As a child, it was always difficult for me to understand why my family never went to Wrigley Field. Sure, my brother Don and I lived on the South Side of Chicago, which by birthright and territory made us White Sox fans.
But no matter how far south you lived, if you were black you rooted for Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins, which meant you rooted for the Cubs, too. You rooted from home, though, because black folks didn't go to Wrigley Field.
Even now, if you look closely at the screen when the Cubs are on television and the cameras pan Wrigley Field, you won't see more than a couple of dozen black people on any given day. Dozens of Cub fans have been interviewed on network television since the team won the National League East last week, but I'm still waiting to see one who is black.
The more years you go back, the fewer blacks you could find at Wrigley Field. My father came to Chicago from Georgia in 1946 and my mother from Tennessee in 1942; neither had been to Wrigley Field in 1969.
I was 10 years old in 1969, the first summer of division play, and the Cubs were ripping through the National League. We spent many afternoons and nights in Comiskey Park watching the White Sox (Walt Williams and Bill Melton even came to our Little League opener) but I wanted to go to Wrigley Field to see the vines. My brother and I asked my parents about going to see the Cubs. In person.
We wondered why they'd never been there and why few, if any, of their friends had gone.
They told us that it was all the way across town on the North Side, 20 miles away. Black people didn't live on the far North Side and still don't, for the most part. And Chicago isn't the type of city where you just wander around in foreign neighborhoods.
Chicago was about the most segregated big city in the country, my parents explained. Still is. And black people just didn't make a practice of going to Wrigley Field.
My mother was diplomatic about it, my father less so. He said he never wanted to go to Wrigley Field. The Cubs were a racist organization, he said, and didn't want black players. They never paid Ernie Banks -- the greatest Cub ever -- even half of what he was worth and wanted to cut his salary $5,000 once after his home run production slipped.
And you could always talk to older black people on the South Side and hear stories about how they tried to go to Wrigley Field in '47 and '48 to see Jackie Robinson play and got harassed by whites.
But all that was put aside for a day and my parents decided we would go to Wrigley Field to see the Cubs. My father got tickets to see the Atlanta Braves on a Saturday afternoon in June. Don and I told everybody we were going to Wrigley Field, "taking the 'L' train, too," and nobody could believe it. Kids in the neighborhood wanted to know if we'd be gone overnight.
We went anyway. Henry Aaron hit a home run, the Cubs won and I didn't see another black face in the stands other than an Andy Frain usher.
I remember the elevated train trip to Wrigley and how the train started off all black, but had changed to stark white by the time we got well into the North Side. I remember how tiny the park looked, compared to Comiskey. I recall that we sat in upper-deck box seats just beyond first base and some people stared. We took the train back to the South Side and I don't remember having a strong desire to go back there right away.
I watched the rest of the games on television in 1969. The Cubs blew that big lead to the Mets in September and the whole thing was just painful. I think it was the last time I actually cried.
My parents haven't been to Wrigley Field since. I went a lot after that, once I got to high school. Many times I went by myself because black friends didn't want to go, except when Bob Gibson of the Cardinals would hook up against Fergie Jenkins, and a few more black faces than usual would show up.
Once, on a hot summer day in 1976, I let my high school sweetheart talk me into doing something I said I would never do: sit in the bleachers. After the first trip to Wrigley, in 1969, I had seen other black people in Wrigley, but never in the bleachers, where lots of young rowdies sat -- many of them what I considered rednecks.
We sat in the left field bleachers, and a white guy near me, wearing the yellow hard hat of the Bleacher Bums, said politely, "We don't get many black people sitting out here." He knew loads about baseball and offered to buy us beer every couple of innings. But after five or six innings of being uncomfortable (and paranoid), I had found different seats.
The next season, I decided not to go to Wrigley at all. It was 1977, the year the Cubs reportedly wouldn't give Bill Madlock, who had just won his second consecutive batting title, a raise to $185,000. Cub management said he wasn't worth that much money.
They traded Madlock, who is black, for the fading Bobby Murcer, who is white, and paid Murcer $330,000.
My father had always said the Cubs would rather lose with mediocre white players than win with good black ones and it would be all right as long as a million white people a year showed up at the park. I always thought he was wrong.
But after the Madlock/Murcer deal, it looked to me as if he were absolutely right. You'd think back to some other trades -- young, fleet, promising Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio, for example, and wonder if it was just the Cub management being typically inept, or if it was motivated by other factors.
What the Cubs have long represented, and why so many people adore them, still isn't clear in my mind. Certainly, American sports fans love the underdog and the Cubs are certainly that, with no title of any kind since 1945 until they won the NL East last week.
But part of the charm, at least for white Chicagoans, seemed to be that the Cubs represented the city: conservative, slow to change. And though Wrigley Field is the most beautiful park in baseball as far as I'm concerned, the whole setting is backward and old-timey and reminiscent of a period -- the good old days -- which held nothing good for black people.
Earlier this summer I went to Wrigley Field on assignment. The bleachers were packed an hour before the game, and I looked in my binoculars. Still no black faces.
There's a lot about Cub history that doesn't sit well with me. But they're my team, too. Always have been. I wore Ron Santo's number in Little League.
Before the season I even persuaded my father to give the Cubs another chance. This was new management and it did trade for Gary Matthews.
So when the playoffs begin Tuesday in Chicago, I'll be there. It will be warmer in the press box, but there's only one place to watch batting practice. From the bleachers. This Cub fan will be there early.