Perhaps you missed it, but the 25th anniversary of the famous rant delivered by Lee Elia when he was manager of the Chicago Cubs was April 29. It was on that day when Elia’s frustration tolerance level was exceeded, and he went on an expletive-filled tirade about how badly he thought the fans were treating his team.
The Cubs had just suffered through a painful one-run loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers, which dropped the Cubs’ record at the time to 5-14. Reliever Lee Smith threw a wild pitch to allow the winning run. On top of that, as Elia headed to the clubhouse, he saw Keith Moreland and Larry Bowa get into a beer-tossing spat with some fans down the left-field line.
Crowds in those days were small, especially in the spring and fall, and the attendance for the Dodgers game was only 9,321. But the fans were vocal, and not in a good way. In no uncertain terms, Elia referred to Cubs fans as a bunch of miserable lowlifes, which left the media members who witnessed the tirade shaking their heads in disbelief. Among other things, Elia said that, “Eighty-five percent of the world works for a living and the other 15 percent of those (blankety-blank) fans come to Wrigley Field.” Elia’s rant continued for more than three minutes, and many people now regard it as the No. 1 baseball meltdown of all time. Although it is clear in retrospect that it was meant to address only those rowdy few who were getting on his players at the time, the rant came across as a rip of Cubs fans everywhere.
If Elia had blown his top like that and no one had been around but the print media, probably nothing more would have happened. But no such luck, because standing nearby with his microphone and recorder going was local radio sports reporter Les Grobstein, who got every last word on tape. Grobstein said that there weren’t a lot of other media folks listening to Elia’s rant because Mike Marshall, an outfielder for the Dodgers, had just made his Wrigley Field debut and most of the Chicago reporters had gone to the Dodgers’ locker room to interview him.
Soon, Grobstein’s recording of Elia’s choice words was being played over and over on the radio for all to hear. But before it went on the air, Grobstein played his tape for the Cubs broadcasters, Harry Caray, Vince Lloyd and Lou Boudreau, all of whom were stunned to hear what Elia had said. In fact, there was immediate concern that the rant was going to cost Elia his job.
Accordingly, it was suggested that a copy of the tape be taken as quickly as possible to Cubs’ general manager Dallas Green so that he would be aware of it and not be taken by surprise when the stuff hit the fan, which was surely going to happen. Maybe that would save Elia’s job.
Well, Green heard the tape, and he was none too pleased. However, Green did not immediately fire Elia, and Elia later apologized for what he said. The heat of the moment passed, but the skids had been greased and later that season, Elia did indeed lose his job, although it was the team’s continued ineffectiveness that management pointed to as the reason for the firing.
Twenty-five years later, it is a different story. Although his rant will live on forever in baseball infamy, Elia, who is a special assistant to the manager of the Seattle Mariners, is an older and self-professed wiser man. He looks back on the incident as a complete aberration. In fact, nowadays, he says he merely chuckles when he thinks about what happened, which he admitted is not too often. What he says now, according to the Chicago Sun-Times is, “The Cubs fans have always been special to me. I mean . . . if there is one pure thing in the industry, it is the fans of the Chicago Cubs.”
A new rant
So what brings all of this up now? Why even dredge Elia’s misbehavior up at a time when Elia is a respected elder statesman and baseball lifer? Very simple: Commercialism – and a desire to use Elia’s notoriety to do some good in the community.
Elia probably would not have even noticed the anniversary of his public relations gaffe but for the fact that he had gotten a call from A&R Collectables, located in Prospect Heights, Ill. The company is making a talking baseball product that has just hit the marketplace. More specifically, the A&R product is a baseball holder that contains a baseball signed by Elia and a microchip with a recorded message from Elia that basically wishes the Cubs and their fans well as they pursue the team’s first world championship in 100 years.
Elia’s new message to Cubs fans, which runs 20 seconds on the microchip, is, “I’ll tell you one thing. It’s time the Cubs get hotter than hell this season and stuff it up the rest of the baseball world. The 40,000 fans who fill this ballpark every day and work hard for a living are no nickel-dimers. They deserve a championship. They’re the real Chicago Cubs fans. And print it!”
A&R originally thought about putting Elia’s actual rant on the talking chip, but Elia wanted something that kids could listen to and appreciate. So the message was toned down.
The microchip in the holder is re-recordable, meaning that you can erase the message from Elia if you want and replace it with something else. But Roger Dewey, president of A&R, thinks it would be special to keep it the way it is. In the future, A&R is planning to offer other balls and holders in which you can create your own mix of signatures and messages.
To introduce this intriguing new product, A&R held a press conference at Harry Caray’s Restaurant in downtown Chicago, at which Elia and Grobstein were present, as was Bob Ibach, the former Cubs media relations director who took Grobstein’s tape to Green after the rant.
Then, Elia was presented to the assembled crowd, which included Harry Caray’s wife, Dutchie. Elia reminisced about what it was like for him to have been in the eye of this particular hurricane all those many years ago. He said that originally he wasn’t sure that he wanted to get involved with this project, but after mulling it over for awhile and discussing it with his wife, he talked to a group of Cubs fans during spring training and they encouraged him to go for it.
He also told everyone how glad he was to be able to make amends, of sorts, by being involved in the current project, particularly with the tie-in to the cancer charities.
“Today, this probably never would have happened because of the cooling-off period after the game,” Elia said. “You have folks with you who help you figure out what to do and say.”
When asked if he was a collector himself, Elia said he really hadn’t been into autographs as a kid or when he was playing.
“Could you imagine what I would have now if I had collected?” he asked. “I was more into photos of the players when I was a kid. I remember I had a picture of Stan Musial and another one of Joe DiMaggio.”
Grobstein also got into the act by telling his fellow journalists that he was thinking of placing the original microphone that was used to record the rant, which he still owns and uses, for sale on eBay, with the proceeds going to charity.
Even if it doesn’t sell on eBay, Grobstein thinks he might still have a buyer in Chicago White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko. According to Grobstein, Konerko has confirmed his interest in the artifact multiple times. As Grobstein understands it, Konerko has used Elia’s tirade more than a few times to pump himself up before games, which would explain his interest in this relic.
The Elia baseballs and holders are available for $89.95. Each unit comes with a multi-media CD-ROM that includes a picture of Elia signing the baseballs, a certificate of authenticity and MP3 audio clips of Elia then (1983) and now.
To order, call (800) 581-8661, or visit the company’s website at www.leeunplugged.com.