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For many who lived along Chicago’s North Shore in 1941, and who worked downtown, the early evening commute took them through the Addison Street station, just behind Wrigley Field bleachers that were glazed by spilt beer and strewn with popcorn and peanut shells. My grandfather, Robert Edward Taylor, was among these commuters. A trust officer at the First National Bank of Chicago, he was like others in his generation compulsive about observing gentleman’s decorum, meaning he’d be standing on the train so that ladies, children or elderly passengers could sit. He’d be wearing wingtips, his dark suit and his fedora, one hand grasping a pole as the train jerked to and fro, the other holding a folded copy of the Chicago Daily News up to his bespectacled eyes. The Wrigley roof had no lights in those days, and so when the Cubs were home, they played in the early afternoon, meaning that the most recent edition of the Daily News would contain the score through the first few innings of that day’s contest. Based on their northerly destination, these commuters were obligated to root for the Cubs, not the White Sox, and from their vantage point on the elevated train tracks, they could catch a fleeting glimpse of the empty pine-green seats of Wrigley’s upper grandstand, which only hours before had been full of chattering, sun-bathed Cub fans. But smartphones were 60 years away, and curious passengers could only see the back shoulders of the 74-foot wide centerfield scoreboard, a feature added to the stadium just a few years before.
On one of those commutes, my grandfather had an idea: To inform train passengers of what happened earlier in that afternoon’s game, the Cubs ought to fly a flag. Perhaps there were dozens of trips home where this thought came to him. In his modesty, I can imagine him telling himself it wasn’t such an original idea, that surely Cubs management would come to the same conclusion as he had, sooner or later. But when it came to the arc of human progress, my grandfather was not a patient observer. If a problem contained a solution that could be seen from the everyman’s perspective, he felt the obligation to present that solution to the person who could see it through. “Take a letter, Marie,” he would say to my grandmother, who had formal training as a secretary. This direction was so common it became a joke within the household. “The Soviets are shipping missiles to Cuba? Take a letter, Marie.” And so on. Under my grandmother’s editorship, there would be no trace of peevishness or condescension, much less sarcasm, in these correspondences. Rather, they were an outgrowth of my grandparents’ sincere belief that behind faceless corporations -- and major league baseball teams -- there were human beings who could be persuaded by an appeal to courtesy and common sense. According to my family lore, the letter to the Cubs articulated very specifically my grandfather’s vision: a flag hoisted from the centerfield scoreboard in the late afternoon that followed a Cubs game, blue with a white “W” signifying a win and white with a blue “L” for a loss. Shortly after that letter was sent, as my grandfather’s homeward commute took him through the Addison Street L stop, he saw a flag identical to the one he requested. In the seven
decades since, that flag has been a fixture of spring and summer, hibernating every fall, as the Cubs observe their grandest tradition of all: failing to win a World Series. ***
Bob Taylor was my mother’s father. My Northsider mother, however, married a native Southsider. I was born in 1977. Two years later, my Chicagoan parents conceived the romantic notion of raising a family in the forested wilderness of Northern Wisconsin. Being incapable of coherent speech, I was not able to warn them of their folly. Despite having relocated ourselves perilously close to the Arctic Circle, every few months my family would make a trip to Chicago in a mighty brown van -- not a UPS truck as the neighborhood kids would have you believe, though it did drink from the same diesel pump. For children whose imaginations had been numbed by two-lane country roads and farm silos, one can imagine the hallucinogenic effect of a metropolis whose neon expressway plunged toward bejeweled skyscrapers. To my eyes, even the Robert Taylor housing projects, identical cinderblock towers that sprung up on the South Side, next to the Dan Ryan Expressway, like gravestones in a cemetery for giants, were cast in stately grandeur; I told my parents that one day, I’d live behind one of those windows. This woodland sprite was not in a position to take out a mortgage for a unit in one of the Western hemisphere’s most notorious crack dens; but he certainly was of an age to forge a lifelong contract with the city’s sports franchises, including the one most cursed by the gods. My love for the Cubs was born of familiarity -- from my exile in Northern Wisconsin, I could see the
