Woo Woo News
- Chicago Reader

Chicago Reader 
May 31, 1985

Ronnie Wickers Woo !

Wrigley Field's most visible fan has no home, no job, no family to speak of-but when the Cubs win he's happy, and when they lose he's still happy.

By Tim Bannon

It is opening day and we are inside the crowded, noisy Cubby Bear saloon, catty-corner from the shrine, Wrigley Field. Fans are drinking beer through tubes attached to cans on their hats, some top 40 music is screaming slightly below the din, and everybody is happy and rambling on about the Cubs.

Through the front door enters a black man, Ronnie Wickers. He is recognized immediately and the fans scream. The bar was already electric, suddenly it is frenetic. Wickers, under a Cubs cap and wrapped in a satin Cubs jacket that the players gave him last year, raises his fist and moves through the dense pack chanting: "Cubs woo! Cubs woo! Cubs woo!"

He shakes the hands of the men; he kisses the cheeks (and, if he can, the lips) of the women. Within 15 seconds he is handed a can of Coors, in a minute he is wearing another Cubs cap and a ridiculous Cubs bow tie. And by the time he gets to the bar's back room he has a precious bleachers ticket for the game.

Wickers is a celebrity around Wrigley Field, and he works the crowds as if he were the mayor of Wrigleyville. We won't deny that to many Cubs constituents he is an irritation: his trademark call sounds like a sea gull in heat and he sings it relentlessly.

But Wrigley Field, with so many idiosyncrasies already, wouldn't be the same without him. And who can say what Ronnie Wickers would be without Wrigley Field and the Cubs? Ronnie Wickers survives off the Cubs. He barters his meals, housing and transportation with the Cubs tickets he gets from players. Fans who have come to know him in the 16 years he has been a regular (he says he hasn't missed a home game since 1969) buy him beers, hot dogs, take him out to dinner, and once in a while give him a few bucks, which he invariably gambles on the Illinois lottery.

Wickers is broke and the closest thing he has to a home is Wrigley Field. The only sure thing in his life is the Cubs, and until last year even that wasn't worth much.

"When they make the last out of the season I add up the minutes, the hours, the days until opening day," Wickers said one afternoon at the Cubby Bear, a week before the season begin. The bar was quiet and All My Children was on the TV. During the off-season Wickers is usually at the Cubby Bear from noon to one watching that soap opera and drinking a Coke.

Wickers was wearing his official Cubs jacket, a Cubs cap, tattered and dirty bell-bottom blue jeans, and black shoes that were two sizes to big. There is a slight gap between his front teeth and he is missing a center tooth, and he looks as if he is either a little drunk or mentally unstable, but talk to him and you'll see that he is sober and lucid, talk to him some more and you will see his kindness and generosity. He simply loves the Cubs and wants the best for the team, the management, and the fans.

"My life is just the Cubs. I'm not married. I don't have any kids. What will be will be. When the Cubs win I'm happy. When the Cubs lose I'm still happy because I still love the game.

"A lot of people might think I don't have it all upstairs. But once they get to know me they know I'm just a good guy and a Cubs fan."

Wickers has found in Cubs baseball a comfort and a feeling of self-worth that were never there for him within his own family. People accept him for what he is, whether that be a fool of fanatic.

"Ronnie was rejected when he was younger," his older sister Vermacella Ross said. But with the Cubs he feels as if the fans and the Cubs care about him for what he is. He has found a camaraderie that he didn't get before. He can just be himself. It is almost like the Cubs are his family now."

It was Halloween night 1942 when Naomi Wickers, a cleaning lady for the Chicago public schools, gave birth to twin boys, Donald and Ronald Wickers. Donald was a healthy five pounds, six ounces, but little Ronnie weighed in at just under three pounds and nurses kept him in an incubator until the week the 1943 baseball season began.

Ronnie grew slowly. He was so thin as a child that he says he could squeeze through the iron bars people had on their windows in his south side neighborhood. His friends called him "Puny." At 19 he weighed only 79 pounds.

"I was skinny but I was fast as lightning," he claims.

To his mother he was the runt. Donald was a normal-size kid and his mother doted over him. Ronnie was crossed-eyed and nearsighted and skinny. Ronnie never made it through high school. Donald did. When Donald needed a job, his mother got him hired as a custodian with the public schools. But not Ronnie.

"My mother didn't try to face up to his problem. She just tried to ignore it and I think it hurt him in a psychological way," Vermacella Ross said. "She neglected him and that left some scars."

