Chicago Goes Hollywood: The Cubs, Wrigley Field, and Popular Culture

By David Krell

This article was published in the 2015 The National Pastime.

Chicago is a city of icons. A hotbed of popular culture, the Windy City owns a curriculum vitae rarely paralleled concerning characters, real and fictional, responsible for defining the American experience.

Al Capone rose to kingpin status in Chicago’s underworld during Prohibition in the 1920s. His was a household name, a celebrity status recognizable nearly a century later as a description—or an exaggeration—of the criminal persona.

At left, the author of “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon.”Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert birthed film criticism to the masses with their newspaper columns and syndicated television program offering insight, banter, and approval (or disapproval) signified by a thumbs-up/ thumbs-down paradigm.

Catherine (or Molly, according to some sources) O’Leary’s cow, according to Chicago folklore, kicked over a lantern in 1871 while being milked in a barn, sparking a fire that consumed everything in its path. In the chronicle of natural disasters, it’s on par with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Baseball, too, offers fertile territory for Chicago popular culture, especially those myths, legends, and tales involving the Cubs. Superstition, for example, dictates that a curse hovers over Wrigley Field, the Cubs’ home, sourced from an incident during Game Four of the 1945 World Series. William “Billy Goat” Sianis, owner of the famed Billy Goat Tavern, entered Wrigley Field with his pet goat Murphy and even paraded him through the box seat section before being ejected shortly after the game began. The Cubs had informed the well-known Sianis before the Series that the presence of a goat would not be tolerated. An appeal to Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley failed. “Because the goat stinks,” Wrigley explained. Sianis, in turn, prompted a curse. “The Cubs ain’t gonna win no more. The Cubs will never win a World Series so long as the goat is not allowed in Wrigley Field.”1 The Cubs have not won a World Series since.

In 1997, Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko— a Windy City newspaper institution—denounced the curse as the reason for the Cubs’ absence from the World Series since Harry S. Truman was President of the United States. Rather, Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley deserves the blame, according to Royko. The columnist’s key reason was the team’s lateness in signing black players. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier on April 15, 1947, but Ernie Banks debuted as the Cubs’ first black player on September 17, 1953, nearly six and a half years later.

During this delay, the pool of black talent got shallower, siphoned by other teams more readily adaptable to a changing sociological paradigm in baseball. “So what might have been wasn’t,” Royko wrote. “It had nothing to do with a goat’s curse. Not unless the goat wore a gabardine suit and sat behind a desk in an executive suite.2

TELEVISION           

NBC’s television series Chicago Fire paid homage to the Billy Goat curse in the 2012 episode “Mon Amour.” Sardonically nicknamed “Otis” because of his dislike of elevators, Firefighter Brian Zvonecek expresses disappointment to his fellow firefighters at Firehouse 51 regarding Truck 81’s crest incorporating a goat. Firefighter Christopher Herrmann, a Firehouse 51 veteran, passionately explains that the goat crest will unlock Sianis’ curse.

During NBC’s sitcom heyday of the 1990s, Chicago Sons used the setting of a North Sheffield Avenue apartment building overlooking Wrigley Field. The Kulchak brothers boasted a formidable cast—Jason Bateman as Harry, an architect seeking love; D.W. Moffett as Mike, a construction worker seeking refuge after his wife throws him out because of his obsession with televised sports; and David Krumholtz as Billy, a recent college graduate seeking his next moneymaking opportunity. Chicago Sons, a mid-season replacement, lasted only a few months.

CBS’ drama series Chicago Hope featured Wrigley Field in an early episode of its debut 1994–95 season. Neurologist Aaron Shutt (played by Adam Arkin) and surgeon Jeffrey Geiger (played by Mandy Patinkin) hit golf balls from home plate under the Wrigley Field lights. A live broadcast of NBC’s ER in the 1997–98 season featured a simultaneous Cubs game on WGN.

THEATER     

Chicago’s vibrant theater scene provided the platform for the Organic Theater Company’s 1977 play Bleacher Bums, a work of fiction deeply grounded in reality. Bleacher Bums debuted at Organic on August 2, 1977. It depicts a group of Cubs fans during a game against the St. Louis Cardinals. To better prepare, members of the Organic did research in Wrigley Field’s bleacher seats to build a story around banter, betting, and baseball.     

The main characters are: Decker, a middle-aged businessman; Melody, a busty blond initially more interested in tanning than baseball until she slowly gets immersed into the intricacies until she’s talking like she was born and raised on Waveland Avenue; Greg, an amiable blind man in his 20s; Zig, a man in his 50s who compulsively gambles on the slightest of happenings during the game; Rose, Zig’s wife who proves to be more knowledgeable about baseball than her husband; Richie, a man in his 20s whose inattention to hygiene compounds his offensiveness to the group; and Marvin, a professional gambler who bets against the Cubs if he thinks the odds warrant it.3

Though written by an ensemble at the Organic Theater Company, Bleacher Bums owes its genesis to Joe Mantegna. “Stuart Gordon was the head of Organic at that time. During a meeting, he said that we were almost out of money but we might have enough for one more show in the season,” explains Mantegna. “He asked if anyone had an idea for a show that could be done cheaply. Well, I had been going to Cub games since I was five, but I looked at games in a whole different light once I became an actor. I was banging around this idea of a story revolving around the fans at Wrigley Field and capturing their excitement for something that’s not a quality product.

