How I Became a Cubs Fan: My Dad, WGN, Harry Caray, Ryne Sandberg and the 1980s
I was born in 1980. The Cubs had a 64-98 record that year. At the time, relief pitcher Bruce Sutter was likely the Cubs best player (as well as future HOFer). Lee Smith was just getting started on his HOF career.
Of course, I don’t remember much of the first part of the 1980s, but I do seem to remember some chatter from my dad about Ryne Sandberg around 1984. That was Sandberg’s MVP year, and he also nabbed his second Gold Glove, first All-Star game appearance, and his first Silver Slugger award. It was also the year of the Sandberg Game.
Sometime around 1983, we lived in Chicago for about 6 months so my dad could work with his brother on a new business venture, and while we were there, I went to my first Cubs game at Wrigley Field. I don’t have any specific memories about this since I was only 2 at the time, but nonetheless, seeds were planted.
A little about my dad: he was a lifelong Cubs fan. Born in Germany in 1947, he and his Lithuanian family moved the United States in 1948. Growing up in Chicago, he followed the Cubs intensely, often watching games in the bleachers at Wrigley Field. His favorite player growing up was Mr. Cub himself, Ernie Banks, who of course had an incredible HOF career. He eventually married my mother and moved to Duluth, Minnesota, where I grew up. This did not in any way sway his allegiance to his beloved Cubbies.
In the early 80’s, my dad mostly kept up with the Cubs through the USA Today Sports section, and through excited discussion and his influence, it didn’t take long for me to realize something: Sandberg was the greatest Cubs player on the current team, and the Cubs were looking to shake the “Lovable Losers” moniker after many years of futility. They finished 96-65 in 1984, winning the NL East, only to lose to the Padres in the NL Championship Series. But they were winning more than losing!
It didn’t last long. They returned to sub .500 baseball for the next four seasons. But a couple of important things happened in that stretch that ended up solidifying my already building fandom of the Cubs, losers or not.
One was the availability of cable television at our home. At the time, many small cable companies popped up offering bizarre mixtures of stations to more rural areas. Sometime probably in 1987 or 1988, one of those companies finally covered our area. Among the 20 or so channels offered was WGN, and without hesitation, my dad hooked us up. And that most likely began my deep love affair with the Cubs. Day after wonderful summer day, the Cubs were always on the TV. And day after day, I got to hear Harry Caray sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and mispronounce player’s names.
I recall the first game under lights at Wrigley Field, and at the age of 7, I remember thinking how bizarre that was that they waited that long to put lights up. But through that, I learned more about the history of baseball, specifically Cubs baseball. My dad even recorded the game on VHS, realizing its historic significance.
Then came the 1989 season. I was 8 years old, and baseball was a growing passion: I was two years into collecting baseball cards, played Little League, loved watching the Cubs (especially Ryne Sandberg), and was well aware of the goat curse and the long stretch without a World Series championship. I just witnessed the Minnesota Twins snag one in 1987, and thought it would be awesome to see the Cubs win one. I learned how to read the box scores and standings in the newspaper with my dad, and we watched game after game on TV, following the standings in the paper with excitement as they trudged through a solid year. They ended up 93-69 that year, and they were going to the NL Championship Series once again in my lifetime. This time, I was all in.
I retain a touch of bitterness to this day about the San Francisco Giants. They ended up beating the Cubs 4-1 in the Championship Series, thus dashing any hopes of seeing the Cubs in a World Series. Oh well. As was the saying, “There’s always next year….”
My dad passed away unexpectedly in 2003, and therefore he lived his entire life without seeing the Cubs go to the World Series. I’ve been lucky: it only took 35 years of my life before they finally won it all. But I still retain the lessons learned being a fan of (former) lovable losers: Even after disappointment, there was always next year. There’s always hope. I’m grateful to be a second-generation Cubs fan. And (hopefully) passing it on a third generation!
Cubs fan, husband, father. Co-host of 90 Miles Podcast.