Windy City Sox Fans held their annual holiday party Sunday afternoon at Senese's Winery in Oak Lawn. Senese's is an old-school Italian restaurant where fake ivy spirals like a knuckleball around rustic white beams. Windy City Sox Fans are a rugged old-school group who enjoy spicy sausage and don't care for knuckleheads.
It wasn't a good year. The White Sox faded in the stretch, a spectator mugged an umpire, FBI agents dug near the ballpark for a mobster's remains, and to the north the Cubs made the playoffs. Merry Christmas.
On October 20 a postseason chart of "winners" and "losers" ran on the front page of the Tribune's Tempo section. Both columns cited "boneheaded Sox fans who spent what little money they have on Marlins jerseys. They got what they wanted."
White Sox fans had had it.
"I don't take kindly to seeing entire groups of people insulted for nothing more than a feeble attempt at humor," said Hal Vickery, a 53-year-old high school chemistry and physics teacher who lives in Joliet and attends about 20 White Sox games a year. "We took it day after day for months at a time. Even the players talked about it."
Mary Kay Weir, Windy City Sox Fans president, said, "Frustration about generalizations built throughout the year." She was at the park in April when the ump was mugged and last September when a Kansas City coach got clobbered. "You knew they were not real Sox fans, yet they were labeled as Sox fans," she said. "The average Sox fan works very hard for their season tickets." Weir, 43, teaches sixth grade in Justice and lives in Oak Lawn. She's a season-ticket holder who attended her first Sox game in 1966 when her sister, also a teacher, took her to "teachers' day" at Comiskey Park.
Back in that era, a White Sox player or two would hit Senese's after a game. No one does that anymore, though ex-Sox first baseman Bill "Moose" Skowron still drops by whenever he's in the neighborhood of 104th and Central.
About 100 club members turned out for the party, along with ex-Sox Billy Pierce, Minnie Minoso, Bill Melton, and Steve Trout. Senese's served a holiday spread of Italian sausage with sweet peppers, chicken Parmesan with pasta, and roast sirloin with sauteed mushrooms. Club members paid $22 for the meal, with proceeds going to Chicago Baseball Cancer Charities, which Pierce heads.
Mistletoe was nowhere to be found and no one was singing "Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)." But owner Tom Senese said it was the biggest turnout in the seven years he's been hosting the fan party. He put the Bears-Packers game on muted TVs in the dining room and about half the gathering cheered each time the Packers scored. You'd have thought the Packers were playing the Cubs.
Senese's has a long history as a comedy club. Pictures of Steve Allen, Red Skelton, Jim Belushi, and Rusty Warren hang near the dining room entrance. But what's funny about being a White Sox fan?
Lori Hester was voted onto the Windy City Sox Fans board Sunday before the party. In 1990 she moved from Oklahoma City to Lincoln Park, but she became a Sox fan. "It's not cool to be a Sox fan," Hester said. "I do compliance downtown at the Northern Trust Company. My clients are very wealthy people and I'm not afraid to say I'm a Sox fan. When I moved to Chicago I picked the Sox because it sounds kind of salty. They're die-hard. They know baseball."
Nelson Algren was a White Sox fan. Studs Terkel is a White Sox fan. Author Joe Queenan dedicated his recent book, True Believers: The Tragic Inner Life of Sports Fans, to White Sox fans. Queenan, a Phillies fan, wrote about standing in the rain outside the British Parliament wearing a Cubs cap. Queenan ran into two White Sox fans. They wouldn't talk to him. He wrote, "So there they were, standing in the rain: cold, tired, damp, bored, refusing to make small talk with a man in a Cubs cap. It was insane. It was absurd. It was juvenile. It was stupid. This book is dedicated to those two men."
Hester was married in the ballpark's Stadium Club in 2002. Her husband, John, is an accountant and a lifelong Sox fan. Their wedding pictures were taken in the Sox dugout. The Hesters attend between 30 and 35 Sox games a year, sitting down the left-field line. They now live in Oak Lawn. Of the club's 218 members, only 45 live in Chicago.
I sat next to Hester at the holiday party. During a Q and A with White Sox radio announcer Dave Wills, fans grumbled about bad draft choices, lack of depth up the middle, and the team's lousy bunting. One fan asked Bill Melton about pitching phenom Jon Rauch. Melton answered, "He's still tall."
