Saturday, May 10, 2008

BALL BRAWL: How serious is Sox vs. Cubs to character of Chicago & Illinois?

When I first heard that a brawl earlier this week outside a central Illinois pizza joint had a baseball overtone, my first assumption was to think that some loudmouth Chicago Cubs fan got what he deserved from a St. Louis Cardinals’ fan.

I was partly correct. It was a Cubs fan who got pushed through a window of a Domino’s Pizza franchise in Normal, Ill. Considering the intelligence level of many Cubs fans (who with any sense roots for a ball club that has gone at least a century between World Series titles?), the guy probably did deserve it.

BUT IT WAS due to a fight with a Chicago White Sox fan that the baseball discussion got ugly.

My time going to college in Bloomington, Ill., and later living in Springfield led me to believe that rural Illinois has some warped love for the National League, and that the baseball fandom of Illinois is a brawl between the Cardinals and Cubs – with downstaters siding with the team from the city that they prefer to identify with.

The White Sox have always been a preference of people from Chicago proper. I’d go so far as to say that to the people who really live in the working class neighborhoods that Chicago likes to think comprise its character, the White Sox’ championship of 2005 meant more than any Chicago Cubs championship would ever mean.

It is only because the Cubs’ fan base is spread out over a larger geographic area that Cubs fans like to think their team somehow “means more” to people than that of the Sox.

I WAS PLEASED to hear that some people from central Illinois have enough sense to, as Harry Caray used to urge us, “root, root, root, for the White Sox” – even though I wish the man who now faces an aggravated battery charge in McLean County Circuit Court could have shown just a bit more restraint.

But it is the nature of sports and fandom that sometimes, love for our favorite ball club makes us do stupid things. And every ball club has fans who go overboard – no team is exempt.

At least this incident, which got picked up nationally and warranted brief mentions in newspapers across the United States, didn’t go so far as a recent incident involving the most intense rivalry in baseball these days – New York Yankees vs. Boston Red Sox.

Ivonne Hernandez was being heckled by Red Sox fans outside a tavern in Nashua, N.H., when they noticed a Yankees logo sticker on her car. She retaliated by driving her car into the crowd of fans – killing one and seriously injuring another.

HERNANDEZ NOW FACES criminal charges of reckless conduct, second-degree murder and aggravated driving while intoxicated.

The worst that happened to the Cubs fan (who was wearing a Cubs jersey at the time of the incident) was that the back of his neck got scratched, and he’s going to have to endure the shame of his fellow Cubs fans for getting his butt kicked by a Sox fan – who had to come up with $100 to keep out of the county jail while the case is pending.

Now I don’t know who this “Sox fan” is. My guess is that he’s a student at Illinois State University – or perhaps a former student who got a job in the area after graduation – who hails from the Chicago area.

I’d be surprised to learn he was a native central Illinois resident. It usually is one of the characteristics of Chicago baseball that the natives root for the White Sox, while the out-of-towners who adopt Chicago come to root for the Cubs (which is what makes Barack Obama all the more unusual – a Hawaiian-turned-Chicagoan who supports the Sox).

A GOOD PART of it is because St. Louis and Chicago have always battled it out for bragging rights for the designation of Supreme City of the Midwest. The National League has teams in both cities, whereas the American League hasn’t had a team in St. Louis since the Browns left for Baltimore following the 1953 season.

Even then, the Browns were usually so wretched that there was no way a self-respecting White Sox fan would care about beating up on St. Louis. The mentality of the Sox fan always focuses on the major East Coast teams (the aforementioned Yankees and Red Sox) as the teams to beat, even though with the current divisional setup, Midwest and East Coast teams play very infrequently (the Yankees already have made their only trip to Chicago for 2008).

The minor leagues that provide ballplayers the chance to hone their skills before joining the Chicagos, New Yorks or Los Angeleses of the baseball world also reinforce the concept that downstate Illinois is a National League place.

Peoria (the place where everything successful supposedly plays first) has been both a Cubs’ and Cardinals’ minor league affiliate, and I can recall the days when Peoria and Springfield had a budding baseball rivalry going – both because of the proximity of the two cities with mutual distaste for each other AND because they were Cubs’ and Cardinals’ affiliates respectively.

BY COMPARISON, THE White Sox in recent years have come to keep their minor league affiliates in the South, centered around Charlotte, N.C., which doesn’t do a thing to persuade Midwesterners to look to the South Side of Chicago when they want a big-time baseball fix.

Not that those of us Chicagoans who root for the Sox are losing too much sleep over this.

We tend to think of the White Sox as the team representing our specific segment of the city, and we perceived the 2005 World Series title as a long-overdue victory for us – at the expense of all those people who’d rather have had the Cubs win the first baseball-related championship of the modern era (really, the Cubs haven’t had one since 1908, and the White Sox hadn’t had one previously since 1917).

