September 25, 2007

Ronnie Woo Woo's His Way Into Cubs History

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Inexplicably, there is a middle-aged man dressed in a full baseball uniform sitting by himself in a Dairy Queen booth. As common as it is to see people wearing Cubs paraphernalia in the neighborhood that surrounds Wrigley Field, this full ensemble draws more than a few sideways glances.
A woman peels away from her group suddenly and strides over to the man with confidence. He sees her coming and springs into life, popping out of his seat, grabbing her hand and twirling her as if in a beginning swing dancing class.
Then the calls come, from across the room — ”Hey, Ronnie!” and “Let’s go Cubs!” Limping slightly and perpetually bent forward, the man glides around the room to all the people that have acknowledged him. Working the crowd like some sort of mayoral candidate, he politely shakes hands with the older gentlemen, gives enthusiastic high-fives to everyone that does not have gray hair and grabs one woman after the other in a one-armed hug and kiss on the cheek, occasionally staying on for a couple steps of a waltz.
He moves back to his booth as my friends and I make our way towards a table. I keep one eye trained on him while trying to explain over my shoulder who that bizarre man is. No, there was no Cubs game today, I tell them, the team is out of town — it’s just Ronnie Woo Woo. His last name is Woo Woo? they respond.
He catches my eye, notices my Cubs shirt and throws two hands up in the air like a gymnast sticking a landing. A grin breaks out on my face as I plant a solid high-five on each hand. Then it happens — not exactly a rare occurrence when in his presence, but there is still something intoxicating about it.
“Cubs! Woo! Cubs! Woo! Cubs! Woo! World! Woo! Series! Woo!”
The sound is impossible to explain — like a yelping dog or hooting owl but with the playfulness of the Pillsbury Doughboy. It’s also impossible to replicate. Ronnie doesn’t make the O shape with his lips like most people would. No, the cry (yelp? howl? exclamation? guttural utterance? that’s it) comes strictly from his throat.
There is also no way to define Ronnie Woo Woo. Some people would call him the unofficial mascot of the Chicago Cubs; other people would extol him as a folk hero, while some people would simply call him annoying and even foul and vulgar. My favorite way to describe Ronnie Woo Woo is as it was put in a Chicago Sun-Times article, “Big and happy and slightly out of focus.”
“A lot of people might think I don’t have it all upstairs,” Ronnie once said. “But once they get to know me they know I’m just a good guy and a Cubs fan.”
Yes, there is no denying there is something off about Ronnie (whose real last name is Wickers). Since 1970, he has missed a total of 21 home games, all during the 1987 season (causing rampant rumors of his death to spread around, leading to him contacting a television station to proclaim in an interview, “I’m alive! Woo! I’m alive! Woo!”).
But while Ronnie is typically associated with the spring-break party atmosphere that has come to be intertwined with a trip to Wrigley, his life is at times the diametric opposite of this.
On a brisk December morning, I walk down Addison — one of the streets that outlines Wrigley Field — towards a bookstore to pick up a Christmas present for a family member. Ronnie, no longer in Cubs attire, is bending over a water bucket, dipping a squeegee in.
Apparently, this is what Ronnie’s offseasons consist of. A 2004 Chicago Tribune article described how he arrives at the stadium and takes a lap around Wrigley for posterity, tiptoeing a crack in the sidewalk — the same crack he has tiptoed most mornings since the late 1950s when he first came to the ballpark. He heads into a local restaurant to grab a brush, squeegee and bucket. The owner fills it up for him and Ronnie begins his daily tour of several Wrigleyville businesses, where he pulls in between $25 and $60 a day, according to his estimates.
“Everybody knows Ronnie Woo-Woo. Who doesn’t know him? He’s a local fixture,” said Jay Schwartz in the Tribune story. Schwartz co-owns a vintage clothing store with his brother Sheldon. “He’s been washing our windows six or seven years now. Once a week. Then he comes in and gives a ‘Woo Woo’ when he’s done.”
Ronnie continues his rounds before ending up at one of several places he drops by just to say hi. On this day, it’s a Sweeties Ice Cream shop.
“My store is open year-round, seven days a week,” said owner Noelle Bou-Sliman. “Probably six times a month, Ronnie comes by and asks if he can do the windows. Usually he just wants to talk. “
Bou-Sliman gives Ronnie a black walnut shake — his favorite flavor — on the house. These days, he has these connections all over town. He has appeared on the Howard Stern Radio Show, met George H.W. Bush and been a personal guest of Buck O’Neil at Ryan Sandberg’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Filmmaker Paul Hoffman made a documentary about his life (Woo Life). Ronnie even released his own CD (Me, You and Ronnie Woo).