team every summer day on the WGN superstation. I knew every player’s statistics, and I could recite the complete roster not just of the Cubs but of every minor league farm team, a talent judged to be estimable by the boys in my middle school class but which somehow failed to make the girls swoon. I don’t remember at exactly what point in my boyhood I learned of my grandfather’s supposed connection to the W flag, and that’s probably because I was not terribly impressed. Even with my vast knowledge of Cub esoterica, I had never heard of the tradition, except from my own family. As it related to brushes with sports immortality, I was more starstruck by my cousin’s claim of sleeping on bedsheets that once belonged to Mike Tomczak, former backup quarterback of the Chicago Bears. Then at some point in my late adolescence, I noticed the flag becoming a more prominent feature of the Cubs’ brand of baseball pageantry. First, it was former announcer Chip Caray’s habit of calling Cub victories a “white flag day.” (In the early Eighties, the color scheme on the flag was changed so that white flags connoted a victory, while blue flags came out for a loss.) Then I noticed that on internet message boards, when the Cubs would win, a fellow fan would post an animated GIF showing the same flag. After earning a college degree in an endangered professional field, I spent my postgraduate years chasing reporter jobs from one coast to the other, each requiring I starve just a little bit more in exchange for my feeble stabs at artistry. In the course of these travels, I found that every major city had a bar for Chicago expats, a fraternity I joined despite lacking the primary credential. I tend to be hyper-observant while trespassing, and I noticed the W flag acted
as a dog whistle, a way for the bar owner to signal to other wayward Cub fans that he shares their affiliation, while at the same time concealing this bias from patrons who detest the Cubs. Although today the victory flag has become so prominent, it may be losing its value as a code. When the Cubs are on the road, fans from opposing teams -- especially the sadistic batch who belong to the St. Louis Cardinals -- are liable to taunt their rivals with the blue “L” flag. (The smear is even sold as a T-shirt on Amazon.com.) While imbibing with friends, the topic of the Cubs occasionally came up, and I would hear myself bragging that my grandfather was the true conceiver of the victory flag. Ten years ago, it was necessary to first explain to my friends this ritual. But lately, I’ve found that new friends are familiar with the flag before I tell them my tale. And yet the sober truth is that I had become skeptical of the claim. Not that I doubted my grandfather’s ingenuity. Rather, I reasoned that the only way that this deed could be known is if my grandfather boasted of it, and that is an act of vanity that did not jibe with what I knew of his temperament. This most recent Chicago winter -- my first in six years since moving back to the Midwest from Florida last year -- left me aching for baseball and every other incipient sign of spring. I had spent the previous eight months ghostwriting a book, a project that made me long for the days when I could use first person pronouns and actually refer to myself. So I decided I would finally investigate whether the W flag really was the intellectual property of my grandfather, Bob Taylor, then write about my findings, whatever the outcome. ***
My first endeavor was to consult that great, modern spoiler of mysteries, Wikipedia. There is a page dedicated to the flag, but I was pleased to see it said nothing of the flag’s paternity. Then I started Googling, which is how I became acquainted with the most formidable threat to my family’s claim, Bill Veeck, Jr. He was known for crafting populist campaigns designed to broaden the fan base for his baseball teams, a reputation that earned him a berth in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Wrigley was where Veeck first displayed his deft touch for iconography. From online articles, I learned that after his father, then Cubs President Bill Veeck, Sr., died in 1933, the young Veeck -who had sold popcorn in the stadium since age 13 -- was promoted to office boy by the team’s owner, P.K. Wrigley. Having graduated from the mezzanine to the front office, the budding visionary eventually earned a position as the team’s treasurer, which allowed him to have input on stadium features. Thus, it was easy to imagine Veeck seeking a method to signal people on passing trains, especially since the flag’s early 1940s arrival coincided with the peak of his Wrigley Field powers. But while every article I found about the flag mentioned Veeck, none attributed the W flag to him specifically. This would require some old-fashioned, analog-era hustle. I took the train to the Harold Washington Public Library, and deep within the stacks on the sixth floor, I found several books on Veeck, including his autobiography, Veeck As in Wreck, published in 1962. In the book, Veeck casts himself as a prodigy with an ungrateful patron: Wrigley supposedly viewed Veeck’s tactics as being “undignified” (Veeck’s word) and liable to alienate the discriminating customers the Cubs’ owner sought for his stadium’s seats. Having taken over the team only a few years before, following the death of his own father, Wrigley wanted to put his own architectural imprint on the
