I'm sitting in the Sports Corner Tavern and Grille Monday afternoon, watching the White Sox complete their sweep of the Orioles, when in walks "Wild Bill" Holden. Well, with his knees, walking is a generous term. He's slated to have both knees replaced on Aug. 20, which is probably for the best after he trekked more than 2,000 miles from Arizona to Chicago to raise money and awareness for juvenile diabetes.
He sits down, orders an Old Style, borrows a cell phone and chats for a while. He is very receptive when bugged by a reporter at noon on a Monday at a bar.
We discuss his impending surgery and he breaks into a smile when I mention that my grandfather had both knees replaced and stood a full two inches taller after that. The manager of the bar confirms that his mother recently benefited from knee replacement.
"I probably need to lose some weight," Holden says. "I hardly lost any on my walk."
The surgery is a gift of Dr. Darryl Tannenbaum, an orthopedic surgeon in Columbus, Ind., with the caveat that Holden needs to travel down there to get the work done.
"With my pension and insurance," Holden says, "I'd be crazy not to take advantage of it. So I'm grateful to this wonderful doctor."
Figuring it wasn't worth it to return to Arizona for a month before having to come back east, Holden is staying in an apartment building owned by George Loukas. In addition to owning the Sports Corner, Loukas, not to be confused with Luke Skywalker's real father, owns the Cubby Bear and 25 or so apartment buildings in the surrounding area, a few of which have rooftop seating for Cubs games.
"I've known about [Loukas] for years and met him in the early '80s, before this became an empire," Holden says. "One thing I will say, if you work for George, you work."
Both manager and bartender agree.
As it appears to Wild Bill that I'm not going anywhere until I get some highlights of his life as a Cub fan, he orders a sandwich. I offer to get it comped by the Tribune, and he starts talking. What follows are the vital statistics of Wild Bill's life, his favorite Cub memories and his take on everything from whether Sammy Sosa should have his number retired to the pathetic franchise that is the Arizona Cardinals.
Date of birth: Aug. 12, 1948. When I point out to him that the strike began on his 46th birthday, he marvels, then remembers, "I'd just gotten back [to Chicago from Arizona]. I took tickets specifically before that date so if they did strike, I'd [still] have my vacation."
Childhood home: Elgin, Ill.
Education: Elgin High School, Southern Illinois University '72, double major in Social Studies and Physical Education.
How he got the nickname: "[WSCR-AM 670 personality] Mike Murphy always called me that. He was an old roommate [at SIU]. Me, Murph and Rick Abraham all lived in a trailer together. You think Animal House was bad "
Post-graduate moves: After coaching baseball and basketball for Mid-City High School near Peoria and Downstate Waltonville High School, he "moved to Arizona in 1976. Why? I don't know. I guess the weather." Upon arriving in Arizona, Holden was a house parent for special education children in Flagstaff. "One of the unique experiences of my life. That and the walk. It was a life-changing experience." But when I press him for a specific memory from that year that stood out, he comes up with: "I met the greatest-looking girl I've ever met in my life there. She was a teacher." I give a quizzical look. "You asked me what stood out, that was it." During that year, he got his teaching certification and has taught everything from second to 12th grade. His favorites are sixth and 11th.
Kids: Becky, 24, and Josh, 22.
Marital status: Divorced. Ex-wife, Charlene, is "a great friend of mine."
Why he did the walk: Contrary to popular belief, he didn't come up with the idea after seeing "This Old Cub," Jeff Santo's homage to his Cub legend father, Ron. Seeing the film on New Year's Eve 2004 merely solidified a plan he had been bandying about for a while. "I had it in the back of my head that I was going to do something [before watching the movie]," Holden says. "But [after watching the movie] I took out a ruler and a pencil and started to chart it out."
The planning: "I figured I'd start in January and move east," he says. "The weather couldn't get anything but better."
Start date: Jan. 11, 2005.
End date: July 1, 2005. Charlene was at the Cubs-Nationals game that was the end of Holden's walk, as were Becky and Josh. The latter two got to join him in the broadcast booth.
