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Nothing to Cheer About

The Bleacher Preacher's always been an idea man, an artist. But things just haven't gone his way, and now even the spin seems to be going out of his propeller.

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For many years Jerry Pritikin, wearing a pith helmet with a propeller on top, went to almost every Cubs game and spent a lot of time encouraging other people to be fans. That's why Harry Caray called him the world's greatest Cubs fan. That's why the Wall Street Journal dubbed him a "baseball missionary." And that's why he became a leading character in Lonnie Wheeler's book Bleachers, about the 1987 season at Wrigley Field.

But by the middle of June this year the man who was once famous around Wrigley Field as the quirky "Bleacher Preacher" had been to only one game, the season opener. He did seem excited as he prepared to attend his second, on Saturday, June 22. After all, the Cubs were playing their arch rivals, the Cardinals. And it was "Out at the Old Ballpark" day, an annual event sponsored by gay bars, which buy up 2,000 seats and sell them to their customers; the 65-year-old Pritikin, who's been out since the 70s, would be supporting his own community.

The week before the game Pritikin had gathered his props: his pith helmet with its solar-powered fan and rainbow sticker, his voodoo doll, his Bleacher Preacher jersey, feathers for people to toss in the air when a Cubs player hit a homer, a "Bye-Bye Birdies" cardboard sign he hoped the TV cameras would zoom in on. But the day before the game Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile died in his hotel room, and the Saturday game was canceled.

Pritikin decided to go to the Sunday night game, even though it promised to be a grim affair. He left his voodoo doll at home, though he wore the pith helmet. "Hey, where'd you get that funny hat?" he asked people as he wandered around the ballpark before the game. At first they looked confused, and when they got the joke they gave him wan smiles. No one seemed quite ready to be cheered up.

Part of Pritikin's shtick is trying to turn opposing teams' fans into Cubs fans. In a row of seats behind home plate he spotted a woman wearing a Cubs cap in the middle of a family full of Cardinals caps. "How'd you get mixed up with this crowd?" he asked, then told her to "convert them before the end of the game."

But the old enthusiasm was gone, and he didn't try to perform any conversions himself. As he said before leaving the ballpark, even though the Cubs won, "These days, I need to convert myself to a Cubs fan."

In 1945, when the Cubs were in the World Series, Pritikin was eight years old and wanted to go to a game. His father said he was too young, but promised to take him the next time the Cubs won the pennant. Of course they haven't made it to the World Series since.

Baseball was a big part of Pritikin's childhood. His father, a passionate Cubs fan, frequently took him and his siblings--he had two brothers and two sisters--to games. He says it was the way he and his father communicated, what they talked about most. His father could take the kids to games because he was home in the afternoon--he sold tomatoes on South Market Street, where he was known as the "Tomato King of Chicago," and he had to get up at 2 AM to open his business on time.

Never a good student, Pritikin spent much of his time in school daydreaming. He suspects he had attention deficit disorder. When he dropped out at 16 his family told him he was on his own, so he went to work, first as a messenger for the Tribune, later as a salesman for Marshall Field's.

The year he dropped out Pritikin became aware that he was gay, but he never discussed it with his family. "It just wasn't something you talked about in those days," he says. "You knew it was taboo, but you knew it was you." And he worried that they would find out. "I didn't feel like hurting my family with something that was my choice." So in 1960, when he was 23, he moved to San Francisco.

He found a cheap apartment in a hip part of town. "I'm one of those people who has always found good places to live at ridiculously low prices," he says. Then he started picking up odd jobs where he could, including selling jewelry and doing publicity for small businesses. One year he got a jeweler to mount diamonds in the center of his and hers Frisbees and to make a solid gold mousetrap. The two ideas got the jeweler on the Tonight Show. "My reward," he says, "was a silver mustache comb."

His father had always taken a lot of photographs, and in the mid-60s Pritikin found himself doing the same thing. San Francisco was becoming known not just for its progressive gay politics but for its radical antiwar movement. Pritikin saw it all. "San Francisco was the center of the earth," he says, "and I was on the sidelines within reach of the peace marches." He took pictures of them, pictures of street life, pictures of politicians, including a famous 1968 shot of Robert Kennedy grinning at the camera after Pritikin shouted "Mr. President" at him. Later he would take pictures of Mayor George Moscone, known for his progay policies, and city councilman Harvey Milk, San Francisco's first openly gay elected official. He sold his pictures to individuals and to gay publications but also to the AP and UPI wire services, the San Francisco Examiner, and the San Francisco Chronicle.

