Chapter 14 – Blast from the Past
My dad was a Chicago Cubs fan. A big one. And the only one from the house he grew up in where he was one of eight children. The rest were all Sox fans. I remember watching these games on TV with my dad since I was a little kid. He’d even taken me down to Wrigley quite a few times back in the day to see the games live. Although I definitely have some great memories from our times out at the old ball game, the classic image I have of my dad watching a Cubs game is sitting on the reclining chair in the TV room of our house on Olcott with a beer either in his hand or leaving a condensation ring on the end table/lamp we’d taken from my maternal grandfather’s house after he’d passed away in the mid-nineties. And, of course, me and my brother Danny would always be sittin next to each other on the couch a couple feet away from him.
During the last few years of Harry Caray’s sixteen-year tenure as announcer for the Chicago Cubs, I remember my dad imitating the then 80-year-old local legend quite a bit. The most common phrase we’d hear almost every game we watched was what Caray would say when a Cubs player would hit a home run. With the ball up in the air, looking like it might make it over the fence, Caray would always go, “It might be…it could be…” and then if it actually did end up clearing the wall, “…it is! A home run! Ho-ly cow!” Like, I can still picture my dad sitting up in his chair and excitedly saying that one in unison with Caray then turning to give us guys a round of high fives as we watched the player on the curved screen of our bulky old school TV trot around the bases.
It was the same deal a couple years later when Harry died and his grandson Chip took over in the booth. I can’t count how many times during the summer of 1998 – the summer of the great home run record chase between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire – that we heard the younger Caray say his own catch phrase. Like, no joke – that was the most magical and exciting summer of my life, sittin there and celebrating with my dad and brother as we watched juiced-out monsters regularly blast 500-plus-foot homeruns outta stadiums left and right. Since then, nothing has ever – and nothing will ever – capture my imagination the way that that home run race did. But anyway, when a player would get ahold of one, Chip would always begin with, “Swung on, belted. Deep towards…” and then the details varied from there. For example, it would go somethin like, “Swung on, belted. Deep towards left. Back goes Gant. At the track. At the wall. It’s gonnnnne! Sammy with his sixth home run of the season to put the Cubs back on top!” My dad didn’t really like Chip Caray all that much and would often say that, “The Chipster’s kind of a dickhead.” But that didn’t stop him from crying out, “Swung on, belted!” when he saw the ball pop off a player’s bat in a way he thought might lead to a home run. In fact, sometimes he’d even say those three words before Chip Caray would. And then when the ball landed in the outfield bleachers, Dad would again turn for a high five and say somethin like, “Hoho Samuel! Cmon! My man’s a homerun-hitting genius! The Cubs are gonna win it all this year!”
Good times. But let’s forget about those days for now. Let’s go back to before Chip the Dickhead took over in the broadcast booth and return to Harry’s era for a minute. There’re these two different things I remember my dad tellin me that he heard Harry Caray say on air that he always thought were so fuckin funny. I mean, I’m sure there were more, but it’s just these two that’ve withstood the test of my memory’s time.
So, I guess one of the things Harry regularly did over the years was take the last name of a player on the opposing team and try to say the guy’s name backwards. And at least this one time, Harry – the famous “Cub fan, Bud man” who was known to suck down one Budweiser after another up in the booth throughout the game from start to finish – was too wasted and/or senile to play his own game. The Cubs were playin the Rockies at the time when Dad heard this one and he’d end up sayin it for years after. Doin his best drunken Harry impression, he’d be like, “Andres Galarraga – that’s a funny name, Steve, don’t ya think? Galarraga. Hmm…how do ya say that name backwards?” Then my dad would let a couple seconds pass to imitate the dead air during the broadcast while Harry was mulling it over. “Well, Steve, his name is the same backwards as it is forwards! It’s Galarraga!”
The Steve he mentioned in that quote was in reference to ex-ballplayer Steve Stone who spent fourteen years up in the booth alongside Harry. My dad actually used to quote one of the things that that guy would always say as well. Like, anytime “Stoney” was breakin down a play – like what just happened during an instant replay or whatever – he’d offer little pieces of advice to all the kids that may’ve been tuned in to the broadcast elsewhere. He’d say, “And for all you youngsters out there watchin from home…this right here is the reason why baseball players wear cups.” Nah, I don’t think he ever said that particular line, but my dad liked repeating that first half of the quote. Fun fact – Steve Stone actually posed for an issue of Playgirl back in 1985, so, “For all you youngsters out there watchin from home that’re interested in seeing a grown man naked…well, now you know where to find me.” Anyway, jokes aside, I can’t imagine what must’ve been going through Steve Stone’s mind when he sat there and listened to Harry drop what would turn out to be my dad’s all-time favorite quote of his.
