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The Audacity of Hope

In the 100 years since the Cubs won a World Series, the underachieving team has managed a single unmitigated triumph: inspiring the play Bleacher Bums. On this centennial, we look back at the creation of that memorable drama.

(page 5 of 5)

The script


JOE MANTEGNA: Putting the play together, we had talked to Jack Brickhouse, the Cubs announcer. And he had told us this story about his fantasy dream game. We turned that into part of the speech that Mike Saad, playing the blind guy, gives near the end, when Marvin, the villain of the play, offers him a ride home. Mike says, You know what, Marvin? The Cubs are going to win tomorrow, and they’re going to go on and go to the World Series, and the Sox will win, too. And it will be a subway series, and Ernie Banks will be called out of retirement, and he’ll hit a home run that will land in my lap. And that’s when you can take me for a ride. That speech came from Brickhouse—it was verbatim except for the last line. So the night Jack Brickhouse came to the play was a special night. Just to see his reaction.

Another great night was when Ronnie “Woo Woo” Wickers came. You know who he is? He’s famous! He’s a black homeless guy who stands up in the bleachers and reads out all the Cubs’ names and yells this high-pitched “woo” after them: “Sanderson-woo! Beckert-woo!” On and on. Ronnie Woo Woo is legendary. We incorporated elements of Ronnie Woo Woo into the Cheerleader character. So one night Ronnie Woo Woo comes to the play. And when Keith would do his bit yelling out the players’ names with “woo!” after each name, Ronnie Woo Woo started joining in from the audience. And the audience went crazy, because lots of them knew it was the real Ronnie Woo Woo.

We invited all the real people from the bleachers to the play, and they were moved by it. I was this character Decker, one of the gamblers, and he was based on a guy named Becker. I remember Becker’s wife came up to me after seeing the play. She hugged me and said, “I don’t know whether to hug you or sue you.” And the guy we based the villain, Marvin, on—the guy who says in the play, “Nobody ever went broke betting against the Cubs after the 4th of July"—he came up afterward,
too, and he said, “Wow, it was great. Now, which character was I?”

DENNIS FRANZ: All the people these characters were based on were pretty flattered by the play. The exception was my guy. I heard he was steamed. He was definitely not happy with the way he was played. Which would have been completely in character.

STUART GORDON: After three weeks of Bleacher Bums in Chicago, we went on tour. And when we were at the Annenberg Theatre in Philadelphia, doing the play The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, the theatre people asked us about Bleacher Bums. They had heard about it and wanted us to do a performance of it while we were there. And we questioned whether that was a good idea or not. Could an audience that was not Cubs fans appreciate the show? Could it be understood outside the culture of Chicago?

We did the performance, and the reaction was fantastic. Unbelievable. So we started to realize that this show was much more universal than we had ever imagined.

JOE MANTEGNA: After Philadelphia, we did Bleacher Bums for two weeks in New York, at the Performing Garage in SoHo. And it was a critically huge success. We got a review from The New York Times that read like it was paid for.

We got reviewed in Sports Illustrated, and I loved it because I knew it was the only way I’d ever be covered in Sports Illustrated. That’s when we knew that the play would translate to any audience. It wasn’t about the Cubs—it was about the fans. It was about following the underdog.

STUART GORDON: A group of Russian artists and critics were once visiting Chicago, and they came to a performance. We had no idea what they were going to think about it because they don’t even play ball in that country. And they loved it. One of them came up to me afterward and said, “This is not about baseball; this is a play about hope.”

Which, I think, is exactly right. If you’re a Cubs fan, it’s really all about hope. So maybe this year, with this team, the curse is finally gone? Maybe it’s like Sleeping Beauty finally waking up? It would be wonderful. And in a way, it would be the end of the play Bleacher Bums.

JOE MANTEGNA: Believe me, if the Cubs do win it all, I will be the happiest guy in the world. I’ll be the first one to say, “That’s it. Bleacher Bums now becomes a period piece. It has no more relevance.” He stops talking and makes a sighing sound: Aaaarrrrrrggggggggg. Then he says, “I’m not holding my breath.”


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