Sometimes you chase a baseball figure from history, but he’s like Richard Kimble, The Fugitive. You don’t quite catch him.
I wrote a Cubs alumni column for 17 years, 1992-2009, in the team’s VineLine magazine. I usually got my guy, with the exceptions of Adolfo Phillips, Ellis Burton and Brock Davis.
What was it about center fielders who don’t compare with Albert Almora, Jr., that proved so elusive? Phillips, Burton and Davis all were not back in baseball for an accessible interview, and settled into the woodwork of everyday life in the pre-internet age, when trackdowns were a bit harder. I even corralled the nomadic, enigmatic Don Young at a 1969 Cubs reunion at McCormick Place in 1992. Famed for being elusive in his own right, Young said he had recently worked construction on the new Denver airport.
So why should it be so hard to nail Ron Grousl, Wrigley Field’s court jester as chief Left Field Bleacher Bum of 1969? Well, because Grousl, so much in the headlines in that era decided to take the J.D. Salinger route a few years later. He wanted to be left alone and almost nobody who participated in his guerilla theater above the ivy (and before the bleacher basket) knew where Grousl was.
I thought of locking down Grousl’s remembrance in a chapter on the Bleacher Bums I am assembling for Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins’ forthcoming book on the 1969 season. Keep tuning into these microbytes, or whatever they’re called, for further details on the book, scheduled for release in January to mark the 50th anniversary for that uplifting-but-ultimately frustrating season that overall launched the modern Cubs.
Fergie himself thought Grousl moved to the West Coast and married a flight attendant. He was the Cub most tuned into the Bums, since he was given a toast at the old Ray’s Bleachers (now Murphy’s Bleachers) the day before his home starts. Fergie also arm-wrestled No. 2 Bum Mike Haley, winning most matches. And he hosted several Bums, who’d crash on his couch in his St. Louis hotel room as a Cub. The Bums like to travel the hobo-freight style. When’s the last time you heard of fans bunking with the ace pitcher on the road? A true Cubbie Occurrence.
When he got a message from Grousl at his Anaheim hotel as a Texas Ranger in the mid-1970s, Fergie assumed Grousl would come to the ballpark for the game with the Angels. He left Grousl some tickets. But the pair never met in person and lost further touch over the decades. The charismatic, colorful man who agitated so many opposing players with his creative chants and sight gags, Grousl had disappeared into the mists of Cubs history.
My task was to track down Grousl for the book. With no leads from fellow Bums and Haley having passed away more than a year ago, I simply went to the on-line White Pages. Grousl should not be a common name.
Jackpot! Grousl was listed as living in far northwest suburban Lake in the Hills. But, clumsy me, I could not match a phone number. But Bum alumnus Karen Lindvig, now a Seattle minister more nimble on the internet, tracked a number. So did book publisher John Schenk.
On the other end of the land line were Grousl’s sister and brother-in-law. No, I didn’t reach him. Grousl was in the area, though. He had moved to Long Beach, Calif. about 1973 to get away from Chicago winters and, presumably, the forthcoming bad baseball when Jenkins and his ’69 teammates were swept away in a housecleaning. Always marching to his own drummer, he returned to the area about 2005. The kinfolk in Lake in the Hills reported Grousl lives in a senior building not far away in Woodstock, where WLS-TV sets up a camera in the town square to show far northwestern suburban weather conditions. If Grousl did not want to be spotted, he had to avoid downtown during newscasts.
Fergie, fellow ’69 Cub Rich Nye, and Bleacher Bums like Mike Murphy were all getting together at Bernie’s bar at Clark and Waveland a few Sundays back, the day prior to the schedule Cubs homer opener. So the idea was to invite Grousl to join the matinee funfest. I even enlisted Fergie to swoop in relief to pitch the relatives to bring Grousl from Woodstock.
In the meantime, I asked to speak to the mysterious former jokester. Grousl’s sister passed along the message. To my surprise one night, a gravelly-voiced gent called. Ron Grousl was on the line, but couldn’t talk much because his phone only had limited minutes on its charge.
He was all over the place, and difficult to pin down and focus on specific questions and incidents. Apparently, he was a Southwest Sider whose father and grandfather grew up around 26th and Pulaski. He is 72 now, and his Cubs memories went back to the Don Cardwell no-hitter in 1960. He recalled some story about taking three other proto-Bums to the Cubs-Braves game at County Stadium on July 4, 1964.
When Grousl worked, he tended bar at Ray’s Bleachers and worked construction in the off-season, helping tear down the old Bears football stands over the right-field bleachers in Wrigley Field.
OK, the man who wore a bear suit on the field at Fulton County Stadium on Aug. 31, 1969, doing a routine with the Braves’ then-Native American mascot, bailed out when things got rough. He was not around for the 22-0 Pirates’ drubbing of the Cubs in 1975, Mike Schmidt’s four-homer game the next year, or Dave Kingman’s arrival in 1979 and the 23-22 loss to Schmidt’s Phillies. Or the initial first-place finish in 1984, and Sammy Sosa, and Bartman, and so on.
