Mixed Marriage, Revisited


I’ve written about this grave before. About five years ago, my dad and I spotted it while visiting the Mother Jones Memorial in a union miners’ cemetery just outside Mount Olive, Illinois. The Cardinals and Cubs logos got our attention, of course. Last week, I stopped there again with my brother Chris and son Liam. After we got done gazing upon Mother Jones’s final resting place, we went across the road to the Kalvin grave. Chris noticed a metal capsule on the back of the stone, which happens to be the side facing the road. It has a hinged cover. Beneath the cover is what I take to be a picture of Steven and Verona, some time during their long marriage and lifelong residence in Mount Olive. A date is noted below: their wedding day. For a little historical baseball perspective, Steven Kalvin was born three years before Wrigley Field opened (and five years before the Cubs made it their home); Verona Kalvin was born the same year the last Yankee Stadium opened. They were married three seasons after the Cubs’ last pennant.

Verona, here’s hoping you don’t have to wait too much longer.


So, *That* Happened

Item 1: We returned from Japan today. In fact, I’m on my second Sunday evening (we took off from Narita airport, outside Tokyo, at about 7:15 Sunday night; and here it is getting close to 7:15 Sunday night after landing in San Francisco before noon. I understand the why and how of it, but it’s still strange.

Item 2: Before we left, I mentioned to someone that gee, the Cubs might be out of the playoffs by the time I get back home. Just indulging a moment of pre-emptively rueful Cubsy-ness. When we got home early this afternoon I picked up the San Francisco Chronicle, whose Sunday sports section featured not one but two misspelled names in other headlines, and saw the news that the Chicago nine had been swept. You can say wait till next year, or you can just admit you’re not waiting anymore. Go Pale Hose–spoil that beautiful Tampa Bay Rays story for us.

Item 3: Sometime I’ll relate my greatest adventure of September 2008, which was not flying to Japan but running out of gas on the very busy San Francisco Bay Bridge. I believe I’m an unindicted co-conspirator in the event, which involved a faulty fuel gauge.

Item 4: Not to leave the subject of The Trip too quickly: We flew Japan Air Lines both ways to Tokyo. Oddly (or probably not), about two-thirds of the seating space is devoted to first and business class. We were jammed in the back with the other groundlings. One of the entertainments offered on the screens-at-every-seat was a map of our flight’s progress. This morning, I saw that we were nearing the Northern California coast and started looking for Mount Shasta. The mountain is our Fuji, 14,000-some feet, a good hundred miles in from the coast. At the point I started looking, probably near Point Arena, we were about 200 miles from the mountain. But there, way off, rising above the clouds, was that beautiful snowy (not Sno-) cone.

It’s interesting to be back, even after just a week away.

(And where did the post title come from? Watch the clip below. You gotta stay with it to the end.)

Go Cubs Go

Walking the dog this morning, we encountered a younger couple pushing a kid in a stroller. The guy had a Cubs T-shirt on. “They’re gonna clinch today, right?” I said. “Oh–you never know. They could still lose it.” Technically, it was true, but I thought it was an overly cautious, self-consciously Cubsy thing to say. As it happened, the Cubs did win this afternoon. They won the National League Central Division title. We’ll see what the next step is. While we let the suspense simmer, we can consider some of the team’s musical history

Growing up in the Chicago area–the far south suburbs, in my case–baseball was a summer fixture on WGN. The station had a heavy schedule of both Cubs and White Sox game. Back then, WGN didn’t have an ownership connection with either team (that would come in 1981, when WGN’s owner, the Tribune Company, bought the Cubs from the Wrigley chewing gum dynasty). The fact you could count on seeing 150 or 160 games a year, including all those weekday afternoon games from lightless Wrigley Field, had something to do with creating a pretty avid fan population that followed both teams. At least I know I and most of my friends did. Eventually, the Sox went to WFLD, on Channel 32. Their games were fun to watch because Harry Caray, who had alienated his bosses in St. Louis and Oakland, took up residence on the Sox airwaves. Many commercial breaks featured Harry and Falstaff beer, and Harry delighted the fans at Comiskey Park by doing his play by play from the barren bleachers in center field, his booth perched about 500 feet from home plate. On hot days, the Sox set up an open-air shower out there for fans to cool off.

