Thursday, July 16, 2009

The More Things Change . . .

News comes this morning of the the change in signage down on South Wacker Drive as Sears becomes Willis. It doesn't bother me all that much because now I can finally bring my own middle name out of hiding. Almost 59 years ago, I took the name of my father, whose middle name was Willis. For most of my life I have avoided questions about what the "W" in my complete signature stood for. The uptight middle name was a sandbar that partially blocked the harbor of being cool.

There really are only two references in modern culture to this odd little name.

There was Willis Reed, the 6'9" center for the New York Knicks. A physical player, he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1982. In 1964 he began his career with what was arguably the worst team in the league. From 1956 to 1966 the Knicks finished last nine times. In the 1963 season the team only won 22 games. Three years later the Knicks, led by my man Willis, won the Championship. In the championship game Reed, despite a torn muscle in his thigh, suited up and scored the first four points of the game. Then he sat down. The team won by 14 points.

But sharing a name with a man like that isn't enough for a 5'10" white guy who never quite got the hang of dribbling a basketball without peeking to see where it would bounce next.

The second reference comes from Diff'rent Strokes, the t.v. comedy that ran from 1978 to 1986. This sitcom starred Gary Coleman as Arnold Jackson and Todd Bridges as his older brother, Willis, two African-American children from a poor Harlem neighborhood. Improbably they were adopted by a rich white widower, Philip Drummond (Conrad Bain), after their mother, Drummond's maid, died. One of Coleman's signature lines was Whatcha talkin' bout . . . at the end of which anybody's name could be attached. Because Willis was his older brother, that name ended up at the end of the tag line most often.

But, here again, I am as far from Harlem as Captain Phil and the good men of the Cornelia Marie are from Wilmette.

So I'm not griping about this 110-story Chicago icon taking my middle name. It might be good for both of us. After all, things change. Sears mailed itself out of town over a decade ago, leaving only its name behind, and squatted out in Hoffman Estates on top of what used to be the Poplar Creek Music Theater, the single most difficult venue to drive out of after a concert in the history of rock and roll. Since that time how many millions of folks have looked at the tallest building in North America down there on Wacker and had the name of Sears go through their minds? Not a bad little billboard, especially when you're not paying for it.

While we're at it, let's rename Wrigley Field as well. We're nearly two generations away from Wrigley ownership -- that's nearly a quarter of a century, small potatoes when you think of how long the team has gone without a World Series victory -- but long enough to go back farther than many Cubs fans have been alive. Thay'd have to sell gobs of gum to pay for that amount of advertising.

Not to mention the fact, that even when they owned the team the Wrigley family ran it on the cheap. Remember Billy Williams, whose retired number now flies above left field, leaving for Oakland because he couldn't get a hundred grand a year? Or the 1981 team that went 38 and 65 before the likes of Doug Capilla and Randy Martz and Mike Lum went out on strike? Did you know that 63 different ballplayers put on Cubbie blue over the last fifty seasons without ever appearing in a Cub victory? To name just two, Wayne Schurr, a right-handed relief pitcher who threw in 26 games, all losses, in 1964; and Jack Warner, another right-handed reliever who pitched in parts of four seasons (1962, 1963, 1964 and 1965), appearing in 32 games without ever participating in a victory (
Meanwhile, the founder of the company, old Bill, who made a fortune upon discovering that gum sold better than baking soda, hunkered down in his 20,000 square foot pad on Lakeview, complete with ballroom, bandstand, and cedar-lined coat room.

Die-hard (how about that for a descriptor?) Cubs fans worked and waited for the light and went without the meat and cursed the bread. So while we're re-naming Willis, let's do Wrigley Field, too.

And, maybe we can also go after the big white building down on the river across from the joint the current owners of the Cubs maintain. Instead of Wrigley, call it the Ern. For Mr. Cub who never played on a championship team. Earn . . . For all of the fans over the years who have earned a winner . . . some of whom have already checked out. Urn . . . for the ashes of our unfulfilled dreams, scattered in the ivy five miles north on Clark Street.

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