some of the blanks about that game, turning a vague memory into something a bit more clear. The time or effort that it would have taken me to research this game in the pre-internet age would have probably prevented me from taking any action about this. And the results, now that I know them, wouldn’t have justified the time expenditures, either. But the internet is a great thing, isn’t it?