When I was a kid, I had a strong affection for Chicago, despite the small detail that I’d never actually been there. My fondness for the City of Big Shoulders probably had its origins in my devoted viewing of channel WGN, back before it tagged “America” onto the end, all the better to make it appealing to cable subscribers. In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, it was a local television station without a network affiliation that earned a spot in cable packages across the country in large part because it was one of the few stations that was uplinked to satellites, helping providers with great need to fill out the ten or twelve channels they were trying to provide to their customers. Since their primary market remained Chicago and they had F.C.C. requirements to provide community, public service programming, they still took a highly local approach to their broadcast day. I’d watch Ray Rayner in the mornings for the cartoons, but he’d provide news updates, sports scores and traffic info for the parents who had some investment is what was going on in town as the swirled around their rapt children while preparing for the day. So I’d hear about exotic places like Lake Shore Drive. That’s where my interest began, but it was locked into permanent place by Mike Royko.
Royko was a Chicago columnist who was syndicated, showing up in the Madison, Wisconsin newspaper The Capital Times, which arrived at my grandfather’s house every afternoon. Especially when I stayed with him over the summers, with an overabundance of time on my hands, I devoured the newspaper, even spending a stretch building up my own weird little clipping files so I could keep track of the news over time. I was a weird kid. Anyway, my inclination towards Chicago drew me to the columns of Royko, dropped into the paper with seemingly little concern for the pertinence of the topics to Madison readership. National issues were touched upon, by Royko was committed to writing about his own city, sprightly waltzes with the bruised and bruising personality of the place of his birth. He railed against the corruption of local officials and the bawdy balderdash of the citizenry with a backwards pride in the raggedness of it all. There was a beautiful bluntness to his writing that joined common man vernacular with a skilled craftsman’s command of language.
And then there was one of his most tragicomic recurring topics: the Cubs. I was a fan of the Chicago National League Ball Club, which is a scar I still bear from my many hours in front of WGN. Royko was a fan, too. And he showed it with withering annual quizzes in which he cataloged the decades-long futility of the franchise with excavations of the most telling and embarrassing trivia from a baseball history that hadn’t (and still hasn’t) seen a World Series appearance since 1945 and winning trip to the same tourney since 1908. Oh. Eight. I’d barely endured the misery of Cub fandom, but reading Royko’s columns gave me long-suffering credibility by association, or so I allowed myself to believe. Now that I can affix long-suffering to my fandom with some accuracy, I have to say that I preferred pretending.
When I started reading Royko, he was a Chicago Sun-Times columnist. That changed in 1984, when Rupert Murdoch bought the newspaper. Years before Fox News made the villainy of Murdoch widely famous, Royko noted that “his goal is not quality journalism. His goal is vast power for Rupert Murdoch, political power.” Royko quit the paper and went to crosstown rival The Chicago Tribune, a publication he’d previously vowed would never be home to his words. Even with complete confidence that he’d find gainful employment in short order, it was still a heroic move, a principled rejection of exactly the sort of owner–not just willing to bend the news to his own preferences, but also corporately callous towards the local responsibilities of a paper–who was starting to take print news in completely the wrong direction, even before the internet came along with that final coffin nail. It was befitting of the hardscrabble, no-nonsense society he depicted. It was easy to imagine him discussing the decision with one of the fictional characters he created for columns built around common man discussions of the news of the day, making a point through an imagined dialogue. Surely those fellows–Slats Grobnik, maybe–would have approved.