The route: From Phoenix, he went through southern New Mexico. He hooked on to I-20 in Texas and walked through Abilene and Dallas/Fort Worth. North of Dallas, he walked through Muskogee, Okla., and into Joplin, Mo. He walked across Missouri to St. Louis and northeast through Illinois to Chicago.
Trip highlights: "I didn't bump into anybody negative," he says. "Everybody I met who knew what I was doing was incredibly supportive. I saw the best in the American people." He speaks fondly of a bed and breakfast in Eastland, Texas, where the weather was a cool and enjoyable 50 degrees. He also is fond of the well-kept but hardly-traveled I-20: "I could walk around in the middle of it if I wanted to." Of the motorists he did come across, a few of them would honk and wave, get off at the nearest exit and drive around to talk to him. When he walked through St. Louis, he got to see his son, Josh, who was playing baseball at St. Louis Community College.
Longest part of the trip: Texas. "It took me two whole months to the day to get through Texas."
Hardest part of the trip: The last 10 days. "It was about 95 [degrees] every day."
Streak he sacrificed for the trip: "This is the first time in 33 years I've missed spring training."
First Cub game: A doubleheader that was the last time the Dodgers came to Wrigley Field as representatives of the borough of Brooklyn. "We had them both won in the ninth and lost them both," he says. He sat in the upper deck with his father because the day-of-game grandstand tickets sold out. As Wild Bill and his father climbed the ramp, the latter complained of the lack of tickets: "They're in seventh place!" he repeated all the way to their seats.
Favorite Cub: "I don't know if I got a favorite player. If they play for the Cubs, they're my favorite player."
Best player he ever saw: [Without missing a beat] "Roberto Clemente. I saw a game where [Cubs' second baseman Glenn] Beckert was on second. There was a long fly and Clemente, back against the vines, caught the ball. Beckert tagged, and Clemente threw his [butt] out at third [Ryne] Sandberg was the greatest infielder I ever saw."
Best pitchers he ever saw: "For us? Bill Hands. Every time we were in a slump, and he pitched, we'd win I saw him pitch more than I saw [Fergie] Jenkins or [Ken] Holtzman." When prompted for an opposing pitcher, he thinks a while. "Phil Niekro and Gaylord Perry. Don Sutton was hammered around here. He couldn't beat the Cubs if he had an army around him."
Favorite Cubs memories: Game 1 of the 1984 NLCS. "I went with my dad and two brothers. Dad, who has passed, his eyes were tearing up. He had never seen it before. We won 13-0. It was wonderful." His favorite abstract memories are of the clubs of the 50s. "They were blue-collar type guys. They didn't make a lot of money [though] we thought they did at the time I think I learned how to deal with young people more from them than I did in any education class. The guys I grew up with, they couldn't sign every scorecard but they'd say, 'Come back after the game,' or 'Come back tomorrow.' They were as happy to see us as we were to see them."
On retired numbers: "I don't think we should retire [Jackie Robinson's] No. 42 [which is retired throughout baseball]. He burned [us] every time He was a great, great ballplayer [but not for the Cubs]. If he played for the Cubs, then sure It bites my craw that all the teams retired Jackie Robinson's number. He went through hell, but he went through hell as a Dodger." On Sammy Sosa: "I applaud the Cubs the way they do [retired numbers]. You get your number retired by the Cubs, it's an honor I think the four people we got up there are good people. I don't want to see Sosa's number retired. He disrespected the fans Take it out of circulation for nine or 10 years, then give it to a good-looking kid."
How he feels about other sports: "I've been to football training camps. They're nothing like spring training. It's just not interesting, what they do." Despite that, he loves the Bears. Growing up in Chicago in the 50s and 60s, going to school in Southern Illinois and then moving to Arizona, he's inadvertently followed the Cardinals, as well. "When the Cardinals left [Chicago], I'd been hawking papers, I didn't even know there was a Cardinal team. I was a huge fan of sports, I went to my dad and said, 'There's another team in Chicago?' And they're as bad today as they were in Chicago."
So what next for Wild Bill? He says he's not sure if he wants to return to Arizona, and that he's thinking of returning to the homeland. "I'm not a big fan of the Arizona public school system," he says. "Talk about Chicago politics being corrupt, they've got nothing on Arizona schools."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times