park. So he hatched a plan for expanding and beautifying the Cubs’ outfield bleachers. This was not an urgent matter; the Cubs routinely finished among the league leaders in attendance. But Wrigley worried fans would become scarce if -- perish the thought -- the Cubs ever fell from their 1930s perch as one of baseball’s perennial contenders. If the stadium itself was an attraction, Wrigley thought, then fans might come even when there wasn’t a winner on the field. So Wrigley had the concept, but he put Veeck in charge of executing it, and this is when the wunderkind seized his moment. Under Veeck’s leadership, Wrigley’s original plan of trees in the bleachers was scratched for the Veeck idea of growing ivy on the outfield walls. And it was Veeck who conceived of a scoreboard larger than any other in the league. These icons not only attract fans the world, they ensured Wrigley Field’s preservation into the 21st Century. Still, Veeck wanted to reach fans outside the ballpark, and -- just as I feared -- his shrewd gaze fell toward the L tracks that dipped behind his shiny new scoreboard. In his autobiography, he wrote:
There was only one promotional gimmick I ever got away with. Mr. Wrigley permitted me to install lights on top of the flagpole to let homeward-bound Elevated passengers know whether we had won or lost that day. The flagpole was on the top of the new scoreboard and at its summit I put a crossbar with a green light on one end and a red light on the other. The green light told the El passengers that we won and the red that we had lost.
But even in the late 1930s, the Chicago horizon was cluttered with lights, and two scoreboard lightbulbs that alternated green and red offered a rather subtle code. For instance, if my grandfather had recognized this signal, then he wouldn’t have felt the need to write a letter recommending a flag in the first place. Moreover, if the Cubs believed in Veeck’s light system, then they wouldn’t have been compelled to create the flag tradition. (A modified version of the
light system has survived the ages, although it’s not nearly as well-known, and Veeck left the Cubs for good in June 1941. My hunch is that Veeck specifically avoided mentioning the flag system in his book because he recognized it was competing against his own creation.) With Veeck eliminated from contention, I rifled through several other books that chronicled Wrigley Field’s history, but none posited a theory about the flag’s origins. The time had come to contact the Cubs directly. Ed Hartig is regarded as the team’s historian of record, and so I e-mailed the Cubs media relations office to ask if they would forward to Hartig my query about the flag, and the team did so. But I had already found a 2008 column on the team’s website where a reader asks the same question that obsessed me. Hartig tells the reader that he doesn’t know who had the idea for the flag. He speculates, however, that it came from an ad man named Otis Shepard, who worked for the Wrigleys’ gum company and may have pounced upon an opportunity to promote the brand’s first letter at the same time as informing the Cub fans on the train. But while Shepard, who created the Wrigley Doublemint Twin campaign, is remembered as one of the era’s most inventive advertising minds, he has never been officially linked to the W flag. In addition, this theory doesn’t explain why Shepard would have also created the L flag. As I waited to hear back from Hartig directly, I contacted another eminent authority on the Cubs and Wrigley Field, Brian Bernardoni. “I love getting calls like this,” said Bernardoni, after I explained my project. Like Hartig, he said he didn’t know who first conceived the W flag, but he was eager to solve the mystery. He asked whether I had a copy of my grandfather’s letter, or a letter that came back from the Cubs. I told him I had neither -- the original letter was just one of thousands my grandfather had written during his lifetime. Even if the Cubs had written
back to him, saying explicitly that they’d taken his advice, I doubt he’d have saved that letter -again, because collecting trophies was not in his nature. The historian told me he would sift through his own records and do his very best to settle the matter for good. He advised me to research my grandfather, compiling every bit of evidence -- no matter how incidental -- that had bearing on the question. But before he hung up the phone, Bernardoni sounded a note of caution: that he would present to me the unsentimental, unvarnished truth, and I should prepare myself for the possibility that this chapter of my family’s legend would be torn from us, irrevocably. “History,” he warned me, “can be very cruel.”