“I distinctly remember putting my hand up and saying, ‘Let me take you to a ballgame and sit where I sit and tell me if you don’t think there’s a play.’ Once they saw the characters in the stands, they agreed. We did improvs and based the characters on real people. Zoz became Zig. Becker became Decker. Initially, the title was ‘The Year the Cubs Won the Pennant’ but ‘Bleacher Bums’ became the actual title. Mantegna adds:

We sat most of the audience on the stage of the arena theater we had, then we took seats out of one section of the audience and had the cast sit on the cement levels where the seats used to be. So, the cement levels acted as bleacher seats. The sets cost next to nothing. We bought the costumes from the Amvets National Foundation store. On Tuesdays, you could get stuff cheap. The entire play probably cost less than $200 to produce. Based on longevity, Bleacher Bums is the biggest moneymaker for the Organic. It ran in Los Angeles at the Century City Playhouse for ten years, from 1980 to 1990.4

In her review of the Performing Garage version in 1978, Sports Illustrated’s Sarah Pileggi noted, “Marvin, of course, winds up with all the money, but by and large the nice guys win in the end.”5 Mantegna furthers the point. “Everybody comes in as an individual, but at the end, Marvin is left alone with everyone else leaving as part of a pair. They all made a connection. For those couple of hours, they were a family.”6

The story ends with an eloquent speech by Greg in response to Marvin’s offer of a ride home. He speaks of tomorrow, when the Cubs will win. In Greg’s prediction, the Cubs will continue to win until they reach the World Series and play the Chicago White Sox. With the championship on the line in the seventh game, the Cubs will bring Ernie Banks out of retirement in the 23rd inning. Banks will hit a home run. And that’s when Marvin can give him a ride home, Greg finishes, with the paradoxical hopefulness of a Cubs fan.

Mantegna and his Organic Theater Company cohorts went beyond the bleachers to the broadcasting booth for research. They talked to Cubs broadcasting legend Jack Brickhouse, who dreamed of a fantasy scenario for the Cubs. “That speech came from Brickhouse—it was verbatim except for the last line. So the night Jack Brickhouse came to the play was a special night. Just to see his reaction,”7 Mantegna said.

Bleacher Bums resonates because of the universal appeal of different characters bonding over a similar goal—to root for the Cubs. Sourced in the pathos that appears to exist in every Cubs fan’s DNA, Bleacher Bums merits respect from the theatrical community. “A great thing that happened to me years ago, around 1983 or 1984, was a call from Jason Miller, the playwright for That Championship Season,” says Mantegna. “An anthology of sports plays included Bleacher Bums and Jason read it. He told me that he had a theater in Malibu and he wanted to produce the play. Ironically, his son is one of my daughter’s best friends.”8

Since its 1977 debut, Bleacher Bums has seen various versions in theatres, updated since 1988 to reference the installment of lights after 74 years of day games at Wrigley Field. In 2001, Showtime aired a version starring Peter Riegert, Wayne Knight, and Matt Craven.

FILMS

The Break-Up, a 2006 comedy film starring Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn, features a Cubs game at Wrigley Field in the opening scene. Billy Crystal dons a Cubs jersey in the 1986 buddy cop film Running Scared. As 12-year-old Henry Rowengartner, Thomas Ian Nicholas realizes the dream of every Cubs fan in the 1993 comedy film Rookie of the Year. When Henry follows Wrigley Field tradition and throws back a home run ball, it reaches home plate—his power resulted from his tendons tightening while healing a broken arm. The Cubs sign Henry, promptly.

In the 1986 comedy film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—written and directed by John Hughes, Hollywood’s conduit for the angst, hope, and humor of mid-1980s teens—a Chicago Cubs home game is one of many stops for the title character, a high school student whose experiences escalate to adventures with suburban myth status in the Windy City’s environs.

Ferris (Matthew Broderick) persuades his parents that he has an illness serious enough to stay home, but not serious enough to warrant a trip to the doctor. It’s a ruse, of course, so that Ferris can ditch school on a picture-perfect day, to the consternation of Dean of Students Ed Rooney, who prioritizes catching Ferris away from the home where he is resting. Ferris’ gifts of persuasion extend to his gorgeous girlfriend Sloane and his best friend Cameron, who exudes anxiety the way Marilyn Monroe exudes sexuality.

