Authors tell the inside stories behind “Cubsessions”

Two of Wrigleyville Nation’s regular contributing writers, Randy Richardson and Becky Sarwate, have co-authored a book, Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team and Their Stories of Pain, Loyalty, Hope and (Finally) Joy.” Throughout the 2017 baseball season, the two die-hard Cub fans interviewed a diverse collection of some of the team’s most famous fans: actors, comedians, broadcasters, musicians, restauranteurs, athletes, journalists. Even those who are ubiquitous precisely because of their fandom. Cubsessions tells the story of divergent life paths – the roads taken, the failures experienced, and the successes reached – and how those paths all come together for a collective passion. Bob Newhart, Pat Brickhouse, Dennis Franz, Joe Mantegna, Scott Turow, Bill Kurtis, Pat Hughes, Len Kasper, Steve Trout, and many others, share just what it means to bleed Cubbie blue. The book will be released on Opening Day, March 29, and is now available for pre-order from Chicago’s Eckhartz Press. The authors have partnered with and are donating 100 percent of their proceeds from book sales to a collection of three charities: Chicago Baseball Cancer Charities, Scoreboard Charities, and the Chicago Baseball Museum. The authors share with us how the book came to be and some of the fascinating stories behind it.

Wrigleyville Nation (WN): Tell us how you became a Cubs fan.

Randy bioRandy: I’m a first-generation Cubs fan, and an unlikely one at that. In the summer of ’69, the summer of the Cubs’ epic collapse, my family moved from a suburb of Milwaukee to a south suburb of Chicago. I was entering third grade and starting to get interested in baseball. I didn’t know anything about North Side versus South Side allegiances. I gravitated to the Cubs because they were the better team at the time, with future Hall-of-Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo and Fergie Jenkins. They had a catcher who shared my first name (Randy Hundley) and they were always on TV, because of superstation WGN. I was hooked at an early age and it wasn’t until a couple years later that I began to see that I was the only kid in my class wearing a Cubs hat.

Becky Bio_previewBecky: I am a fourth-generation fan, and a city of Chicago native. Cub roots run deep on both sides of my family. I was raised in the North Center neighborhood (where I still reside today with my husband Bob), veritable walking distance from Wrigley Field. Home games were a part of every summer. And since my dad was involved in fantasy baseball before the internet was a thing, I spent a considerable amount of time with him poring over and recording stats. I loved it. Baseball – and the Cubs – are in my blood.

WN: How did you come to work on the book?

Randy: It might surprise people that the idea for the book actually came from a White Sox fan, David Stern, who, with his longtime friend and die-hard Cubs fan Rick Kaempfer, runs Eckhartz Press, the book’s publisher. Eckhartz had published a book, Genuflections, by Chicago journalist Robert Herguth, which captures the stories of celebrities relating how growing up Catholic affected their lives. It was one of Eckhartz’ more successful books. David might be a Sox fan but he’s a businessman first and foremost. After the Cubs won the World Series, the thought struck Dave: Why not do a similar book featuring famous Cubs fans? It made perfect sense to Rick, who also happens to run the Cubs website, Just One Bad Century. Eckhartz had published both of my novels and knew that I had been writing for Wrigleyville Nation. So Rick approached me with the idea of writing the book. This was in January 2017. Initially, I said I’d need to think about it. I don’t think it was even a week later when I agreed to do it. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. But when I started thinking about the amount of work that would be involved, I just thought: How am I going to do this all on my own? That’s when I approached Becky. I’d previously invited her to write for Wrigleyville Nation and I knew that we had similar writing styles and mindsets. Fortunately, Becky agreed to do it, and a year after we embarked on this journey together, we have a book that I think both of us are very proud to share with our fellow Cub fans.

Becky: How I came to be involved with the book. Two words. Randy Richardson. I will never forget the March 2017 late afternoon we sat enjoying happy hour drinks at the G-Man in Wrigleyville. I was excited about Randy’s new Cubs book project with Eckhartz Press and thought myself bold in offering to serve as a manuscript reader. I was literally speechless when Randy countered with a question, “How about being co-author?” It’s an unbelievable dream moment frozen in time. I can never thank him enough for trusting me and inviting me along to share this amazing ride.

WN: What was the most memorable experience you encountered while working on the book?

Randy: Well, there were many. Sitting in a coffee shop, talking about the Cubs with one of my literary heroes, Scott Turow, was certainly high on the list. Chatting on the phone with one of my all-time favorite actors, Dennis Franz, was pretty surreal. But I think the one that rises to the top as the most memorable experience has to be the interview with Dave Cihla (aka the Shawon-O-Meter/Schwarb-O-Meter guy). You can read that whole story in a piece I wrote for Wrigleyville Nation, “A Memorable Night with the Schwarb-O-Meter.” What made that so memorable is that it all happened so spontaneously. I was on my way to meet him at a local watering hole, when he texted me: “Wanna do the Meter tonight? My treat.” Because it was a raw, soggy night, he’d found bleachers for $8. Not only did I get a picture with him holding the Schwarb-O-Meter sign, but Kyle Schwarber, who’d been in a deep funk, broke out of his early-season slump with the game-winning homer, which landed not far from where we were seated. It was just perfect.