When it came to the task of researching my grandfather, I had very few memories of my own to call upon. As a boy, I rarely saw him. By the time I was born, he and my grandmother had moved to Port Orange, Florida, for winter, and when they came back north for summer, they went no further than Chicago, where they could find a family who was leaving for the summer and was grateful to have a senior couple taking care of their home. When my own family came south from Wisconsin for summer visits to Chicago, we would see my grandparents, but usually on the occasion of a larger family reunion, when they tended to be lost within the tumult of kindly, elderly, vaguely familiar, kiss-wielding faces. I was 12 when I decided to be a reporter, but I would like to think that before then I had some dim awareness of the need to develop sources among my relatives so as to more fully know
my own story. Although at that stage, my inquiry was even broader: I understood that I was to grow into a man one day, and like all boys, instinct led me to seek out those who might have wisdom on the matter. My father, certainly. But my grandfather, bald and slightly stooped, whose eyes were as faded as the pictures in old magazines: This was the visage of God Himself. My grandfather on my father’s side died before I turned two, so I had missed my chance with him; and as for my mother’s father, even when we were not on opposite sides of the country, it was plain to me how he enjoyed silence and solitude: Merely walking into the living room where he was communing with the newspaper seemed invasive. I had learned that sports was the way to ingratiate myself with my own father, and so that was the scheme I devised to forge a closer bond with my grandfather. I asked my grandmother to intercede on my behalf, suggesting to her that perhaps her husband could be convinced to watch a Cubs game with me. “Oh, he doesn’t like to watch the games, dear,” she said. “He just wants to know if they won.” On to Plan B, which was to endure the local evening news, if only to learn the score of the Cubs game, which I would dutifully report to my grandfather, who would thank me, bringing the transaction to its conclusion. I was too young to improve upon my plan and yet too old to apply my cuteness to the enterprise. So the two of us remained friendly strangers, unable to bridge the gap between generations that lay on opposite sides of the 20th Century. In 1986 my family moved from the country into a small town 35 miles away, and three years later my mother persuaded my grandparents to purchase a home in our neighborhood, so they could be close if their health began to fail. It had been a starter house for young couples, but it appealed to the same frugal sensibilities in my grandparents, who installed in the master
bedroom two twin beds with a crucifix on the wall between them, presumably to ward off any libido that might still be lingering from the honeymooning tenants who came before. Shortly after the move, my grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Even as a child, I knew this illness intimately, having witnessed its methodical unraveling of my father’s mother over the course of a decade. Families struck by an Alzheimer’s diagnosis can react either with dread or with hope, but I would guess that most react like my family did, with both: That is, do whatever you can to keep the disease at bay, even as you do your best to savor the last lucid moments you have with the afflicted. One of my grandmother’s strategies was to coax my grandfather to join her on the daily walks she made through the neighborhood of our small town. I saw them one day while I was shooting baskets in the driveway, but as I dropped the ball and came toward them, I could see my grandmother’s face streaked with tears. She told me my grandfather was refusing to return to the home they shared, because it was not the home they owned 30 years ago in Chicago. On my grandfather’s face, a look of utter bewilderment and the bottomless shame that comes to a man after fear has conquered him. I tried to join my grandmother in convincing him, but this only aggravated his humiliation, and I retreated. They walked around the neighborhood for hours, exhausting themselves, before finally my grandfather allowed himself to be taken into their home. He would not allow himself to survive what he must have regarded as the loss of his dignity. Not long after that episode, in March 1992, he died, at the age of 81. I was 14 then, old enough to understand that the grandfather whose memory was freshest was not the grandfather he would have wanted me to remember. And so I nurtured the next most
vivid memory I have of him. It is from an afternoon I spent in their shotgun house, shortly after they arrived in our Wisconsin town, when his condition was not so severe. I had just mowed their lawn, and I was sitting with my grandfather at their formica table, my grass-stained sneakers dangling from the chair, while my grandmother prepared me a snack. I did or said something that irritated her -- probably I rebuffed her attempt to serve me salad, which I loathe to this day -- and my grandfather gave me a knowing wink, as if to say, “She’ll get over it.” It speaks to my grandfather’s sweetness, his instinct for empathy. But clearly, this was not the kind of memory that could make his case for being the true conceiver of the victor’s flag at Wrigley Field. I could not even speak authoritatively about his life or his character, because I had failed to become his confidant when he was alive. So I decided to do the next best thing. I called my mother and my uncles in hopes they could help.
