Fans cultivate White Sox fanhood in tailgating lots
U.S. Cellular Field's lots allow tailgaters to bond over common Chicago affection
CHICAGO -- When Howard Jaffe's grandfather, Dr. Robert Jaffe, told him he could come to his dental office in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago one Saturday morning in the late 1950s, young Howard jumped at the chance. You see, on that morning, his grandfather would be taking care of a few patients by the names of Early Wynn, Bob Shaw and Billy Pierce. Raised in the Pill Hill area on the South Side of Chicago, those were some of Howard's biggest heroes. He was born and raised a White Sox fan, and getting him to stop by the dental office or going to Comiskey Park to see a game was nothing like pulling teeth.
"When I was a kid, I remember going out onto the dugout and getting a photo with Nellie Fox," said Jaffe, who attended his 51st consecutive White Sox Opening Day this past April and has a scrapbook of great memories. "I saw Richie Allen hit a line drive home run into the center-field bleachers, which was incredible. I'll never forget the World Series game when [Paul] Konerko and [Scott] Podsednik hit the home runs. And having the chance to watch Frank Thomas play all of those years, he is probably the best all-around player I've seen in my lifetime."
Jaffe has been a season-ticket holder for 35 years and has attended nearly all of the White Sox postseason games dating back to the 1959 World Series. He will travel to U.S. Cellular Field from Libertyville, Ill., or his business office in Oak Brook, for approximately 25 games a season based on the best drive times. Arriving early for many of those games, he can be found tailgating in Lot C with family, friends and sometimes business acquaintances.
"Tailgating is just a good time with friends," said Jaffe, who says getting to the ballpark early also helps avoid getting tied up in traffic. "It's not just drinking, it's socializing. I see a lot of the same people out there and get to know everyone. There are people who tailgate all the time. Some people who go to 30 games a year will tailgate before each game. It's just fun."
For those planning to attend a game, tailgating is permitted in Lots A, B, C, D, E and F beginning two hours before the start of the game, and it must conclude once the game begins. More information is available at WhiteSox.com.
On an April Sunday morning in Lot C, before a game against Minnesota, streams of smoke rose from the grills of Sox tailgaters who drove from various surrounding areas, including New Lenox, Chicago Heights, Garfield Ridge, Riverside, Little Italy, Tinley Park, Orland Park, Schaumburg, Crown Point, Schererville and Michigan City.
Walking around the parking lot and talking to fans is much like entering a library of White Sox nostalgia -- each tailgater has a personal story, a special memory, a readiness to talk baseball, grill a burger, drink a beer or make a new friend.
Two families who have tailgated for years, the Rasmussens and Forts, were seated together on the east side of Lot C talking about old times. Ed Fort saw his first White Sox game at Comiskey Park in 1948, watching Hall of Fame shortstop Luke Appling. The Forts are such avid Sox fans, they named their first son Eddie Collins Fort and their second Richie Allen Fort. Their son Eddie was best friends with Dirk Rasmussen while growing up in Schaumburg.
"Ed took me and Eddie to our first White Sox game back in the 1970s," said Rasmussen, who makes the 57-mile drive in his Dodge Grand Caravan from Wauconda, picking up the Fort family in Hoffman Estates. "It doesn't take that long to get here, and we tailgate every chance we get. We love the atmosphere, talking baseball with the White Sox fans. They're great, because they're real baseball fans.
"We have met so many people tailgating. We met the grandson of Charles Comiskey a few times. I remember talking to a fan that was at Luke Appling's first game [in 1930]. When you meet people out here like that, it's just great fun."
Dirk's pal Eddie joined the military, earning the rank of Major while fighting in Desert Storm and Iraq, but he passed away in 2010.
"After Eddie passed, Dirk kept the family tradition going," said Sue Fort, Eddie's mother. "We love doing this so much; we'll be out here even if they have to bring us in wheelchairs. It isn't just about going to games, it's the whole experience. It's our life."
Bruce Takefman appreciates the experience as much as anyone in Lot C, even though he isn't a White Sox fan. He is from Montreal and was a diehard Expos fan attending 40 games a year until the team moved in 2004.
"This will be my first game since the team left," said Takefman, who last attended a baseball game at Olympic Stadium when the Expos played the Florida Marlins in 2004. He traveled to the Bucktown neighborhood of Chicago to visit with his cousin Rob Berman, who thought it would be a good idea to reintroduce his cousin to Major League Baseball and the tailgating experience. "This is my first tailgate party. And if I had to pick a team to go see, I'm happy to go see the Chicago White Sox."
Joe Montgomery and his wife, Nicki, drive in from Addison for 40 games a year and enjoy the tailgating experience so much that they helped form an organization called the White Sox Wolfpack. You can't miss them in Lot C because they made a Wolfpack logo and flag, which flies above their 150-person tailgate group. And if you miss the flag, you probably won't miss the tall fellow who frequently tailgates with the Wolfpack, former White Sox slugger Ron Kittle.
"We met most of our good friends tailgating before White Sox games," said Montgomery, who has been nicknamed Den Leader by members of the Wolfpack. "We just love tailgating. During weekdays, we get there early to beat Eisenhower traffic. Then we fire up a little dinner on the grill.
"The tailgating experience has formed such a strong bond between all of us that we often get together outside of Sox games, as well," said Montgomery, who became a White Sox fan by pure luck as a child, when in 1968 he was selected on the 7-8-year-old White Sox Pee Wee League team at Oriole Park in Park Ridge. "They are my best friends. We go on fishing trips together, have parties and hang out. It just naturally fell into place. Good people find good people."
Over the years, Montgomery has accrued many great and vivid memories of his White Sox experience. He slept in his car near Comiskey Park one October night in 1983 so he could be there when the box office opened to buy his ticket to the playoff game against Baltimore.
"I was there for the Britt Burns game," said Montgomery referring to the fateful Game 4 of the 1983 American League Championship Series when the young left-hander pitched nine scoreless innings for the White Sox before Orioles outfielder Tito Landrum hit the game-winning home run in the top of the 10th. The Den Leader was also there for the one-game tiebreaker against the Twins in 2008.
"We had so much fun tailgating in 2008, because we had a string of five games in five days, and there was such an electric feeling among our group," Montgomery said. "It was really a magical time just because of the way everything came to be.
"The one game that always comes to mind, though, is the Blackout Game. I remember walking up those stairs into the ballpark and seeing everything blacked out. It gave me tingles. I've never seen anything like it. And what an incredible game. [Jim] Thome hitting the big home run. I'll never forget it."
John Ruane is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.