Toward the end of his stint in the army, Mike North came back to Chicago on a weekend pass.
“I went to see my buddy who worked at the Jewel food store on Norwood and Clark,” North says. “I walked in there and I see this beautiful Italian girl at the checkout counter.”
“Hey,” he said. “Who’s that girl?”
“Bebe,” his friend answered. “She’s a great girl. She’s not for you.”
North huffed. He walked directly to her counter and paused a moment, trying to figure out how to break the ice. He grabbed a 3 Musketeers bar off the rack and put it on the counter. It was late and there wasn’t a line so he hung around and chatted for a few minutes. Finally he cut to the chase.
“This is going to sound real fresh,” North said, “but I would like to go out with you.”
Bebe laughed. “You must be out of your mind,” she said.
North shrugged it off. He returned to the Jewel the next night and asked Bebe out again.
“Forget about it,” she responded. So North found out where Bebe lived and walked up to her door the third night. Bebe’s mother answered.
“I would like to talk to your daughter,” North said.
Her mother shook her head. “She’s busy getting ready. She’s got a date with her boyfriend.”
“Can I just talk to her for a minute?” he pleaded. Her mother relented; Bebe came to the door.
“I talked with her for about an hour,” North says, his eyes glazing over at the memory. “I talked her into breakin’ her date with her boyfriend. We ended up going out that night. We saw The Sting at the Devon theater. I think she felt sorry for me.”
North had to return to the army on Monday. He owed it three more months before his discharge. He couldn’t wait to get back to Chicago.
“Bebe picked me up at the airport and we been together ever since,” North says.
Today, a guy acting like North did might be branded a stalker. But to about 400,000 guys in the city of Chicago, he is an avatar. They wish they had his cogliones. Those oversize ovoids got him a gig that’s made him one of the most familiar people in the city, a reputation as a quintessential Chicagoan, and enough cash so he doesn’t have to worry about his future. Take one part Streets and San worker, one part David Mamet character, one part half-drunk bullshitter sitting at the end of the bar pontificating on the Bears, and there you have Mike North.
It’s a late fall afternoon. The air is brisk, the sky overcast. Mike North has finished his 10 AM to 2 PM sports talk show, which he hosts with former Bears lineman Dan Jiggetts on WSCR AM. The station shares facilities with the venerable WXRT, making the place an odd stew of aging hipsters and cigar-chomping sports cultists. North has on his Wheaties athletic jacket, a gift from Michael Jordan.
You’d expect a man who rubs shoulders with sports giants to toil in the opulence of a modern Michigan Avenue studio. But no. The Score is located in a quiet residential section of the city, a good ten miles northwest of the downtown glitter, catercorner from Foreman High School. This man whom so many of the city’s sports fans revere can walk out the door and breathe the pure air of a Chicago neighborhood, a place with street names like Avers, Lamon, and School. North waits patiently for traffic to ease so he can cross the street to his forest-green Ford Explorer. The last car passes, a young man at the wheel. He notices North, bobs his head, and waves joyously.
To beat early rush hour traffic, North takes side streets up to the far northwest side and Park Ridge. He has a quick stop to make, at Brooks Park on Harlem Avenue. Then we’ll head to his home, where we’ll meet some of his pals and embark on one of the notorious Mike North world tours, the itinerary tonight being the saloons and cafes of the Edison Park Italian enclave.
On our way, North follows a CTA bus, its rear end touting the Score. His mug and Jiggetts’s face each other. “Monsters of the Midday,” says the placard.
We pull into the Brooks Park driveway and walk up to the front desk of the field house. The sounds of seven-year-olds emanate from the gym. A portly man sits at the desk eating a focaccia and an orange.
“Hi, I’m Mike North from the Score,” North says, offering his hand. The man’s hands are sticky with orange juice. He wipes them on his jeans and grabs North’s hand. “Some guy died,” North continues, “and they’re throwing a benefit for his family. I brought this stuff over for Pat.” North deposits his booty: Score T-shirts, mugs, autographed photos. Pat’s busy with her gym class, the man explains. “That’s OK. Tell ‘er good luck,” North says, waving good-bye. “Thanks, pal.”
Now we pull into North’s driveway in Park Ridge. He parks the Explorer next to a basketball hoop. The North home is a red brick, country French structure. He and Bebe bought a small frame house on this site in 1995 and razed it to build this place. Bebe’s hand is obvious throughout, from the massive industrial stove in the kitchen to the long dining room table and hardwood floors, sweeping stairway banisters, and huge walk-in closets. Bebe has her “gift room” on the second floor. Her sister’d told her once she was always wrapping so many gifts for friends and business associates she might as well convert one of the bedrooms for that purpose. Bebe has an office off the kitchen. She handles North’s finances, is executive producer of his TV shows, and handles all his business inquiries and charity requests.
North’s lair is in the basement. He has a fully stocked bar surrounded by five 31-inch TV screens. The walls are festooned with sports memorabilia—jerseys, caps, gloves, helmets, photos, posters, pennants, banners, scorecards, stadium signs, and so on. It’s the Smithsonian of balls. Sprinkled among the keepsakes are posters from films like Goodfellas. The North dog, Licorice, as familiar to listeners as Bebe, romps on all floors of the house. “She’s my good luck charm,” North says, stroking her chin. “Nothin’ but good has happened to me ever since I bought her eight years ago.”
Bebe serves us hot chocolate in an eating area off the kitchen. The phone rings. It’s business, so Bebe takes the call. North watches her as she speaks.
“Look at ‘er,” he says. “Been married 20 years, and she’s still terrific, eh?”
