Tuning in the World Series from Two Generations Away

The Chicago Botanic Garden cheers for October baseball with the Cubs
The Chicago Botanic Garden cheers for October baseball with the Cubs

Phil Huckelberry wrote about the highs and lows – mostly lows! – of Chicago and Illinois politics for the mighty Gapers Block. He is a software engineer by day and a dad by day, night, and everything in between. He lives in Jefferson Park with his wife, son, a surprisingly large number of vacuum cleaners, and a scuffed up 12-pound bowling ball named Floyd.

My grandfather, who’s been gone for over 28 years, would today be 87: a mere stripling compared to many who will be watching this World Series.

He was born with a severe shoulder condition – one story I’ve heard is that he was born with his arm over his shoulder behind his back. It was bad enough to eventually keep him out of war.

When he was young – perhaps 11 or 12 – he took a train from Centralia to Chicago to have major surgery performed on his arm. He was by himself. And, as I understand it, he spent several weeks there recovering and engaging in what we would today call physical therapy.

While in Chicago, about 1940, he was taken to Wrigley Field for a game. Although he was from deep Southern Illinois, the heart of Cardinals country, he would be a lifelong Cubs fan. It has even been speculated that when my grandparents left Centralia in 1950, their destination of Rockford – seven hours north – had to do in at least some small way with the Cubs.

To say he would be excited today is a bit of a stretch, for I don’t recall him ever being excited by anything. But today would no doubt be a day of grave importance and tremendous satisfaction.

He had a massive console television in his living room, angled just so toward his spot on a couch he himself built. He had an old school antenna on his roof, specifically so he could pick up WGN all the way from Rockford. I distinctly remember nights when Cubs played away games, sitting or lying on the floor in front of that TV. I particularly remember one game in 1983 when a pitch went over Bill Buckner’s head and hit his bat and went foul, and how the very next pitch, he hit a home run.

We grew up as baseball fans. People don’t understand it, but we were perfectly allowed to simultaneously be Cubs and Cardinals and White Sox and Brewers fans. In a way that no one would ever think to use the term, Rockford was a melting pot, a place where people from all over came to for work during the boom times of the 1950s. My families came from Southern Illinois and Alabama. Many came from rural Wisconsin. Of course, many were from the old Swedish stock that defined the city. But Rockford in the ’80s was unique.

Still, it was Cubs country, along U.S. 20 all the way across most of Indiana and most of Iowa too. And to me the quintessential Cubs fan is the old man sitting on his couch, picking up Cubs games with an antenna bought years earlier specifically for that purpose.

My own affinity for baseball has ebbed and flowed over time. Even though I today happen to live on the North Side, I’m not going to claim this is my time, that I’m super excited. But objectively, this is a great team and a great story, and one which washes many of us back to distant times. It is a moment of profound history in ways that transcend sport, and yet also a moment which feels very intimate to me.

The era of the man installing an antenna just to get WGN is long behind us. That though is the era when America was “great”, the era that supposedly we should somehow be returning to as a country. And I can sort of understand. America today is no country for old men like my grandfather. It’s not because of immigrants or anything like that. It’s because once upon a time you could hide from the world, connected only by the newspaper, the nightly news, Johnny Carson, and the Cubs. You could work hard and buy a house and own a small business and raise a family. It was the American Dream wrought small.

So as the Cubs take the field tonight for their first World Series in 71 years, it makes me think not so much of 1945 or 1908, but instead of 1983. I even in turn think of 1953, because in my mind, my grandparents’ house was always the same, so it must have been the same back then too. It all makes me think of simpler times, with nostalgia and fondness, and with a lament that we’ve lost a lot of what we as a society had. But it also makes me think about how we could have much of what was good about that again, not by rejecting those who are not like us, but by embracing one another (or just by politely and respectfully letting them be!), by giving people a real ability to succeed in their own terms, even by uniting – if even very quietly – around young men in thin blue pinstripes. That simple American Dream wrought small which my grandfather symbolizes to me should still be just as accessible today.

Those old Cub fans who have waited so long? They have more to offer than just their affinity for a team. No matter what their politics or lack thereof, there’s a rich history there we could all benefit from knowing. Those people represent, for better and for worse, the greatness of America. And I say we should embrace that greatness – warts and all! – and honor them by striving to be even greater as a country and as a planet. And by rooting like hell for the Cubs.

Phil Huckelberry
Phil Huckelberry
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