Photo credit: Larry Stoddard/AP

The following is excerpted from The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse, by Rich Cohen.

Advertisement

When I was 13, I began going to Cubs games on my own. This was my first taste of adulthood. I’ve associated Wrigley Field with freedom ever since. I’d catch the bus at the end of my street and ride it into Evanston, where I transferred to the El, the Red Line carrying me like a magic carpet above the rooftops all the way to West Addison Street, where it was ballpark ambience and peanut shells the moment you stepped off the train.

Five dollars got you into the bleachers. You followed ramps. Up top you made a choice: left field bleachers or right field bleachers. Like choosing a political party. Though you might have gone this way instead of that by whim, the decision became your destiny. I chose left field. Over time, I came to hate the right field bleacher bums. I cursed them in chants that were never more elaborate than “Right field sucks.” The left field bums were sunnier and saner than the bums in right, whom I feared. To this day, when almost every other distinction has been erased from my life, I still feel like I’m being disloyal if I sit in right field.

For me, the seasons were defined by what was going on at Wrigley Field. Early spring meant bare ivy and players in long sleeves, a center fielder exhaling plumes. Late spring was new growth and freshly cut grass and hecklers, irrational hope, the queasy sound of a shattered bat. Summer was lush greenery, the rumble of a passing train, the trees along Waveland Avenue tossed by the wind and filling up like sails, and then the dog days of August when the ivy withered and the team drifted to the bottom of the standings. Because the Cubs never made it to the postseason, autumn was storm shutters pulled over outfield gates.

Advertisement

Best were weekday games that started at 1:05 p.m., games that had no meaning other than the meaning shared by every other unimportant thing. Seeing a game like that in the spring—and now I was older, 16—meant ditching school after fourth period, waiting for the bus on Green Bay Road. Familiar faces in the bleachers, my baseball family. To sit out there when everyone else was in class, to see the players playing the game without any effort to schedule it for a time when most of the world could watch, let me know that life was still going on even when I was trapped in school. One August, I took a picture. I was right behind the catcher, five rows up, using a disposable camera. I got the shot off a moment before an usher asked to see my ticket. I still have that photo. The pitcher—I think it’s Rick Sutcliffe but it’s impossible to say—has just released the ball. His body is still falling toward the hitter, who is already swinging. You see the bend of the batter’s back leg, his hips following his eyes toward the point of contact. You see the ball suspended between pitcher and hitter. The infielders are moving, anticipating. You can’t see the sun, but it’s there in the shadows. Nor can you feel the wind, but it’s there too, in the flags on the poles and wandering bits of trash. Nor can I be seen, though it’s through my eyes. And the summer is there, too—going full blast, as if it will never end.

The 1979 Cubs are the first team I followed and the first team I loved. It was a ragtag crew:

Pitcher Rick Reuschel is whom you noticed first because he seemed nothing like an athlete. Big and soft, a farm boy from the western part of the state. He looked less like a pro ballplayer than like a guy who teaches woodshop. But he was one of the best players on the Cubs. He threw pitches that looked as fat and wobbly as the man himself, the sort you imagined hammering into every part of Wrigley Field, yet few hitters could catch them clean. That was the Reuschel magic. He was already 30 years old in 1979 and still went on and on and on. Nineteen seasons in the majors. Every time I happened to see him—now pitching for the Cubs, now pitching for the Giants, now pitching for the Yankees or the Pirates—I was at a different stage in my life. A long career serves a time-marking purpose for a fan. It can carry you from childhood to adulthood, shoehorn you into grown-up life.

Advertisement

It’s a function of baseball, which is all about length—long games played over long seasons, which accumulate into long careers. A career like Rick Reuschel’s runs beside your life, allowing you to measure your progress. I was five and stumbling across the green fields of Libertyville, Illinois, when he won 13 games for the Cubs in 1974. I was 22 and writing stories for The New Yorker when he lost his last game for the Giants. I grew up in between, in the shadow of that large man. And it was not just Rick, but also his older brother, Paul. The brothers were on the same roster for three seasons in Chicago. Rick was good, Paul not as good. Rick looked sad, Paul looked even sadder. The baseball card that features them side by side over the phrase “big league brothers” has a prized place in any collection. I used to wave it before my own brother, saying, “Maybe we’re not good enough to play pro baseball, but can we at least try to behave like big league brothers?”

Ivan DeJesus was at shortstop in 1979. We spent much of our time struggling with his name. Did it mean “of Jesus” or “from Jesus”? He must’ve been religious, because he often crossed himself between pitches, the bottom of the crucifix being his crotch, which he adjusted as he stepped into the batter’s box. Steve Ontiveros was at third. Barry Foote was behind the plate. There was a rotating cast of out elders: Mike Vail, Jerry Martin, and, most unforgettably, Dave Kingman.

Advertisement

It’s strange how a player who hit so many home runs, and not just regular home runs but God balls—so high they go all the way up to heaven—can leave such a bad taste in your mouth. It was his body and countenance, that mustache and those cold, angry eyes, the mean way he carried himself not just in Chicago but everywhere he played. Kingman, a lumpy6-foot-6, was a parody of the haughty ballplayer, the anti-Ernie Banks, the man who seemingly stays in the game not because he loves it but because nothing else pays as well. He’d exaggerated the Babe Ruth swing to the outer limits, starting at his heels, swinging for the moon. It was feast or famine, monster shot or strikeout. The nicknames that attached to him suggest the dichotomy. He was known as King Kong but also as Ding Dong. You can never win with a guy like that. For one, he looked miserable out there, having no fun at all. Of course, you can’t discount all those home runs entirely.