Bebe rejoins us but North continues to extol her. She’s a college graduate, to North an achievement akin to walking on the moon. She graduated summa cum laude with majors in English and foods and nutrition and a minor in education from Loyola University.
“She graduated first in her class,” North says.
“Oh Mike!” Bebe protests. “I did get good grades but—”
But she can’t stop this train. “She carried my ass the first 12 years of our marriage,” North says. “I was a goof. I wasn’t goin’ nowhere. Now it’s only right I take care of her.”
It’s almost seven o’clock. Louie LoBianco has dropped by. Tonight’s world tourers will be a small group: Louie, Frank Knuckles, North, and me. Louie’s a suburban fire captain. Once he was the toughest kid in his class at Senn High School. He and North got into a fistfight, and after that they refused to speak to each other. Some 25 years later Bebe ran into Louie, who was working as a trainer at her health club. She came home that night and told North she’d run into his old pal. “Stay away from that son of a bitch,” North advised her. She didn’t. Bebe eventually brokered a truce and now North and Louie are best of friends again.
Louie kisses Bebe hello and hugs North. “Where the hell is Knuckles?” Louie asks.
“Don’ worry,” North says. “He says he’s comin’ so he’ll be here.”
Knuckles arrives a few minutes later. We’re ready to go. “You gonna be OK, honey?” North asks Bebe.
“Oh yeah,” she says. “Go. I’ve got things to do.”
The four of us ride to Basta Pasta, about a mile away. Knuckles is the driver tonight, North’s concession to a DUI rap he took a few years back. We’re greeted like visiting royalty by Tino, Basta Pasta’s owner.
“You gotta get these guys’ stories,” North advises, indicating Louie and Knuckles. “They’re just like me. We’re all the same.”
Louie LoBianco, a short, compact guy, was such a tough kid that occasionally cop friends would pull him to the side and tell him to take on whatever kid they didn’t particularly like that week. Louie would do so, and the cops would arrive, pull the combatants apart, and put them in separate squad cars. The car with the other kid would go straight to the station. The car with Louie in it would pull around the corner, where the cops would pat him on the back and drop him off.
Knuckles is round and goateed. His real name is Frank Matelli. He is an insurance claims adjuster and earned his nickname from North, who ribs him constantly about his stubby fingers. His trousers are pressed to a knifelike crease and he wears shiny Italian loafers. He grew up in the Our Lady of Angels parish on the west side. A kindergartner in 1958, he wasn’t in class on the winter day a trash can fire spread throughout the school. By nightfall more than 90 students and teachers had lost their lives. Knuckles’s older sister was there, though. She came home with torn clothing and a burned sweater and told the family of the tragedy.
Knuckles’s family subsequently moved to Elmwood Park, where he attended Holy Cross High School. Three old pals—North, Knuckles, and Louie. Each has been married more than 20 years to the same girl. Knuckles’s wife threatened to leave him in their third year of marriage. He was playing softball six nights a week and staying out after games to drink with his pals. He compromised and cut down to three nights a week.
“It’s the woman who ends the marriage,” North is saying over light beers. We’re now at Moretti’s, just down the street from Basta Pasta. He and his pals, and all guys, for that matter, are goofs, especially when they’re young, according to North. Women tolerate guy shenanigans. If they were smart, they’d leave. They stay because they’re strong.
Knuckles and Louie nod knowingly.
At the Edison Park Tap, North and his pals discuss his tiff with Bryan Cox. The Bears linebacker heard that North had criticized his play and on-field deportment. Cox told reporters he couldn’t be bothered with the likes of a guy who’d declared bankruptcy on his hot dog stands. North heard that and his hair stood on end. He told reporters he might sue Cox. “That’s the street kid in me,” North says. “I don’t know if I should sue him or forget it or go up to him and confront him. He’s a goof. He’s a discredit to his race. I mean it. He’s set his race back a hundred years. If it wasn’t for football, he’d be flippin’ burgers somewhere. What’s he got?”
North is in a quandary over his next move. Rather than a high-priced battery of lawyers, North consults experts he can trust—his pals.
“Here’s what you should do,” Knuckles says. “Go on the air and say, ‘Everybody knows I didn’t go bankrupt. Bryan Cox has shown himself to be ignorant and a goof. I’m a bigger man than that. I’m not gonna sue him, even though if I won I’d donate the money to charity. Let’s just put it behind us.'”
“Y’know,” North says, nodding, “maybe you’re right. I’ll say I’m not gonna sue. I’ll be the bigger man about this whole thing.”
North turns to Louie, who nods approvingly. “Yeah,” North concludes, “that’s the best thing to do.”
We return to Basta Pasta after stops at several neighborhood saloons and cafes and three spirited games of bowling. Tino brings us back into the kitchen and gives up huge slices of thick pizza. A parade of regulars peeks in to say hello to North. Someone suggests we go to a strip club. “Nah,” North says. “It’d have to be off the record. I get in enough trouble with the press.”
Back out in the bar area, we meet a couple of women. One of them asks North, “Are you somebody?”
“‘Course I’m somebody,” he says.
“C’mon, really,” she says, grinning. “Are you a celebrity?”
“I don’t know. Not really,” he says.
She turns to me. “Who is he?” she asks.
“He’s a big guy in radio,” I tell her. “You ever listen to sports talk?”
One shakes her head. The other says she’s heard sports talk radio once or twice. “Are you Chet Coppock?” the first woman asks. Knuckles howls.