SO A PART of us is going to wonder just what that fool of a Cubs fan had to say to provoke a Sox fan to throw him through a window, particularly since it came in a community that is fairly mellow (no one would ever mistake Normal, Ill., for the South Side) in character.

Now I know some people will argue that this is evidence that we baseball fans take this stuff too seriously. But I’d argue it is a bit of evidence of how much a part of the character of Chicago professional baseball has become.

Our two teams are both charter members of their respective leagues and they have become a part of the character of their respective neighborhoods (how many people forget that Wrigley Field is in the “Lakeview” neighborhood, not “Wrigleyville?”)

IT IS WHY I get miffed when people try to claim that Chicago is a “Cubs town” (as though the large segment of the city that could care less about the Cubs doesn’t matter). It even makes me chuckle when people look at the sports scene here and argue that Chicago is, first and foremost, a football town.

Yes, the Bears are popular. They are a unifying factor in the character of Chicago. But I’d argue that Chicago sports fans care more about their favorite baseball team than they do the Bears.

To one segment of Chicago, the 2005 White Sox are more important than the 1985 Bears could ever be because they won in baseball. To the other segment of the city, the ’05 Sox cause more heartache than the Bears ever could, because the Sox beat the Cubs to the World Series punch.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Last Sunday’s incident was just the latest brawl gone out-of-hand ( that relates back to baseball.

The central Illinois incident, which one wag suggested should have been headlined, “Normal man attacked by Sox fan,” was nowhere near as drastic as a recent incident in New Hampshire (,0,473919.story) that resulted in one less Red Sox fan on this planet.

Chicago vs. St. Louis is the overtone usually contained in central Illinois baseball fan (,0,983276.story) quarrels.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting points here. I'm actually a huge White Sox fan as someone that grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago, but I think that you underestimate the pull of the Cubs in Chicago (as much as I wish it didn't exist). Part of this is that I believe that Chicago's reputation as a blue collar town is extremely overstated - it's as white collar (AKA yuppie) as any of the East and West Coast cities as opposed to its Rust Belt brethren such as St. Louis and Detroit. Thus, the "character" of Chicago has shifted more toward the affluent North Side and well-to-do suburbs of the city as opposed the South Side (which was dominant in the old days of when Chicago was a manufacturing center). Having lived on both sides of the city and in the north, south and west suburbs at some point, I'd peg the amount of Chicago-area natives as 2/3 Cubs fans and 1/3 Sox fans. For Chicago-area transplants, which are a significant portion of the metro area compared to other Midwestern cities, they pretty much 99.9% become Cubs fans. The Cubs are simply dominant when it comes to media coverage, ticket sales, TV ratings, etc. Some Sox fans will pass this off as the Cubs being lucky enough to have Wrigley Field, but I think that's a simplistic argument. Even I, as a die-hard Sox fan myself, have been completely impressed by how Cubs fans travel and fill up road stadiums in a way that is only comparable with the Red Sox and Yankees. I only wish the Sox could get that type of support.

Also, I've observed that Cubs fans from Chicago have a very different attitude toward the Cardinals than Cubs fans from downstate. I spent my college years in Champaign where I was shocked to find that the prevalent baseball rivalry was Cubs vs. Cards as opposed to Cubs vs. Sox (call me an ignorant Chicagoan, but I had no idea that people from the State of Illinois actually cheered for the Cardinals). Cubs fans from Chicago generally have a mild-to-strong dislike of the Cardinals, but absolutely hate the White Sox. I think that Cubs fans from downstate are the opposite with an absolute hatred of the Cards and a mild-to-strong dislike of the Sox. Cards fans, on the other hand, pretty much hate the Cubs no matter where they are from.

My theory is that the hatred of the Cubs by Cards fans is partly a proxy of the animosity regarding the socioeconomic standing of St. Louis in contrast to Chicago (just as the hatred of the Cubs by Sox fans is partly a proxy of animosity regarding the socioeconomic standing of the South Side in contrast to the North Side). There isn't a reciprocal hatred from Cubs fans from Chicago since they live in the dominant city. On the other hand, downstate Cubs fans live side-by-side with Cards fans, so that familiarity breeds much more contempt.

Finally, I can say unequivocally that the Bears are #1 in Chicago more than anything else. I think that Chicago is the most diversified city in the country in its sports fandom (it's not a pure "baseball town" like St. Louis or a "football town" like Green Bay) in that all of the teams in all sports have very passionate followings, but there's nothing that compares to when the Bears are doing well. I see your point in that each Chicagoan might have a strong allegiance with his or her baseball team, but the Bears are at the top of Chicago's news even when they are horrific (which isn't the case with the baseball teams or Bulls).