It was not by accident that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s big-shouldered Tom Buchanan was “Tom Buchanan of Chicago.”
“Not even the effeminate swank of his riding clothes could hide the enormous power of that body,” wrote Fitzgerald of The Great Gatsby‘s leading jerkface. Long Island had its froufrou effects on a man, for sure, but the brawn of Chicago could not be disguised: ” . . . you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat.”
It’s no surprise that Fitzgerald is channeling Carl Sandburg’s 1914 identification of Chicago as the “City of the Big Shoulders”; after all, it is hard to imagine a city as collectively obsessed with a single poem as Chicago is with Sandburg’s “Chicago.” San Francisco has its Beats, yes, and New York might sometimes tune itself to the lyrical sentiments of George M. Cohan, Comden and Green, Kander and Ebb, or Nas, but Sandburg’s poem—with its emphasis on the manly and macho—became Chicago’s imbibed creed, an unconscious template for the city’s cops and gangsters, union bosses and anti-labor thugs . . . and its athletes. “Here,” writes Sandburg, “is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities.”
The fictional Tom Buchanan was himself a jock—”one of the most powerful ends that ever played football at New Haven”—and as the 20th century progressed, Chicago’s most heralded professional sports teams were ones deemed to be most possessed with the sweating spirit of Sandburg’s “husky” and “brawling” proletarians.
There have been exemplars of this mighty, striving figure across all Chicago sports—”Man of Steel” middleweight Tony Zale, scrap-happy hockey hunk Keith Magnuson—but the most indelible model was the Chicago Bears football team of the early 1940s, dubbed “Monsters of the Midway.” Even their intrasquad scrimmages were opportunities (echoing Sandburg) “to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.” Or, quoting a Chicago Tribune headline of the time: “Bear Practice Makes Trench Warfare Mild.” The franchise star was Bronko Nagurski, whose very name seemed to epitomize the bone-crushing power of the man. This was an Iron Age of iron men, and Chicago teams ever since have strived to live up to the brutish standards of their fore-Bears.
The second coming of these Monsters came—or so the narrative goes—with the 1963 championship edition of the Bears. The ethos of this oh-so-prototypical Bears team? Grind it out on the gridiron, a no-nonsense approach in marked contrast to the flash and sizzle of, say, New York Jets quarterback “Broadway” Joe Namath—a man known as much for his fur coats and the effeminate swank of his pantyhose ads (definitely worth a YouTube search) as for his Super Bowl victory in 1969.
The legend continued. A key member of that ’63 Bears team, tough-guy Mike Ditka, went on to coach a third—and the most famous—iteration of the Monsters: the 1985 champs. Firmly within the tradition, this team eschewed the emerging pass-oriented “West Coast Offense” popularized by the San Francisco 49ers, preferring a more pounding, ground-based style.
Ditka emphasized the contrast between a Chicago team and a coastal team when he told the Chicago Sun-Times (in an article printed under the bizarre headline “Bears’ image ethnic classy”) that:
“There are teams that are fair-haired and there are teams that aren’t. There are teams named Smith and teams named Grabowski. The [Los Angeles] Rams are a Smith. We’re a Grabowski.”
The city’s myth-makers were enthralled. Paul Galloway followed up in the Tribune with the thesis that Chicago—the city itself—was a Grabowski.
“Grabowski means people who come from a working-class, immigrant background, people who work hard and have nothing handed to them, people who have struggled against discrimination, people who are honest and tough, people who persevere and prevail . . .
“It’s the shot-and-a-beer, hard-hat lunch-bucket guy who gets his muscles through toil versus the white-collar, white-wine, striped-tie stuffed shirt who tones his in a health club.”
The Bears’ star defensive tackle, Steve “Mongo” McMichael (nicknamed, yes, after the character in Blazing Saddles who punches a horse), proved himself well inculcated with the local civic literature when he (or, OK, perhaps his ghostwriter) wrote in a memoir:
“Carl Sandburg was close when he titled Chicago as the City of Big Shoulders [sic]. He just didn’t go far enough; Chicago is the City of Big Shoulder Pads. Chicago fans want to love their Bears because the Bears are much of what Chicagoans like about themselves: Big. Tough. Champions.”
Let us now pause a moment in our narrative to acknowledge that: No.
Any reasonable census of the city’s citizenry would find several residents who are neither big nor tough, and whose sense of self-worth might in fact be based on factors beyond hat size and hardiness. This census might even reveal a few who don’t care a whit about the city’s professional sports teams. Or about Carl Sandburg.