The busboys are turning chairs upside down on tables. North shares a few jokes with Tino and a few remaining customers. The pope lands in Vegas for a visit, North begins. The mayor greets him at the plane and says, “Hiya, Elvis.” Pope says, “I’m not Elvis.” The limousine driver says, “Hiya, Elvis.” Pope says, “I’m not Elvis.” The concierge shakes the pope’s hand and says, “Hiya, Elvis. We got the booze and the broads ready up in your room.” Now North does a dead-on Elvis imitation. “Thank you very much.”
Tino throws his head back and howls.
Two Polacks are watching the news on TV, North continues. A woman is on top of a building threatening to kill herself. One Polack bets the other $20 she’ll jump. She jumps. The winner says to the loser, “I gotta tell you. I saw this on the four o’clock news already.” The loser says, “So did I, but I didn’t think she’d do it again.”
Tino has his handkerchief out, he’s laughing so hard. Mike North is like a gift from the gods to the far northwest side. A big shot who can tell a good Polack joke. He might rub shoulders with Michael Jordan but he’s still one of us. “That’s the thing about Mike,” Louie says. “He never forgot where he came from. Some guys, they make it big and they’re too good for everybody. Not Mike. He never forgets his friends.”
North shakes hands with Tino and the bartenders and waitresses. They wave as he exits the restaurant. It’s 2 AM—time to go home to Bebe.
He’s up at 7 AM, reading USA Today, the Tribune, and the Sun-Times and watching ESPN’s Sportcenter and Fox Sports Chicago. Then off to the gym for an hour and a half of basketball played to win. He hits the Score sometime around 9:55, a mere ten minutes before he must don the headphones and speak to his flock.
He purposely avoids his massive partner, Jiggetts. “Me and Jiggs never talk before the show,” he explains. “In the old days we got here an hour ahead of time. We’d talk about everything, and it turned out we did our first hour before the show even started!”
At 10:05 AM North and Jiggetts enter a tiny cinder-block studio. On the other side of a soundproof window are Doug Buffone and Norm Van Lier, the morning drive-time hosts. The two pairs, each man wearing a set of headphones, face each other, shouting, laughing, bouncing in their seats. They’re like overgrown high school sophomores on speed. An ESPN2 show called Fitness Beach is on a monitor in the corner. It features a couple of women in matching fluorescent orange-and-green bikinis flexing their muscles.
It is now time for Buffone and Van Lier to sign off. North, the only one of the four who wasn’t a professional athlete, begs them to hang on a moment to hear him out. “Look,” he says, “I got a cure for the common cold. We were just talkin’ about it. Comtrex.” The four, nodding sagely, chew over that for a moment. Then somehow they get to talking about Jujyfruits. Van Lier confesses he used to throw Jujyfruits off the balcony when he went to the movies as a kid.
Even after Buffone and Van Lier sign off, North continues to lecture about anything but athletics. He makes his first sports-related observation of the show at about 10:30, referring to the previous evening’s World Series game played in frigid Cleveland. “I’ll tell you,” he says, “those Latin ballplayers—they can’t take the cold. They were lookin’ for Supreme tamales for each hand to keep their hands warm.”
An apt image, considering North made the transition six years ago from hot dog stand operator to sports radio host. When sports talk rivals and newspaper critics want to slam him, they refer to him as the former hot dog guy. As if the colleges they attended trained them to say with papal infallibility what Mike North says daily: the Cubs stink, the White Sox stink, the Bears stink, the Blackhawks stink, and the Bulls are defending champions.
The show goes on. Producer Jerry Riles punches a button on an ancient tape machine, starting a cut from Martin Scorsese’s great boxing film, Raging Bull. In the cut, a regular drop-in on the show, Jake LaMotta tears into his wife for overcooking his steak. Today it reminds North of a story. Once his mother served franks and beans for dinner. His father, a hardworking, hard-drinking electrician who’d just come home from a 14-hour day in 95-degree heat, disapproved of the entree. To illustrate his displeasure, old man North tipped over the kitchen table.
Jiggetts brings North back to the sports world by mentioning a college athlete who’d been suspended for marijuana possession. “I don’t think marijuana is the worst sin in the world,” North says. He confides to his listeners that he was out drinking until two
o’clock last night.
It is 11:30, time for a long commercial and sports update. North leaves the studio and returns a minute later carrying a Ziplock bag with aluminum-foil-wrapped sandwiches in it. Bebe always prepares a bag lunch for him, occasionally tossing some sandwiches in for Jiggetts and the producers as well. Today North eats eggplant Parmesan on French bread. He dabs the last bit of red sauce from the corner of his mouth as the on-air light flashes back on.
Well fed, North can dive headlong into the remaining three hours of his show. While speaking he gestures wildly, like a symphony conductor, the light glinting off his huge, stone-studded wedding ring (an automobile tire, to borrow a phrase from Ring Lardner). He makes eye contact with his producers, Riles and Jesse Rogers, in the control room. He spins in his chair and seeks the attention of announcer George Offman, behind him in the update booth. North is constantly searching for an audience. He orates in long riffs and might be lecturing on his dog’s bowel habits or the color of nasal effluvium. Jiggetts, an urbane Harvard grad, listens patiently for only so long before interrupting in his booming basso. Somehow these two opposites have survived for half a decade without throttling each other. Survived? Heck, they’ve thrived.
The neighborhood was populated in the 60s by a rich mix of ethnics. It was predominantly Jewish where the Norths lived. Down the street, near Saint Gertrude’s Catholic church, it became Irish and Italian. Blacks and Asians lived near enough to go to Senn High School too. “We used to call it the United Nations,” North recalls.
