The week I went to work as a sports columnist for the Chicago Tribune in 1981 was the week the Tribune Co. bought the Chicago Cubs baseball team. Hello.
That era is about to end, or so it appears, with reports that moguls from Ameritrade and their millionaire “Go, Cubs, Go” amigos will acquire the storied franchise and Wrigley Field from what’s left of the Tribune Co. for $900 million or so.
Consider this: Tribune Co. bought the Cubs, Wrigley Field, the ivy, the post-season curse, the bleachers, a national fan base, and the broadcast operations from the Wrigley family of chewing-gum renown for about $21 million.
$21 million. $900 million. Makes you wonder how over the same period of time the same company managed to commit suicide with its newspapers.
In 1981 the stunning news felt like a dicey proposition for opinionated pay-rollers such as myself. The fact that the folks who ran the sports department at the Tribune didn’t seem to have any more advance warning of the Cubs’ sale than the newest employee—me—wasn’t much comfort.
Certainly the prospect of savaging the Cubs was a columnist’s delight. But having the Tribune Co. money guys—synergy gurus and lawyers from Notre Dame—poring over my column for blasphemy and heresy was a daunting image.
So I had no sooner acquired a press credential and figured out how to get to Clark and Addison Sts. from my apartment than I began to wonder what all the suits on the upper floors of the Tribune Tower on N. Michigan Ave. were thinking of my deathless prose.
The expectation was that I would write columns about this enterprise in a manner that would engage readers and maintain the paper’s editorial independence. But how do you keep telling people that the boss’s most celebrated asset couldn’t be driven off the lot?
The thing is, the 1981 Cubs were awful, and they were part of a longstanding tradition of awful. The 1982 Cubs were no better. They finished nineteen games out of the first place in the National League East and they repeated that soul-destroying performance in 1983.
As the new guy, I suspect my batting average for paranoia was higher than most. I knew some readers—maybe a lot of readers—were skeptical of the arrangement. Rabid fans of the Chicago White Sox saw Tribune collusion in every Cubs story and the boys and girls at the Chicago Sun-Times seemed to relish our discomfort, as they should have.
You didn’t hear much from the team. In 1981, the affable Joey Amalfitano managed the team, to no real avail. He was replaced the following year by Lee Elia, a product of the Philadelphia baseball organization and a man best known for a legendary tape-recorded rave-out in 1983 about the lives and ambitions of the Cub fans who showed up in the bleachers for day baseball.
At spring training in Arizona in 1982, what would now be called senior management of the Tribune Co. sought to ease the minds of its paid typists.
In those days, Stanton R. Cook was Chairman of the Board of the Tribune Co., publisher of the Chicago Tribune, and president of the Chicago Cubs.
Stan—“Call me Stan”—was a tall, silver-haired, hand-shaking Midwesterner who could have played himself in the movie. He had more titles than the guy who runs North Korea but was much nicer.
That spring, in the friendly confines of HoHoKam Park, Cook assured the scribblers, one at the time, that he understood the concept of “church and state” and that there would be no interference when we suggested in his newspaper that maybe Wayne Nordhagen wasn’t the answer in left field.
From my end, Cook and his minions kept that promise. And by 1984, manager Jim Frey and general manager Dallas Green had performed baseball alchemy, putting the Cubs in the post-season for the first time since the Japanese surrendered on board the USS Missouri in 1945.
They lost in the playoffs, of course, but it was a great summer in Chicago. And it was left to Green, the bumptious “baseball guy from Philly,” to explain to me my sensitive relationship with the Tribune Co. suits.
“They don’t give a damn what you write,” Green snarled at me one afternoon. “Bet they don’t even read it.”
Years later, I suspect he was right.