Late in the spring of 1980, in the intensive care ward of St. Francis Hospital in Evanston, Ill., Henry Pritikin lay dying of congestive heart disease. Some three weeks earlier, Pritikin had fallen into a coma. Pritkin's beloved Chicago Cubs, led by the likes of Dave Kingman and Cliff Johnson, were quietly but earnestly embarked on their annual el foldo, by then well on their way to a 64-98 record and a sixth-place finish.
Born in 1898, Pritikin was 82 years old that spring, and he had been a Cub fan most of his life. He was 10 when the Cubs won their last World Series, in 1908, in baseball's Pleistocene age of Tinker to Evers to Chance. He had cheered them lustily through their seven subsequent drives to the National League pennant—in 1910, 1918, 1929, 1932, 1935, 1938 and 1945—through eras that embraced Rogers Hornsby and Hack Wilson, Charlie Grimm and Stan Hack, Gabby Hartnett and Charlie Root and Andy Pafko; and even through the pennantless years of Ernie Banks and Billy Williams.
The Cubs had won their last pennant barely two months after the dawn of the nuclear age, and each season thereafter brought another numbing form of pain to the Henry Pritikins of the world, die-hard Cub fans all, culminating with the great September Swoon of '69. That was when the Miracle Mets shot past them to win the pennant and then the World Series. Pritikin had been waiting almost 35 years for another pennant when he lapsed into that coma in Evanston. His son, Jerry, visited him in the hospital late one afternoon. His father hadn't spoken a word in three weeks, but at this moment Jerry Pritikin heard him mumbling something.
The son went to his father's bedside and leaned over, turning an ear to him. "I got as close as I could get," Jerry says. "It was the only thing he said the last 30 days he was alive. He was a Cubs fan all his life, but I couldn't believe it. It came out of nowhere."
Pritikin, in the last words he ever spoke, said softly, "We gotta get rid of Kingman."
Dave Kingman long ago departed the Friendly Confines, of course, another symbol of the Cubs' perennial futility, when the end of the world was another high pop-up with two out in the ninth and the bases filled with Cubs. Henry Pritikin is long gone, too, and very lamentably so, for it's happening right now in 1984, the year he'd been waiting for and dreaming of.
Something quite wonderful has been taking place in Chicago the past few weeks. The Cubs, the leading citizens of Haplessville, U.S.A., are heading for the playoffs. Some people are even whispering about the Cubs playing in the World Series! And this for a city that hasn't won a major sports title since the Bears were NFL champions 21 years ago!
The fact that the Cubs are playoff bound has blown through this aging city like a cool, gusting northeaster off the lake, and it has left Cubs fans dancing, singing and embracing their seats in Wrigley Field. It has got them sleeping all night in lines at the centerfield bleacher gate, then racing up the ramps to the choice leftfield seats. There, Cub left-fielder Gary (Sarge) Matthews orders them to be seated with a salute befitting a West Point cadet. Others prefer right-field, where they can wear the T shirts bought for them by several of the players.
The Cubs' success has got the fans packing the bars around the ball park. It has kids break dancing on the street beyond the leftfield fence. It has sent people flocking to the apartment rooftops that rise above the bleachers beyond Waveland and Sheffield avenues. It has them pouring out of the elevated trains that shake, rattle and roll to a stop at the Addison Street station, just two rooftops beyond the rightfield wall.
"It's been fun to watch the businessmen coming to the park after work for three o'clock Friday games," says Bill Veeck, the long-time baseball impresario who has become a sunburned Bleacher Bum. "Three-piece suits and an attaché case. The coat and vest go in the case and out comes the Cubs' cap."