North’s mother stayed home when the boys were very young and then took a job as a teacher’s aide at Senn, a job she holds to this day. North graduated from Saint Gertrude’s elementary school. “School wasn’t for me,” North says. “I got my education by reading. I delivered papers.”
North began tossing papers at the age of nine. In a year he had a 250-paper route, delivering the Tribune and Sun-Times in the morning and the American in the afternoon. “I’d get up at three in the morning and push a cart through the snow with no gloves or nothin’,” he says.
In the eighth grade, North took the entrance exam for Saint George’s Catholic high school in Evanston but chose not to grace its halls. “First of all,” he says, “I saw the rules and regulations—ten bucks if you’re caught smokin’, ten bucks if you’re caught doin’ this, ten bucks if you’re caught doin’ that. Shirt and tie. I said to myself, ‘My parents’ll be broke by the end of the first semester.'”
And Senn was only three blocks from home. North opted for the public school.
“Basically, I didn’t have any high school,” he says. “I went to maybe 20 days of school per semester from freshman year on. I just ran the streets. They sent the truant officer after me, but see, if a kid doesn’t want to go to school, he doesn’t go to school. There were classes I hadn’t been to for 70, 80 days in a row. Then one day I’d come walkin’ in. The teacher would go, ‘Who are you?’
“I would rather hang out with the ladies and play the bowling machine and eat cheeseburgers at Bob’s, the store across the street from Senn.”
The only thing about high school that interested North was sports. He played frosh-soph basketball and baseball at Senn until his poor grades forced him off the team. Whenever the truant officer rang the doorbell, old man North had a workingman’s reaction.
“He gave me a whipping,” North says. That didn’t work, so his parents tried other means of persuasion. “I would be grounded a month at a time. I had to stay in my room. I couldn’t watch TV. That’s the only way they knew how to discipline me.
“I was the kind of guy, when my dad whipped me with his belt and when the nuns would give me a crack—I was takin’ a beating on a regular basis—it made me more rebellious. Where some kids would conform, it made me more pissed off. I was a rebellious kid but a good kid. I was never in trouble with the police. I hung out with a bunch of great guys on the corner of Thorndale and Glenwood. We met every day after school and we played ball. The only difference was my buddies had been in school and I hadn’t been there.”
North attended Senn from 1967 until 1970. “When it became apparent to me that I wasn’t going to have enough credits and I’d be in high school until my 30th birthday, then I decided to drop out,” he says. “It broke my parents’ heart. At that time, dropping out of high school was a very embarrassing thing. I was the only guy out of the guys I grew up with that dropped out. It was something to be ashamed of.”
North visited his uncle Gerry, who happened to be a 49th Ward precinct captain and a landscape maintenance foreman for the Chicago Park District. Uncle Gerry made him a deal. “You want a job?” he said. “You have to help me canvass the area.” Uncle and nephew shook hands and North promptly became a Park District landscaper. He mowed lawns, picked up paper scraps in ward parks, and raked alewives along the beaches. “I’m bringin’ home a pretty good check,” he says. “I didn’t finish high school but I’m makin’ more than my buddies.”
But he knew he wasn’t going to be satisfied as a laborer. Now and again North would be patrolling a park, his pick in one hand and a refuse bag slung over his shoulder. A neighbor or some kid he’d gone to Saint Gertrude’s with would be walking toward him. And North would duck behind a tree or walk briskly in the opposite direction.
The army came calling in 1971. North got number 45 in the draft lottery. “Oh God,” he said, “this is bad. Vietnam.” North’s old man didn’t see a stint in the service in as dire a light. “You need to go in the army,” his father said. “The service will be good for you.”
“But the day I left,” North remembers, “I saw him cry for the first time.”
North did basic training at Fort Polk in Louisiana. Then came bad news. “I got orders to go to Vietnam,” he says. “Three weeks before I was supposed to go Nixon puts the freeze on. No more new troops. That’s why he’ll always be my favorite president, regardless of what his place is in history.”
North transferred to Fort Riley in Kansas as a stockade MP. He eventually became supervisor of maximum security. One of the prisoners he remembers had cut his sergeant’s throat.
“I found myself in the service. It gave me some discipline,” North says. A friend he made gave him a push. “You’re too smart for this,” North’s pal told him. “You didn’t drop out of school because you’re stupid.” So North read a few books, studied some texts, and passed the GED.
After the army, North went back to work for the Park District, albeit carrying the baggage of ambition. “One day I got fed up,” he says.
He paid a visit to his uncle. “I need to keep working,” North explained, “but I want to go to college. What can you do for me?” His uncle told him he could take classes during the day so long as he signed in and worked a couple of hours. After class North would have to return to the park office and sign out. North’s uncle guaranteed no one would ask any questions.
North attended Truman College for a year and a half. He played basketball there—at 25, he was the oldest player in the conference. Still in school, playing a kid’s game, North now had a man’s responsibilities. He’d married Bebe.
Once out of Truman College (he didn’t finish), North signed up for acting lessons with David Mamet at the Saint Nicholas Theater. He fancied himself a young Steve McQueen, whom he’d watched on TV westerns as a kid. He spent a year with Mamet and found an actor’s life was no more glamorous than a high school student’s. “That was more brutal than going to regular school,” North says. “Mamet was the most critical guy I’ve ever seen in my life. He was a perfectionist.”
By now he couldn’t bear picking up papers in the parks. His Uncle Leo, another precinct captain, got him a position with the Water Department for much more money. But North had to work a rotating shift, and he asked out within a few weeks. Uncle Leo and his political sponsors didn’t appreciate such flightiness so they punished him. They sent him back into the parks with a bag.
