A fitter augury cannot be imagined. The Chicago Cubs staggered out of Arizona with the worst spring training record in baseball; whereupon, Keith and Stacey Kramer of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, launched a newsletter dedicated to the tormented Chicago sports fan far from home.
The Kramers stuffed 3,500 copies of the May 1989 issue, their first, into a station wagon and drove west. As the Cubs negotiated their first California swing of the season, Keith and Stacey trailed them from park to park. They wore aprons that said "Chicago SportScene" and made them look a little like newsboys of old, and they put a copy of their newsletter, published "for Chicago sports fans everywhere," into every hand they saw connected anatomically to a Cubs hat, button, or other expression of Chicago sports dementia.
"We got a really good response from people," Keith Kramer tells us. "That's how we got in touch with WACCO. We subsequently did a mailing to their whole mailing list, about 500 names."
WACCO is the felicitously acronymed Western Association of Crazy Chicagoans and Others, an LA-based cluster of refugees. Another hive of DPs lives lives centered on Sluggo's, a bar-restaurant satellite-TV joint just outside San Diego. The Kramers left a stack of newsletters on Sluggo's counter.
Sluggo's is owned by Norm and Sheila Lebovitz, who until 1985 ran the Chicago hot dog chains Sammy's and Lemmy's. "We're a Chicago restaurant in San Diego," Norm Lebovitz reported. "All our customers are Chicago. We bring our food in from Chicago. You couldn't in here last night for the Cubs game. You couldn't get in tonight for the Cubs game."
Lebovitz let us know that even though he's 2,000 miles away, he's hanging onto his five Bears season tickets. Putting aside the Kramers for the moment, we asked Lebovitz what he's doing out by Coronado Bay if he's so heartsick for Chicago; and he responded with a typically convoluted, half-apologetic refugee's tale that boiled down to (A) opportunity and (B) February.
Yeah, we said, but you don't have Michael Jordan in February.
"Michael Jordan was here last week," said Lebovitz. "He came by right after he was married. He was playing golf over at the La Jolla Country Club. I probably shouldn't say what he shot."
What did he shoot? we asked.
"Eight-one," said Lebovitz.
A score that, we said, won't cut much ice on the tour.
"That's a tough, tough course," said Lebovitz. He went on, "Of course we've got McMahon here now: I wish we didn't, because the Bears can't do it without him."
When Norm Lebovitz got his first glimpse Chicago SportScene he thought it was terrific. He went so far as to write a check and become the Kramers' first advertiser ever. "I thought these kids deserve a chance--that's why I obligated myself to this ad," said Lebovitz. "They're always getting me great information. My customers love it."
Keith Kramer, who's 30, and Stacey Kramer, 28, publish Chicago SportScene on a desktop Macintosh at home. Stacey handles the business end and Keith edits it, stuffing the newsletter with gossip and analysis gleaned from the Chicago papers and the national sports press. The eight-page dope sheet is stylishly written and laid out; Keith, after all, is an experienced journalist whose day job is editor of the local daily, Steamboat Today.
He'd edited trade magazines in Chicago before taking a reporting job five years ago with Steamboat Today's weekly predecessor, the Steamboat Pilot. Departing the lively Diversey-Halsted area for the Rockies, Keith found himself in unassuageable anguish.
"I missed the inside story, so to speak, on the Chicago sporting scene," he says. "The kind of stuff where Mike Ditka would talk about the Fridge's weight problem or Jim McMahon would be mad at Dan Hampton for some reason or the Cubs would trade all their good players for some reason."
Kramer was in the enviable position of being able to hover night and day over Steamboat Today's AP wire for late-breaking word on what Dan Hampton had to say about Jim McMahon being mad at him for some reason; but his thirst could not be slaked.
