My parents come from large families. My mom is the second oldest of seven children and my dad the youngest of seven. Hordes of grandparents, great aunts, great uncles, aunts, uncles, and cousins made for wonderfully chaotic family parties and holidays in my youth. But it is with my mom’s younger sister Debbie that I share a unique bond.
As a kindergartner in 1978, Aunt Debbie took me to the Cubs’ home opener, my first ever baseball game. At five years old, I was generally aware of Cubs baseball and had watched ballgames on WGN; however, my parents were not particularly avid sports fans (we prefer to bond over pizza) and with three kids under six, a trip to Wrigley Field was not necessarily on their radar.
I wore my red coat with race cars on it. I held her hand as we navigated the crowd, climbing the winding ramps up to the bleachers. And just like so many others, my first view of the field was absolutely mind-blowing—it was impossibly green and vivid and huge—so unlike the dark, grainy broadcasts of the day. I had a hot chocolate and she bought me a Cubs helmet and the Cubs won the game on a walk-off home run by Larry Biittner in the ninth. I was hooked. It is my Aunt Debbie I thank for my lifelong love of baseball.
In the summer of 1979, Debbie and her good friend Judy spent their summer at Wrigley Field, taking in close to 30 games in the $2.00 bleachers (roughly $7.00 today and considerably less than that same ticket would cost you today). They would take the bus up Austin from Oak Park and transfer over to the Addison bus that would take them right to Wrigley Field’s doorstep. After grabbing a doughnut and coffee at Yum Yum Donuts, they would get in line for the (general admission) bleachers to enjoy the sunshine and cheer on her favorite, Cubs’ slugger Dave Kingman, in left field.
Over the years, she took me to several games, including a “Crosstown Classic” match-up at a time the White Sox and Cubs used to play an exhibition game or two against each other in the early 1980s and another home opener with her then-boyfriend, who later became my Uncle Dan. It is one game, however, that led to my obsession with baseball card collecting.
In 1981, Dodgers’ pitcher Fernando Valenzuela took the nation by storm with a hot start that included an 8-0 record after his first eight starts, with five shutouts and eight complete games. Perhaps you recall Fernandomania? When Aunt Debbie called to see if I was interested in going to the Cubs game with her on Saturday, June 6—in front row seats along the first base line—I was thrilled. When I later learned it was going to be a Valenzuela start, I was over the moon.
As Fernando warmed up in the visitor’s bullpen, we stood along the wall and watched. As much as I loved the Cubs at that point, seeing him in person was tantamount to witnessing Babe Ruth in the flesh. Valenzuela might be the greatest pitcher of all-time! When Aunt Debbie took me to the souvenir stand, my allegiance wavered, and I insisted on a Dodgers’ helmet. (Hey, I was eight, swept up in Fernandomania, and simply had not realized how silly it was to ever root for the Dodgers.)
I received some praise from a smattering of Dodgers fans as I proudly wore my new helmet. The game got off to a good start for Los Angeles, who knocked Cubs’ starter Bill Caudill of the game in the first. After the top of the second, the Dodgers led 4-0. In the bottom of the inning, Hector Cruz took Valenzuela deep for the Cubs’ first run.
The score remained 4-1 as the Cubs came to bat in the bottom of the fourth. Jerry Morales began with a triple off Valenzuela, Cruz walked, and Carlos Lezcano singled home Morales. Ken Reitz flew out and Jody Davis singled, scoring Cruz. Light-hitting infielder Mike Tyson hit a three-run bomb off Valenzuela. After a walk to Ivan DeJesus, Valenzuela was lifted in favor of Bobby Castillo. Steve Dillard flew out. Bill Buckner, my favorite player at the time, doubled to drive in DeJesus. Morales, batting for the second time in the inning, grounded out. The Cubs led 7-4. And Valenzuela was mortal. I was no longer interested in donning Dodger blue.
As I took the helmet off and placed it under my seat, Aunt Debbie asked me what was wrong. I expressed regret for my impulsive helmet purchase. She graciously offered to take me back to the souvenir stand to replace the helmet with a Cubs item. We went back to the stand and after looking over the items, I decided on the 1981 Topps team set. (Geez, I acted like a spoiled punk!)
Now back at our seats, I rifled through the cards looking for all the players I had seen so far in the game. Bill Buckner! Mike Tyson! Ivan DeJesus! While it seemed that only half of the starting lineup from that game was represented in the team set, there was something downright magical about looking down at a baseball card and then up at that player on the field. (It was probably telling that the only two All-Stars in the set—Kingman and Bruce Sutter—were no longer on the team.)
The Cubs won the game 11-5 and hung seven earned runs on Valenzuela, causing his ERA to swell from 1.90 to 2.45. Mike Tyson would never hit another Major League home run. Just a week after this game, the players went on strike. I was blissfully unaware of the labor strife or how awful the 1981 Cubs team was. I took those cards everywhere with me.
That Dodgers helmet was imposed on opponents in backyard Wiffle Ball games for years to come. I still have it, along with a good portion of the cards from that original team set. I have no idea whatever happened to my Cliff Johnson or George Riley cards from that set, but the ones I still have symbolize the formation of my baseball allegiances, represent the starting point for my love of baseball cards, and are a tangible reminder of the special bond I have with my Aunt Debbie.
Time flies. Debbie is now retired and has raised four children of her own. She remains a passionate fan and even got to throw out the first pitch before a Cubs game in 2004 (jealous). We had quite a time celebrating the Cubs’ championship over Thanksgiving dinner in 2016. And catching up recently about those games of the 1970s and 1980s has been a blast. Thanks Aunt Debbie for my favorite commons!