As improbable as all of this is, it becomes even more so when you consider Ronnie’s past. He and his twin brother Donald were born on Halloween night in 1941. Ronnie was only three pounds at birth and stayed in an incubator for weeks. His mom always saw him as the unwanted runt of the family — an image that Ronnie only perpetuated when he realized that he could squeeze through the metal bars people put over their windows in the lower-class South side Chicago neighborhood where he lived.
“My mother didn’t try to face up to his problem,” said Ronnie’s sister, Vermacella Ross, in a 1985 piece for the Chicago Reader. “She just tried to ignore it, and I think it hurt him in a psychological way. She neglected him and that left some scars.”
The only time Naomi Wickers did face the problem was when she would physically and mentally abuse Ronnie. Fortunately, his grandmother swooped him out of that situation and introduced him to baseball. Even though he weighed only 79 pounds at the age of 19, Ronnie loved baseball. He loved it enough that he quit his day job in 1959 to become the night janitor at Northwestern, leaving his afternoons open for baseball. He continued to work a series of janitorial jobs around town until he was finally laid off in 1983. Still, he refused to take a day job.
“My Cubs come first,” Ronnie said at the time. “That’s the most important thing.”
That axiom, however, caused Ronnie’s life to continue to spiral downward. He spent years sleeping on a looping train or wrapped in newspaper and cardboard on Lower Wacker Drive, a street that runs below downtown Chicago.
Ronnie merely got by on the generosity of others and spent whatever money he could muster on the Illinois lottery, playing some variation of Ernie Banks’ uniform number (14) and Banks’ birthday (1-31-1931) for the daily game and the jersey numbers of his six favorite players from the 1969 Cubs team for the regular lottery.
And still, he showed up at 8 a.m. at the ballpark for every home game to greet the Cubs players and try to barter some bleacher tickets before heading over to the visiting team’s hotel at 10:30 a.m. to razz the squad and, yes, barter for bleacher tickets. He took his wooing show bar-to-bar before and after each game, taking free food and beer where he could get it. He was unfailingly positive, but he admitted his life started to wear on him at times.
“I guess I only feel lonely around the holidays,” he said at the time. “That’s when it hurts. I don’t have family and I don’t see my sister or brother much. So I go dancing or go to the movies.”
In 1984 it seemed like Ronnie had found these things. He met a girl named Anita Crandall in the bleachers and quickly moved in with her. However, one day several months later, Ronnie returned home to find her dead on the floor.
“Her death really hit Ronnie hard,” his sister remembered in the Reader. “He just walked out of that life. He left all the furniture behind. He couldn’t face it I guess.”
He couldn’t even face her funeral.
“I told her family I didn’t want to go so I went to the ballgame,” he said. “She always encouraged me to go to the games and that’s what she would have wanted me to do. … That really got me down. But the Cubs started winning and that saved me. I might not have made it otherwise. You have to live on.”
As Ronnie continued to get his support from Cubs nation, he finally hit upon consistent sources. He leaned on Janet Tabbit, his bleacher bum friend since the early 80s. The players even turned their heads, giving him a dollar here and
“It was nice to know he was in the ballpark,” said former Cub Leon Durham. “You’d be up to bat or in the field, and the next thing you knew, ‘Woo! Woo!’ It didn’t matter where he was, left field, right field, the upper deck, you knew Ronnie was in the house. … It was a blessing to know that he was not just there for the game, but also to inspire the team. To cheer us on. … Some fans might have thought he was annoying, but you come out to the ballpark to cheer. You pay your money and you cheer. If you don’t want cheering, you stay home.”
Slowly, Ronnie’s life turned around. He finally caved on a day job delivering pizza that caused him to miss those 21 games in 1987 before settling into window washing and various other odd jobs.
“He’s a very misunderstood person,” Tabbit, who is now Ronnie’s manager, said in a Tribune article three years ago. “There’s much more to him than wearing a uniform and wooing. If people would take the time to know him personally, they would find that he’s a very kind-hearted, generous and spiritual person.”
Now Ronnie has a life, two kids and an apartment 10 blocks from Wrigley Field. In 2000, a movement started to help Ronnie fulfill his lifelong dream of leading the seventh inning stretch during a Cubs game. The Cubs were wary of the toothless Wickers representing the Cubs as the first fan to ever lead Wrigley’s sacred seventh inning stretch. Two bar owners raised enough money to give Ronnie a full set of teeth and in May of 2001, Ronnie got to live out his dream. As he had always done, he stayed true to himself, stepping up to the TV booth and taking the mike.
“Hello, Cub fans. One! Woo! Two! Woo! Three! Woo! Take me out to the ball game …”
Special thanks to the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Reader. All the quotes, and most of the information that appears in this column, were taken from various stories read in one of these three publications. Specifically, William Hageman’s 2004 story in the Chicago Tribune, Greg Couch’s 2001 column in the Chicago Sun-Times and Tim Bannon’s 1985 piece in the Chicago Reader. Also, thanks to, which provided a large amount of links and other information.