Was he as big a fan as fellow Bums claimed? I wondered. The majority of Cubs fans I know from that era did not run when the contending seasons ended. The ability to follow the Cubs from afar via the WGN Superstation was nearly a decade into the future.
“Why did I bail?” Grousl said when he managed a minute of focus. “I had a 10-year-old son and girlfriend, and started a new life. A friend had two bars in Long Beach. He offered me a job. I had a house near the beach. I worked 10 to 15 years as a bartender. It was warm. I couldn’t take the winters.”
Grousl called again a few days later. I made a pitch for him to join the Bernie’s mini-party. Grousl said he’d seriously consider attending.The man does not drive — how did he navigate Southern California — but his sister and brother-in-law were prepared to ferry Grousl to the border of Wrigley Field. And after hobnobbing with Jenkins and Nye, he’d get to gaze upon the Ricketts-family gentrification of the ballpark and its immediate environs.
In the end, he followed the pattern of his ’69 heroes. Promising almost all the way, until…Despite Jenkins’ strong personal invitation, the family got word to me Grousl felt the Bernie’s gathering was just not the right time to get together. Maybe in a while. Wait ’til next year?
Close but no cigar.
In doing more research on the book, I’m discovering the Bums may have done as much harm as good in their organized cheerleading and Grousl-inspired stunts and chants. As early as June 1969, Cubs like Randy Hundley noticed opponents were really playing hard against the Cubs. Jenkins’ theory is the Cubs were no longer 103-loss pushovers, depriving foes of an easy series win. The amoral Leo Durocher made the Cubs automatic heavies. Ron Santo’s post-game celebratory heel-clicking did not play well with many teams, particularly the rival, and ultimate conquering New York Mets.
But the Bums’ actions really put a spur under the seats of opponents. In one May Jenkins home start, Grousl led the Bums in their third year of chanting “Ruthie! Ruthie!” at Dodgers center fielder Willie Davis, who later claimed to reporters he knew of no such woman. In his own recollection over the phone, Grousl said a secondary chant was “Willie’s got the,,,,” and fans clapped repeatedly to finish the gibe. No 20-homer slugger, Davis was so angered he sliced a sixth-inning homer into the first row of the left-field bleachers, literally aiming for his tormentors. As he rounded the bases, he flipped the bird at the Bums live on WGN-TV. Jack Brickhouse gussied up the gesture by claiming Davis was waving at the fans.
The homer tied the game 1-1. If not the victim of such inspiration, Jenkins would have won 1-0. Davis was not done. Jenkins was still pitching with a man on second in the 12th. Davis advised Willie Crawford, next man up, to slice the ball to left off an outside pitch as he had done with the homer.. Crawford complied expertly. Then Davis slugged a two-run homer into the right-field bleachers for insurance runs.
More innocent ,even hilarious antics were generated by Grousl and Co. such as a crutch with a rubber hot dog attached tossed toward Pete Rose in center as fans chanted ‘Rosey,” and white mice at a laughing Lou Brock in left. But hangers-on attracted by the Bums’ raucous antics sullied their name and truly angered opponents. Henry Aaron was doused with beer walking to the Braves’ bus, while Reds pitcher Jose Pena’s nose was broken by a ball thrown at him on the ramp leading to the visiting clubhouse. The Cubs had to quickly erect a wire-mesh screen to protect visiting players walking down to the dugout. Other outfielders reported dodging thrown objects hazardous to their health. Only Midwesterners mourned the Cubs’ September song of sour notes in 1969.
I witnessed another interesting sidelight to the Bums/Grousl story. Ernie Banks’ 500th homer in 1970 was replayed for the millionth time on the recent WGN 70th anniversary of baseball telecasts special. I looked at the brief close-up of the left-field bleachers after the homer bounced in and out. No trademark Bum yellow helmets were spotted. I know other Bums reported outings to St. Louis in subsequent seasons. By then, the bleacher basket was erected. Perhaps some Bums preceded Grousl in jumping off after the Cubs’ own Summer of Love.
I always thought Cubs fanship was an unbroken line, like Carol Haddon’s 48 years of season-ticket ownership in the first row or Al Yellon’s sentinel-like post in the right- and now left-field bleachers over four decades. No five-and-dive performances.
Always a seeker of truth, I know Grousl is an hour’s drive away. I’ll be the “persistent” man Ryan Dempster once called me in a word-association game. When Jenkins comes back to Chicago, Grousl — not Randy Hundley’s — must be his batterymate. I want to see the pair in the same room together, and ask Grousl what was the price of true loyalty.
Check out the continuing pursuit of the head Bleacher Bum and further updates on the Fergie book. You won’t want to miss either.
Category Chicago Baseball History Feature Tags Chicago Baseball History, Chicago Cubs, Fergie Jenkins, Rich Nye