A group of Chicago Cubs fans paid tribute Saturday night to one of their favorite players, a man who, according to fan Sally Churm, "represents what this country is about, a man with a heart, a man with direction, a man with principles and ideals."
You remember Emil, don't you? The slick-fielding second sacker who led the National League in fielding in 1945? The 1947 league leader in fewest strikeouts? The self-proclaimed "double-play artist" who in 1944 topped all second basemen in that category?
Oh, of course! That Emil Verban. The man who spent his best years with the rival St. Louis Cardinals. Who most Cubs fans have never heard of. Who has only one career home run to his credit. Who actually played himself out of a job with the then-pitiful Cubs by leading the league in errors.
"He kind of epitomized the steady, good midwestern work ethic," said Bruce Ladd, founder of the Emil Verban Memorial Society, so named even though Verban is still very much alive.
Ladd, a Motorola lobbyist, formed the society nine years ago when he sent a newspaper article about a former Cubs manager to a group of Illinois friends and fellow Cubophiles. He wrote a brief note along with the clipping, announcing the birth of the Emil Verban Society.
"This organization is not based on the Cubs' greatness," said member Warren Neiman, with commendable understatement.
Asked to describe Verban, member Edward Caplan responded, "You can't describe him. No one remembers him."
Despite Verban's alleged obscurity, (or possibly because of it), the group's membership has mushroomed to 400, including President Reagan, Supreme Court Justices Harry A. Blackmun and John Paul Stevens, and columnist George Will, who served as master of ceremonies at one of the society's "quasi-annual" lunches.
None of the high-profile members appeared at the twilight cocktail party Saturday where about 60 Cubs loyalists, including Verban himself, gathered to discuss, as columnist Will has put it, the only major league team to be named after an infant animal.
Verban, 69, said he's not as impressed with today's players. "I don't attend too much baseball. I get a little perturbed. In our day we never had the opportunity to make the money they're making, not that I have any malice."
Verban remembers a time when pitchers could field and hitters could bunt. Today's hitters, he said, "all go for the home run or nothing."
Verban himself was never one to go for the fences. Curiously enough, his only round-tripper came off legendary back-to-back no-hitter pitcher Johnny Vander Meer. That historic pitch, he remembers, "looked as big as a basketball."
For society members, the Cubs are not a diversion -- they're a bona fide pin-striped obsession.
"I saw every game of the l3-game losing streak," said Ray Galant, referring to the most recent Cub slide, which set a team record for consecutive losses. "You talk about pain. I saw every one. It was masochistic."
For many Verbanites, Cub fealty began with childhood visits to Wrigley Field, cutting school to see opening day, cheering in the bleachers awash in peanuts, popcorn and hot dogs. Said Tom Faber: "It's like the one real constant in my life. Constant frustration."
Cubs fans are storied for their dedication to their team, which has not won a World Series since 1945. This group was no exception. "You want to know how dedicated I am?" asked Randy Lightle. "I got married in July of last year and when my wife asked, 'Where are we going on our honeymoon?' I said, 'Have you ever been to Wrigley Field?' "
So, in his car bearing the license plate message "Cubs '85," Lightle and his bride drove to Chicago to wait in line all day, beginning at 8 a.m., for the privilege to stand in the right field bleachers for the big Cubs-Mets game. They did the same thing the next day.
For Lightle, the honeymoon was terrific. The Cubs swept the series.
During last year's run for the pennant, Ray Galant began frequenting the Hawk and Dove, a Washington bar that shows Cubs games on cable. "I gained 15 pounds watching Cub games and drinking beer," he said.
The Cubs fell one game short of the National League championship, losing the final game of the playoffs to the San Diego Padres. "I stayed in bed the next day," said Jane Winebrenner. "I was sick. They lost. They blew it. They were acting like the old Cubs."
"I was depressed for a week," said Faber, who later whipped a Cubs schedule from his pocket and began discussing dates for the next Cubs-Mets series. Cub fans learn to bounce back.
As the party drew to a close, Ladd made a brief speech in honor of Verban, who is in town for tonight's Cracker Jack Old Timers Baseball Classic.
"I don't know what in the world you say about a player like Emil Verban," Ladd deadpanned, and wandered off oratorically into a recitation of arcane statistical Verbaniana.
After accepting a miniature baseball glove/key chain, Verban, who still lives in Cub Country (Lincoln, Ill.), thanked the society for its hospitality, presented it with a Cubs pillow with needlepoint by his wife, and told his fans he would do his best in the Old Timers game