Yes, because Chicago is flat and far from any saltwater sea, it is easy to imagine its people as down-to-earth. Because it was once home to International Harvester and Zenith Radio Corp and the Industrial Workers of the World, it is easy to conjure the image of boulevards filled with muscled stevedores, boilermakers, welders, and tanners. And because of a capable poet’s sound bites, it is easy to encapsulate these mythologies in newspaper columns, sports memoirs, and—to be sure—in this essay.
Excerpted by permission from Rust Belt Chicago: An Anthology, a collection of essays, poetry, and fiction out now from Belt Publishing. All rights reserved.
Let us also acknowledge that Chicago—with its historical dependence on its financial markets and tourism industry—has had no greater share of Galloway’s “Grabowskis” than its midwestern rivals. And that plenty of large American cities—even those “little soft cities” on the coasts!—have their own proud-and-not-so-proud histories in industrial manufacturing, their own beleaguered working classes, their own Golden Gloves competitions, their own propensities to see their sports heroes and working-class heroes as “tough.”
Furthermore, let us acknowledge that there was much about the ’85 Bears’ cast of characters that did not fit the white working-class “Grabowski” model:
• Three of its four first-team All-Pro players were African-Americans from the south (Walter Payton, Mike Singletary, and Richard Dent).
• Key defensive back Gary Fencik was (uh-huh, like Tom Buchanan) a Yale man.
• They were total big-media darlings. First and foremost among these nascent TV stars was William “Refrigerator” Perry, a 325-pound rookie defensive lineman occasionally inserted—in a bit of Ditka gimmickry—as running back or receiver. His success on Monday Night Football led to appearances on Letterman, The Tonight Show, and The Bob Hope Christmas Special.
• Their embrace of Hollywood-style glitz was consummated with the midseason release of the single and MTV-style video “The Super Bowl Shuffle.” (“Well, they call me Sweetness / And I like to dance / Runnin’ the ball is like makin’ romance.”) It hit number 41 on the Billboard charts.
The falseness of the Grabowski characterization, however, did not stop new generations of sportswriters from reviving it whenever they had a chance. The Tom Thibodeau-coached Chicago Bulls (2010-’15), were justifiably praised for their hustle and hard work on the basketball court. Thibodeau, according to Grantland’s Andrew Sharp, “built a team that brought every blue-collar cliche to life. The Thibs Bulls were everything Chicago likes to imagine about itself.” The Bulls’ television color commentator, Stacey King, was a ready-and-willing sloganeer for this sentiment: Center Joakim Noah was “heart, hustle, and muscle.” Forward Taj Gibson’s stalwart play was “hard hat, lunch pail”—a phrase that echoed Galloway’s “Grabowski” essay and embodied blue-collar pride: the hard hat versus the homburg, the lunch pail versus the three-martini lunch.
But in 2015, Bulls management tired of the bristling Thibodeau and replaced him with the mild-mannered and decidedly fair-haired Fred Hoiberg. Almost immediately, an existential Grabowski crisis ensued: “We just get out-toughed sometimes,” star guard Jimmy Butler told the news media. “You can call it being soft, whatever you want to call it.”
The city’s incipient self-doubt is exacerbated by the fact that its most accomplished basketballer is not manly at all. In fact, she is a woman: the Chicago Sky’s Elena Della Donne. And while no one who has seen the WNBA’s reigning MVP in action would question her toughness, it is—predictably—not the focus of the local media: a recent Chicago magazine profile leads with her “gliding through the glitterati” at “a swank TriBeCa gala.” No hard hat or lunch pail in sight. (Females, it must be said, have always been sidelined in this vision of a team or city of Grabowskis, just as they were sidelined in Sandburg’s poem. They appear in “Chicago” only as “painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys” or in the line: “On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.” In other words, as whores or mothers, sirens or victims.)
Meanwhile, Chicago’s top sports story in this year of 2016 was, of course, the World Champion Cubs. They were extraordinary, but were they Monsters of the Midway? Let’s see:
• Their president, Theo Epstein, is a Yale-schooled technocrat known for a Moneyball approach; whereas baseball teams of yore were assembled by tobacco-spitting old-timers with gimlet eyes for baseball talent, Moneyballers prefer to base personnel decisions on computer algorithms.
• Their coach, like Mike Ditka, hails from small-town Pennsylvania. But Joe Maddon is no Ditka. He’s a tie-dye-wearing self-proclaimed hippie. He drives a van he calls his “Shaggin’ Wagon.”
• Pictures of their young star, National League MVP Kris Bryant, blanketed the interiors of dozens of el train cars; he looked dapper as all get out in the luxury cottons of his sponsor, Express Inc.