My grandfather’s children did not, unfortunately, inherit a trove of mildewed documents that had been hidden in an attic in anticipation of this project. But they were able to speak firsthand about a man who had remained largely mysterious to me, and even if the details fell short of being conclusive, they were able to largely confirm the vague recollections I had of his personality. In addition to his connection to the W flag, I had always known my grandfather was descended from Puritans -- his family has been traced to the Mayflower. No one who has ever known my grandfather would confuse him with the Puritans who burned witches and cheated the
land’s natives, but he did share the group’s deep reverence for a Christian God and their emphasis on deferring vainglorious ambitions in service to what’s best for the community. I was surprised, however, to learn from my mother and uncles that he wasn’t always eager to throw aside individualistic pursuits: As a student at Senn High School on Glenwood Avenue in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood, my grandfather was a standout on the baseball team, a lanky, left-handed slugger who played first base and right field. After his graduation, he joined a group of promising young players at an audition for the Chicago Cubs’ minor league team. Alas, he was not selected. If this was a crushing defeat, my grandfather never made it known to his kids. But I wonder whether this was the reason he did not watch the games, if he couldn’t bear to see a batter swing and miss at a ball he would have hit squarely. Because like most young men, my grandfather recognized that some opportunities vanished with age. At one point, this dread of regret even overwhelmed his predilection for practicality. It was in 1937, when the Great Depression was finally beginning to end, but when unemployment was still around 15 percent. He must have known how fortunate he was to have a steady job at Chicago’s biggest bank. Yet he yearned to see the world. He was living with his parents at the time, which was common for working bachelors then. Since my grandfather knew his imperious mother would do her best to stop him, he slipped out of the family home under cover of darkness, carrying as much as he could stuff into a bag, then hitchhiking along northbound lanes. Arriving in Montreal, he convinced the captain of a cargo ship to take him aboard for the vessel’s voyage to Bremen, Germany. Upon arriving, he bought himself a bicycle and embarked on a tour of the continent, and when that mode of transportation proved too cumbersome, he upgraded to a cheap motorcycle. My family did not learn intimate details of my
grandfather’s European tour, save for a haunting encounter that he had at a checkpoint in Germany, where he was obligated to say “Heil Hitler!” and perform a Nazi salute if he wanted to proceed with his journey. After about six months, he returned to the States and married Marie Geary, a woman from an Irish family who he had met just before leaving, at a young adults mixer at St. Gertrude’s Catholic Parish. (Despite his Puritan and Presbyterian ancestry, my grandfather was raised Catholic, a condition of his mother’s wish to be married in her family’s parish.) The bank welcomed back its prodigal son, and soon he was made a vice president in the trust department. From that time forward, however, there is no evidence to suggest my grandfather was anything but a model of Puritan temperance and humility. Unlike most American men of that age, he eschewed tobacco. He did not frequent saloons. He had a glass of red wine every other weekday with dinner, and on weekends he would drink a half-beer with his Saturday dinner, then seal the remaining half in a jar so he could enjoy it with his Sunday dinner. None of my grandmother’s homemade dishes could lure him toward gluttony. “I’ve had an elegant sufficiency,” he would say, after being offered seconds. “Any more would be a superfluity.” When the Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor, my 31-year-old grandfather joined the other men of his generation in enlisting in the U.S. Armed Forces, which would have left his wife home to care for their 18-month old boy, named Robert after his father. But a lingering lower body injury caused my grandfather to fail the physical, and he stayed in Chicago during the war. In 1943 the young couple had another boy named William, then a third in 1946, James, before finally adding a daughter to the family, my mother Mary Jo, in 1949.
