Today marks the 37th anniversary of the infamous Lee Elia tirade. After a Cubs loss early in the 1983 season, Elia went off when talking with reporters. One of them recorded it, and in the end there were just as many F-bombs dropped by the Chicago Cubs manager as years that have passed since that day – 37.
I met Bob Ibach at a Club 400 event in 2017 that featured Bill Buckner. Ibach was the PR Director for the Chicago Cubs during the 1980’s, and was in that role when Lee Elia made waves with his postgame tirade. Bob shared the behind the scenes of that day on his Facebook page this week, and he gave me permission to reprint it here.
Behind the Scenes of the Lee Elia Rant as written by Bob Ibach
Another from a series of baseball musings, gleaned from my 45 plus years in professional baseball. And this one is a timely one, as it will be 37 years since it happened later this week, on Wednesday.
Yes, April 29, 1983 is a day I’ll never forget. And neither will my friend, Lee Elia, then the manager of the Chicago Cubs.
Baseball coverage was far different then. No Iphones, no tweeting, no internet or Facebook. Reporters for the most part carried just notepads and most wrote on typewriters. A few of the radio guys had tape recorders and mics, and one fella was Les Grobstein, who is still working these days hosting an overnight show at WSCR in Chicago, the flagship station of the Cubs.
In fact, Les will have me on as his guest this coming Wednesday, April 29 around midnight, to rehash and remember that infamous day at Wrigley Field when the Cubs lost a 2-1 game to the Los Angeles Dodgers on a wild pitch tossed by Hall of Fame reliever Lee Smith.
The season of 1983 didn’t begin well for manager Lee Elia’s team, getting off to a start of something like 5-14. Lee was an energetic sort, wore his heart on his sleeve, and desperately wanted to deliver a winner to a team he played for many years before. He had been a coach on manager Dallas Green’s World Series winning Philadelphia team in 1980, and the man Dallas had tabbed to help “Build A New Tradition” for the North Siders when Dallas was
hired by new owner Tribune Company in the fall of 1981.
Within a few weeks of Green’s hire, he brought me in as his PR director, along with Frank Maloney in the ticket department. Frank, one of the nicest fellows I have ever met in sports, and a former head football coach at Syracuse in the 1970s, recently passed away from a brain tumor.
On this particular day in April, 37 years ago, the tension was mounting and so was the frustration as Elia walked off the field after a tough to LA. In those days, the Cubs clubhouse was way down the left field line, past the rolled up tarp, and beyond the bullpen, tucked away in the far corner, where the brick walled touched the ivy vines of the bleachers. Getting there after a game provided fans a great opportunity to vent their frustrations from the lower grandstands as well.
And “vent” they did after this loss.
As Elia and two of his players, Keith Moreland and Larry Bowa, walked down the line after the game, a group of about 15 fans, some with beer still remaining in their paper cups, barked and hooted at the group as they passed on by. A few started tossing their cups, with beer still inside, at the group. That’s when Bowa and Moreland had heard and seen enough. Both guys could have short tempers and pretty soon they began to move towards the stands and these howling fans–they were going to go after them.
Fortunately, they were pulled back, but Elia saw it all and as he continued down towards the clubhouse and walked inside his tight headquarters and into his office space (very small), the writers gathered there and started to fire away with questions. The post-game presser began, and Grobstein turned on his tape recorder to preserve the conversation.
Then it happened–the Lee Elia tirade began.
It went on for about 4-5 minutes, with well over 50 F bombs unloaded about how Lee felt about the “real Chicago Cubs fans.” You can check out the full tirade on the internet these days, because it lives on and on there. Some have called it the best baseball blowup in history.
During that meltdown, Lee noted that 85 percent of the world worked for a living and the rest of the 15 percent came out to Wrigley Field. It was the colorful language he used to describe that group which would haunt him forever.
I learned much more about that day, some 25 years later when Lee and I worked together on a fundraiser in Chicago with a “talking baseball” autographed by him that raised monies for prostate cancer. Elia explained to me that he “meant” to direct his message to the 15 or so fans who had been tossing beer and shouting at his group, and NOT 15 PERCENT of those Cub fans who came out to day baseball at Wrigley Field on a regular basis and who needed to find employment.
“I wasn’t always the greatest with my math,” he told me later. “That was on me.”
Now to the story behind the story of that day in 1983.
After this outburst had finished, Grobstein ran into me up in the press box after sharing that tape recording with Lou Boudreau, Vince Lloyd and Harry Caray, who had just concluded their post-game shows and were preparing to leave. Les approached me. As a courtesy, he said he felt bad for Lee and wanted to give me an opportunity to share the contents with Dallas Green to hear. But he needed it right back, because he had a job to do and planned on airing it that night on his radio station.
Had that happened today, in 2020, it would have been heard worldwide within a half hour, if not sooner. Back then, we had some time to try and mend a fence, as they say. That began with me taking the tape to Green’s office and behind closed doors, I told my boss we had to listen to it. “Lee went ballistic” I told Dallas. “This is gonna be a big story.”
As I played the tape and sat there alone with Dallas, I could see his face contort with anguish and horror as the words came out of Elia’s mouth. He rubbed his hands through his silver hair several times and finally said to me, “Ok Ibach, what are you gonna do with YOUR media guys.”
Oh, now they were MY media, I thought to myself. Oh boy.
Suddenly all of the Chicago media was MINE. A few moments later, my secretary knocked on the door and told me a hoard of media were calling and coming down to Wrigley Field to get the story. The news was out. I am guessing that the number of media who eventually came down to Clark & Addison that early evening were double or triple the number who actually had been there that afternoon to chronicle the game.
