I have been a Chicago Cubs fan for as long as I can remember. Before I even knew the difference between a ball and a strike, I proudly wore Cubby Blue. I'm not a Cubs fan because I'm a North Sider and I'm certainly not a fan because of their track record. No, I am a fan because the Cubs were my grandpa's team, so they are my team.
Grandpa Bill didn't have a particularly idyllic childhood. A young Jewish immigrant, he and my great-grandmother, Edith, fled Nazi Germany in 1939 and after a time in Shanghai, were rescued to Chicago. My great-grandfather, Herbert, was able to join them in the U.S. a year later. My family was fortunate to have survived the war, but they still faced many challenges, especially Grandpa Bill.
In America, as in Germany, Grandpa was singled out for being different. He was German. Changing his name from Wolfgang to William couldn't hide that in Chicago just as taking off his Star of David couldn't hide that he was Jewish in Breslau. When his classmates heard his accent and saw his blonde hair they called him "Nazi." When he observed the Sabbath on Friday nights, they called him "Christ Killer."
However, despite these experiences, Grandpa found joy in many things -- a good book, a nice meal, a fine piece of music, his family and of course, the Chicago Cubs. He loved everything about Wrigley Field, from its iconic ivy to the shout of hot dog vendors marching up and down the stadium aisles. He read every book about baseball he could get his hands on and, as a result, he knew just about everything about baseball, from the Golden Age of Babe Ruth on.
But it was Ernie Banks who was his favorite player. Ernie personified what Grandpa loved about the Cubs: it was all about the joy of the game. "Let's play two," Ernie would say, and Grandpa thought his attitude was infectious. He loved the '69 Cubs, and taught my mom and uncle to appreciate them, too, pointing out the elegance of a Kessinger-Beckert double play, the consistent fire of strikeout champion Fergie Jenkins and the power of slugger Billy Williams. To this day, my mom has her collection of baseball cards in her keepsake box -- including the entire 1969 starting lineup.
Given Grandpa's passion for the baseball, it was only natural that he shared his love of the game with his grandchildren. I have fond memories of huffing up Wrigley's cement ramps and flagging down the elusive malt vendors with their dark blue freezer bags; of sifting through racks of crisp jerseys and singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" with Grandpa at the top of my lungs during the 7th inning stretch.
As I got older, it became less about peanuts and Cracker Jacks and more about enjoying a rare opportunity to spend time alone with Grandpa. At family gatherings, it was hard to get a word in edgewise since, like any group of Jews, we talked over each other incessantly. But at the ballpark it was just the two of us. With Grandpa, it felt like I could talk about anything, from books and music to tougher subjects like struggling friendships and picking the right college. Somehow, talking with him made the playful subjects in my life more interesting and the daunting subjects more palatable.
Unfortunately, we had our last talk at Wrigley in 2012. The following year, a brain tumor felled the body, but never the mind, of my amazing Grandpa. For the last two summers, our seats at Wrigley sat vacant. But this year, we filled them again and then some when my mother, father, uncle, cousins and I returned to Wrigley to celebrate what would have been Grandpa Bill's 78th birthday. We laughed and sang and drank bad beer, we talked about books and tough life choices, and we remembered the amazing man who made such a profound impact on our lives.
Amid all the bodies and noise of Wrigley Field, it was easy for us to imagine him in the stands clapping his hands and shouting, "Let's go Cubbies!"