A lot of Chicago Cubs fans express a desire for our ashes to be sprinkled within the confines of Wrigley Field. This ambition may baffle other sports fans from other cities. But Chicagoans believe we can vote in the hereafter, too. And unlike fans of ball clubs in parks with fleeting life spans, pasted with short-lived corporate labels, such as Comerica Park, Citi Field and LoanDepot Park, Cubs fans can be fairly confident their North Side vintage ballpark, opened in 1914, will endure.
The club has bad years and good years. But Wrigley Field, with its ivy-clad brick outfield walls, close confines, hand-operated scoreboard, congenial bleachers, beer vendors and Chicago red hots and nachos at your seat, is the draw.
The Cubs adamantly refuse all requests from families to scatter the ashes of loved ones. Believe me, I’ve asked. They say if they let families sprinkle the cinders of their departed loved ones in Wrigley, players would soon be ankle-deep in ashes. Green streaks on your uniform from infield grass or brown smudges from base paths are badges of honor. But gray smears from human embers? Not even millionaire ballplayers get paid enough for that.
But some human impulses run so deep they evade regulation. I’ve heard accounts over the years from people who say they have plopped the ashes of loved ones into baggies, muttered a prayer during the seventh inning stretch and shaken out cinders under a seat. Or, Lord forbid, in a restroom.
I happen to know that embers of Steve Goodman, the great Chicago folk artist who sang the droll 1983 blues ballad “A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request,” were sprinkled in left field after Steve died of leukemia in 1984 at the age of 36. A $20 bill inside a rolled-up Playboy persuaded a groundskeeper to unlock a gate. That’s Chicago.
I am honored to have witnessed what may be the only officially permitted ash scattering in Cubs history. My Auntie Marian, a Rush Street lounge chanteuse, was married to Charlie Grimm, the Cubs’ longtime first baseman. He had also been the club’s manager during some of the team’s most despairing years, which made him only more beloved. In fact, it’s Uncle Charlie, depicted on Norman Rockwell’s September 4, 1948, Saturday Evening Post cover, The Dugout, as the despondent Cubs manager, frowning and holding a hand to his jaw as if the game is making a molar hurt. Even the towels and glove hanging on the dugout wall look soggy and sad.
At holiday dinners Charlie would hold up his enormous red hands. “Never meant to hold a briefcase,” he’d proclaim. “Just a bat, a glove, a ball and a banjo.”
Yet his fingernails glistened. They were rose scented. He knew people would stare at the palms that absorbed hard pegs from Stan Hack and Billy Jurges, so he booked weekly manicures.
Charlie died in 1983, at the age of 85. He had remained a goodwill ambassador for the club, and Auntie Marian reminded the Cubs’ Tribune Corporation owners that the late Phil Wrigley had promised Charlie his ashes would be scattered along Wrigley Field’s first baseline.
Cub executives were aghast. But Marian threatened to go public. CUBS BREAK PROMISE TO WIDOW was not good PR.
So in the late morning on a blustery March day, while the Cubs were at spring training out west, Auntie Marian and a small group of family and friends gathered in some of the green seats along the first baseline.
A priest presided in a black windbreaker. We implored him, “Bless the bats while you’re here!” Marian sang to us: “I’ll be seeing you/In all the old familiar places/That this heart of mine embraces/All day and through.”
Cubs staff brought Marian over to Uncle Charlie’s old familiar place along the first baseline.
“Here we go, baby doll,” we heard her say as she overturned a cup of ashes, then put a kiss on the tips of her fingers and blew it toward the ground into which Charlie had been stirred. We surrounded her with hugs as she returned to the first base seats. “How ’bout that, sports fans?” she said. “Drink?”
It was easy to find an open bar mid-morning in Wrigleyville. And from that day, when our family sees a player fall to the ground around first base, we say, “He gets a pocketful of Uncle Charlie!”
We felt the power of Uncle Charlie at work during the Cubs’ last World Series season, 2016 (they won in seven against Cleveland). On July 31 of that year, they played the Seattle Mariners. (I happened to throw out the first pitch.)
The Cubs fell behind early, 6 to nothing. But in the miraculous ways of that year, they came back to tie the score in the ninth inning. And as the clock on the scoreboard circled toward midnight at the bottom of the twelfth inning, Jason Heyward hit a double and moved up to third. The Cubs manager, Joe Maddon, called in Jon Lester to pinch hit.
Jon Lester, a pitcher, to pinch hit.
Seattle pulled in their infielders, in expectation of a bunt. And Lester obligingly punched a short squib that rolled about six feet from home plate, a few inches from the first baseline. And then it just stopped. A dead, solid stop, like a broken-down Chevy. Seattle players scrambled toward the ball as if it was a grenade about to explode. But Jason Heyward slid to the far side of the plate to score.
A pitcher pinch-hit the winning run home with a bunt in the dirt that pulled up short of the first baseline. Years from now, as apparition-recognition technology becomes available, I’m sure we’ll see images of Uncle Charlie’s huge, glistening, rose-scented hand reach down to stop the ball before it could be scooped up.
Fans everywhere look at playing fields and see ghosts of players past. But Cubs fans look out at Wrigley and see the spirits of our loved ones, dancing over the basepaths at midnight. At Wrigley, they’re still in the game.
Scott Simon hosts a Saturday morning show on NPR, reports stories for CBS Sunday Morning and has written memoirs (Unforgettable and My Cubs), novels (Pretty Birds and Windy City) and a YA novel (Sunnyside Plaza) set two blocks from Wrigley Field. He has thrown out the first pitch at Chicago Cubs games.