In Chicago, they are marking the 25th anniversary of the death of Mike Royko, who left us on April 29, 1997, when he was just 64.
This is bringing back a flood of memories. Mike—or Mr. Big, as he liked us to call him—was a childhood hero of mine who became a mentor and dear friend. He also could be crazy, but we kind of liked that. I am sure there are many old geezers who worked with him, played softball with him—and of course, drank with him—who are toasting him today with a knowing smile on their faces.
I always thought Mike was the best newspaperman ever, anywhere. He wrote so well and he was almost always spot-on with his topics.
During Watergate, he put on his beloved trench coat, jumped into Michigan Avenue taxicabs and ordered the drivers to ``follow that car.’’ With a fascinating set of consequences.
At Christmastime, his beloved Chicago Daily News and later, the Sun-Times, after the Daily News closed, re-ran his marvelous column about an itinerant couple named Mary and Joe, and their Christmas Eve travails with local social-service agencies.
When allowing women sportswriters to work locker rooms was the the subject of the day, he wrote a whimsical column in which he polled his softball team. I was proud to be included as Gimpy Gould, who emphatically approved of women in the locker room.
Just as he is remembered by Chicagoans for the newspaper columns that so remarkably embraced a city, he is remembered by the legion of Chicagoans who played softball with him.
The Daily News, and later, the Sun-Times, softball team was actually a collection of teams. There was, of course, the office team, the headliner that played in Grant Park. But there were also teams playing all around the city, including Oscar Meyer Park (which Mike always called ``Hot Dog Park’’), Clarendon Park (in a league so talent-laden that the balls were injected with water to keep them inside the park) and several other parks on the Northwest Side, where Mike grew up in his father’s tavern.
This elaborate softball organization was overseen, appropriately enough, by real estate editor Don DeBat, who coordinated the rosters; found sponsors (preferably taverns); oversaw the selection of polyester uniforms, and lugged the bats, balls and bases.
There were no gloves, of course. When the Park District proposed to allow gloves, which was heresy for Chicago’s very own 16-inch softball, Mike went to court and sued to stop that. With the newspaper’s lawyers.
He was so proud of that: Upholding softball tradition and coming up with a string of easy columns. Talk about a double play!
It was in April of 1977 that I met Mike. I had just been hired at the Daily News. DeBat had scheduled our Spring Training for a chilly Saturday afternoon at a gravelly, puddle-filled schoolyard because actual parks were too muddy. Try finding anywhere to play softball in April in Chicago that does not involve mud and cold.
Mike was pitching. I was swinging a bat, trying to warm up (literally) and expecting to hit next. When it was time to change the batter, though, Mike came in and glared at me. ``Around here, we pitch our way in, sonny boy,’’ he said, picking up a bat.
So I got in the line to pitch.
When the games began, Mike was generally our pitcher—and a very good one. With his big, basically bald head, over-sized glasses and a scowl, he was menacing. In 16-inch softball, pitchers were allowed a step to maneuver away from the pitcher’s rubber—and Mike used that opportunity very effectively.
Between Royko and DeBat, the Daily News/Sun-Times rosters were laden with talent. DeBat had a ton of neighborhood contacts. And Royko was always scouting, usually in bars, for athletes.
We had a shortstop who had played minor-league baseball, an outfielder who had been a Division III rushing champion, an Ivy League football player and his brother, a guy who had been in the Pittsburgh Steelers training camp and his two brothers. And so on. . .
Surrounded by all of these talented athletes, Mike—who was in his 40s, much older than most of us—was not merely a leader and the pitcher. He remained a very effective power hitter.
A first baseman, I tried to make myself useful by getting on base with line drives. As a lefty, I also discovered that I could slap a slow roller to the shortstop and beat the throw. Nothing like young legs.
