Dave Cihla and his bleacher buddies first raised the Shawon-O-Meter in the left field bleachers of Wrigley Field in a game against the New York Mets on June 5, 1989. The makeshift placard displayed the batting average of the Cubs shortstop, the rifle-armed Shawon Dunston, followed by the words “And rising!!!”
Appropriately, the Cubs will be playing the Mets at Wrigley Field on June 5 this season, when the Shawon-O-Meter turns 25. Cihla, now 50, a real estate broker and married with a 13-year-old daughter, plans to be back there in those left field bleachers with Cindy Lehman, Jim Cybul and some of the friends that helped to take the “Shawon-O-Meter” on a remarkable journey from the bleachers of Wrigley Field to the Smithsonian Institution. To give the night an even deeper resonance, they will be tracking live the batting average of Dunston’s son, Shawon Jr., who will be playing outfield that evening for the Cubs’ Class A affiliate, the Kane County Cougars, 45 miles west of Wrigley Field.
From that initial series in June of 1989 the Shawon-O-Meter followed the Cubs shortstop through the nineties, as Dunston was traded to San Francisco in 1995 and then back to the Cubs for the 1996 season. His last season was 2002 with the Giants. Cihla and his buddies brought the Shawon-O-Meter to several games at Wrigley when Shawon was on opposing teams, usually to the grumblings of a few Cub fans.
Original versions of the Shawon-O-Meter are stored in the archives of the Smithsonian Institution, Baseball Hall of Fame and Chicago History Museum.
Wrigleyville Nation’s Randy Richardson catches up with Cihla as he readies for the Shawon-O-Meter’s 25th anniversary game:
Randy: When you broke out the Shawon-O-Meter on June 5, 1989, did you have any thought or idea that it would have more than a one-game life?
Dave: We bought tickets to the four-game series against the Mets and the plan was four games and out. We ended up leaving the original meter in the bleachers at the end of the fourth game. It wasn’t until almost two months later when I heard Harry during a game imploring us to come back that we decided to recommit.
Randy: What inspired you to create the Shawon-O-Meter? Why Shawon Dunston?
Dave: I was at a Cubs-Braves game in Fulton County Stadium about a week earlier and had a banner that WGN showed before the game. It said “Hi” to Jim and Mindy back in Chicago. When I got back the three of us brainstormed on a sign to get airtime at Wrigley. Shawon had just gotten his average above .200 the day before and there was a blurb in the paper about Rick Sutcliffe getting the entire team to sign a ball for Shawon to mark the occasion. Jim said, “How ’bout a Shawon-O-Meter?” Mindy and I were initially skeptical, but Jim had the vision to know it’s potential. He even had the design planned moments after his epiphany.
Randy: Harry Caray seemed to love the Shawon-O-Meter. Why do you think that was? Did you ever meet Harry?
Dave: We were lucky enough to get photos with Harry, Shawon and Arne Harris on Wrigley Field before I took the original Shawon-O-Meter to the Smithsonian. Jim and Mindy met Harry during the 1989 season and he signed the meter then. Harry really did seem to get a kick out of the meter. I think Arne had the same feeling and those two were the key to the meter’s success. If either one of them were ambivalent it would not have had the legs it did. I think it was a unique sign, changing daily with running commentary at the bottom. And it helped that Shawon went from .203 at the start to an ending 1989 average of .278.
Randy: You were mostly an anonymous figure. How did it feel to have the Shawon-O-Meter get all of the attention?
Dave: I think that was the beauty of the meter, we were stewards that had to be there and were honored to be part of almost every broadcast when the meter was in the bleachers (and opposing team’s venues). It was great fun letting other fans hold up the meter and sharing the excitement.
Randy: What is your favorite Shawon-O-Meter moment?
Dave: There were several, but one had to be getting off the plane in San Francisco before games 3-5 of the NLCS in 1989. The Cubs had just shelled Rick Reuschel the night before in Wrigley to tie the series at 1-1. I was walking in the terminal with the meter in clear plastic when Reuschel approached me and starting asking all these questions: Did the Cubs pay for me to come out? How did the meter start? And he kept saying, “That is so cool.” At that moment he was just a Cubs fan interested in his team. It didn’t matter that he had just lost Game 2 less than 24 hours earlier. He was genuinely interested in the meter. And he approached ME! I was always a fan of his growing up and now he was a fan of the meter. How cool is that?
Randy: Pretty darned cool, for sure. Could there be a Shawon-O-Meter today, like a Starlin-O-Meter?
Dave: I think there could be something similar today but it would probably have to revolve around a starting pitcher that takes the mound every five days. Tracking an everyday player would require a small fortune given today’s ticket prices. In 1989 bleacher tickets were $5, not much more that a beer.
Randy: Has Shawon Dunston ever reached out to you about the Shawon-O-Meter, and, if so, what did he say?
Dave: In the mid-90s a friend of mine who had season tickets behind the Cubs dugout called me and said Shawon was sitting a few rows away from him. He decided to approach him and told Shawon I was on the call and handed him his phone so we could chat. Shawon was very gracious and appreciative and said a couple of times, “You made my career.” It was really awesome, a very heartfelt exchange. This would also rank as one of my top Shawon-O-Meter moments.
Randy: The book, “Chicago Stories,” by Michael Czyzniejewski, includes a story told by the Shawon-O-Meter? It’s titled “Unearthed at an Archeological Dig, the Shawon-O-Meter Speaks to the Media, Harry Caray’s Tavern 2169.” What do you think the Shawon-O-Meter would have to say to the media in 2169?
Dave: It was certainly flattering to be included in that book, which is on our shelf. I think Mary Schmich said it best in her “Wear Sunscreen” column from 1997. Something along those lines – seize the day in your early 20’s catching Cubs games in the bleachers. And become a fan of the game, not necessarily of one team.
Randy: Looking back 25 years, what does the Shawon-O-Meter mean to you today?
Dave: So much happened in that compressed period, and it was a time of relative delinquency. But it was also a time of incredible excitement and possibility that could not have been bested but with a trip to the World Series. Those days seemed carefree, even though we had jobs and responsibilities but somehow managed to get the meter in the bleachers most days.
Shawon-O-Meter video links
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“Happy Birthday, Shawon Dunston”
Dave and some of his supporters (including Wrigleyville Nation’s Pat Nagle and Randy Richardson, singing “Happy Birthday” to Shawon at the Shawon-O-MeetUp at Murphy’s Bleachers in 2008.
“Attack of the Shawon-O-Meter”
Cubs.com reporter Carrie Muskat steps out of the press box and into the firing range, as she dodges pieces of the Shawon-O-Meter during her reading at the August 5, 2008 Lovable Losers Literary Revue. Tossing away old Shawon Dunston batting averages and rooting like it’s 1989 is Dave Cihla, inventor of the Shawon-O-Meter.