While the home filled up with children, my grandfather found comfort in routine. Every morning he would go to mass with my grandmother, then return home for breakfast: a bowl of plain oatmeal. After a morning at the bank, he would take his lunch at Berghoff’s, a venerable restaurant that remains at the same location on Adams Street, ordering a sandwich with rice pudding, a dish that for many years my grandmother tried to duplicate in her own kitchen, without success. When my grandfather arrived home from the bank, he would eat dinner, read the newspaper, then head down to the basement to his workshop to resume whatever household project was pending. For instance, to fill the space between the refrigerator and the oven, he built a solid oak cabinet with two drawers for my grandmother’s kitchen utensils. From the neighbors he accepted every pro bono project within range of his carpentry skills, which covered most everything but electric circuitry and plumbing. For a man who spent his work days studying financial trends, it must have been therapeutic to confront problems that could be solved with his hands. He’d happily lose himself in these chores on weekends, too, while several feet away his sons watched the Cubs game on a tiny black-and-white television. However absorbed he appeared to be, he kept one ear tuned to the inflections in the voice of Cubs announcer Jack Brickhouse, and when a pivotal moment occurred in the game, my uncles would notice that their father was watching over their shoulders. There are scores of passionate Cub fans who lived long, hopeful lives but who died bitterly regretting that they never saw their team win the World Series. But I doubt this ranked among my grandfather’s great disappointments. He avoided becoming a Cub fanatic, probably for the same reason he avoided tobacco, drunkenness, gambling and other vices: because it meant investing in something that might grow beyond one’s control. And fans, no matter how
loud they may cheer, have no control over how their team performs, even though those fans share in the disgrace that comes from losing. Among the four children my grandparents raised, all identified as Cub fans, but only the third, my uncle Jim, developed what could be called a full-blown infatuation. Now retired and living in Denver, James Taylor is a regular visitor to the team’s spring training camp in Mesa, Arizona. He is the source of our family’s claim to the W flag. I reached my uncle by phone during his March 2013 trek to Mesa and he told me how he learned about his father’s connection to the flag. It was around 1960, when he had enrolled at DePaul High School, making it necessary for him to ride the train south to the Fullerton stop. Classes in the early spring and fall made it impossible for Jim to watch the Cubs games, and extracurricular activities kept him at school late into the afternoon. So on his northbound trip home, he was curious whether the team had won or lost. Knowing of Jim’s interest, my grandfather told him to keep an eye out for a flag on the centerfield scoreboard. It showed a W for a win and an L for a loss. Jim said he had never noticed this, but his father was certain the flag existed because the team installed it right after he had sent a letter asking for it. From my skeptical perspective, this was a revelation. Because while I could not imagine my grandfather bragging about the flag, I could easily imagine him offering this kind of practical tip, exclusively to his own son. Meanwhile, my online sleuthing had produced another key insight: Google Trends told me that there was virtually no W flag-related traffic until 2008, the year the Cubs won 97 games -- tops in the National League. That season, the flag was swept along in a cyber-wave of Cub fan enthusiasm, at least until the Dodgers unceremoniously swept the Cubs from the first round of
the baseball playoffs. But when my grandfather died 16 years earlier, the web was not yet worldwide, meaning that the process of establishing a tradition in the popular culture was difficult. The only methods for transmitting a meme were newspaper, radio and television. In short, my grandfather could never have boasted about the flag, because during his lifetime, it wasn’t famous enough to be worth boasting about. Still, it must have earned word-of-mouth fame among commuters in the pre-internet, presmartphone age. For instance, in 1969, the year before my grandfather’s retirement, Chicagoans witnessed one of the most famous pennant races of all time, with the “Amazin’ Mets” charging up the standings at the front-running Cubs. The North Side fan base was in a panic -- and ultimately their worst fears were realized; but until then, for these commuters there must have been a terrible suspense as they pushed off from the Addison stop and the centerfield scoreboard came into view. Surely there were days when they descried that W flag, then erupted in a merry cheer, my grandfather among them, tempted perhaps to lean over to the grinning fellow next to him and say, “By the way, that was my idea.”