• Their newly refurbished clubhouse hardly has the vibe of a blue-collar hang-out. Says the Tribune, “The space is replete with polished chrome and mood lighting, exuding a nightclub feel without the bar.” There’s even a fog machine.
• Their owner is an investment banker.
In other words, the Cubs’ image is neither husky nor brawling. Recent Bears squads, too, seem less than monstrous. They made it to the Super Bowl once more, in 2007, with a style again emphasizing running and defense. But that team’s coach, Lovie Smith, was replaced with Marc Trestman, a man with the look and demeanor of a downtown architect or Mercantile Exchange exec—one of the white-collar professionals left out of the Grabowski version of the metropolis, and decidedly omitted from Sandburg’s vision of hog butchers, tool makers, freight handlers, and stackers of wheat. Trestman was known as “the Quarterback Whisperer,” a man who could unleash the skills of his underachieving (and reputedly soft) quarterback Jay Cutler. A coach who whispers? In Chicago?
Trestman’s tenure as coach was mercifully short, but still enough—along with the listless Bulls and flashy Cubs—to undermine the city’s tough-guy bona fides. Pundits wishing to invoke the Chicago-versus-the-coasts narrative were forced now to rely on historic precedent rather than current exploits. 2016’s iteration of the theme, then, pitted the Golden State Warriors—who won 73 of their 82 regular season basketball games—against the memory of the 1996 Chicago Bulls, who held the previous high-water mark, having won 72.
Partisans of those Bulls—predictably—invoked “toughness.” The game in 1996, we were told, was a rougher affair, with rules that allowed more contact, and enforcement policies that left egregious, violent fouls unpunished. Those Bulls collectively played what was known as the Doberman Defense. (“Fierce as a dog,” went Sandburg’s “Chicago” metaphor, “with tongue lapping for action.”) This physical style contrasted with the “Showtime” Lakers of coastal Los Angeles, the team that these Michael Jordan-era Bulls had supplanted as dynastic titlists.
Jordan—acclaimed the greatest basketball player ever—had a blue-collar background, the son of a General Electric forklift operator. The Warriors’ lithe star, Steph Curry, on the other hand, lacks a working-class pedigree. His father—Dell Curry—was himself an accomplished and moneyed professional baller. Steph’s success on the court is based not on overpowering his adversaries, but on the ability to launch parabolic shots from improbable distances. Surely, Chicago’s pundits said, the fey artistry of this Golden State team (its name—Golden—standing in sun-splashed contrast to the drear grays of Chicago) could not withstand the aggression of the ’96 Bulls.
The supposed dichotomy between the two teams’ style and substance evaporates under any real scrutiny, of course: the scrawny Curry, it turns out, is sneaky-strong, and can deadlift 400 pounds. Conversely, Jordan was (and is) a pitchman for Hanes undergarments, while his teammate Dennis “the Worm” Rodman made a splash by appearing in public in a wedding dress.
Surely, any sports iconography based on rigid assumptions about strength, power, and gender is ripe for debunking. And yet the Grabowski iconography persists, defying its own contradictions. So we exhume a Bulls team from two decades ago in order to overcome our anxiety—perhaps an anxiety with Freudian undertones—over our present softness. This exercise in rhetorical resurrection mirrors other attempts to recover a supposedly triumphant blue-collar past: “It is critical that we bring back manufacturing jobs to Illinois,” tweets Illinois governor Bruce Rauner. And of course, “Make America great again,” says Donald Trump.
Like the sports fan nostalgic for MJ and Scottie, we reminisce about the days when we could stroll down Cortland Avenue and see men smelting vats of molten metal through the open doors of Finkl & Sons Steel; we boast of the city’s former industrial grit and grime (before Mayor Daley the Younger prettied up the north side with roadside flowers and European-style newspaper vending boxes). We are borne back ceaselessly into the past.
No matter that Chicago’s resumé in manufacturing is inflated; no matter that our honored Monsters were not really so monstrous: Our politicians will feed our nostalgia because feeding nostalgia is good politics. They will invoke Sandburgian imagery in a futile attempt to brand Chicago as a ready-and-willing player in heartland economics. They will emphasize the town’s (or the state’s, or the country’s) masculinity in the hopes that it will—in the eyes of voters—enhance their own. They will don the hard hat for photo ops, they will invoke the lunch pail at editorial board meetings, they will indulge in sports cliches. Because, after all, when the going gets tough . . . v
Postscript, March 2017: Elena Della Donne has been traded, Donald Trump is president, and the themes of coastal elites, heartland virility, and white, working-class Grabowskis have never been more destructive, nor more ripe for deconstruction.