It’s on account of them that Bill James listed Kingman as the 98th best left fielder of all time. James writes that “77 precent of Kingman’s career value is his home runs, the highest percentage of any player in history.” (Cecil Fielder is next on that list; Sammy Sosa is ninth.) But as a fan you got a bad feeling from Kingman—like he hated you, not in general but in particular. Knew you and hated you. He’d hit 37 home runs for the Mets in 1976 but they traded him the following June. Which tells you. He could not stay in a single city more than four years. By then, too much ill will had accrued. 1979 was his best season. He hit 48 home runs and—amazing for him—batted .288. He also struck out 130 times.

Kingman was with the Cubs just three seasons but it felt like forever. Speak his name to any fan between the ages of 42 and 95 and watch the physical reaction—grimace, groan. Ding Dong. Like Nixon and Trump, he warred with the press. It began when the Sun-Times put him on its list of worst-dressed Chicagoans. He told his teammates to never again speak his name to the media. He once sent a rat to a reporter, and dumped a bucket of ice water over the head of another—Don Friske of the Arlington Heights Daily Herald. Kingman called it “a prank.” In an attempt to monetize all that bad energy, the Chicago Tribune gave Kingman a column. He said he was not entirely comfortable with the gig, as “it’s an insult to be called a writer.” Asked if he used a tape recorder for interviews, he said, “Nah, I make it up like everyone else.” Some of his columns ran. Some were killed, including one in which he suggested trading newspapermen like baseball players. He wanted to swap Mike Royko for Red Smith. In a newspaper profile, Kingman named his hobbies, a 1970s bachelor potpourri: hunting, fishing, woodwork, photography, “my dog.” “After every game, Kingman takes to his boat to collect his thoughts and a few fish for dinner,” according to the story. “During the season, he likes to be alone. ‘When you’re around a lot of people,’ he complained, ‘they always get around to talking about baseball.’” Asked to characterize Kingman, Bill Buckner said, “He’s a teammate.”

Advertisement

Buckner smooches a friend before a game in 1979. Photo credit: AP

This meant something coming from Buckner, as Buckner was the greatest Cub of that fallen era. He was 27 when he arrived in Chicago. His big shoulders and thick mustache, his serious way of approaching the game, seemed at once old-fashioned and brand-new. He would have looked equally comfortable playing beside Cap Anson or Kris Bryant. He was a first baseman and a .300 hitter, with an easy swing that sent screamers into the power allies. He was more than just a good player—he was a steadying presence among a team of incompetents. He filled that classic Cubs role—great player on a bad team. An All-Star, National League batting champion in 1980, our connection to first class, what we had instead of winning. Buckner carried the burden in those bleak years. He was our Mr. Cub.

I got to meet him when I was ten years old. It was like encountering a historical figure. It was like meeting John F. Kennedy. My father had become friendly with Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda. One spring, when that team came to town, we got passes. We talked to Lasorda in his locker room office. He was wearing a ribbed undershirt, baseball pants, turf shoes. His pants were un-buttoned and his big belly hung down. Every Italian restaurant in the city had sent over its signature dish. Tins were scattered across the desk and Lasorda picked at them as we talked.

Advertisement

My father and I were in the midst of a fight, and Lasorda somehow sensed this. He kept asking what it was about. Finally, I told him. My father had made me remove my Cubs hat outside the locker room. He said wearing a Cubs hat in the Dodgers clubhouse would be disrespectful. Lasorda thought for a moment, looked at me, looked at my father, then said, “I like you, Herbie. You are a nice man, but I have to tell the truth: In this case, you’re dead wrong! Dead wrong! What kind of kid do you want for a kid? A kid who changes colors depending on the company he keeps? ’Cause to me, that sounds like a rat. Your boy is loyal to his team. God bless him!”

Lasorda came around the desk and hugged me, took the Cubs hat from my pocket and put it on my head, then walked us through the tunnel and onto the field, where he waved over Buckner, whom Lasorda had once managed. Lasorda told Buckner about the fight. (“He made him take off his hat?” Buckner asked incredulously.) Buckner shook my hand. He was big and handsome and nothing unlucky had happened to him yet. We talked about the Cubs and we talked about the game. Then we turned and smiled and took the picture.

Advertisement

For the most part, being a Cubs fan has not meant 2016 or 1908. It’s meant 1979. That’s the real deal, the typical experience. The standout game that season—the part that represents the whole—was played at Wrigley Field on a blustery afternoon in May. The jet stream had settled 50 feet above the park. Any ball hit into the air was picked up and carried away. The Phillies hit four home runs in the first four innings and were quickly leading the Cubs 17 to 6. The Cubs tied the game at 22 in the eighth. Kingman hit three home runs, one of which is considered among the longest ever hit at Wrigley. It cleared the bleachers, landing, according to the announcer, “on the front porch of the third house across Waveland Avenue.” Of course, it would not be a classic Cubs game without a classic Cubs finish: Mike Schmidt homered in the 10th to beat Chicago 23–22.

According to George Will, in A Nice Little Place on the North Side, Mike Vail made a throw from Wrigley’s deep right field one afternoon that season. He hoped to nail the runner at home, but the throw sailed and hit the batboy instead. There he lay, stretched out like a corpse. I’ve not been able to verify this story, but repeat it anyway because, even if it did not happen, it might as well have, as it captures exactly what it felt like to be a Cubs fan in 1979. We were all that batboy, wrongly believing we were watching from a safe distance.


Excerpted from The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse by Rich Cohen, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2017 by Rich Cohen. All rights reserved.

Advertisement

Rich Cohen is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Tough Jews, The Avengers, Monsters, and (with Jerry Weintraub) When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead. He is a co-creator of the HBO series Vinyl and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone and has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Harper’s Magazine, among others.