Who is this Cubs player?
A chill wind blew in from the north woods, the kind that cuts right through your North Face coat, Wrigley Field 1914 hoodie, and authentic font personalized Cubs T-shirt, to shiver your bones and numb your skin. It rolled down Clark Street and punched me in the face at Addison as I approached the entrance to the Cubs Store that ate half of the McDonald’s parking lot, directly across the street from the famous red marquee. I was there shopping for Christmas gifts. The wind created a fierce suction that held the door closed as if blocked by an unseen, preternatural pressure system that had joined forces with the arctic tempest.
A kindly clerk in his mid-twenties pushed from the other side. Helping customers get through the door seemed to be his only job for the day because the store was dead empty, a strange situation given the season. He wore a pair of jeans, a Cub T-shirt that matched the one hidden under my hoodie, and a permanent, corporate-friendly grin. “Hello!” he chirped. “Welcome to the Cubs Store. Let us know if there’s any way we can help!”
(Cubs Store under construction before the 2012 season. Or maybe “being assembled” is a better description as it resembles nothing more than a child’s building blocks project gone horribly bad.)
We? I looked around the store and saw his fraternal twin, a young woman, smiling the same smile as she fluffed and buffed what I thought was a pretty thin assortment of Cubs memorabilia and clothing. Immediately discouraged, I nodded at the kid and stepped in. It looked more like a wholesale showroom, the kind you used to see in the Merchandise Mart before the Mart started kicking out the merchandise — light inventory of a small selection of goods as if they were displaying a preview of what would be coming out next spring.
Just as I was about to decide to walk east on Addison to one of the more established souvenir shops, a loud wooshing sound told me that the kid at the door was being made useful again by another customer. I glanced in that direction and paused. A stocky man of close to seventy stood stiffly in an official Wrigley Field usher’s uniform — Cubs khaki cap and matching khaki trousers, puffy regulation Cub-blue insulated winter jacket, and Cubs employee identification card hanging from a Cub-blue lanyard. He also wore earmuffs and thin black cotton gloves.
“Do you sell hand warmers?” he asked after the doorman mouthed his obligatory welcome.
As the store clerk muttered a heartfelt, disappointed negative, the usher looked up and caught my eye. We recognized each other immediately. “SRO,” he said. “You’re the lad who stands at the top of aisles 205-206 and writes that blog.”
(At this juncture I must issue a disclaimer that this usher was neither Tom nor Margaret, usher friends who have appeared often in this blog. I remembered this gentleman as being perhaps the only usher who asked that I not publish his name or picture, a request I have honored over the course of four seasons, and will continue to honor now.)
“So you’re the other one who reads it,” I quipped, my usual response to comments about either the blog or the book. He didn’t laugh but stared at me for a long moment. “Looks like you’re working today,” I said to break the awkward silence. “Cubs in the postseason after all?” He didn’t laugh at that either. He took one step forward and stopped, squinting his eyes as if making a decision, perhaps convincing himself to do something that he should forget about altogether.
“Please,” he said, sounding exhausted. “Come with me.” He turned and stared at the kid, who only stared back, eyes wide, corporate smile gone. I approached the door and joined the usher. The kid forced the door open to a rush of piercing cold air.
Instead of crossing the street and proceeding to Wrigley Field’s main entrance, the usher led me north on Clark. The ballpark looked stark and lonely across the triangle lot between the street and the third base line exterior wall.
We bent over at least 60 degrees and held tightly to the brims of our hats as we fought the wind to make our way north to Waveland Avenue. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a second lanyard with a card. “They won’t check closely,” he said, “but for today you’re Philip Marten.”
I took the identification card and looked at a mug shot of a guy at least fifteen years older than me with no beard. “Should I shave first?” I asked. He made no reply. “What if this guy Marten shows up?”
“He won’t,” he said. “He died.” We entered at Gate K, across from the fire station. The security guard made sure we had lanyards but didn’t care about much else. He wanted to get back to his paper cup of steaming hot McDonald’s coffee.
What am I doing? I asked myself. Where is this usher taking me? I can get into a lot of trouble, AND I gotta get back to work soon.
I paused and thought a moment, and then replied to myself.
You’re getting into Wrigley Field during the off-season when you shouldn’t be there at all. Go with it, dork!
The concourse under the third base grandstand was empty, but clear.
We turned right and climbed the ramp toward aisle 206 as if it were a normal game day, lacking only Bob, our friendly scorecard vendor, and 35,000 of our closest friends. The weather was perfect for opening day; maybe a little warm.