Becky: The people I have interviewed for this project are some of my literary, comedy, film and journalism heroes. I was given the opportunity to discuss Cubs past and present, as well as Chicago history, with luminaries like Sara Paretsky, Bob Newhart, Nick Offerman, Joe Mantegna and Bill Kurtis. Even if there was no book, how special is that?  There have been so many “pinch me” moments throughout this process.

But I think one that stands out in particular is the late afternoon I spent sipping scotch at R.J. Grunts with Adrian Zmed and his older brother Cornel. There I am typing along while Adrian generously shares memories of Chicago and the Cubs in a renowned Windy City watering hole. It felt classic Chicago. I felt like Mike Royko or Irving Kupcinet. I’ll never forget it.

WN: Of the celebrity Cub fans that you interviewed which one do you feel best captured what it truly means to be a Cubs fan? How so?

Randy: They all captured different aspects of just what it means to be a Cubs fan. But, for me, the one that best captured it has to be WXRT radio personality Lin Brehmer. The image of him sitting by himself in his comfy chair, in the early hours after the Cubs won the World Series, and just a few hours before he’d be on the air, with a big smile on his face spooning a celebratory root beer float, I can picture it so clearly. That, to me, captured the childlike joy that I think so many of us experienced when the Cubs finally won it all.

Becky: It’s hard because I had the opportunity to tell so many great stories in the book. But I think Joe Mantegna’s perspective did much to tie the larger narratives together. For example, he’s great friends with Adrian Zmed and Tom Dreesen, who also have stories in the book. It’s the idea of Cubs community on the micro level. But in addition, he is the genius behind Bleacher Bums, the seminal 1970s stage production that has toured the world, been produced for television, and represents the spirit of bleeding Cubbie blue. Fans from all walks of life coming together for a singular passion. Many of the other interviewees in the book had come across Bleacher Bums at some stage of their creative careers as well. Joe Mantegna’s story weaves many elements together – and he did it totally by accident. Just by thoughtfully sharing these memories and ideas that have a universal touch.

WN:  Whose story most surprised you? How so?

Randy: That would have to be musician Michael McDermott’s. His story of how the arc of the Cubs’ failures and successes in many ways mirrored his own musical career was so deep and personal…I found it both heartbreaking and inspiring. One could see how he took on this persona of the Lovable Loser and had to find his way out of a really dark place.

Becky: I think Sara Paretsky threw me for a bit of a loop. The accomplished author of the V.I. Warshawski novel series, which was eventually turned into a movie starring Kathleen Turner. She has achieved so much.

Yet she told me with all sincerity that when she ran the bases at Wrigley Field – during a film shooting break in the late 1980s – to the roar of a crowd of extras, it was one of the biggest, most exciting moments of her life. She meant it too. She recalled the smell of the grass and suddenly I was right there with her. It was such a humble and awed admission. It drew me right in.

WN: What was your one greatest takeaway from working on this book?

Randy: The Cubs are more than just a baseball team to their fans. In many ways, they are like family. Because you’ve been through so many highs and lows with them, you feel this deep and personal connection to them. As Dennis Franz noted, even when you’re not following them closely, they’re always a part of you. That really resonated with me.

Becky: I may never have a star on the Walk of Fame like Bob Newhart. It’s unlikely I’ll ever reach the career journalism heights of Bill Kurtis and I think we can rule out my role on a long-running CBS television drama like Joe Mantegna. But we all have one beautiful thing in common. We are all drawn to Wrigley Field to follow the emotional arc of our favorite baseball team. And that shared passion will always unite us all. The idea is so democratic and human. We all follow something bigger and outside of us, no matter our respective livelihoods, families or culture.

WN: Has working on this book changed your perspective at all of what it means to be a Cubs fan, and, if so, how?

Randy: It has given me a greater appreciation of just what it does mean to be a Cubs fan – and all the history that comes with it. I have a son who plays baseball and roots for the Cubs. So now there’s a second-generation Cubs fan in the family. And one day he may have a son or a daughter who will be the third generation. Those connections mean something, and I think it’s important that they know just what it means to bleed Cubbie blue.

Becky: For me, being a Cubs fan and a Chicago historian are part and parcel of the same drive to understand and experience a team that has been synonymous with this town since the 19th Century. My father was born in 1955 and the grandparents who loved the Cubs were deceased by the time I was 14. My intimate knowledge of the Cubs and the legacy of franchise heartbreak really started with 1969 before I wrote this book. It was the first truly painful season in my father’s consciousness. With this project, I was given the gift of widening my historical perspective. I spoke with fans well into their 70s –  or in Bob Newhart’s case, deep into the 80s –  and heard first-hand accounts of significant events such as the 1945 Pennant parade, Jackie Robinson’s first appearance at Wrigley, Sandy Koufax on the opposing mound. You can’t buy experiences like hearing vivid recollections from brilliant storytellers, and I was able to hear them as part of my work on this project. It has changed everything. It has made my commitment to the Cubs evermore dear and firm, an even bigger source of pride if possible.

Join us in celebrating the release of Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team at Murphy’s Bleachers on Sunday, April 8, 1-4 p.m. Books will be available for sale. Authors Randy Richardson and Becky Sarwate, along with several of the featured Famous Fans, will be there to sign copies. RSVP at the Cubsessions Facebook Page.