In early June, I received a phone call from Brian Bernardoni, the Chicago baseball historian, who had rifled through his records and discovered that the flag first appeared in April 1941, based on an announcement made in an obscure Cubs official newsletter. As for the person who had the idea for the W flag? The historian had searched far and wide, even taking time off
work to do more digging, but he could find no answer, and he told me that if he couldn’t find it within his archives, then it couldn’t be found by anyone. He had been right when he told me that history is cruel -- but it’s not because it gives you an answer different from the one you wanted; it’s cruel because it may give you no answer whatsoever. A few days later, Hartig, the official Cubs historian, returned to me with an even more crushing verdict: He told me that the flags were likely inspired by similar flags flown by the Wilmington Transport Company, which was owned by the Wrigley family and operated a boat that went from the California mainland to Catalina Island during the 1920s and 1930s. The boat displayed a flag just like the one that appeared after Cub games, and since the ad man Otis Shepard did promotional work for both Wilmington and Wrigley, Hartig reasoned that Shepard was the most likely conceiver of the W flag. Even with my sentimental bias, I had to admit this was a more persuasive claim than my grandfather’s. In addition, it occurred to me that even in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Wrigley Field must have received a new avalanche of mail every day. There had to have been someone who took the time to read those letters, a person whose empathy was within reach of appeal, who decided that my grandfather’s idea was worth implementing. So even if my grandfather had the original idea, he’d have shared credit with this stadium clerk. I was defeated, but I was not dejected. As a result of this project, I had come to know my grandfather more intimately than I ever did during his lifetime. Before I began, I had no inkling of how he weathered the Great Depression, nor did I know he was willing to risk a life of poverty for six months in Europe. I did not know that he ever had a chance to be a professional baseball player. This inquiry even led me to look more closely at the watercolor paintings he made after
his retirement, rendered when he and my grandmother toured the countryside in a camper. None of these show a flag, Wrigley Field or even Chicago, but despite growing up between walls decorated with these paintings, I noticed only now that nearly every one shows a man-made structure -- like a cabin, a dock or a lighthouse -- that’s complemented by an otherwise pristine landscape, suggesting my grandfather believed deeply in the human aspiration to live in harmony with nature. On a Friday in mid-May, I took the train downtown to perform a reenactment of my grandfather’s commute, starting just after 5 o’clock, like he would have, from the site of the former First National Bank of Chicago, now occupied by the Chase Tower. Walking a block east on Monroe, he would have passed beneath the darkened marquee of the former Majestic Theatre, which showed vaudeville acts before the Depression closed it down. Today it’s been restored under the moniker of the Bank of America Theatre, currently playing The Book of Mormon, which Robert E. Taylor’s grandchildren will see together, during a reunion planned for early July. Whatever used to reside at the entrance to the Red Line subway on State Street, there’s now an Urban Outfitters next to a Forever 21. Before I could descend the stairs, I had to wait for a procession of demonstrators, all wearing orange jumpsuits, some with sacks over their heads, chanting about the need to close the facility for war prisoners at Guantanomo Bay. Boarding the train at rush hour, I counted nine armpits within a 12-inch radius of my nose. The train lurched north on its subterranean way from downtown toward the Gold Coast, then Lincoln Park, surfacing before Fullerton to make a rude inspection of residential backyards, coming close enough to the windows that a curious passenger can learn what brands of shampoo are available on a home’s shower ledge. I was careful to avoid my iPhone; I knew the Cubs had
played the Mets that afternoon and that New York ace Matt Harvey was pitching, but just once I wanted to learn the game’s outcome by looking at the flag. Given Harvey’s brilliance, plus the Cubs’ last-place position in the standings, I had hoped to close my essay by witnessing a small miracle. Instead, I was treated to an experience more authentically Cub: Flying from that centerfield scoreboard was a navy-colored flag bearing the grim letter, “L.”
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