Nelson Algren talks baseball: “Chicago divides your heart”October 12, 2015
By Paul Bowen
blood, dirt & angels Sports Editor Emeritus
The historically inept Chicago Cubs have enjoyed a nodding acquaintance with actual competence this season and are in the playoffs where they are seldom seen. Indeed, some wag pointed out in the pre-season that one of the reason that Cubs manager Joe Madden took the job was because he doesn’t like to work in October. Which was unnecessary and hurtful.
All kidding aside, we at the BDA sports desk consider the Cubs getting to the post-season to be sufficiently momentous that we decided to get the thoughts of tough guy Chicago writer and baseball fan Nelson Algren, author most famously of A Walk On The Wild Side, The Man With The Golden Arm, and Chicago City On The Make in order that we might get his unique-if not hard boiled- perspective on this.
BDA: Good morning Mr. Algren.
BDA: How are you today?
NA: I’m dead actually. But you could probably figger that out from the travel voucher I brought with. But apart from bein’ dead I ain’t too bad.
BDA: Before we get into the Cubs making the playoffs, I have to ask you something. What’s it like in the next world?
NA: It’s kinda like the Palmer House. Only a lot bigger.
NA: Nobody was more surprised than me.
BDA: How do you pass the — for lack of a better word — the time?
NA: I play a lot of poker.
BDA: They let you play poker?
NA: Define “they.” I don’t do theology personally. You will need to save dem kinda questions for somebody with a white strip in front of his throat. But I will say this. Nobody shuts the games down.
BDA: Good point. Let’s let that pass. What can’t you do?
NA: I can’t smoke a cigar there. I brought one with. Mind if I light up?
BDA: Sure. Fire away. Let’s talk about your experience. You covered a World Series right?
NA: Nah. Not really. The Sun-Times had their baseball guys out there covering the White Sox in the 1959 World Series. They sent me out there to provide what they would call now “color commentary.” It was mostly garbage but a buck’s a buck and I got in the game for free.
BDA: Here’s your description of the White Sox taking the field in the opening game: “Then the big Chicago afternoon light came down like the light of no other city, and I knew I would not see the White Sox like this again.” That’s not garbage. That’s poetry. Boy, you are good.
NA: Well, thanks. Between you and Ernest Hemingway I’m batting a thousand. What I mainly remember was my account of the conversations I overheard from women in the stands hacked off the Simone de Bouvier types.
BDA: Speaking of which, the two of you were an item weren’t you?
NA: I suppose.
BDA: You suppose? She was buried with a ring you gave her.
NA: So I heard.
BDA: Do you ever see her? Up there in the Palmer House afterlife I mean?
NA: Nah. She’s over in the French existentialist section with Sartre. Who she would not leave despite the fact that he looked like a bullfrog and he hit her. Women. I can’t figure ‘em out.
BDA: Let’s change the subject.
BDA: Speaking of poker, cards on the table. Face up. You’re not a Cubs fan are you?
NA: Nah. Not really.
NA: When I was kid, we moved from the South Side to a neighborhood in the North Side where all the streets ran straight into Wrigley Field, boy. I got beat up by some of the neighborhood kids right out of the chute because I was a White Sox fan. The Cubs are Michigan Avenue and art museums. Their fans are a bunch of punks from Northwestern and Notre Dame. Stockbrokers lawyers and bankers. The kinda people Lee Elia blew his stack over. The White Sox are the slaughterhouses and beer joints. They are the real Chicago. The Cubs wouldn’t be nothin’ outside the Loop if it wasn’t for WGN and Harry Carey.
BDA: So the Cubs represent power and the establishment in your mind.
NA: Yeah. It’s what us legendary dead writers call a metaphor.
BDA: But you have to admit, their fans have loved them through some lean years. Being a Cubs fan is like being in love with a woman with a broken nose you might say.
NA: Actually, I DID say that, Son. Only I was referring to the city of Chicago at the time.
BDA: Those folks want the Cubbies in a World Series in the worst way.
NA: And people in Hell want ice water. Beat you to it. Look, if the White Sox can’t be in the playoffs, sure, I’ll root for the Cubs. I may not like it but I’ll do it even if Lee Elia was right. But that’s the way it is when you are from Chicago. Chicago divides your heart. No different now than it ever was. And it will never change.
Listen, pal I gotta go. I hear Frankie shufflin’ the cards. I have money to lose. Ya got an ashtray? I need to put this out before I return.
BDA: Is there anything else you would like to say before you go?
NA: Yeah. What the hell. Go Cubs! You only live once, right?
And with that he was gone. Gone like the passionate passing of the night’s last El.
He wrote that too.