On a visual level, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off may be considered a Chicago travelogue, as it depicts trips to the Art Institute of Chicago, the Sears Tower, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and the Von Steuben Day Parade—an annual September celebration honoring Chicago’s German-American population—where he mounts a float to lip-sync Wayne Newton’s “Danke Schoen” and the Beatles’ version of “Twist and Shout” in what ranks as one of the greatest all-time music scenes on film, right up there with Gene Kelly splashing around in Singin' in the Rain, Elvis Presley singing the title song in Jailhouse Rock, and any song from Grease.

Ferris et al. attended the Cubs-Braves game on June 5, 1985; Atlanta right fielder Claudell Washington smashed a foul ball that Ferris caught, further illustrating the good-natured teenager’s ability to float carelessly through life while garnering the fortunes of good luck, good will, and good friends.9

That is, the film portrays the WGN broadcast of the June 5, 1985 game. But the close-up of Ferris catching the Washington foul ball may come from another contest. Baseball writer Al Yellon posited this theory in 2011 while referencing a July 12, 1985, article in the Chicago Tribune declaring the film’s production to be set in Chicago. “So the announcement of the filming of Ferris Bueller wasn’t made until more than a month after the June 5, 1985 game was played,” wrote Yellon. “The article says filming would begin in Chicago in September, and the parade in which Bueller jumped onto a float and sang took place during a real parade on Sept. 28, 1985.”10

In 2014, the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress added Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to its list of iconic films.

Taking Care of Business, a 1990 comedy starring Jim Belushi and Charles Grodin, illustrates the depths of Cubs loyalty and the lengths to which a loyalist will go to preserve it. Belushi plays California prisoner Jimmy Dworski, a die-hard Cubs fan convicted of grand theft auto with just a few days left on his sentence. After winning two tickets to Game 6 of the 1990 Cubs-Angels World Series in a radio contest by being the first person to name the two Cubs pitchers threw no-hitters in 1972—Milt Pappas and Burt Hooton—Jimmy risks freedom by escaping prison to see the game in Anaheim. If Jimmy gets caught, he’ll wind up back in prison governed by a warden who simply, but intensely, dislikes Jimmy; an extension of his sentence would be certain upon capture.

When uptight advertising executive Spencer Barnes (Grodin) leaves his Filofax organizer at the airport, Jimmy finds it, keeps it, and uses it as a platform to impersonate Spencer; without the Filofax, Spencer is like a rudderless ship—he has no information, no credit cards, no cash. Jimmy, as Spencer, takes business meetings, stays in the beach house courtesy of the key in the Filofax, sleeps with the boss’ beautiful daughter, and botches an account with a major client. Initially furious at the impostor who has thrown his life upside down and backwards, Spencer reconciles with Jimmy; they go to Game 6, which the Cubs win.

Belushi also appeared in the 1986 film About Last Night starring Brat Packers Rob Lowe and Demi Moore. A meet-cute takes place at a softball game in Chicago’s Grant Park between Lowe’s restaurant equipment salesman Danny and advertising professional Debbie. It leads to a one-night stand, which leads to a tumultuous one-year relationship. An early scene shows Danny and Debbie watching a Cubs game from a rooftop on North Sheffield Avenue.

LITERARY

Franklin Pierce Adams created a cornerstone item in Cubs popular culture when he scribed the double-play ballet of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance in That Double Play Again for the July 12, 1910, edition of the New York Evening Mail; it later became known by its more popular title—Baseball’s Sad Lexicon. Adams was a Cubs fan from the Midwest; he moved to New York City in his 20s. In J.G. Taylor Spink’s “Looping the Loops” column in the March 2, 1944, edition of The Sporting News, Adams explains, “I didn’t like [New York Giants manager John] McGraw. I was a Cub fan, for I had come from Chicago, and I got particular delight out of every game the Cubs won from the Giants.”11

Other literary offerings regarding Cubs Nation include the prominence of Wrigley Field in Randy Richardson’s mystery 2014 novel Wrigleyville and Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski novel series about a female private investigator. The 1991 film V.I. Warshawski—starring Kathleen Turner as the title character—had one scene filmed inside Wrigley Field. Unfortunately, it did not make the final cut.12

THE FUTURE?

2015 is a landmark year for Cubs popular culture. In the 1989 comedy film Back to the Future Part II, Marty McFly (played by Michael J. Fox) transports 30 years into the future, from 1985 to 2015, when he finds out that the Cubs won the 2015 World Series. “That’s my favorite bit about the Cubs in popular culture, other than Bleacher Bums,”13 says Joe Mantegna.

So, will life imitate art in 2015? We’ll see in October.

DAVID KRELL is the author of "Our Bums: The Brooklyn Dodgers in History, Memory and Popular Culture." David has also written for "Memories and Dreams" (the magazine of the National Baseball Hall of Fame), the "Baseball Research Journal," and the New York State Bar Association’s "Entertainment, Arts and Sports Law Journal."