When the Sox left WGN (Channel 9 in Chicago), the station responded by adding Cubs games to its broadcast schedule–more than 150 a season. Maybe that was part of developing more of a Cubs-centric fan base. More important was that the long-comatose franchise woke up and started a run of about seven seasons or so in which the team went from a horrifying 10th place finish in 1966 to challenging for firstt in ’67; the following seasons ranged from very good but heart rending (1969) to decent and unembarrassing (1973, when the Cubs and several division foes wallowed around the .500 mark until the final week of the season). Needless to say, the notion that the Cubs could make what was never back then called “the post-season” was a theory we never saw proved.

I did mention music up there. WGN’s telecasts in the late ’60s featured Mitch Miller-like choral numbers that a music salesman in a plaid blazer might have pushed as “peppy.” One had a line that went “Hey, hey, holy mackerel, no doubt about it/The Cubs are on their way.” “Hey, hey” was WGN announcer Jack Brickhouse’s signature home-run call; it’s now enshrined on the Wrigley Field foul poles. In due course, that sappy number was supplanted by a mindlessly cheerful ditty that started out, “It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame, for a ballgame today.”

Eventually, I moved away from Chicago, well beyond the reach of WGN’s signal and then, when it became a national “superstation,” into austere Berkeley households with no cable TV. In 1984, the Cubs did what they had never done in my lifetime and played well enough long enough to get into the playoffs. No need to go into how that turned out. By that time, though, Steve Goodman had written the best Cubs song ever: “The Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request.” That’s wrong, actually. It’s the best baseball fan song, ever–unique for its combination of humor, poetry, and rueful but affectionate disdain for the home team.

Goodman died a few days before the Cubs clinched their playoff spot in ’84. But by then, he had already composed and recorded the song that the team now uses as an anthem after a home win: “Go Cubs Go.” A year ago, Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn wrote a great piece about how the song came to be written. The best part is that some of the team’s execs disliked Goodman because of “The Dying Cub Fan.” I don’t know where any of those guys are now. But today, when the Cubs won, Goodman’s voice was ringing out over Wrigley Field, and it sounded like every fan in the place was singing “Go Cubs Go.”

(Lyrics after the jump.)

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Pastime Moment


Not a great picture, but here it is just because we were there. Monday, Kate’s old boss called to offer us his pair of very good box seats for that night’s game between the Cubs and Giants. It was a nice evening at Phone Company Park if you were partial to the efforts of the Chicago squad. They won 9-2, and the crowd was sparse enough overall and the proportion of Cubs fans was large enough that you might have mistaken which team was playing at home: every time something went right for Chicago, a loud cheer erupted. The Giants fans concentrated their attention and vocalizing on their starting pitcher, Barry Zito. The latest effort from the $17 million a year lefthander featured five walks and five runs in five innings of work. His record at the end of the night: 3-12. The journalist and sports fan in me feels like there’s a great story to be told about how this guy’s career has imploded.

We didn’t go to the second game of the series last night. The Giants won. No connection implied. (In the picture, that’s the Cubs pitcher Ted Lilly at bat and rightfielder Kosuke Fukudome on deck. Oh, and the seats that provided this view? $71.40 a pop, which makes me marvel at the family of five sitting next to us and grateful for Kate’s boss’s generosity.)

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Mixed Marriage


I’ve just started to scan in some pictures from a trip Dad and I took in September 2004. From Chicago, we went down to Cairo, crossed the Mississippi, then took a ferry from Dorena, Missouri, back to Hickman, Kentucky. One of the stops on our itinerary was the cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois, about 50 miles northeast of St. Louis, where labor saint “Mother” Mary Jones is buried. My older son Eamon and I had happened across the spot on our way back to California a few months earlier. When we saw the informational sign on southbound Interstate 55–“Mother Jones Monument”–I was surprised. What was she doing out here, in the middle of nowhere? But the sign at the gate of a graveyard less than a mile from town and the interstate explained her presence: “Union Miners Cemetery,” it read. And on the arch above the gate, the legend was: “Resting Place of Good Union People.” You don’t know or tend to forget if you’re not from the area that this part of Illinois has a long coal-mining history and one marked by violence against union organizers and members. So: she’s there among the people she fought for. I’ve got some pictures I’ll scan in and post eventually.

