Of Cubs, Schlitz & Brooms: We Always Swept the Series
Pete Marcantonio was the iconic head groundskeeper at Wrigley Field in 1969. I can still hear Jack Brickhouse telling his WGN-TV audience, ``Here comes Pete Marcantonio and his ground crew,’’ when the tarp was going on for a rain delay.
I was a stammering 17-year-old kid in 1969, a rookie peanut vendor. I had seen Pete go toe-to-toe with Cubs manager Leo Durocher outside the team clubhouse. When Pete was angry, he had the demeanor of Jackie Gleason on The Honeymooners. I don’t know what he and Leo were arguing about. I just know Pete wasn’t backing down.
He also had a gentler side. It was rare, but cool. After I got to know him, I coaxed a few words out of him about the old days. He had a spike on his work bench with Cubs pocket schedules. I peeked once. They went back to 1943. Which seemed like the Civil War, not World War II, to me. Pete had been there for a decade before that. He was like a Founding Father.
But that was before I had passed Pete’s muster. On that day in the spring of 1969, when one of my vending friends said Pete was looking for a few good men to help clean the ballpark, I thought I would answer the call.
It was for a few hours before and after the game. It fit neatly around vending. The money was good. And if that meant days were long when the Cubs were in town, they were gone half the time. With the White Sox floundering, South Side vending was not an appealing option. There would be ample time off.
A couple of us went into Pete’s workshop, which was filled with all manner of tools, boxes, an open-bladed fan, endless clutter. He was sitting at his work bench. He looked us over and said, ``Are you good workers? We’ll give youse a try. Grab one of those brooms and go upstairs.’’
Soon I was sweeping in the left-upper deck grandstand. Looking out occasionally at Wrigley Field and the sailboats on Lake Michigan, I was thinking life was good. Our upper-deck leader, Roger ``Moose’’ O’Connor, was easy to work with. He even played practical jokes on his lieutenant, a goofy old guy named Bucky.
A couple of hours later, the upper deck cleaned, we went back downstairs. Some of the ``extra men,’’ as we were called, traded little kitchen-style brooms for big push brooms, to sweep the concourse—``the underneath,’’ as Pete called it.
A few of us were sent out to ``pull chairs.’’ That was the last year when the box seats at Wrigley Field were loose chairs. Our assignment was to move the top row of chairs onto the big walkway. A sweeper would clean the open row, then the next row of chairs would be pulled up to the swept row.
When everything was finished, we carried the top row of chairs down to the front row. And when everything was finished, my hand was one big blister from pulling chairs. Gloves solved that problem the next day.
On other days, I worked the dreaded concourse sweep, which was supervised by Pete himself. It was a tricky procedure that required skilled coordination when we moved the hot-dog wrappers and beer cups past the gale-force stairwell winds.
``No. No. No. What’s wrong with you? Gimme that broom!’’ Pete would shout, and then demonstrate the intricate maneuver of locking the brooms together and moving swiftly through the wind. It was the groundskeeping equivalent of turning a double play.
Pete also kept a close eye on the little sweeping brooms. Even though he wasn’t always there, he could tell by the wear-and-tear on the broom. If you pushed rather than swept, you messed up the bristles and needed a new broom. Pete only gave those out grudgingly.
Those of us who took care of our brooms used to mark them—to keep them away from chronic broom abusers. It was like having your own little Louisville Slugger.
The next morning, we ``extra men’’ would sweep the bleachers, under the direction of Cotton Bogren, Pete’s top assistant. Cotton was the sweetest man—always interested in chatting about where we were going to school, what we wanted to do after school. He was the good cop to Pete's bad cop.
In those days, Astroturf covered a portion of the center-field bleachers, to help batters see the ball when it was pitched. Cotton made me the Captain of the Astroturf. I would walk gingerly on carpet-like turf, slapping the beer cups down to the front row, where I could collect them.
All of the garbage was put into large open crates. Four or more of them would be set up on the concourse outside Pete’s shop.
When they started to fill up, he would ask us to climb into the crates and jump around, to pack down the garbage. I actually didn’t mind doing that. The garbage was pretty benign. It was sort of like being on a trampoline. It was critical, though, to be wearing work boots. Sneakers were trouble.
I’m sure they use trash compactors now instead of energetic teenagers. And from the brutal droning sound of it, they use electric blowers to do a lot of things we did with our little brooms. But I prefer the way we did it. It was peaceful. And we had a sense of accomplishment.
It was also a terrific job if you liked to watch baseball. We generally stopped vending in the sixth or seventh inning, when sales were on the wane. That provided time to watch the final innings before the ground-crew work began.
We always swept the series.
The ``regulars’’ on the ground crew treated us well. Lenny and Alex would let me sneak up into the scoreboard occasionally. You went up a little ladder. It was like climbing up into a basement. Stacks of numbers and city names were piled everywhere. In those days, the Bears played there; the football numbers piled high, too.
It was entertaining to hear the guys needle Frank, who carried giant pack of Doublemint Gum when they dragged the infield. That was the extent of marketing in those days.
The ground-crew regulars had a stash of the official beers, a teetering tower of Schlitz and Old Style in their dressing room. They would help us sneak out a case now and then. Honestly, I wasn’t much a drinker at that age. But Wrigley Field beer was irresistible.
The highlight moment, though, was helping with the tarp. Covering the field in the twilight at the end of the day. And taking off the tarp in the morning.
Most of the time, we vending extra men only did tarp work when no fans were in the stands. We were busy hawking peanuts or hot dogs or Coke during the game.
But one rainy morning the tarp stayed on. In those quaint times, the Cubs didn’t sell any grandstand or bleacher tickets until game day: ``22,000 tickets go on sale the day of each game’’ was the slogan.
So there was a noon doubleheader on a Sunday. The stands were filled with restless fans who had arrived early to get the best of those unreserved seats. And we went out to pull the tarp around 11:30.
The roar was awesome. Definitely my greatest day in baseball.
I don’t know that I miss jumping in crates. And Pete’s ``10 easy steps to pushing a broom’’ were not that easy.
But I miss Pete and Cotton and Moose and the gang.
And I miss baseball. Just like you.
If you like sports history with an extra bit of drama, please check out my 1908 Cubs novel, The Run Don’t Count. Excerpts and other information at facebook/therundontcount. It’s available in paperback and Kindle at Amazon.com.