A Seat at the Bar with Mike Royko

I walked into The Billy Goat Tavern, a subterranean saloon underneath Michigan Avenue …a real dive that oozes character like no other. A Chicago institution immortalized by the infamous Saturday Night Live skit: Cheezborger, Cheezborger, No Fries – Chips…remember John Belushi, Bill Murray, Robert Klein-----a classic. Yellowed pictures and articles and news clippings cover the walls – a museum of reminders of the many famous regulars that would get sloshed here…a hangout for writers and reporters, journalists for the Chicago papers back in the day, as well as celebrities, politicians and thugs. It’s a graveyard of conversations, celebrations and laughter, breaking news, tireless stories and drunken stupors.

Billy Sianis and his goat, for which the tavern is named is supposedly responsible for the curse of the Chicago Cubs – the alleged reason why the lovable North Side losers have not won a world series in over 100 years – a great story every Chicagoan knows all too well.

Sam Sianis – nephew of Billy often said that the place was haunted. In fact, he has been quoted as saying that he had seen the ghost of his friend and iconic regular Mike Royko sitting at the bar after his passing.

Mike Royko

Mike Royko

Mike Royko: If you do not know who he was – you are probably a really young whippersnapper or not a Chicagoan. Royko was one of the most widely read columnists in Chicago history. He wrote for the Chicago Daily News, the Tribune and the Sun Times over a span of four decades. A Pulitzer Prize winner, his column was syndicated in over 600 newspapers nationwide. He was street smart, gritty and wickedly funny. His writing reflected the pulse of the city and he hung out at the Billy Goat Tavern. Mike described himself as a “tavern kid” growing up in a flat above the bar his parents owned. He was in his element, this bar was his oasis.

I gaze around the bar, there were just a few late afternoon boozers, some tourists, and a group of lawyer-like “suits” at a table. And then I see him. At the end of the bar. Slouched down, his head in his hands – could that be Royko? It is. I’m sure of it. Holy crap. Sianis was right.

I hesitate at first, but then brazenly sit right next to him, waiting to catch his eye. I don’t know what I am going to say to him – no time for thought processing.

He lifts his head and gives me a quick glance. I thought I detected a muffled groan. This wasn’t going to be easy.

Nevertheless, I proceed…”Mr. Royko, I just want to tell you that I am a big fan.”

He lifts an eyebrow, says nothing but lifts his glass in a bored salute.

I continued to babble, talking about my personal writing aspirations – a one-sided conversation that was going nowhere.

Then, I told him that I write a blog about sports…nothing serious – just a woman’s perspective. I could see that this might have slightly peeked his interest, but hard to tell. And then, I brought up the ice-breaker: I started talking about the Cubs, and we bonded.

I knew Mike was a lifelong Cub’s fan – so we did what all Cubs fans do...we commiserated – I filled him in on all the latest…The Ricketts, the renovations to Wrigley Field, and how “wait til next year” was still the mantra of the diminishing faithful.

I reminded him about the last column that he ever wrote. It was in 1997 – about the woes of the Cubs organization and ironically how he explained that the goat was really not to blame.

“Mike, I have a question.” I was recalling one of his Cubs related columns, and decided to throw something out.

“Remember the awesome column that you wrote the day Jackie Robinson died? It was 1972 and you went to the Cubs – Dodgers game at Wrigley Field and witnessed the first black man in the major leagues to be on the mound there. A moment in sports history for sure…and then you wrote that Robinson came up to bat and hit a foul ball into the stands and you caught it?”

Royko just looked at me with an intimidating stare, as if to say “Where are you going with this?”

“And then a black gentleman who was enthusiastically applauding Robinson, his hero, offered to buy the ball from you – and you sold it to him for ten dollars?”

“Well, I am just thinking, Mike,” I continued. “With all due respect, the park was packed that day – over 47,000 fans – and you were just a kid…you know, what were the odds that you would catch a ball hit by Jackie Robinson?”

Now, I am stammering…”It was a great story and could have easily stood alone without the amazing catch and sell to a black man scenario…so I am just wondering. Did you kind of “embellish” the facts to make it an even better story?”

The revered Mike Royko looked directly at me. I thought I detected a very slight smile. And, then he gave me a really big wink.

I knew it. Cool.

Simultaneously we clinked our almost empty glasses several times. Cheers to us. Cheers to writing. Cheers to the fun-loving spirits at the Billy Goat Tavern. Cheers to Jackie Robinson and Cheers to the Cubs.

This is a contribution to the series "A Seat at the Bar With..." by ChicagoNow bloggers - some great reads

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