While we were there, Dad and I strolled through the cemetery and another one just across the road. It was at the latter that we came across the headstone above. That south-central part of Illinois is divided between Cubs and Cardinals fans. Here’s a case where those bitter differences were put aside for a lifetime partnership (I note that the Cards’ fan lived to age 90; his Cubs’ fan wife would have been 80 when this picture was taken.

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Can’t We All Just Get Along?

By “we,” of course I’m talking about Cubs and White Sox fans. My friend Randy, a former lad of the Chicago suburbs, now a judge in the wilds of western Idaho, called after Game 2 of the World Series last night. At first I thought he was just getting in touch after a very long time to say hi. But he had something else on his mind. As a Sox fan, he wanted to gloat to a Cubs fan about his team’s victory. I disappointed him, I hope, because 1) I’d never root against Chicago (unless the Sox are playing the A’s, my adopted hometown team) and 2) Houston, as the putative hometown of the Bush dynasty, must not prevail.

But even without Houston’s involvement, it’s never been an article of my Cubs faith that I need to hate the Sox; it’s also not part of that faith that I have to like the Cubs, either, though I find myself pulling for them on the rare occasion they play games to care about.

Randy says that he became a convinced Sox fan at age 7, when they went to the World Series. He says he knows all the stats from the team that year, and sleeps with a Sherm Lollar replica athletic supporter under his pillow. Randy’s account made me think about when it was I decided I was a Cubs fan.

Growing up, we rooted for both teams and went to games at both ballparks, and I never heard that my Cubs fan dad had any trepidation walking through the turnstiles at Comiskey Park. I followed the Sox and liked them. They were my mom’s family’s team. They had good-bordering-on-great years in the early and mid-’60s, finishing second in ’63, ’64 and ’65 and going into the last five games of the ’67 season tied for the lead in a close race with Boston, Minnesota, and Detroit. They didn’t manage to win even one despite playing the the last five against the ninth- and tenth-place teams.

The same year, 1967, was the year that the Cubs awoke from a 20-year nap. They’d lost more than 100 games the previous year. They had some mature talent in their lineup (Banks, Williams, and Santo) and had added some good younger players (Kessinger, Beckert, Hundley) along with some decent pitching (Jenkins, Holtzman, Hands and Niekro). Suddenly they were contending. They had an incredible run in June, winning 23 of 27 or something, and went into the All-Star break tied with the Cardinals for first. They faded, but people had started to expect things from them.

I was 13. Impressionable. And maybe I’m a front-runner, too, because after that I was a Cubs fan; 1969, the year of their huge fold and the Mets’ huge run, was just over the horizon; but by then it was too late to back out — I actually cared. And besides, the Sox also-ran dynasty had run its course after ’67, and the folks down at 35th and Shields got a chance to see up close what Cubs fans already instinctively recognized: a loser.

So: Cubs fan, but not overly proud to say it. Hate the Sox? No. To the extent I work up that kind of bile over sports any more, I reserve my bitterness and revulsion for the preciousness surrounding the San Francisco Giants. Used to sort of like them, though.

More Futility, More of the Time

I spotted this statement on CBSSportsline.com last night, and thought, “Wrong!”

“The 46-year gap between Series appearances is the longest in major-league history.”

Any Chicagoan knows there’s a team that has gone longer, much longer, without getting into the World Series: The Cubs. The story was attributed to wire reports. I imagined that the site’s editors were under email bombardment from fans pointing out the mistake. But then I heard the same sentence read on CBS radio news this morning. I went back to the CBSSportsline story. And it had changed. It now reads:

“The Chicago Cubs would end up with an even longer one, if they ever get back — their last NL pennant was in 1945.”

The second sentence, despite its breach of common sense, does make the first sentence true. Now that the Sox are back in the World Series, the temporal dimensions of their Fall Classic drought are known. The Cubs might go another 100 years before they play in the series — or 12 months. So who knows the length of their Series gap?

But that second sentence is the product of labarious, if not twisted, newsroom thinking that seeks to correct an error by qualifying it while ignoring a larger point. The important issue here (“important” in quotes) isn’t the gap — it’s the length of time a team has played without getting to the World Series. The White Sox went a very long time. The Cubs have gone even longer, whether they ever make it back or not.