Halfway up the usher turned left and led me down a narrow catwalk that looked down onto the concourse. A couple of 10-foot metal tables stood with randomly scattered folding chairs. The usher sat in one and motioned for me to sit in another.
“What do you know about all the different curses?” he asked.
“The curses?” I replied. “As in the goat?” He nodded. “There’s also the curse from God because there used to be a seminary on this land and He or She don’t like guys playing a hedonist, capitalist game on consecrated ground. But they’ve had the owners of Billy Goat’s parade a whole herd of goats onto the field over the years, and a bunch of exorcist priests sprinkled holy water all over the joint to make God happy and maybe smile on the Cubs. Nothing changes. Good PR for Billy Goat’s, though.” He nodded again and smiled. “There’s another one?”
“Think a moment. It was a big part of your book.”
“You read my book? So you’re the other guy … sorry.” Another smile.
“I should say, he was a big part of your book.”
“Ryan Dempster? But I already wrote that his pre-season prediction that the Cubs would win the World Series sealed their fate in 2008.”
He shook his head. ”Not 2008.” He looked and me and waited for the obvious to sink into my addled brain.
He smiled and sat back in his chair, rocking on the two back legs.
“Follow me.” He stood and walked toward a door to my right. We entered a dark room with more scattered chairs and empty hooks along one wall. At the back of the room he paused. “Welcome to the ushers’ room. There are a few of us working special events this month, so I’ve been at the ballpark pretty regularly with plenty of down time to get myself in trouble. I found this by accident last week.” He pointed to a small hole in the wall. “It’s a keyhole.”
I made a cursory inspection of the wall. The keyhole had been painted over until recently.
“It’s not a secret room or anything as mysterious as that,” he said. “Just abandoned and forgotten. I brought in a flashlight the other day.” He pulled a bulky, high-powered yellow hand device out of his back pocket, and pushed firmly on the wall. It opened onto a dark stairwell with rusted iron steps leading down. I followed him through the door.
“We are adjacent to the fans’ elevator. You know the one.”
I know it very well. The 200-level doors are at the top of aisle 205, just to the left of where we stand in SRO.
“We are also above the location of the old clubhouse before all the remodeling that’s been done over the years, the latest in 1984,” the usher explained. “These stairs were used by maintenance staff to get up and down through the structure quickly without having to use the ramps. The contractors used the stairwell shaft to install the elevator in 1996, but because of where it needed to open in the grandstand, they expanded the space out in the other direction. They didn’t bother to remove these stairs, though. Saved a couple of bucks, I imagine.”
We arrived at the bottom. He stopped and directed the light onto a wall of old, dusty metal shelves. He reached up to the top and took something down. “It looks as though players and trainers used this space to store random equipment and supplies over the years. They removed most of the stuff at some point, but missed a couple of things. I found old rolls of medical tape, a belt, an ancient baseball shoe with spikes on its sole, couple of rubber tubes, and these.”
He handed me a stack of yellowed documents tied together by decomposing twine.
“They were jammed between one of the shelves and the wall,” he said as I turned the bundle over in my freezing hands.
“Shouldn’t you give this to management?” I asked.
“Sure. Eventually. But they’re busy with winter meetings and trades and all of that ‘rebuilding the team’ baloney. They’ll nod and smile and say thanks and put them in an archive somewhere. I want to know what’s in those letters, especially since I read the name on the top envelope.”
Hr. Carl Merkle, Weeghman Park, Chicago.
The return address read “E. Merkle, Toledo, Ohio.”
“But,” I protested. “Merkle’s name was Fred. And his family was from Wisconsin.”
“I looked into it,” said the usher. “His birth name was Carl Frederick Rudolph Merkle. He changed it to Frederick Charles Merkle. His father’s name was Ernest. AND, they had moved to Toledo when Carl Frederick was very little. He made his baseball name first in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and southern Michigan.”
“What does the ‘Hr.’ stand for?”
“Open the top letter.” I very carefully untied the twine and pulled the delicate, translucent top letter from its envelope. The writing was in a very old European cursive style, and it was in German. “The ‘Hr.’ stands for ‘Herr,’ which is German for ‘Mister,’” said the usher. “Merkle’s father was an immigrant from Germany. They are addressed here because Fred Merkle, the New York Giant whose running gaff in 1908 made it possible for the Cubs to win their last ever World Series, ended up on the Cubs and played first base here from 1917 until 1920. And of course you know that Wrigley Field was called Weeghman Park until about 1919.”
He reached into the inside pocket of his Cubs jacket and handed me the photograph of hapless Frederick Charles Merkle that you see at the top of this blog.
Part II coming soon …