“I was really down,” he says. “I had no plan. I was a goof. I smoked a lot of weed—three, four joints a day. I was foggy. It was almost like I was getting asthma. My breathing pattern was getting screwed up. I was getting lazy. I still had that same old job. So I started runnin’ for a bookmaker on the side to earn some extra money. I’m also gamblin’, which is puttin’ me in trouble because I’m not winnin’. I was a collector. I wasn’t an enforcer—don’t get me wrong. But I never thought there was anything wrong with gambling and I never will. There’s a lot worse things in life than gambling.”
North decided to clean himself up a bit. “I quit smokin’ weed cold turkey,” he says. That suited Bebe just fine. Soon she told North of a little dream. “I want to open a hot dog stand,” she said. “All right,” North replied, “whatever you want to do.”
Perhaps it was Bebe’s dream that saved North from a life of dissipation. “She was the force in our family at that time,” he explains. “I was just a lazy screwball. I had no ambition.”
Bebe and North scanned the classified sections until they found something with potential. A woman had a hot dog stand for sale at the corner of Karlov and Belmont. She wanted $10,000 for it. The Norths waited her out and wound up buying the place for $5,000 they’d saved up. They ran it for two and a half years, and North also had a little sideline going. “I dealt out parlay cards. I had pools. That kept the guys coming back. I also talked sports across the counter. That’s where I got my training for this job.”
Bebe and Mike sold out in 1980 for $40,000. “The place went out of business six months later,” North says. “They changed things.” Bebe and Mike took a road trip to California for a month and a half, bought another hot dog stand, kept it three years, sold it, took another trip, and bought an old car wash at Milwaukee and Keeler, about two blocks from Schurz High School. The Norths built their new restaurant, Bebe’s, on the site.
“We had the place eight and a half years,” North says. “We were just a small neighborhood joint. We wrote letters to people saying we had a great hot dog—we did our own PR. We were named ‘best hot dog’ by Rolling Stone magazine. ‘Best brownies’ by Pat Bruno of the Sun-Times. USA Today—’best hot dog stand in Chicago.’ I had all the top hot dog stand owners come in just to see where this place was.”
Business at Bebe’s was fabulous. According to North, a hundred kids came in each period from Schurz. A bingo hall across the street provided another steady pool of customers.
“Everything’s goin’ good, right?” North says. “All of a sudden, Schurz decides to go closed campus. And the bingo place sees everybody bringing my food in and decides to put a refreshment stand in.”
Suddenly things got tight. “We just bought a house out in Palatine, a beautiful town house,” North says. “We worked our butts off, and now we lose about 50 percent of our business just like that.”
One night Bebe came home and cried from frustration. “I can’t let this happen,” North told her. So he started up the gambling sideline again.
“I did it for about two years, maybe longer. Three years,” North says. Bebe worried. “She was always nervous about it. But you gotta do what you gotta do.” He kept a cereal box filled with gambling cash in the pantry at home. North himself began to get jittery. “If I have a bad week or two weeks, I’m gettin’ murdered,” he says.
One day North sat down with Bebe. “I’m tired of this gambling stuff,” he said. “It’s too nerve-racking.”
“What’ll we do?” Bebe asked.
“I wanna go into radio,” he said. He was devoted to Chet Coppock’s Coppock on Sports on WLUP FM, virtually the only free-standing sports programming on Chicago radio.
“I think I can do what he does,” North said.
“If you think you can do it, do it,” Bebe told him.
North’s hot dog stand was located near the WXRT studios. “We used to have people from WXRT come in all the time.” The next time he saw WXRT big shot Norm Weiner, he screwed up his courage and approached him. Weiner was with morning man Lin Brehmer.
“Guys,” North said, “I want to do ‘Athlete’s Feats.'”
At the time, “Athlete’s Feats,” a long-running five-minute sports essay, was hosted by Tribune columnist Bob Verdi. Weiner and Brehmer tried to hide their amusement, but they answered him truthfully.
“You can’t do that,” Weiner said. “You’re unknown.”
“How do I become known?” North asked. “What do I do?”
Weiner told North that Danny Lee, then the owner of WXRT, also owned WSBC. He could lease time on that station and air his own show. How much? North asked. Three hundred dollars an hour, Weiner said.
So North leased the 8 to 9 PM slot on Saturday night. He phoned Dan Cahill, who ran the TV and radio listings in the Sun-Times, and convinced him to add his show to the list. North’s NFL Handicap Show lasted for two and a half years.
“I might have had 200 people listening,” North says, “but I sold advertising to a lot of people that came into my hot dog stand—a guy that worked for General Electric, a guy that worked for Fram auto filters. I sold ads to Vienna, my hot dog supplier. I sold a thousand dollars’ worth of advertising on $100-a-minute commercials and $50 for 30-second commercials. I made $700 a week profit.”
North waited patiently for a break. One day Danny Lee and general manager Seth Mason came into the hot dog stand.
“We’re thinking of buying another radio station,” Mason said in the course of casual conversation.
“Really?” North said, his heart starting to pound. “What are you gonna do?”
“We’re thinking of putting in jazz or cool country,” Mason said.
“Why don’t you get a sports station?” North said, almost shouting.
Mason waved him off. “We don’t want a sports station.”
North pleaded. “Every major city—New York, San Diego, Kansas City, Denver—they all have sports stations. Chicago doesn’t have a sports station. I’m talking sports around the clock.”
“We’re not gonna do it,” Mason said as he took his bag of food. North followed the two out to their car, talking all the way. Mason closed the door but North continued to talk to them through the closed window about the wisdom of buying a sports station.
