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Cubs Theology

Cubs Theology Michael Donovan

Michael Donovan

William Van Ornum - published on 06/21/14

Lessons learned at Wrigley Field--the heroes, humor and hope in the midst of the Cubs' adversity.

As Spring turns to summer we’ve seen good baseball books emerge, including George Will’s A Nice Little Place on the North Side and John Sexton’s Baseball as a Road to God.

North Sideoffers an affectionate hundred-year history of the Chicago Cubs, now celebrating their centennial in the beautiful confines of Wrigley Field. Changes that trouble many are met with equanimity by the usually-conservative columnist: Will the houses on Sheffield still be able to see the game if new outfield advertisements are constructed? Will the ivy brick walls be broken to create a new bullpen for pitchers to warm up?

Road to Godis more contemplative, theological, even existential. With the enthusiasm of John Paul II the Great, its author proclaims new saints, such as Roberto Clemente and Christy Mathewson, both admired for clean-living. Clemente was “martyred” in a cargo plane crash carrying relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Mathewson died of tuberculosis, the result of mustard gas exposure while fighting in WWI. Despite the damage to his lungs, during his career, Connie Mack said of him: “Mathewson was the greatest pitcher who ever lived. He had knowledge, judgment, perfect control and form. It was wonderful to watch him pitch when he wasn’t pitching against you.”

There are other portrayals as well: the great sinner, Ty Cobb, known for his racism and meanness, sharpening his shoe spikes to cut deeper into the flesh of the second basemen when Cobb stretched a single into a double; and a faithful believer, Sandy Koufax, who refused to pitch a World Series game on the Sabbath.

Some of the best lessons I’ve learned, as a person, psychologist and a Christian, emerged from my decade as an intense fan of the Chicago Cubs in the 1960s.

The diamond on the North Side taught me the value of hard-work. My first job, at age 15, was to show up along the left field stands at 9 a.m. where groundskeeper Pete Marc Antonio doled out burlap sacks to neighborhood urchins. We went systematically though the park (including the field itself!) picking up all the empty cups discarded by Hamm’s beer drinkers. The reward: a free ticket to the game.

Later, my work at the park was a way of earning money during the summer for the next year’s expenses at Loyola University. As an interim CTA bus driver, I made two runs in the brutal heat, bringing overloaded buses of fans along the eight-mile stretch between Harlem and Clark Street. After a turn-around on Lake Shore Drive, drivers were allotted a free game pass for the first through seventh inning. Then it was back to the buses, carrying weary and usually disappointed fans back home.

My hero was Ron Santo. Always on the move at third base, snaring line drives, pivoting and throwing to first, clicking his heels and jumping into the air after a Cubs victory. Santo was indefatigable, strong, and one of the players who was most willing to give an autograph. At his induction into the Hall of Fame two years ago, baseball’s commissioner called him “the grit and glue of the Cubs.”

This hero had a hidden flaw: during all his playing years he suffered from Type I diabetes. The primitive treatments of the era were little help to him, so he devised his own treatment plan, regulating his glucose levels with candy bars, orange juice, and lemonade. Describing the effect of this disease on his eyes, he recalled, “One time at bat I saw two balls coming in. I aimed at the one on top and hit a home run.”

After his playing career, those jumping legs and clicking heels–the signature of his athleticism–both had to be amputated due to diabetes. No big deal. Ronnie just continued his career in the Cubs broadcasting booth, becoming one of the most beloved broadcasters in Chicago history.

Santo had a great heart and connected with people everywhere. One of his favorite activities after a hard day at the park was to randomly call people who had written letters to him. “Hi, it’s Ron Santo here,” heard many stunned recipients of these calls. Maybe Pope Francis learned the value of these calls from Ronnie?

Just as there is a dark side to life–original sin re-occurring–anger may gnaw at the hearts of Cub fans. One October, a fan in the first or second row near left field accidentally batted away a foul ball, preventing a catch by the Cubs left-fielder. What would have been the game that won the Cubs their first pennant in nearly 100 years turned into a loss. Burly cops escorted the fan to a safe house. Death threats were received and public forgiveness has been slow in coming. But I heard that the fellow moved out of state and has never again come within 10 miles of Wrigley Field.

Apart from that hapless fellow, Cub fans are fairly accepting of everyone. There is something special in every ballplayer. A catcher named Dick Bertell was batting only .211, the lowest average on the team, but he had great defensive skills. “Watch him throw that ball to second like a rocket,” fans would say, even as the second baseman missed the catch and the ball hurtled into the outfield.

Humor is the coping mechanism that keeps Cub fans from giving up. It’s their version of the theological virtue of hope, and even brought my grandfather solace at the end of his life. While dying from lung cancer in a VA hospital, surrounded by family, he closed his eyes and became very still. Tears flowed just as he opened his eyes. “I’ve been to the other side! I’ve been to the other side! I saw Mom!,” he said. When one of his children asked, “What did Mom say?” he became serious and said, “She wanted to know if the Cubs were still in last place.”

Even when death came to Wrigley Field, a dark sense of irony was never far behind. In 1962 their rookie second baseman Ken Hubbs won the Rookie of the Year Award and was considered the best defensive player in that position in the league. He died in a private plane crash in 1964. Reflecting the Cub’s disorganization, the baseball card company inadvertently issued the 1966 Dick Ellsworth card with the photo of Ken Hubbs. It is now a collector’s item.

The Chicago Cubs are the only major league team to have failed to win a World Series in the past 100 years. Loyal Cub fans keep carrying their cross, all the while awaiting the sounding of that seventh trumpet, announcing that it’s finally time to move up in line, where the last shall become the first.

William Van Ornum
is professor of psychology at Marist College and director of research and development/grants at American Mental Health Foundation in New York City. He studied theology and scripture at DePaul University.

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