Mike Royko was ultimate Cubs fan

If there's an afterlife, the former Chicago columnist is celebrating the Cubs' World Series appearance.
Mike Royko was ultimate Cubs fan

Writing a book about Mike Royko made me a Cubs fan. But my allegiance pales in comparison to that of Royko, arguably the greatest newspaper columnist of the 20th century.

Royko, a lifelong Chicagoan whose column was syndicated in 600 newspapers, got the Cubs bug early. He attended his first game as a 6-year-old boy on opening day in 1939.

Royko remained a rabid Cubs fan until his death in 1997. Well, except for one year. In 1980, the columnist became so disgusted with the team that he switched allegiance to the crosstown White Sox.

On that solemn occasion, Royko took an oath on the pitcher’s mound at Comiskey Park, his right hand aloft, his left hand on Sox owner Bill Veeck’s upraised wooden leg.

No surprise, Royko switched back to the Cubs the following year. He wrote about it each time. When you write five columns a week across three decades, you write about everything.

And Royko, through his years at three Chicago newspapers—the Daily News, the Sun-Times and finally the Tribune—always wrote about the Cubs, living and dying with their good and bad fortune—mostly bad.

Which is why, if there is a Billy Goat Tavern in the afterlife, Royko is there, equally thrilled and flabbergasted by the Cubs’ World Series appearance.

He’s bellied up with a shot, a beer and a cigarette—in Royko’s heaven, you can smoke—telling stories: about his first opening day; about the virus he named the ex-Cub factor; maybe even about the time he tried to buy the Cubs.

It was Royko’s dad who took him to his first Cubs game in April 1939. They were accompanied by two friends, Dutch Louie and Shaky Tony. It was a school day and a cop accosted them outside the stadium. He pointed at Mike.

“Shouldn’t that kid be in school?” asked the cop.

“He stayed home sick,” Dutch Louie said.

“What’s wrong with him?”

“Pneumonia.”

They ducked inside while the cop mulled that over.

Royko was smitten from the first pitch. The Cubs lead-off man hit a triple off the wall. “I was hooked,” Royko said later. “From that moment I was a Cub fan. Little did I realize it was a curse.”

Was it? All those losses and close calls—perhaps the result of the “curse” placed on the Cubs by the owner of Royko’s beloved Billy Goat Tavern—were tough to stomach, but they gave the columnist great material.

He often argued that being a Cubs fan prepared you for the basic unfairness of life. You could do all the right things, try your hardest—and still lose.

“Players who were so bad nobody else wanted them were always traded to the Cubs,” Royko wrote. “Then a miraculous change would occur: They’d get worse.”
He called the Cubs “a triple threat team. They are a threat to lose pitching, hitting or fielding.”

In 1981, Royko was contacted by a Chicago sports fan named Ron Berler who had compiled an astonishing statistic. Since 1946—the year after the Cubs’ last World Series appearance—13 of the teams that had made it to the World Series carried at least three former Cubs on their rosters.

Of those 13 teams, 12 lost the World Series.

Royko called it the “ex-Cub factor.”

“Berler theorized that it was a virus,” Royko wrote. “Three or more ex-Cubs could infect an entire team with the will to lose, no matter how skillful that team might appear.”

The same year that Royko helped unveil the ex-Cub factor, the columnist was involved in a plot to buy the team.

Royko occasionally met Charlie Finley, the maverick former owner of the Oakland As, [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlie_Finley] for beers at the Billy Goat. One night Finley mentioned he’d heard that the Wrigley family was interested in selling the Cubs.

Royko, writing for the Sun-Times at the time, went to the paper’s owner, Marshall Field, and pitched him on buying the team.

Royko told Field “we’d change the name of Wrigley Field to Field Field. Or Marshall Field.”

Field was interested, but he left on a fishing trip to Florida, and word of the Finley-Royko-Field plan leaked. Royko came into the Sun-Times one morning and someone said, “Did you hear about the Cubs?”

“What about them?”

“The Tribune just bought them.”

The Tribune eventually sold the team to the current owner, the Ricketts family, though Royko didn’t live to see it.

It’s fitting that Royko’s last column, published March 21, 1997, was about the Cubs.

He addressed the alleged “curse” put on the team by the Billy Goat owner after the Cubs refused his goat entrance to the ballpark during the 1945 World Series.

A fine story, Royko wrote, but nonsense. In the wake of that series, some teams, notably the Dodgers, began to integrate their rosters. The teams blossomed. The Cubs management was shamefully slow to sign black players.

“It had nothing to do with a goat’s curse,” Royko wrote. “Not unless the goat wore a gabardine suit and sat behind a desk in an executive suite.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. See his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.