By 1976, he says, "I was on top of the world with my camera." That year he took a photo of the campaigning Jimmy Carter holding a Pritikin photo of a San Francisco street sign that read End Ford. "There was so much happening, not only in the gay community but everywhere," he says. "San Francisco was where the news was emanating from, and I perched myself there and managed to be where things were happening. I was an eyewitness to history."

Pritikin had played a lot of slow-pitch softball as a kid, and he could pitch a high-arcing ball with no spin that would flutter in the wind. That pitch had landed him on some of the best teams in the gay leagues. In September 1978 one of those teams made it to the Gay World Series in New York City, only to be kicked out for having too many straights on the team--he recalls that only 4 or 5 of the 15 players were gay. The national press covered the series, and both Walter Cronkite and Paul Harvey quoted Pritikin protesting his team's disqualification. He knows that one of his cousins back in Chicago saw him on the news, and he suspects word got around that he was gay, but he wouldn't bring up the subject with his family. They still never talk of it.

That November, Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone were assassinated by a disgruntled city official. Pritikin was stunned when he saw the headline in the afternoon paper. "It was very hard for me to understand how they were going to be replaced."

A couple of years later people started talking about a mysterious "gay cancer," and thousands of gays began to die of AIDS, many of them Pritikin's friends. "To see these people and to know what they were before," he says. "Big, strong, good-looking people had to go through these terrible lesions. It was very hard to watch."

His mother had died in 1976, and four years later his father died. That year his father had been particularly disgusted with Cubs slugger Dave Kingman, whom he thought made too much money given how little he contributed to the team. As Pritikin tells the story, his father was in a coma for the last 30 days of his life. He came out of the coma only once and spoke only one sentence before slipping back for good: "We gotta get rid of Kingman."

Meanwhile Pritikin had been getting a lot of attention at Candlestick Park for being a rabid Cubs fan. He says he started letting baseball consume him because it helped him cope with the deaths of his friends and his parents.

In 1981, during the baseball strike, he was tapped as a paid consultant for a production of Bleacher Bums, coaching the cast on Chicago vernacular and proper baseball-fan behavior. In 1984 the Cubs opened the season in San Francisco, and the all-star game was played there. "The Cubs started to win and win," he says. On their way to the division title the team got a lot of press, and so did he. That year the Democratic National Convention was held in San Francisco, and he started a campaign to elect Cubs manager Dallas Green president.

But in 1985 Pritikin decided to return to Chicago. "I lost too many friends to AIDS," he says. People were dying in Chicago too, but more were dying in San Francisco. "And the people dying in Chicago weren't my friends." His family was also here. And here he could focus all summer long on being a Cubs fan.

Back home, he lived for a while with his sister and used the settlement of a lawsuit he'd filed over the misuse of some of his photos to buy a whole season's worth of bleacher seats at Wrigley Field. He also worked part-time in his brother's mirror shop, kept taking pictures, and looked around for publicity gigs. He remembers attending a food show in the mid-80s, looking for unusual companies he could have fun representing. "There were two companies that I thought were interesting," he says. "There were a couple of guys from Vermont who were looking to start an ice cream business and searching for distributors. And there was another guy from Chicago who was making a kosher pickle called Bubbies. Well, I had never been to Vermont, and I knew a good kosher pickle when I tasted one, so I went for the pickles." And not, it turned out, for Ben & Jerry's.

Pritikin had always liked the fan mascots at baseball games, including Slow-Motion Happy, who roamed the Wrigley Field stands in the 40s doing slow-motion reenactments of the action on the field. In the 80s Pritikin began putting together his Bleacher Preacher routine, and he had a lot more gimmicks than other mascots. He had a theme song. He had props. He made signs. He had "Ten Fanmandments," one of which was "Thou shalt not wear ties in the bleachers, start or participate in the 'wave,' steal neighbors' seat cushions, leave the game until the last man is out, or pay for autographs of current players." He even had his own Topps baseball card--with a typo in it, he never tires of pointing out. And he had stamina and time on his hands. Some seasons he went to every home game, arriving two hours early to make sure he got his regular spot in the left-field bleachers. Not that he sat there much. Usually he roamed around in his crazy outfit, kibitzing with Cubs fans and trying to convert opponents.

