Sox or Cubs: Who Says You Have to Choose?

Television news loves to belabor the obvious, so every year when the Cubs and White Sox renew their rivalry, the TV cameras invade the sports bars looking for fans of each team who’ll vent. The usual suspects are glad to oblige, shouting love for their favorites and disdain for their foes while flaunting T-shirts that declare that the other guys suck or perform other debasing acts.

Look closely, though, and you’ll see people on the periphery of the action, hunching over their drinks and looking the other way. If approached, they’re likely to say they’re from Cleveland or some such place—anything to make the microphone toters go away.

More likely than not, those folks are Chicagoans in as good a standing as the zealots.  They’ll be watching the games, all right, and may even root a bit, but they wish only good things for both contestants, and wholeheartedly root for each against any other opponent.

I know because I’m one of them; like Billy Martin in the old Miller Lite commercials, we feel strongly both ways when it comes to Chicago’s great sports divide.  We Cubs/Sox fans are lovers, not fighters, so while we don’t readily cause a fuss by fessing up to our dual baseball loyalties, we hold them just the same.  I’ve never seen a poll on the subject, so I don’t know if we’re a majority or a minority, but I’d be willing to bet that there are a lot of us.  We do, after all, have logic on our side:  as Woody Allen noted, being AC/DC doubles your chance of getting a date on Saturday night.

This is not to say that many of us don’t lean one way or the other, however slightly.  In sports allegiance as in other matters, geography is destiny, and mine was to be raised on Paulina Street near Lawrence Avenue in the North Side’s Ravenswood neighborhood, about two miles from Wrigley Field as the bike pedals.

My first sports awareness—at the tender age of seven—was of the 1945 Cubs, and while my recollection of that team is hazy, I do remember being gratified that they won the National League pennant and feeling certain that the experience would be repeated often.  The first professional ball game I attended came the next year when a friend’s grandma took him and me to see a Lady’s Day Cubs-Giants game in May. The Cubs won it, 1-0, behind the pitching of Johnny Schmitz and Hiram Bithorn. It confirmed my initial judgment that baseball was an easy game.

A few years after that I became a Wrigley regular, more or less, joining my pals in bicycling to the already-old ball yard in late spring and summer afternoons; when the Cubs opened the gates in the seventh inning to let the paying customers out, we kids trooped in free, occasionally scoring extra innings. From time to time I put together the 65 cents it cost for a kid’s grandstand ticket. Bleacher seats were cheaper but I always eschewed them. What can you see from out there, anyway?

But while the Cubs always have been No. 1 in my heart, the Sox eventually became 1A. They were an acquired taste, and I had to get by their somnolent broadcaster Bob Elson to acquire it, but even to a youngster it soon became apparent that they were a more interesting proposition than the Cubs, and that it behooved me to pay attention to them. No sin was involved, because they had “Chicago” on their jerseys. That’s still my opinion, and I’m stickin’ to it.

The focal year was 1951, when the “Go-Go” White Sox of Chico, Nellie, Billy and Minnie (OK, Carrasquel, Fox, Pierce and Minoso) brashly began their dozen-year guerilla war against the almighty Yankees while the Cubs were settling into a Rip Van Winkle-like snooze. To a North Sider like me the South Side was terra incognita, full of ass-kicking ogres, but by mid teens I’d learned that people taking the El to Comiskey Park got free passage, and began to join them. The visits became more frequent when I got my own wheels somewhat later.

I’ve probably seen five or six times more games at Wrigley than at Comiskey (Old or New), but some of my strongest baseball memories trace to the 35th Street environs. The only All-Star game I witnessed in person was there (in 1983), and  I’ve never been happier in a ball park than I was on a June day in 1956 when I watched the Sox sweep the Yankees in a doubleheader to cap a victorious four-game series and seemingly ensure a pennant (not). I’ve never seen anyone hit a baseball as hard as Dick Allen did in a 1972 game against the Angels (I think), a shot that started low, like a well-stuck two-iron, and still was rising when it cleared the left-field wall (I swear!).

More than 25 years later I accompanied Allen around Chicago bookstores while he promoted his aptly named autobiography “Crash”, and reminded him of the blow. He said he couldn’t recall it specifically but allowed that its trajectory sounded familiar. “I hit a few like that,” he smiled. “If they cleared the shortstop they were gone.”

I was thrilled when the 2005 Sox broke Chicago’s epic World Series drought, getting even for 88 years of bad luck in an 11-1 playoff run that featured matchless starting pitching, World Series home runs by the likes of Scott Podsednik and Geoff Blum, miraculous shortstopping by Juan Uribe and A.J. Pierzynski’s theft of first base. I’ve asked myself if I would have been happier if the Cubs had pulled off the feat, and answered “yes,” but I can’t measure by how much because they’ve never have provided me with similar delight.

My split loyalty comes in particularly handy in years like this one, when one Chicago team is so hopeless and hapless that it hardly bears watching. The Cubs may have had worse teams than their present one, but never before on purpose. From my Arizona home I tune into their games a couple times a week, but mostly to see who’s wearing the uniform. Theo, et al, are pursuing the first part of the addition-by-subtraction equation, and it’s apparent that the building blocks of a new edifice have yet to reach the construction site. It’ll take time. Someone once told me that if I lived long enough my team would win again, but I’ve come to believe he mistook me for someone else.

Meanwhile the Sox, true to their No. 2 persona, continue to try harder, and by hook or crook are putting together an interesting, contending season. Can they go all the way? I don’t know. Injuries are biting, their hitters tend to slump in unison and their bullpen rookies might not stand up to the September gaff.  However much water is sloshing around in the glass, we Chicagoans always will notice the empty part. Cubs and Sox fans have that in common, among other things.

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