Thomas Dyja: Why Chicago and The Cubs Still Matter

Thomas Dyja: Why Chicago and The Cubs Still Matter

Saul Bellow famously called Chicago “that somber city,” but how can anywhere that gave us both the inept Cubs and the country’s most expert improv comedy be anything but amusing? Thomas Dyja, born and raised in the Windy City, has written a new book about postwar Chicago, tracing the massive impacts on culture that time and that place has contribute to America. Here, exclusively for Bookish, Dyja tells us why Chicago, and his beloved Cubs, still matter–perhaps now more than ever.

The city of Chicago can raise some questions for those unfamiliar with it: Why can’t I put ketchup on my hot dog is one (Answer: Just don’t, alright?). Another is, why do so many politicians there go to jail? And maybe the most puzzling of all: Why do Chicagoans still care about the Cubs?

Out of all the major sports teams in America, the Chicago Cubs are the most inept. The Model T Ford debuted the same October they won their last World Series (in 1908), and since then, empires have come and gone while millions of Cub fans have passed unto the great ballpark in the sky, unrewarded for their patience.

I eat wisely and go to the gym in hopes that I won’t be one of them any time soon, but at 50, now I’m getting worried. I grew up on the North Side of Chicago and went to high school a few miles west on Addison; I’ve spent many an afternoon watching everyone from Joe Pepitone to Ryan Theriot fumble pop flies and ground out weakly to second base and I still can’t shake the Cub habit, though I’ve lived in New York for 30 years, during the Jeter-era Yankees. It’s been hard not to feel envious–okay, let’s say bitter–about all that winning in the Bronx. As Ruben Sierra famously said after washing out in Yankee pinstripes, “all they care about over there is winning.” That line produced forehead slaps in New York, but as a Chicagoan, I could empathize. Winning at Wrigley Field has always seemed beside the point.

Chicago itself, for all its love for superlatives, has had a tortured relationship with the idea of winning. The best part of the city’s nature, like the Cubs to which it gives a home, has focused on something else, something more. Nelson Algren’s tombstone reads, “The End is Nothing. The Road is All.” Process–specifically, the act of making things–has always been central to the city’s identity, not just in an industrial or agricultural sense, but artistically, too. Chicagoans like to see how things are made and how they work; the city’s architectural prominence is predicated on that. From the first balloon frame structures in the 1830s, to the iron frame pioneered by William Le Baron Jenny, to Mies van der Rohe’s glass and steel buildings that reveal the engineering that elsewhere was hidden behind bricks and stones, Chicago building arts have stressed Louis Sullivan’s dictum: “form follows function.”

One of the city’s unsung artistic heroes, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, adapted the interactive educational methods he’d helped develop at the Bauhaus back in German to found the Institute of Design, where students focused on engaging materials and the act of making more than any styles or design prototypes. One of the most innovative television shows produced in 1940s Chicago, “Garroway-At-Large,” took viewers behind the scenes on the set every night, showing the cameramen, the boom mic and all the details of how television was made. Encyclopedia Britannica produced educational films that explained everything from acne to the A-bomb.

If all of that still seems a step removed from the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field, one of the city’s most influential exports–improvisational theater–came as much out of the playground as it did from the stage. During the Depression, Viola Spolin created a series of improvisation games as part of a WPA project with sociologist Neva Boyd, who himself specialized in childrens’ games. Almost 20 years later, Spolin’s son Paul Sills would use those same games when he started the Compass Theater in Hyde Park in 1955, the seed of all the improvisational theater that followed. Spolin explicitly compared what she did on stage to sports; one of the games goes as far as to engage the players in throwing an invisible ball around a circle to make them focus on “the tension.”

In “Homo Ludens,” Huizinga (Johan, not Wayne) explores the play element in culture, the tension it creates and its unique quality as something “pointless but significant.” Few phrases better describe a day in the sun at Wrigley with 40,000 other people. And that’s what watching a ball game is all about: being a witness to the tension that’s been concentrated into a white leather ball with red stitching.

They weren’t all bad, my childhood days watching the Cubs continually tank at Wrigley. As their announcer Jack Brickhouse would say, “You can’t beat fun at the old ballpark.” Old men with frosty whiskers bet on pitches in the bleachers; we dozed and tanned and tried to buy beer. Players on both teams hung around the backstop to sign autographs. Today the tourists–and the ticket prices–have elbowed out those who used to drift into the grandstands because they had no place better to go.

But the line between sports and theater is still thin on the North Side. By now I’ve not so much given up on seeing the Cubs in the World Series as I’ve come to consider them the world’s longest-running work of performance art. Baseball in Wrigley is the art of physics in motion; speed and force and inertia at play, following the tension of the ball; all served up under a blue sky with beer and peanuts. No other team in sports seems to understand so well both its significance and its pointlessness.

So why does Chicago still love the Cubs? Certainly not because they win or lose.

It’s because they play the game.

Thomas Dyja is the author of three novels and three works of non-fiction, including “The Third Coast.”A native of Chicago’s Northwest side, he was once called “a real Chicago boy” by Studs Terkel.

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