Three weeks later Mason and Lee showed up in the hot dog stand. “Guess what?” Mason said. “We’re going to buy a sports station after all.”
North almost leaped over the counter. “Ya gotta give me a chance,” he said.
They offered him a simple directive: submit your tapes. North did so and waited. In the meantime, the sports station’s new hires started frequenting the hot dog stand. Broadcasters Dan McNeil and Tom Shaer came in. So did Ron Gleason, the new program director. Gleason listened as North bantered with his customers about sports. He made a mental note of this outspoken hot dog stand operator. Out of several hundred tapes submitted, North’s was chosen among the final ten. He went in for an interview with station management.
A few weeks later Gleason phoned and asked North to drop by. “We’ve decided we’re gonna use you,” Gleason told North after they shook hands, “for weekends.”
North, a high school dropout, a hot dog stand owner, and a man with a big dream, heard he’d been given the chance of a lifetime and said, “Why weekends?”
“Here’s the deal,” North explains. “I was 37 years old. If I was 22 or 23 and they tell me I got weekends, I never say a word to them. I’d go, ‘Thank you very much.’ But you know what? I been through it all already. I been through the wringer a million times. I argued with Gleason for an hour. ‘I can do it!’ I’m pounding my fist on his desk. ‘I can do it, Ron!'”
North went home and told Bebe what happened. Her response was predictable. “Are you crazy?”
At midday, the Score had planned to pair Dan Jiggetts with Bruce Wolf—who was iconoclastic, smart-alecky, a master of impressions, and a regular on Steve Dahl’s radio show as well as sports anchor for WFLD TV. But before the Score went on the air, Mason wanted to hear more of North. Gleason asked him to host his WSBC show with Jiggetts, an advanced audition as it were. North swooned over Jiggetts. Theirs was a match made in radio heaven, he felt. He told Bebe after the show, “I can do that midday show every day.”
Then luck kicked in. Bruce Wolf decided to turn down the Score. Gleason picked up the phone and called North. “We’re gonna give you a one-month trial,” he said. One month turned to two and then three. When six months rolled around North signed a contract.
A year after he became a radio personality, North and his wife sold their last hot dog stand.
“You’re done,” he told her.
He owed her. “She never has to work again. I can pay her back for all the times she took care of me. My wife Bebe, she’s the best,” North says.
Early in his tenure at the Score, North and Jiggetts invited Bears president Mike McCaskey on the show. The 1986 Super Bowl champions were being dismantled for reasons of age, diminishing talent, and cost. For some reason, the city’s football fans and commentators like North chose to focus only on the boss’s penury. Callers spoke of McCaskey in terms usually reserved for serial killers. Only days before McCaskey’s appearance on the show, the Bears had peddled yet another of their 1985 stars, center Jay Hilgenberg. McCaskey actually showed himself to be a man of great courage (or recklessness) by agreeing to appear. Sometime in the middle of the conversation, North could hold back no longer. “I gotta tell you somethin’,” he said to McCaskey. “You don’t know nothin’ about football. You don’t know a thing about football.”
The normally mild mannered McCaskey shook with rage. “Say something else that’s silly,” he hissed. Within moments, McCaskey had hung up on North and Jiggetts, never to appear again on the Score.
“That’s what made me!” North says. “At the time we were trying to make an image, not only as a station but as individuals and personalities. After I was ripping McCaskey for six months, how can I bring him on and go, ‘That Hilgenberg trade, tell us a little bit about it’? I went on as the voice of the fan, the mouthpiece of the fan. I’ve done over 5,400 interviews with different sports and entertainment people, far more than TV guys will ever do, and I’ve tried to ask the question that the fan would ask.
“So I was sittin’ there and I’m thinking as McCaskey’s answering a question that Dan asked him, ‘I’ve been talkin’ to my buddies for the last six years about this guy—how can I just kiss his ass?’ That’s when the war erupted. That is the day, I believe, that I arrived with the people. The people said, ‘Hey, this guy’s fightin’ for us!’
“Now, as I’ve gone along, I know how to tailor it better. Maybe today I would say, ‘I believe your knowledge of football is limited.’ He might not get as mad, as crazy. Although I don’t care if he ever comes back on.”
McCaskey wasn’t the only sports boss North has alienated. Once he had Bill Wirtz, owner of the Blackhawks, on the show. Chicago hockey fans will never forgive Wirtz for allowing Bobby Hull, one of the most electrifying hockey players of all time, to jump to the upstart World Hockey League in 1972. For his part, Wirtz has long bristled at the mere mention of the Golden Jet’s name.
The first question North asked Wirtz was why he let Bobby Hull go.
“Always Bobby Hull!” Wirtz shouted and he slammed the phone down. Add another Chicago sports operator who no longer appears on WSCR. It didn’t matter to Mike North. He’d only asked what the fans would have asked.
Mike North was fat and happy in his radio job. Every day was a whirl of shows and personal appearances. “We were all in fairyland, doin’ the jobs we love to do, drinking, having fun,” he says.
For a moment in January of 1993, North’s new life seemed like a house of cards. “I was arrested,” he says. “Me and four other guys, including my producer Jesse Rogers. We were in a limousine one night, we were goin’ down North Avenue, and the limousine stopped. We don’t know to this day, because we were so trashed, who told the limousine driver to stop. I know it wasn’t me—I grew up in this town. But I got arrested for solicitation of prostitution. It was in the paper, it was on TV. I stayed in my house for two weeks, although I went to work.”
