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On beer and baseball: a vendor's lament

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A cool breeze came off the lake, the sun set in a blue September sky, the Yankees played in Comiskey Park, and vendor Rich Harris cleared $150 in one game selling beer to the fans.

At least that's the way it should have been. But of course the Yanks didn't come to town last weekend, and Harris sold no beer.

Although many fans are learning to live without baseball, the strike gnaws at Harris in more ways than one. It's not just that he's losing money; to him the strike's another indication that the game and all that comes with it--including hawking beer, hot dogs, and pop--is changing for the worse.

The White Sox and Cubs, as well as the Bulls and Blackhawks, keep cutting into the vendors' take and limiting where and when food and beverages, particularly beer, can be sold. Wrigley Field, Comiskey Park, and the new west-side basketball/hockey stadium feature restaurants and waitress service, so there's less work for vendors. The higher ticket prices make for a tonier bunch, who apparently prefer to be served by skinny women in skimpy outfits.

"I know I sound like an old-timer talking about the good old days, but this strike has got me thinking how much better the old days really were--at least for vendors," says Harris, who's been a vendor since 1983. "Maybe guys like me are the last of a breed."

Harris got into the business for the purest of reasons--he loves baseball. "This is the best way I could think of to be around the game. I grew up in a courtyard apartment on Belmont near Broadway, not far from Wrigley Field. I listened to Jack Brickhouse broadcasts all the time. He's the best, I can't believe they let him go. He's so much better than Harry Caray, who's a Cardinal fan and a carpetbagger. Don't get me started on him. I used to go to 20 games a year as a kid. I was a fanatic Cub fan, but I was not a White Sox hater. Cubs fans are more reasonable, more human, in that regard. We don't need the Sox to lose in order to be happy.

"My favorite seat was on the first-base side in the first row of the grandstand, now they call it terrace reserve. It cost me a couple of dollars. I used to go with my best friend, Barry Birnbaum. Barry doesn't like baseball anymore. He said it hasn't been the same since they expanded the leagues and diluted the talent back in 1969."

Harris went to Lake View High School, then the University of Illinois at Champaign, and in 1977 he went to work in the Sun-Times/Daily News wire room. "In those days breaking news came across the wires and the wire room was positioned between the newsrooms for the old Daily News and the Sun-Times," says Harris. "In the wire room there was me, Frank DeSanti, Matt Karno, Dale McCullough--all great guys. A bell sounded when stories came over the wire; the bigger the story the more the bell rang. I remember once there were three or four bells, and I rushed over to read that Elvis had died."

Harris was an editorial assistant for the Sun-Times in 1983 when he and a friend, John Jackanicz, decided to give vending a try. "I was working for Avon and Rich was working for the paper, and we were going to 20 games a summer," says Jackanicz. "One day we're waiting in line for food and I looked at him and said, 'Rich, we're on the wrong end of the line.'"

So they went to the headquarters of the Service Employees Union and added their names to the waiting list. In a few weeks they got their call. "They started me off selling peanuts and Coke," says Harris. "This was in the summer of '83, a perfect time to get into the business. Both teams were starting to draw bigger crowds, and the White Sox were winning. By the end of the summer I was selling beer, which is where the real money is made. I loved it from the start."

He found himself working alongside such ballpark legends as Irving Newer, the husky-voiced, hawk-nosed, toothless peanut seller, who died a few years ago. "When I was a little kid Irving would be out in the bleachers selling Frosty Malts and here I was working with him," says Harris. "I thought, 'I've come a long way.'"

He also met a few celebrities. "I sold peanuts to Elliott Gould and Bill Veeck--he was a great man, a friend to the common man, vendors included--and Jody Davis's parents. Jody's dad was a good old boy from rural Georgia. This was when Jody just broke in with the Cubs. His parents were so proud, they kept saying to me--the peanut vendor--'That's our son, that's our son.'

"Over the years I've had my regulars. At Wrigley there's Terry Sullivan, the lawyer, Bernie Hansen, the alderman, and Bob Beck, who owns Beck Books. They're all big tippers. But most of the people are just ordinary fans. I have these people who come up from Iowa each year. They have me pose for a picture with their son. He was three the first time they came up. I put him on top of the beer case. He must be seven or eight by now."

Over the years Harris learned the tricks of the trade, its slang and characters. "Most of the vendors have nicknames," he says. "William Dennis, you've probably seen him, he's the guy with the huge, thick muscles, a real bodybuilder. We call him the Pain Man. He's the sweetest, nicest guy in the world, but when business is slow you can look for him to say, "Rich, I can't stand the pain.' We call one guy the Human Echo because he tends to repeat everything you say. There's the Lampshade Man, 'cause when he sells beer he holds the cup over the top so it looks like a lampshade--it's a subtle thing. And there's a guy we call Mo-Mo, for no rational reason other than it irritates him, which is reason enough, although I don't know if that's rational. He's a lawyer, by the way. They say he's got cases in the morning and cases at night. A lot of the sportswriters tell me that they started off as vendors. A few years back there was a vendor named David Kaplan. He was a nice kid, a big Springsteen fan. Now he has a radio show on 'MVP."

In the early 1980s vendors got as much as 18 percent for every sale and could expect to make as much as $800 a week. A few years ago the Cubs sliced the take to 12 percent. It's now at about 10 percent, which means they have to sell more beer to make as much money. "Basically, what happened is that every time they raised the price of beer they cut our commission," says Jackanicz. "The money went somewhere, but it sure didn't go to us."

New restrictions cut even further into sales. "Beer selling used to be wide open and you could actually sell after the game ended--we called it working the blow off," says Harris. "We stood by the washroom and fans would buy a beer for the road. I would sell another two cases working the blow off. That's an extra $20. You can't do it anymore. Now they stop selling beer after the seventh inning at Wrigley and in the middle of the eighth at Comiskey.

"I also think people aren't drinking as much, especially at Wrigley Field. It's all yuppies out there, and yuppies tend not to drink a lot of beer. And the team's losing. I know you would think that people drink a lot when a team's losing--to drown their sorrows--but that's not the case. I guess it's because fans drink more when they're happy, and now they're not as happy. We could make more from a crowd of 10,000 at the old Comiskey than we can make from 30,000 at Wrigley."

In 1992 Harris went back to work full-time at the Sun-Times. From 1 AM until 9 AM he monitors the police and fire radios, alerting editors, reporters, and photographers to breaking crime stories. Days and evenings he sells beer at ball games. Or he did--until the strike.

"I've lost about $2,000 as a result of the strike, and if it goes all season I'll lose a lot more--particularly if it means losing the chance to sell at White Sox playoff games," says Harris. "I did work the United Center when it opened last week for a wrestling match, but it wasn't such a great place for vendors. They cut our commission there, and there's restricted areas where we can't sell. And the beer is contained in jet packs which we carry on our backs. The advantage is that the pack keeps the beer cold, but it cuts into our sales. It's like carrying a keg on your back; it weighs as much as two cases of beer, but it only has as much beer as one case. Instead of selling 48 beers at a time I can only sell 24--then I have to get a refill. I only made $30 working that wrestling crowd. I figure I should have made at least three times that much. I'll say this about the United Center: unlike the ballparks, at least they have a shower in the vendors' locker room. Actually they have two showers."

Harris says he's anxious for the season to resume although the strike has dimmed his love for the game. "I'll never support management over a union, but it's hard for me to get worked up over these players," says Harris. "It's not even a real strike. It's more of a power struggle. In a real strike workers have trouble feeding their families. These ball players are out playing golf. The guys getting hurt are, of course, the vendors who need this job to make a living."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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