It was their grandmother who introduced Ronnie to baseball. For years, she took Ronald and Donald and Vermacella to games in Comiskey Park and Wrigley Field. She favored the Cubs, and so did Ronnie. He says that his earliest Cubs memory is of the cute Cubs logo, which was just like a stuffed bear he had at home.

Ronnie grew to love baseball. He played whenever he could. Donald Wickers remembers his twin as a decent outfielder and second baseman, but not much of a hitter, and Ronnie says that after he was hit in the head with a fastball, he was never again comfortable at the plate.

"Grandma saved Ronnie," said his sister, a nurse living on the north side. "She stuck with him and turned something bad into something positive. She always told Ronnie that "God looks after the birdies so God will look after you."

"Ronnie was determined to make it in his own way, and I guess he has."

In 1959, Wickers quit his job at Joe's Eat Shop near 47th and Stony Island and took a job as a custodian at Northwestern University. It was a night job, which of course left his days free for going to the Cubs games. Slowly he became even more of a Cubs fan and after leaving Northwestern in 68' he continued to take night jobs to keep his days free. He worked as a janitor at Michael Reese Hospital, at People's Gas, at the Lawson YMCA, and then returned to Northwestern in 1977.

But in August 1983 Wickers was laid off and he hasn't had a steady job since.

He said he has applied at the McDonald's across the street from Wrigley and at several area hospitals. But again he'll only take a night job. "My Cubs come first. That's the most important thing."

When Wickers was working he lived in comfortable apartments. He says he once had three televisions (one with remote control) and shag carpeting. "I was thinking about that the other day," he said. "I used to have all those things. It would be nice to have them again."

What Wickers has now are his dreams, and there are two in particular.

First is to win the lottery. For the daily game he uses varying combinations of Ernie Bank's retired jersey number (14) and Banks birthday (1-31-1931), and for the lotto he uses the jersey numbers of his six favorite players on the 1969 Cubs. Those numbers will remain his secret so if he wins he won't be sharing his jackpot with hundreds of other people.

But what he wants more than anything is to be a Cubs mascot or have the Cubs management recognize him as an extraordinary fan. Jim Finks, the former Cubs president, discussed it with Wickers last year but nothing ever came of it. Finks did, however, give Wickers a pass to the two Cubs home play-off games.

"I called Dallas Green and he said he would get back to me," Wickers said in the Cubby Bear that week before the opening day. "Every year I hope it will be my year. Maybe this will be the year. I don't care about the money. I want to do all I can for the fans and the team.

But the Cubs management said there are so many devoted fans that they won't give away free passes to some and not to others. As for the mascot, Dallas Green says forget about it-he doesn't like mascots.

So while Ronnie Wickers waits for his day in the sun, he lives on the street. He has not had a home since May 1984. He has stayed with friends, slept in shelters and in parks.

When it is late and he has nowhere to sleep and it is cold or wet or dangerous, he talks his way onto a CTA train and rides through the night, out tom Des Plaines Avenue, back to the Loop, down to 63rd and back, out to O'Hare, catching sleep when he can.

"If you can get 45 minutes here and there you'll be OK," he said.

One of his favorite sleeping spots is the washrooms at O'Hare. He goes into a stall , closes the door, props his feet up, and sleeps until he is ordered out or the discomfort drives him back to wandering.

In an alley one night he crawled into a garbage dumpster and wrapped himself in newspaper. Wickers said another man saw him get in, and the next morning, just as the garbage men were about to dump a sleeping Wickers into their masher, the other man, who also spent the night in the alley, woke up and stopped the garbage man.

"That was the closet call I've ever had," he said. "When you start out it's rough, but when you've been doing it for a while it becomes a part of you."

He has learned to manipulate what he has. He gives Cubs tickets he collects from players to people who will buy him a meal. He has a friend on Belmont who lets him shower and take a sauna. He keeps some of his clothes at a Mexican restaurant on Addison. A friend lets him into the Lawson YMCA free so he can swim, which he says he does two or three times a week.

When he does eat, his sister said," he'll eat until all the food is gone. All the food. He has learned to store it up."

Wickers eats a lot of hot dogs and hamburgers, Cokes and peanuts and Cracker Jack. Nonetheless, he says, he has remained healthy.

"Ronnie has a very positive attitude on life. He doesn't worry about anything. He's never been in trouble. He doesn't complain. He has never had to go on public assistance. He's been down but doesn't drink. Until last year, he didn't even know what food stamps looked like," his sister Vermacella Ross said.