His brashness, his mouth, had earned him his new life. Now his mouth was the instrument of its near destruction. As North and his pals stood around the limousine, North began to raise his voice. “I fired on the cops,” he says. “I knew I was in trouble and I started to yell. They told me, ‘Put your hands behind your back.’ I respect police, but at that time I thought my career was hanging in the balance.”
The next thing North knew, he was in a holding cell at the Shakespeare District police station. “Cockroaches in the damn cell,” he remembers. “We got arrested at one in the morning and I was up all night. I screamed for six hours, ‘Let me out of here!'”
North was released at about eight the next morning. He arrived at the WSCR studios an hour later wearing the same clothes he’d worn the day before. His coworkers noticed; North takes pride in his appearance. Some asked why. “Aw, Bee didn’t get the laundry done,” he said.
North dodged a bullet with the solicitation charge. “It got thrown out of court so I was vindicated.”
More trouble followed. A year and a half later, North got hung with a DUI. He was heading home from Gibsons steak house after drinking a couple of beers. Somewhere near his Palatine home he got a flat. He decided to keep on driving and change the tire when he got home. A state trooper who was writing another driver a ticket on the shoulder of I-90 saw North whiz by on his rim, jumped in his squad car, and turned on his lights. The trooper pulled North over and asked him to blow into a Breathalyzer. North, worried about those two beers he’d downed on an empty stomach, refused. The trooper made North do a few sobriety tests, which he passed. Still the trooper busted him for refusing the Breathalyzer and speeding. Bebe had to bail him out of jail. North and his attorney decided to go to a bench trial because he wasn’t drunk. The judge asked the trooper how fast North was going. The trooper said 75 miles an hour. North’s attorney asked the trooper if he’d noticed North’s car shimmying. The trooper said no. North’s attorney made the point to the judge that it is virtually impossible to drive a car at 75 miles an hour on a rim without the vehicle noticeably shimmying.
The judge threw the two charges out. And since the state had been tardy in filing the paperwork for the mandatory six-month license suspension for refusing the Breathalyzer, that was thrown out too.
“I never got into trouble with the police until I got into radio. I think a lot of guys, radio guys, get into trouble when they’re in their 20s. But I have always acted younger than my age. I’ve always been immature. I like to go out and drink. I have a driver now. Or if I’m at a place where I wind up drinking, I take a cab. I will never get in that position again.”
Through it all, Bebe and his bosses stood by him. “It was tough,” North says. “It was tough to go on the air after the solicitation charge. Station management asked me if I wanted to take a month off. I go, ‘For what? No. I’m not taking a month off. I’ll take the heat.'”
As North finishes this tale, Ron Gleason wanders into the WSCR conference room where we’re talking. North tells him, proudly, that he’s told me everything—about the gambling, the drinking, the prostitution charge. Gleason rolls his eyes.
“By the way,” North says to him. “When I got busted for the prostitution rap, our numbers went up the next month. Significantly.”
Gleason recoils. “I’ve never seen that!”
“You wanna bet? Ask Jiggetts. Three-three we did that month,” North says.
Gleason ponders that for a moment, then he asks, “What did you do the following month?”
“We had a 1.9 the month before.”
“Was it a one-shot deal or did you get an actual benefit out of that whole thing?” Gleason presses.
North can’t convince Gleason the solicitation arrest was good for business. So he turns on the boyish charm. “I think,” he says, a puckish smile on his face, “the only reason people listen is because of the prostitution.” Gleason leaves the room laughing.
North and Jiggetts were beginning to attract attention even outside the Chicago market. Mark Chernoff, program director of WFAN in New York, phoned Jiggetts one day. “I want to meet you and Mike North,” he said. “I heard you guys when I was in town recently. We need a midday show. I wanna see if you guys want to work in New York.”
Jiggetts told North the exciting news. “Yeah,” North snorted, “some guy’s gonna fly in from New York and meet me. Right here!” (For the uninitiated, when a fellow says something preposterous like, “The Cubs are gonna win the pennant this year,” the proper Chicago street kid response is “Right here!”—often accompanied by a finger pointing in the direction of the scoffer’s crotch.)
“Mike,” Jiggetts said, “he’s coming!”
“Forget about it!” North told Jiggetts.
North waved him off every time Jiggetts tried to convince him a man from New York was flying in to see them. “I didn’t believe him until we pulled up in front of the O’Hare Hilton. I was in Jiggetts’s car. We get out. The guy offers us a ton of dough,” North says. “Me and Jiggetts go back to the Score. Me and Dan tell ’em, ‘We’ve been made an offer to do a show in New York.’ Nothin’ was said. About two or three days later we meet with Dan Lee and three or four other high-management people. We got a new deal.”
About three years later, a local competitor came calling. “Last year, Jimmy de Castro from WMVP came to me, made me an offer,” North says. “He made me an astronomical offer. I was all set to leave. But I’m a loyal guy. I wouldn’t be where I am without Dan Lee.”
Only Dan Lee had recently decided to sell his stake in the Score and WXRT. “I was crushed,” North says. “Danny Lee, he’s my guy. He was always in the corner office. He stuck with me through a couple of arrests, through low ratings, through thick and thin. They could have gotten rid of me on the spot. But they believed in me.
“When he left it was a whole new ball game,” North says. He told the new management of his monster offer from WMVP. “Hey, this is what they’re offering,” he said. “If you don’t want to give me somethin’ in this neighborhood, I gotta go over there and get it. But you don’t have to give me as much as they’re giving me. Just make it close.”
His new bosses gave North what he wanted. “I wanted to stay here,” North says. “I wanted to be like Chris Berman at ESPN. I wanna stay with the company from beginning to end.”
