Backstage with Ron Onesti:
A Cubs tale
Every Cub fan has a story. Especially now.
The Dallas Cowboys and the New York Yankees may have been dubbed “America’s Teams,” but the Chicago Cubs have long been the “little brothers” of the “big brother” power baseball teams of each decade. The team’s overall performance always came in a distant second to the tradition of a neighborhood park with ivy-covered brick walls, personality-filled bleachers and hot dogs, peanuts and beer cuisine.
Heck, as the earliest formed active sports club in America (1870), it was 118 years before they even hosted a night game!
With Cub fans literally all over the world, and 108 years of the team’s colorful history of promising seasons and devastating finishes, “War And Peace” would look like a magazine next to the volumes of Cub-family fables spoken just this year alone. Yes, many are of seasonal disappointment, but from generations of lifelong fans to corporate supporters and fair-weather bandwagoners, they all have their warm recollections of the Chicago Cubs and the team’s humble playground, Wrigley Field.
And here is mine …
My grandfather, Gaetano Onesti, came to America in 1905, settling on Taylor Street and Western Avenue in Chicago. Twenty years later, he and my grandmother, Sabina, had my dad, the “baby” of six kids who shared one bed in the back of their father’s tailor shop. Italian pride still runs through my family’s veins to this day, but was rampant back then. And when Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra rose to the top of the baseball food chain, my dad couldn’t be prouder.
But aside from those Yankees, he was a Chicago fan, through and through. Geographically, Taylor Street was kind of on the Chicago baseball “cusp” between North Side Cubs fans and South Side White Sox fans. His blood was “Cubbie Blue,” however, and that’s how I was brought up.
My earliest recollections are of a tan, black-and-white TV with long aerial antennas with aluminum foil on the ends and a large, faded, ivory channel dial that only went to 11. Jack Brickhouse had as comforting and familiar of a voice as did any of my uncles for me. “WGN” was one of the first “words” I learned as a toddler. The sophisticated television graphics of the day consisted of small white block letters and numbers … R … H … E. I was 12 before I knew what “ribbies” were (RBIs)!
Kenny Holtzman’s and Milt Pappas’ no-hitters, Ernie’s 500th home run, Billy William’s powerful bat, the “On Deck” interviews, Kessinger-to-Beckert-to-Banks double plays, Ron Santo’s “heel kick” and that “Met-zaster” season of ’69. All black-and-white Cub memories ingrained in my baseball brain.
Going to the games was of course, a special treat. My dad would take me to see our favorite “Italian” boy, Ron Santo. No. 10, “The Pizza Man” on third base, so named because you could get a small 6-inch “Ron Santo Sausage Pizza” in a small white box at the games. We only ever went on Sundays, always in the expensive $7 box seats (Cubs side only, of course), and always doubleheaders. There were a lot of empty seats back in those days, and the Andy Frain ushers in blue pants with thin gold trim down the leg and police-like hats would have no problem letting us go down to the wall for the almost sure-thing possibility of an autograph or two.
It took me years to understand what a “sacrifice” was, as my dad helped me fill out that 10-cent score card with the small golf pencil the loud vendors would include with the purchase. Eventually, you could buy white pencils with a Cubs’ logo on them. The score card “barkers” were stationed on top of wooden crates at the entrances, hawking “Scorrrrrrrrrre Kahds, Score Kahds.” That was part of the fun. We just had to get there early, so we can quickly write down the daily lineup as announced on the public address system by the great Pat Pieper. He would start out with “the battery,” referencing the pitcher and catcher, and gives us the field roster of the day.
Although part of the tradition was the opening announcement by Pieper, the rest of the game was best experienced by watching the action live, but listening to Lloyd Pettit, Lou Boudreau and Vince Lloyd describe the action on the radio, at least for my dad anyway. I had my tattered baseball glove, and he had that small, white transistor AM radio in his left shirt pocket with the earphone going across his chest to his right ear. Never figured that one out either.
As I am strolling down my batter’s box of fond baseball memories, I must make mention of the souvenirs, as this was as much a part of the fun at the ol’ ballpark as the game itself. Interestingly, the wearables so prevalent today were nowhere near what they were back then — almost inexistent. The only things memorable to me was that team photo of the Cubs’ individual, oval-shaped photos on a white background with facsimiles of their signatures underneath. There was also that plastic-feeling baseball that had printed team signatures on it, the 12-inch wooden bat, the baseball bat pen and pencil set, and of course, the long, triangle cloth pennant.
When I was 12 years old, I was allowed to go to the game with my two buddies, alone! Grandstand seats were $1.50 and bus fare was a quarter. We got there early to watch batting practice and, maybe, catch a ball. I convinced my friends to join me down by the dugout wall for autographs. It was a long walk from the grandstand, and by the time I got down there, I was separated from my friends. They never made it back to our seats cuz I had the tickets!
I called my dad and he said, “Just watch the game, then call me when you want me to pick you up.” So I did just that. After the game I went to an old gas station across the street where a pay phone was (a 7-11 stands there now). I told the Spanish gas station attendant I was lost and waiting for my dad, and sat on the stoop in front of the fuel pump to wait.
A long pale yellow Cadillac pulled up and a familiar face said hello to the attendant. He spoke Spanish to him, then they both looked down at me. It was that animated Cubs right fielder Jose Cardenal! He was getting gas, but was still in his uniform! Apparently, the attendant told him my story, so Cardenal invited me back into the ballpark to see the dugout. In those days, some of the players would hang out on the field with their families and friends. He told me to go the player’s gate and tell “Jimmy” to let me in. I met his family and some other kids that were there with a group. I played catch with Jose for four throws, and he autographed everything in my pockets to me and my lost friends. He even gave me a REAL baseball!
Since then, I have had many, many Chicago Cub experiences, but none as wholesome as those of my youth. I did have the opportunity to throw out the first pitch at both a White Sox and a Cubs game, experiences I will never forget, especially since my dad was there to witness it.
These days I sit in the first row behind the Cubs’ dugout at $275 each, sipping an $8 Coke and eating a $9 hot dog. Parking is $50, souvenirs consist of $175 replica jerseys, and score cards are apps. The players are different, too. They have more “gear” on than linebackers, rarely pay homage to the fans just 10 feet away yelling out words of worship, and will happily sell you their autographs at a fan convention. Three quarters of the game consists of me texting and checking my emails.
The game has come full circle for me, as now I bring my 11-year-old daughter to the games. She loves it, and feels a connection to it the way I did when I went with my dad. I’m a music guy, so the seventh inning stretch and “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” always strikes me as a game highlight.
The field looks great, electric signs all over, loud music, home-run fireworks … a real party atmosphere. But even with all of that excitement, something is still missing for me. Although live baseball is still thrilling and entertaining, it’s just not the same in color as it was in black and white.
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email email@example.com.