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The Ripken Of Wrigley Field

EDITOR’S NOTE: This report also appears in this week’s issue of TimeOut Chicago, as part of our weekly web-to-print partnership.

On April 9, 1982, Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins led the Chicago Cubs to a 5-0 win against the New York Mets.

A few hours before Jenkins threw the first pitch, Ted Butterman signed his first one-day contract with the Cubs. His contract was not to play ball but to blast songs on his trumpet for the Cubs Dixieland Band.

Since founding the quintet, Butterman, 77, has played in the aisles of Wrigley Field during every Cubs’ home game. And every means every. He has never missed a game—not for the flu, a pulled hamstring or chapped lips—putting together a Ripkenian streak of 2,449 consecutive home games going into the home stand that begins Thursday.

He once wore a pedometer and discovered he walks six to seven miles each game, which means he’s walked about 15,000 miles, trumpet in hand, the past 31 years.

Butterman continues to make the walk 81 times a year because, he said, “I think Dixieland is natural for ballparks.”

His employer agrees.

“The Cubs Dixieland Band is a great Wrigley Tradition,” said Julian Green, Cubs Vice President of Communication and Community Affairs. “The fans love it, and they are great ambassadors to the team and ball park.”

Butterman grew up in Hyde Park and started playing the trumpet, without formal lessons, in grade school. For most of his career he earned his living as a jazz musician, playing clubs all over the city. He owned a couple of saloons, briefly, and he once spent a year traveling as part of Phyllis Diller’s opening act.

But it’s the Wrigley gig that has come to define his career. It’s steady work and huge crowds—even if most of the audience doesn’t pay the band much attention.

“We’re just like blue and white wallpaper,” Butterman said.

The lanky Butterman leads the band in height and sound. The band, dressed in white Cubs jerseys and white pressed pants, starts its march 90 minutes before the first pitch next to the Billy Williams statue at the corner of Addison and Sheffield, where they perform for half an hour. Then they move to the main gate for another 30-minute set.

Here fans gravitate toward the music, forming a rectangle around the band below the iconic red and white Wrigley Field sign. Fans stand five deep at times, raising children on shoulders, snapping photos, and clapping hands while swaying to the beat.

Butterman concentrates while playing, like a pitcher working through a lineup, blocking out the crowd noise. He keeps his head down when he is not playing, holding his trumpet even with the Cubs logo on the chest of his pinstriped shirt. When it’s his turn to play, he lifts his head, touches the mouthpiece to his lips like a pitcher tapping the rubber during his windup, and then blows “Sweet Georgia Brown” or “Mr. Sandman.”

Butterman and the band take a half-hour break before the umpire yells batter up.

The band starts the game in the right field grandstands or upper deck. They play between innings and hike through the aisles toward left field after each set. By the bottom of the sixth inning they have circumnavigated the park, and their work is done. They pack up their instruments and normally go their separate ways, unless it’s a close game. Then they’ll stick around to see the outcome.

As a young man, Butterman tried getting into baseball the more traditional way. In 1952, he tried out for George Robert “Birdie” Tebbetts, manager of the Cleveland Indians, who wanted to see Butterman’s sidearm knuckle-curve.

The pitch was good, Butterman said, but his nerve wasn’t. He’d been hit in the eye once playing baseball as a kid, and he was afraid of having it happen again. So he stuck to his horn.

Not everyone can handle the 81-game season. The starting lineup this year includes Tom Bartlett on trombone, Ed Wilkinson on the tuba, Rob Curtis on banjo, and Kim Cusack on clarinet. Cusack actually played beside Butterman during their first performance at Wrigley. He left for a while but is now back with the band. The others have only been with the band for a decade or so. Ninety-nine different people have played in the group.

“People die,” Butterman said. “People move away. People decide they don’t want to do it anymore.”

Others get old and can’t make the walk. When that happens, Butterman joked, “We kill ‘em.”

When Butterman started with the Cubs in 1982, he received nothing but daily contracts for the first season. He and the other four musicians would split $250 a game. Since then, he’s been signing one-year deals.

Butterman declined to say how much the band is paid now. The musicians are not supposed to take tips, but he admits that every so often a fan manages to slip money in his pocket while making a request, and Butterman is too busy playing his horn to give the money back. But money or no, he refuses to play the most frequently requested song, which is “Freebird.”

In the offseason and on non-game days Butterman lives alone in the Northwest suburb of Arlington Heights. He enjoys the bachelor life of visiting museums, strumming his guitar, and “just doing nothing at all.” During home stands he stays in an apartment near Wrigley to cut down on the commute.

After 30 and one half years, Butterman has no plans to stop. He’d like to blow past Cal Ripken’s record of 2,632 consecutive games and keep going until he can’t make the walk. As far as he’s concerned, only one man ever had it better.

“Carmen Fanzone had the best of both worlds,” Butterman said. “He was a world class trumpet player and played third base for the Cubs.”

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GREG CAPPIS is an editorial assistant for ChicagoSide.

STORY ART: Photos courtesy Greg Cappis.

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