North had no idea how badly WMVP wanted him until he read the newspaper later in the week. “When the deal fell through, ‘MVP’s sports talk format went out of business three days later,” he says. “So they were banking on me coming over there, rejuvenating the product, bringing the advertisers with me. See, when you lose a guy, you not only lose talent, you lose the advertisers. Some of the advertisers would go, ‘We like the Score but we’re gonna go with Mike North.’ So we signed a long-term deal and everyone’s happy.”
Ron Gleason once again passes through the conference room, perhaps fearful of what embarrassments North is now divulging. “I been tellin’ him about all the run-ins we’ve had,” North tells his station manager.
Gleason nods deeply. “We’ve had some good ones,” he says.
“I told him about the the day you told me I was gonna work weekends. How I pounded your desk. Is that right or wrong?
Gleason laughs skeptically. “Well, I don’t know.” He scratches his head. “I don’t remember it being quite that confrontational.”
“It was!” North nearly shouts.
“All right, all right,” Gleason says, turning to me. “But he was someone who was very strong about his opinions. It’s that emotion which makes him so successful.”
Now North is on a roll. “I won the March of Dimes achievement-in-radio awards in 1996,” he says. “I won radio personality of the year.” Gleason, satisfied North can handle his own horn tooting, waves good-bye. Lucky he didn’t stick around. “The March of Dimes had this big banquet down at the Marriott. People were goin’, Mike North won? The Score handled it that way too. I don’t think the Score promoted it like they should have. The Score didn’t want to hurt certain people’s feelings. They’ve always had us in a group mentality type of thing—one for all—which I’m all for. But when somebody wins an award—when Barry Bonds wins the most valuable player award—the team loves him. I don’t think they’re gonna say, ‘Let’s not hype the fact that Barry Bonds won the MVP award because he’s on a team.’
“I don’t think the Score took advantage of the award. They ran an ad in the paper two days, which Jeff Schwartz, our public relations guy, had to fight to do. Ron Gleason and the Score management did everything they could to snuff that award out because they didn’t want to make the other guys feel bad. I didn’t like what they did. I know that if at the Loop Brandmeier won, they’d have made a big deal of it. So I was a little hurt by that.”
In 1997 North and Jiggetts won the March of Dimes midday personalities of the year award as well as sports show of the year. “I liked winning those with Jiggs,” North says. “Last year I felt odd about winning it alone because Dan Jiggetts is the best straight man in radio. He’s also a very classy and very funny guy.
North even has gained a bit of success on television. He won a local Emmy in 1995 for his “North Side” features on Fox’s Bears pregame shows.
“So now I’m startin’ to win awards and I see the numbers and I’m making a pretty good buck, so my confidence level grows. When in the first year I was here Gleason would call me into his office and say, ‘Don’t say “pussy” or “dick.”‘ Now I would say, ‘I’m sayin’ it!’
“They don’t like me talkin’ about my drinking on the air. He don’t like me tellin’ dirty jokes on the air. He doesn’t like me tellin’ religious jokes on the air. But you know what? I’m a regular guy. I don’t care if you’re on the street or what workplace you’re in—the Board of Trade, a lumberyard, for the city—you’re hearin’ these jokes.”
If it’s good enough for the street, it’s good enough for the Score.
“The way I think sports talk should be is, if you’re in a bar for an hour you’re gonna talk 20 minutes about sports, you’re gonna talk ten minutes about the curvaceous-looking woman that just walked in, you’re gonna talk about Mayor Daley, you’re gonna talk about politics, and you’re gonna get back to sports. Where WMVP failed is, they talked completely sports. They wanted to be just information. They wanted to do it the way Chet Coppock used to do it when he was the only game in town and he could get away with it. You gotta mix it up a little bit. People get tired of debating about the two-point conversion. Enough. We talk about John Denver. Should he have jumped out of the plane?”
North expects to wring this sock dry only a little while longer. “You only have a short run in this business,” he says. “I’m done at 50. I got six more years. I’ve done six years. I’ll do 12 years in this business, then I’m gonna go on to do something else. I don’t want to work until I drop dead like my father.” Old man North dropped dead at 64 after battling emphysema, diabetes, and kidney problems. He never saw a day of retirement.
Now another day’s show has gone in the books. For the next hour or so North will do production work with his producers and Jiggetts, stuff like recording promos and drop-ins, and he’ll return his calls. He usually gets out of the station at 3:30 or so.
“A couple of days a week I go home,” North says. “Most of the time I go to my favorite haunt, Basta Pasta, drink with my buddies, and hang out. Then I go home about seven.”
The world tours until two in the morning used to be routine. Now North is trying to live a more sedate life. “My hobbies are hanging around the house, watching football and baseball and basketball, playing with my dog Licorice, and playing sports,” he says. A regular Jack Armstrong. Only he can’t keep up the facade. “All right,” he says, “And drinking. I’ll admit it. I’m not ashamed to say I like to drink. I love to drink. I love to have a good time and I love to drink. That’s what I do.
“There’s so many people who are bent on saying, ‘I can’t do this,’ and ‘I can’t do that.’ I do whatever I want. Someday I may pay the price for it—who knows? But you know what? You only live once. That’s the way I’ve always been.”
In January, North is diagnosed with colitis. His doctors tell him to change his eating and drinking habits. To the horror of his listeners, North concedes that his world tours might be a thing of the past. He loses 12 pounds. But the crisis passes and North resumes his old ways. After all, what do doctors know? o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photographs by Jim Alexander Newberry.