His signs often got on TV, and his name often wound up in print--in the mainstream press as well as the gay papers. He loved all the publicity. "People say I can smell a TV camera from 100 yards away, but it's not true," he says. "It's only 50 yards."

When the Cubs started selling bleacher tickets in advance in the mid-80s Pritikin was incensed. He'd always relished being able to wake up on a beautiful morning and simply decide to attend that day's game--it could be a spontaneous thing to do, like going to a movie or grabbing a bite to eat. Now it had to be a planned event. He was angry when the Tribune Company put advertising on the scoreboard, and he protested when the Cubs kicked street vendors off the sidewalks surrounding the ballpark. And he was furious in the late 80s when the Tribune Company started talking about installing lights. "I always said I could never grow old at Wrigley," he says, "because it looked exactly the same as when I was a kid." He thought company greed was starting to ruin the whole experience of going to a game.

It didn't help that the Cubs kept losing. Lonnie Wheeler wrote in Bleachers, which was published in 1989, that Pritikin was growing bitter about both the team and the Tribune Company. Two years later he boycotted the Cubs when they raised the price of the bleacher seats to $6.

He's still bitter. When Cubs manager Don Baylor was fired in early July Pritikin sent a letter to various Chicago media outlets. "Ever since the Tribune Company purchased the Cubs in the early 80s," he wrote, "the only consistent news over those years has been the rising cost of going to the games and changes of managers at the Friendly Confines. It's hard to watch million-dollar players throw to the wrong base, make easy errors and hit homers in losing causes while eating a $4.00 hot dog and $4.75 beer in a cheap bleacher seat that cost $24.00 (provided you bought the ticket in February)."

Pritikin says he can't afford to attend games anymore. He talks halfheartedly about looking for a corporate sponsor and says he doesn't watch many games on TV or listen to them on the radio because he doesn't like the announcers. And he feels snubbed by Tribune Company managers. At the Cardinals game a Cubs executive greeted him with only a brusque "How ya doin', Jerry?"

The Cubs aren't the only thing Pritikin seems bitter about. He says he'd like to get back into softball. He's in good shape, but he's had a hard time finding a team that will let him pitch. He speaks irritably of managers who promised him a chance to start, then replaced him with a younger guy.

He doesn't work much anymore. He still does publicity here and there, but mostly he lives on social security. He never saved much, but says that he doesn't need much, that he lives simply in his tiny one-bedroom apartment.

He's trying to sell a package of his photographs of Harvey Milk--next year is the 25th anniversary of the assassination--and he hopes to sell a book of other pictures someday. He talks of getting a computer and selling photos over the Internet. He says he's given lots of them away or sold them cheap over the years--along with lots of publicity ideas: "I've helped make a lot of people rich." He still hopes someone will recognize his achievements. "I've always thought someone would tap me on the shoulder. It hasn't happened."

Pritikin spent the later innings of the Cardinals game sitting quietly in the section the gay bars had bought. But the reserved seats weren't in the bleachers, and Pritikin complained, "I'm reserved, sitting in these seats." During the singing of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" the crowd held hands and swayed together, but Pritikin stood apart. "I really feel like a stranger in this ballpark," he said sadly.

Soon after that, his longtime superfan counterpart Ronny "Woo Woo" Wickers gave him a lukewarm greeting, absentmindedly saying, "Ya gotta believe."

But Pritikin no longer does. You can't get him to talk for long about the current team. He doesn't seem to know who all the players are. He won't even complain about the Tribune Company with any gusto. To him, this year's rooftop controversy pales in comparison with all the other affronts that have made him feel like a stranger in the ballpark he's been coming to since he was a kid. "We used to flip up the seats after games in exchange for free tickets," he says. "Now they have springs in them, and they flip up themselves."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jerry Pritikin, Jon Randolph.

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