Hester asked Wills if anyone had any good news. Hester maintains a certain innocence. At age 35 she's the club's youngest board member. "I am a Sox fan, but this is what irritates me," she said after dinner. "My husband will say this too--most Sox fans have nothing good to say about the Sox." Club president Weir blamed sports talk radio. "Sports talk shows have a lot of influence and they give a skewed vision of U.S. Cellular Field," she said. "Many of those people don't come to the park regularly. That's frustrating too."
Trout, 46, was drafted by the White Sox in 1976 and pitched on the south side until 1983, when he was traded to the Cubs. He said interleague play is the reason for the increasing lack of goodwill between Sox and Cubs fans. "With interleague play there suddenly was real meaning behind the games," said Trout, who wore a bright Andy Williams Christmas sweater to the party. "But even when the games were played for charity, there still seemed to be a lot of pride in painting the other side of town. I was always baffled about it. It's just nice to be a Chicago fan."
The grassroots feel of Windy City Sox Fans, which has no formal connection with the White Sox, is charming in a Bill Veeck kind of way. (There's a similar but less organized group of Cubs fans known as the Wild Bunch.) During the summer the club sponsors occasional lunches at the Polo Cafe near the ballpark. Players such as Jose Valentin, Kelly Wunsch, and Tony Graffanino make appearances.
Board member Wayne Tringl writes a column, Wayne's World, for the club's quarterly newsletter, "Bleacher Features," and helps recruit players for club events. "We don't go through the team to get players," said Tringl, a 47-year-old tool-and-die maker at the Ford Motor plant in Chicago Heights. "A couple ladies in our club have season tickets behind the dugout and they know some of the players. Last summer Jose Valentin brought a case of his bobbleheads to the Polo Cafe and we sold them for his charity. But a lot of guys don't want to make an appearance. It's good that Ozzie Guillen is coming back. A few years ago he'd do the luncheons and he'd go into the dugout, point to three or four of his teammates, and say, 'You're coming with me.' And sure enough, he'd bring guys like Wilson Alvarez, Dave Martinez, and Roberto Hernandez."
Trout was born in Detroit, where his father, Dizzy, pitched for the Tigers. Last year Trout came out with Home Plate: The Journey of the Most Flamboyant Father and Son Pitching Combination in Major League History, a book that looks at diminishing values in baseball culture. "I don't see the closeness between fans and players like I used to," Trout said. "If the general manager is in town, he should come in and listen to these people. They brought up a great example in bunting. It's a lost art. We can learn so much from our audience. And these people don't get to be heard too often."
Trout, who lives in Munster, Indiana, now, attends more Cubs games than Sox games. "White Sox fans have more of a blue-collar demeanor," he said. "The person at Wrigley Field goes out for an afternoon in the sun, which creates a different mentality than a nighttime event on the south side. That's why north-siders don't take it as seriously or as personally as south-siders do."
In his 18 major-league seasons, Pierce pitched for the White Sox, the San Francisco Giants, and the Detroit Tigers. "White Sox fans are not rabid like others," said Pierce, who has lived in the south suburbs since 1963, "but they are true-blue. Back when you drew a million people it was a big deal. But those were a million loyal fans. You still have that base, but we haven't picked up the new ones. That's why the club has a tough time drawing two million or more."
Pierce, 76, believes younger fans are attracted to the neighborhood around Wrigley Field. "You can't do anything outside of White Sox Park," he said. "You lose young fans that way. Also, a lot of people who lived south moved west. You've lost people close to the ballpark." Several years ago Pierce moved from Evergreen Park to Lemont. His son lives in Naperville. Pierce attends about eight White Sox games a year and watches the others on TV.
Ella Lackovic never left the neighborhood. She grew up on the corner of 18th and Carpenter and still lives in Pilsen, where her parents used to deliver milk by horse and wagon. Now 82, she's been a White Sox season-ticket holder for 54 years. She arrived in a Santa Claus outfit accented with a gold necklace that bore the mod 1983 Sox logo. "The old park used to have stands where they sold necklaces and men's and ladies' wristwatches," she said. That was former owner Bill Veeck's idea, to bring a bit of Maxwell Street to baseball.
Lackovic has attended 1,376 consecutive White Sox home games. She hasn't missed one since the summer of '94, when she had to go to her sister's funeral. Before that she hadn't missed one since the 1970s. Never married, she's a retired keypunch operator for International Harvester. "They started out on 31st Boulevard near California," Lackovic said about the company, "and then they moved west to Hinsdale."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.