Donald Wickers, who has four children and lives on the south side, periodically sees his twin. He says that even when he doesn't hear from Ronnie for months he doesn't worry.

"Ronnie will always be all right," Donald says. "He always has. Somehow he makes it. His sister she says does the worrying."

In March, Ronnie Wickers met David Rummage, 75, at a church in Rogers Park. "I had never seen him before, but he looked like he could use some help," Rummage said. "I asked him where he was going to sleep that night and I took him in. I'm a church person and I try to help people."

Rummage fed Wickers and gave him shelter, and in return Wickers shopped and did housecleaning. "I told him he could stay with me until he gets back on his feet," Rummage said. "A person has got to be stable. He needs that."

Although Wickers now had a temporary base, he still wandered, and sometimes Rummage didn't hear from him for days. Wickers said he was staying with friends or on the street or the trains. If he planned to be out past 11 PM, he tried to call Rummage to let him know not to expect him that night. When he did show, Rummage said, Wickers slept for as many as 14 hours, took it easy for a day or two, and then was off again.

A couple of weeks ago, Wickers moved out. He says he's sleeping now at the shelter the First Baptist Church he now runs in Evanston.

When the baseball season is on, Wickers is omnipresent. The night the Cubs won the Eastern Division championship he was up on the Wrigley Field catwalk overlooking Clark and Addison, in the bars pouring beers onto television announcers, in the streets chanting. When single-game tickets went on sale last February and bleacher seats in late March, he was there in line-through the night-even though he wasn't going to buy any tickets because he couldn't afford to.

All through the season he is in the bleachers, in the grandstands, all around the park reciting the Cubs' roster in his trademark call. "Cubs woo, Davis woo, Cey woo, Sandberg woo." On home-days, after he stops off at church ("It gives you a good start on the day and you can thank God for all he has done for you"), he gets to Wrigley Field by 8 AM to greet the earliest-arriving players and coaches, pat them on the back, and ask them for tickets.

At around 10:30 AM he catches the southbound train and goes to wherever the visiting team is staying, usually the Westin Hotel. He razzes the players and asks them for tickets.

Then he gets back on the train and returns to Addison and he takes his chanting from bar to bar ("I make my rounds"). He spends most of the game in the bleachers, taking free beer and hot dogs when he can get them. After the game he goes back to the neighborhood bars and often ends his long baseball days dancing until 2AM at Jukebox Saturday Night or Duffy's or the Ultimate Sports Bar & Grill.

"Ronnie is a black in a white world and they accept him," his sister said. "One time my oldest son went with him to one of those bars, and I've heard that they're racist. My son said he felt uncomfortable going. There were no blacks in the bar. But when Ronnie walks in, everybody says 'Ronnie'. They all know him and I guess it makes him feel important.

During the off season, Ronnie is a different man. It is as if he is back in that incubator, his spirit drained. Once in a while he will go to a bears game or bulls game. He said he sees a lot of movies free, courtesy of friends who work at one of the city's movie chains.

At noon on most weekdays, he is a t the Cubby Bear, drinking a Coke and watching All My Children. Often, he said, he just walks around Wrigley again and again.

"I guess I only feel lonely around the holidays. That's when it hurts. I don't have family and I don't see my sister or brother much. So I go dancing or go to the movies."

One of Wickers favorite pastimes is chasing women and he doesn't seem to have any trouble getting them to keep company with him. But he hasn't had a steady girl since May when the women he lived with died.

Her name was Anita Crandall and they met in the bleachers. They went to the Cubby Bear after the game, then they went out to dinner, they danced - "We hit it right"- and after a few dates Wickers moved in with her.

But she died on May 7, 1998. Wickers won't say why. He can hardly talk about her.

"That really got me down," he said. "But the Cubs started winning and that saved me. I might not have made it otherwise. You have to live on."

He skipped her funeral. "I told her family I didn't want to go so I went to the ballgame. She always encouraged me to go to the games and that's what she would have wanted me to do."

"Her death really hit Ronnie hard," his sister remembered. "He just walked out of that life. He left all the furniture behind. He couldn't face it I guess."

Vermacella Ross predicts that as her brother gets older "mother nature will slow him down and maybe he'll get a full time job again and, who knows, maybe Ronnie will settle down."

But Ronnie isn't looking past the end of the 1985 season. What he is looking for are a few bucks to play the lottery, and, of course, he can always use Cub tickets.

"I'll be a Cubs fan until the lord calls me," he said. "If he calls me tomorrow I can say I've lived a good life. It's been wonderful to be here, and Wrigley Field will always have a place in my heart."

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