The members, by unanimous agreement, hold no meetings and pay no dues. Two of the three qualifications for membership are residency in the Washington, D.C. area and a sense of humor, and the former may be waived. It's the third prerequisite that gives the club its raison d'√™tre: To join The Emil Verban Memorial Society, one must be a diehard fan of the Chicago Cubs.
The sufferings of Cubs' rooters have been chronicled many times in the 37 years since a National League pennant last flew over Wrigley Field. Even that triumphant wartime team was so bad that one writer's assessment of the 1945 World Series with Detroit was, "I don't think either team can win it." The Cubs didn't. Since then, Chicago has finished last in the National League or its division nine times and below .500 26 times. What's better for a team that's barely a team than a fan club that's barely a fan club?
The Verban Society requires little time of its members, of which there are 220. That's good, because many of them are otherwise engaged in the business of running the country. "There's a need in Washington for a release," says Richard Cheney, a charter member. "The society has nothing to do with politics, which is very rare in this town." Or, as Illinois Congressman and House Minority Leader Robert Michel, who pitched the GOP to 13 consecutive wins in the annual Republican/Democrat baseball game, says, "It gets your mind off the budget. Compared to the budget, the Cubs really aren't that bad."
The fan club began in 1975 when Cheney, who later was the White House chief of staff under President Gerald Ford, and five Midwesterners who had been lured east during the Nixon Administration found themselves starved for news of their favorite losers. "The purpose is just to have fun," says Bruce Ladd, a registered lobbyist when he isn't functioning as the society's historian, its lone officer. "We have a common interest in the Cubs, and we were trying to find some vehicle for us to perpetuate our relationship with the Cubs. Almost all of us are on a nostalgia trip."
The trip's first stop was selecting a name. Verban was chosen because the second baseman's career (1948-50) as a Cub "epitomized the steady, non-flashy calibre of play that has been the Cubs' hallmark throughout the last four decades," Ladd wrote in Memorandum No. 3, considered to be the society's Magna Carta. Unfortunately, the honor didn't please the honoree, who, at 66, needs to be anything but memorialized. Verban, now in the real estate business in his native central Illinois, was initially miffed but has since resigned himself to immortality. "As long as they're talking about you, you're important," he says.
The club took considerable pride in the fact that as this season began Verban held the major league record for most at bats with only one home run (2,911). However, the Giants' Duane Kuiper, also a second baseman, was closing in fast with one home run in 2,865 at bats. "We had a member write in and suggest that we either get Verban back in uniform or have something happen to Kuiper," Ladd says.
The members didn't exclude other childhood heroes in honoring Verban. The society hands out three awards: the Harry Chiti Lookalike Award, given each fall to the member with the body most resembling that of the 6'2½", 221-pound catcher; the Ernie Banks Positivism Award; and, most coveted, the Brock-for-Broglio Judgment Award, given to that member who demonstrates the same wisdom the Cubs did in 1964 when they dealt Lou Brock, a future Hall of Famer, to St. Louis for a washed-up pitcher, Ernie Broglio. Says political columnist George F. Will, who became a Verban member early on, "The only worse judgment was lining up the battleships at Pearl Harbor."
Ladd was the inaugural recipient of that award, for his judgment in perpetuating a club that began as a chuckle among friends. His monthly memos are a compendium of trivia, cheerleading and gossip concerning society members, many of whom are heavyweights in government and business and most of whom are Republican. "Being a Cub fan is good training for being a Republican," Will says. "You get used to losing."
President Ronald Reagan was nominated and admitted to the society last October. In tendering his obligatory 50-word personal recollection of the Cubs, Reagan recited the starting lineup of the 1935 NL champion team, including the starting rotation of Lon Warneke, Bill Lee, Larry French and Charlie Root. It was, after all, the Cubs whom Reagan followed to California for spring training in 1937. While there he had a screen test, and the rest is history. All of which leads one to speculate that but for a simple twist of fate, Jack Brickhouse would be president today.
Brickhouse, who recently retired after 34 years as the television voice of the Cubs, is a Verban member, as are U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Harry Blackmun, who's famous for the rambling history of baseball with which he prefaced his decision in the Curt Flood antitrust case, NBC-TV announcer Bryant Gumbel, golfer Ray Floyd, Wyoming Governor Ed Herschler and White House Press Secretary Jim Brady.
One prominent Cub fan who's no longer a member is Chicago Sun-Times columnist John Schulian, who resigned in protest when Reagan became a member, claiming the society had become too political for him. "The only vote I cherish is the one I will someday have for baseball's Hall of Fame," he wrote in his resignation column. "I've always been tempted to categorize the [members] as the friends of Richard Nixon.... And how could I be a bleeding-heart liberal with the company I keep? In the Verban Society, we're big on winks and nudges and all kinds of fraternity-boy bonhomie.... We are regular fellows of the kind that you find in fraternities and country clubs."
The hope that is synonymous with baseball in the spring has been heightened this year for Verban members, now that the Tribune Company owns the Cubs and former Philadelphia Manager Dallas Green is their general manager. Some members feel the Cubs' time is nigh, which could spell the death of the society. "There probably would be several days of absolute delight if we won the pennant," Cheney says. "But then they wouldn't be the Cubs. I think most of the members would be delighted to turn in our cards for a pennant." Adds Will, "There is a great theological division among Cub fans. Some think losing is good for the character. I have quite enough character, thank you. I could stand a little decadence."