“Hey Steve,” he slurred during one of the later innings of a game, “look at all them birds out there.” He’d been referring to the pigeons that were known to hang out here, there and all over the place in the area around the broadcast booth. “Wouldn’t ya like to take a gun and just shoot some of ‘em?”
There’s one other funny story related to old school WGN Cubs broadcasts that my dad liked to tell. It doesn’t have anything to do with Harry Caray’s antics, but rather those of a fireman he knew from back in the day. Now, it’s well-known that there’s a fire station, Engine 78, located directly across the street from Wrigley Field on Waveland Avenue. What I’m willing to bet most people don’t know, however, is that there are quite a few differences between fire engines and fire trucks. That’s right, they both have specific functions and they’re not just two generic words you can substitute anytime you feel like it. Well, at least you can’t if your dad spent 30 years on the CFD like mine did. Like, believe me, you’ll get called out for it. When I was on the phone with one of my dad’s old fireman buddies during the week after he died and I said truck when I should’ve said engine – or vice versa, I can’t remember which way I fucked it up – the guy was legitimately pissed off. “Get it right!” he barked. He was pretty fuckin wasted though, so I didn’t take it too personally, but I mean, as a fireman’s kid, I guess I really should know the difference. Anyway, I don’t care to get too deep into it here, but for our purposes it’s relevant to know that – in Chicago at least – fire engines don’t have the hydraulically operated aerial ladders attached to their roofs, but fire trucks do. That said, it’s not exactly clear to me what a fire truck was doing outside Wrigley Field on this particular day, but my best guess is that maybe Engine 78 was out on a run and a truck/crew from a nearby firehouse came over to temporarily cover 78 as a “change of quarters.” I’m not sure. I’ll have to ask my da-…oh right. I can’t. So, I guess I’ll just hafta plead ignorance when it comes to the details here, but honestly, it’s not all that important in understanding what’s to follow.
What my dad told me was that he was sitting at home watching the Cubs game when the cameramen zoomed in on something that he found quite interesting. No, I’m not talkin about the big jiggling breasts of drunken female fans out in the bleachers that somehow always made their way onto our TV screen and prompted my dad to say things like “Yoooo!” and “Ouch!” while he salivated like a horny cartoon wolf from his beloved reclining chair. I’m talkin about somethin he’d never seen before and would never see again. During the middle of the game, this fire truck had been parked just out beyond the left field wall on Waveland Avenue. And at one point, the aerial ladder extended up and over the wall and hovered just above the fans in the left field bleachers. At the top of the ladder was one of my dad’s buddies waving at all the shouting fans whose attention he’d so boldly grabbed.
“When I saw him doin that shit on TV, I couldn’t believe my eyes,” my dad said to me. “That fucker’s too funny, man…standin up there wavin at everybody with his sunglasses on. But yeah, he definitely got in a little bit of trouble for doin that.”
I think the Cubs story I heard out my dad’s mouth the most over the years had been the time he and our neighbor Mike from across the alley had seats a few rows back from the first base line. As I touched on in the last anecdote, outside the stadium, beyond the left field bleachers runs a side street called Waveland Avenue. Across the street from the stadium on the other side of Waveland – in addition to the firehouse – there’s a series of these three or four-story apartment buildings that offer spectator seating up on the rooftops. And at some point during the game they were at, this ‘roided out, brick shithouse of a man named Glenallen Hill got ahold of a knee-high fastball and sent it sailing far, far over the left field wall and out of the stadium.
“Holy shit,” my dad said to Mike. “You see that? That fuckin ball just landed on the roof across the street.”
“Yeah way. Look!” he said. “That guy up there is holdin up the ball.”
My dad said it was the most unbelievable thing he’d ever seen happen live at a sporting event. And he told that story many, many times over the years. On May 11th of 2020, I saw a news article saying it was the 20th anniversary of Glenallen Hill’s mammoth rooftop blast. It was also the day of my father’s death.