Spite ‘n’ Schadenfreude

A couple years ago I told my colleague (and San Francisco Giants fan) Endo that a perfect day for me as a baseball fan would go like this: A’s win, Cubs win, Giants lose. Yeah, that’s the bitterly unhappy level to which my rooting interest in baseball has fallen: I take what passes for glee when a team loses (for now at least I won’t go into the twisted psychohistory behind my dark feelings for the San Francisco nine).

Given my leanings, this week has been special: The A’s started it on an epic roll. The aspiring-to-mediocrity Cubs entertained the mediocrity-would-be-an-improvement Giants for three games at the cute little loser’s paradise at Clark and Addison. The results for the first part of the week: Ecstasy. Agony. Ecstasy again. (Translation: On Monday, the A’s won and the Cubs beat the Giants — which is actually a little spite bonus on my definition of perfection; on Tuesday, the results were reversed; on Wednesday, they swung back the other way).

Now the Giants have left Chicago, and their losses will bring only a normal helping of sour satisfaction (though the way the Giants’ division is going, they could win it if they can get back to .500). The Cubs — well, they’ll dance around the .500 mark for the rest of the season and pack the house all the way to the end; neither wins nor losses will surprise or disappoint much; only three years till the centennial of their last World Series championship — it would be a shame to wipe out that streak before it hits 100. And the A’s: Hey, they’re actually fun to follow, especially after their horrible start this year, and anything they can do from here on in will be both pleasing and surprising.

Hall of Fame Guy

A Cubs fan (me) belatedly notes: The baseball writers, discharging their sacred annual duty, have elected Ryne Sandberg, former Cubs second baseman (actually, the first game I saw him play, one of the more memorable games I ever attended because it was called because of darkness after 17 innings, he was at third) to the Hall of Fame. Somehow, the news didn’t stir the wild elation in me that I might at one time have expected (actually, I find former A’s and Twins’ catcher Terry Steinbach getting one vote for the Hall almost as interesting as Sandberg getting elected. I’d love to hear the Steinbach partisan explain the passion that led to that vote).

My subdued reaction is due partly to my ambivalence toward baseball tipping over to estrangement. On one hand there’s the game, which still displays beautiful and subtle moments. On the other hand, there’s the relentless insistence on nonstop entertainment at the ballpark, the wacky player salaries, the prevalence of free agency and constant player movement that makes it hard to figure out just who’s on which team, and the owners and league establishment who treat fans as saps to be milked for as many bucks as possible before they’re hustled out of the park.

And then there’s simple Cubs fatigue. As Steve Goodman asked, “What do you expect when you raise up a young boy’s hopes and then just crush ’em like so many paper beer cups year after year after year after year, after year, after year, after year, after year, ’til those hopes are just so much popcorn for pigeons beneath the El track to eat?”

So, Sandberg was elected to the Hall. My first question was whether he deserved it, because my impression of his career was that he was a very good player, but not one who had the lasting dominance both in the field and at the plate to make him a Hall of Famer. I’m sure that impression is influenced by how the Cubs had a couple of moments of real brilliance during Sandberg’s career (especially winning the National League East in 1984, Sandberg’s MVP year) that ended in disappointment (losing the ’84 playoffs after going up on the Padres two games to none). They reached the playoffs just once more during his career, in 1989, when they lost four out of five to the Giants, who went on to get swept by the A’s and an earthquake.

Beside those two playoff years, the Cubs never had another winning season during his career (they were 73-71 in ’95, the year of his first retirement). That’s a little different from the last few Cubs to make it into the Hall — Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, and Fergie Jenkins — who were all part of a team that put together a decent string of winning seasons and served as the semi-tragic victims of the ’69 Mets.

But I’m not a Hall of Fame voter or a sportswriter, or even that up-close a fan of the game anymore, so maybe I’m just not remembering how good Sandberg was in the midst of all those bad, so-so, and occasionally good teams. Of course, my wet-blanket attitude does not affect Sandberg’s standing, in the opinion of Kate and many other fans of the distaff persuasion, as one of the cutest players ever.