In addition, I made myself useful by being captain of our Celebrity Team. Our ``celebrities’’ were our friend Tim Weigel, who had graduated from the Daily New sports staff to being a television sports anchor, and some DePaul basketball players Mike had met, probably in a saloon.
Being captain involved lugging the bats and balls, and making phone-call reminders that we had a game. With Mike, that wasn’t always cut-and-dried.
When I called a DePaul player named Sam Manella—look it up if you don’t believe me—he said he would not be there. ``Because Mike fired me.’’
Now, Sam was a Yogi-like free spirit who was better at basketball than softball. But I told him, ``You are unfired. Because if you aren’t there tonight, we won’t have enough guys and we’ll forfeit. Plus, I enjoy your company.’’
Sam showed up. Mike didn’t remember firing him.
That actually was a fun team. We played at Athletic Field, I believe—a city park on Addison Street a couple of miles from Wrigley Field. And began our postgame sessions at Mirabell, a nearby German restaurant.
Although DeBat did all the organizational work, Mike reserved certain jobs for himself. Like making out the lineup. When he would announce it, it would be filled with what are now reviled as ethnic slurs.
We didn’t mind. Times were different. We all used them, anyway.
He also was an old-school manager who preferred the stick to the carrot. It was a verbal stick—generally well-deserved. We had some guys who thought it would be fun to try and hit a home run when what we needed was a base hit.
Yeah, Mike, for all of his joviality, was very much about winning.
We once played a charity game against a group of aldermen and other politicians at Thillens Stadium. The politicians' pitcher was throwing a ``heavy'' ball. In 16-inch softball, the pitcher must deliver the ball with an arc, not an underhanded heater. Mike argued vehemently with Alderman Hogopian. Later, at the Greek restaurant, they were pals again by the time the belly dancer performed.
With Mike, you never knew where the postgames would take you. With the Grant Park office team, we always started at the Billy Goat Tavern, our sponsor. The Goat was owned by Mike’s pal, Sam Sianis, and was the newspaper bar to end all newspaper bars.
There’s a great video on Youtube, Royko at the Goat, where he tells fascinating softball stories. I’m the one with the big hair and beard sitting next to him. Phew.
Those hours at the Goat were amazing. One night Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert came in after taping their TV show about the latest movies. Mike and Roger were dear friends, had spent many a night on the town before Roger sobered up.
On this night, Mike loudly explained to Siskel and Ebert why they knew nothing about movies. And of course, we were on Mike’s side.
After the Goat, we sometimes would venture up to Rush Street. Even though we were in our softball uniforms, Mike’s presence could override any dress codes. Including a briefly-popular disco—hey, it was a long time ago—co-owned by one of the newspaper’s advertising honchos.
And with Mike, you never knew what was going to happen.
One night at the Lodge, which was packed, he announced loudly, ``I’m buying a round! Drinks for everyone!’’ and then raced out a side door.
Another night, we were all being jovial in the Mirabell beer garden. Including Mike. A few minutes later, when I saw him at the bar, an elderly woman complimented him on his column, but added a complaint: He took too much vacation.
Mr. Big turned dark and lit into the old lady with a tirade.
Then again, this was a man who, back in the day when people wrote letters to writers, used to delight in putting a quarter in an envelope and mailing it to readers who had taken issue with something he had written. ``You don’t like the column? Here’s your money back.’’
Mike sometimes mentioned to me that his favorite quote had come from a police sergeant. Back in the day, crime reporters were allowed to see the scene of the crime. When it was time for a peek, this sergeant wouldn’t let the reporters in. Another cop said he needed to let them in; they had a job to do, too.
And the sergeant said, ``Bleep the bleeping bleepers.’’
So I wrote a song based on that. Our softball team song. To the tune of On Wisconsin.
Mike loved it. He wanted to sing it everywhere.
By the, um, harsh light of day, I kind of wished I’d gone in another direction with the song.
That was one thing about hanging out with Mike. It was always interesting.
RIP, Mr. Big. Those were the days.