All sports rivalries are a strange outgrowth of humanity’s natural tribalism. And as rivalries go, the Cubs/White Sox intracity Chicago battle is a particularly dumb one that I experienced first-hand, growing up in the Windy City suburbs.
When I came back home after graduating college, I learned about an unsavory undercurrent of Cubs vs. Sox. Because Wrigley Field sits just a couple of blocks from Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood and this was the early 2000s, it was inevitable that the crosstown smack talk devolved into homophobia.
And because the combatants were people who had been drinking heavily, these battles of wits would be carried out in the traditional parliamentary procedure known as “souvenir t-shirts.”
It is a proven fact that there is nothing on earth more unfunny and witless than the unofficial t-shirts sold outside of major league ballparks. The basic philosophy behind these garments appears to be: “What if you could wear You Don’t Mess With the Zohan?”
Outside of the White Sox’s home park during this era, there was an especially popular entry in the genre that read, “Wrigley Field: World’s Largest Gay Bar.”
Get it? As a closeted twenty-something who felt the barely concealed undercurrents, I sure did.
Honestly, even if you put aside the hatespeech, those shirts were offensive because they made no logical sense as a joke. Wrigley is the world’s largest gay bar? Only in the sense that both places are full of bachelorette parties ruining things for everyone.
But because of rivalries, toxic masculinity, and alcohol, a depressing number of fans would buy them. Eventually, I even saw the World’s Largest Gay Bar shirts outside of Miller Park in Milwaukee. Great, now the homophobia was franchising.
Then when the Sox won the 2005 World Series, there was a new variation on this theme. This shirt featured the caption “Sox Parade” beneath the Commissioner’s Trophy. Next to it were the words “Cubs Parade” with two men holding hands underneath a rainbow.
The sentiment was clear. It wasn’t enough that the Cubs were working on a century-long championship drought. Their fans were also gay and being gay was something lesser.
Although in retrospect, I have to say in response... the South Siders didn’t know what they were missing. The Pride Parade had George Takei. The Sox parade had Hawk Harrelson. I rest my case.
Thinking of how I viewed myself back then, it certainly wasn’t like I was seeking the approval of the kind of person who would wear that shirt. But it didn’t help me deal with the fear lurking in the back of my mind.
It also didn’t help when I saw my own fanbase’s terrible variations on this theme. One of the biggest indignities of being a mid-2000s Cub fan was seeing my team routinely get pummeled by the St. Louis Cardinals.
As a response, some enterprising soul cooked up a shirt that was ubiquitous on the streets outside of Wrigley: “Cardinals fans take it in the Pujols.” And for our neighbors to the north, there was an equally subtle one: “Brewers suck sausage.”
It’s kind of amazing to look back at these shirts from the perspective of today and realize this kind of thing was common at a baseball game just a decade ago. As the Albert Pujols example demonstrates, there are still active players who were around when fans just walked past that kind of bigotry with a shrug.
Or, worse, paid twenty bucks for it.
For the most part, while there are still plenty of obnoxious shirts being sold outside of Wrigley, the outright homophobic ones are pretty much gone. But the memory of them still serves as a reminder.
I wear purple on Spirit Day because it wasn’t that long ago that hundreds of people wore open homophobia without a second thought.