"Basically, it was last December when the Cubs traded Rafael Palmeiro to Texas for Mitch Williams--I just couldn't believe what I'd heard," says Kramer. "A couple of weeks after that I was looking over some newspaper clippings my dad had sent me that were torn out, not in good order, and I had this idea that if I was so desperate for Chicago sports news and I'd moved away five years ago there might be hundreds, even thousands like me out there."
There might be. So far a hundred of them have plunked down $24 for 12 issues of the newsletter. Sluggo's has been followed by two other advertisers: Ditka's and Accent Chicago, which is a Water Tower Place gift shop. "We have a bunch of subscribers in Denver," says Keith Kramer. "They gave us a hard time on the radio in Denver--they called us obnoxious Cub fans. But it still generated some interest."
Stacey Kramer made a second California swing in July to find readers; the Kramers expect to hunt more down in San Francisco during the NL play-offs; and next March they'll work spring training in Arizona. It's a hands-on approach to circulation that has less in common with normal journalistic practice than with basketball coaches recruiting prep all-Americas.
"To be real honest," says Keith Kramer, "we haven't had time to add up how much money we're losing on this thing. It's a good thing I have a full-time job to keep it going."
Notes from the annals of intellectual repression.
Turn of the century. The magazine Lucifer is confiscated by Chicago postal authorities and the editor, Moses Harman, is sentenced to a year in prison. Harman's crime was a discussion of birth control.
1909. The Bureau of Customs attempts, but without success, to prohibit the Field Museum from importing some pictures and manuscripts from China. The bureau considers them obscene.
1911. Postal authorities refuse to allow The Social Evil in Chicago, a Study of Existing Conditions to be distributed by mail. The study had been made by the vice commission of Chicago, under the direction of the dean of the Episcopalian Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul.
1915. The December issue of the radical journal Alarm is barred from Chicago's mails because of an antimilitarist statement it carries by Jack London. Two years later Solidarity, the journal of the International Workers of the World, receives the same treatment.
Moving forward a few years . . .
1931. The Illinois Vigilance Association goes to court with a petition seeking the arrest of the cast performing Hecht and MacArthur's The Front Page. Some of the lines are a little too vulgar for these vigilantes; but they are frustrated by a municipal judge who fails to appreciate the danger the play presents to public morality.
1935. The play Tobacco Road, which would run 3,182 performances in New York, lasts seven weeks in Chicago. Mayor Edward Kelly attends a performance, decides the play is indecent, and revokes the license of the theater where it's housed.
1936. Chicago refuses to allow New York's Theatre Guild to bring in Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour, a play that touches on lesbianism. The same year, Model Tenements, a play by Meyer Levin, written for the Federal Theatre Project, is rehearsed here and abandoned; the reason given is that the play did not pass muster with the Chicago Crime Prevention Bureau.
1938. Life magazine publishes a controversial series of pictures that show the birth of a baby. Before copies of this issue can be sold from Chicago newsstands, police demand that all the offending photos be scissored out.
These are a few of the doleful events chronicled in Pursuit of Freedom, a history of civil liberties in Illinois that was compiled as the 30s ended, by the Illinois Writers' Project of the federal Work Projects Administration. Pursuit of Freedom itself became another event.
"The government, of course, was funding the book," remembers Marion Knoblauch Franc, who edited Pursuit Of Freedom, "but they censored the book. The picture of civil liberties in Illinois was not a pretty one, and they were afraid of it."
Franc was taken off the book, certain unflattering passages were toned down, and the WPA finally washed its hands of the project, turning Pursuit of Freedom over to the Chicago Civil Liberties Committee, which brought it out in 1942.
Franc will be on hand Saturday to reminisce about this unhappy experience when survivors of the WPA Writers' Project in Illinois engage in a free, all-day symposium at the Newberry Library. There is one conclusion we feel comfortable drawing on our own.
Authorities who step forward to suppress the uncivil works and ideas of others in the name of public dignity may indeed bask briefly in the glow of general esteem. But very soon these moralists belong to history, which remembers them as clowns, demagogues, and poltroons.