This was gonna be a huge story.
I tried to think of a game plan, but needed to do so quickly. Fortunately, because I had been a beat reporter back in Baltimore for a decade covering the Orioles, and had also done radio work on CBS and hosted my own talk show years before, I had some idea on how fast this story was about to unfold–and that we had to work fast to do damage control.
I called Jack Brickhouse, the Cubs recently retired game broadcaster now doing a 6 p.m. nightly report on WGN, and asked Jack if he was willing to have Lee on his show at 6:15 to give his side of this story, and hopefully apologize to the fans or at the very least explain WHAT he was saying and WHY he said it this way. Dallas thought it was a good idea because, as I explained to him “at least this way the media would have to include his side of things and hopefully Lee would ask for understanding and forgiveness (assuming he’d go that far) BEFORE the media was brought in for a press conference” that night inside Green’s office.”
There was NO getting around doing that conference, and Lee needed to be there.
That’s where Lee’s car keys saved his butt–and job.
We called down to the Cubs locker room to Elia’s phone in the manager’s office. It rang and rang and rang. No one picked up. Dallas looked at me and said sharply “call again, I need him up here. NOW!” So I did. This time, Lee picked up.
“Lee, you gotta get up here right away. Dallas heard the tape of your post-game media session. We need you up here right away.”
Lee then explained that he had promised his daughter that he would be a celebrity umpire at her game that night in the suburbs, and he was late and had to get there right away. Could this wait until the next morning? By now, Dallas wasn’t in any mood to wait, and when I told him about this celebrity deal for his daughter, he said, “tell him if he ain’t up here in 3 minutes don’t bother coming back tomorrow morning.”
Lee then understood something bad was brewing.
(Full disclosure, I found out years later that the reason he had picked up the phone the second time around was that he had forgotten his car keys and had returned to the office to retrieve them. Or else he would have been gone. Fate was on his side I guess.)
When Lee showed up in Dallas’ office, and sat down, Dallas played the tape for Lee. Within a minute or so, you could see Elia’s face turn ghost white and his lips tightened. You could easily tell he had not realized just how emotional he had been, nor did he remember all that foul language. I remember him wincing at times with each F-bomb dropped. It was that bad and ugly.
“What do you need me to do,” he finally asked, looking down at times and then over to Dallas and myself. That’s when I raised the idea of the 6:15 p.m. radio show with Brickhouse, and of how he could explain himself and hopefully say something about why he had gotten so emotional and carried away. And yeah, an apology might be a good idea too.
Lee agreed, and he went on the air, then waited as we saw an onslaught of media cram into Dallas’ offices, ready to fire away with questions. I felt like what it might have been like at the Alamo or at Custer’s last stand.
It lasted about a half hour at least, but seemed like two hours.
That night and into the following morning, it was THE STORY covered by all the local print and broadcast media. And it didn’t end with just that one day. This incident was raised and discussed well into the summer, and then took on a life all of its own for years and years to come. Just check out Utube and other sites on the internet today if you doubt it.
When Elia returned to Chicago 25 years later and we held a press conference at Harry Caray’s downtown restaurant, over 100 media attended and the subject was rehashed, but this time his “Talking Baseball” with some good language on it helped to ease the pain of The Tirade.
Later that night, after attending a Cubs home game and sitting in the front row behind home plate, thanks to season ticket holder Jim Anixter (the Cubs never gave Lee tickets or credentials that night nor did they invite him to appear on a radio or TV show), we retreated back to his Westin hotel off Michigan Ave to have a few cocktails.
Soon it was time for the 10 p.m. local news, and of course, the coverage of his outing at Harry Caray’s Restaurant that day at noon was the headliner that day. From where we sat, we could see a TV screen on the wall, and we were close enough to hear the news coverage. What caught our attention was when one of the lead anchors said, “we’re gonna take a poll tonight. Do you forgive Lee Elia for what he said 25 years ago at Wrigley Field about Cub fans. Call now to vote at this 800 number and punch in 1 for Yes and 2 for No. We’ll post the results of our poll at the bottom of our broadcast.”
Lee heard this and looked over at me. His eyes were sad. “Maybe this was a bad idea coming back here and doing this Talking Baseball thing,” he said. “I still think they hate me. I don’t think I want to watch this anymore.”
I felt his pain, but I assured Lee that I really believed he would be surprised, that the Cub fans I knew over the years loved Lee, and loved the fact that he wanted to win. What they told me was that Lee was “the real Chicago kind” who wore his heart on his sleeve and reminded many of Bears coach Mike Ditka, who would fire off things emotionally on a regular basis. Football fans and all sports fans generally loved Mike Ditka.
The clock neared 10:25 and the newscast was winding down as we sat and had another beverage. Then the announcer came back on. “We have the results of our poll on Lee Elia.” As he was giving out the final tally, they posted it on a graphic on the screen.
I looked up, as did Lee. We both held our breath. Then we saw the result flashing before us. Over 80 percent (I don’t remember the exact number but I think it was 83 percent) forgave Lee Elia.
Lee blinked in disbelief, exhaled and let out a huge sigh. Then I noticed moisture trickling down from his eyes, which were turning red.
“You don’t know what this means to me,” he finally said, his voice shaking with emotion. “They forgive me….wow. You know, all I ever did was LOVE the fans and LOVE the Cubs. I was a Cub player and I so much wanted to deliver a winning team and a World Series to this great city. Now….after seeing this, it gives me some inner peace.”
And then he wept some more. So did I.
That night ended with two grown men crying. Crying tears of joy and closure for both of us. It had given me inner peace as well, knowing that my friend Lee Elia, could hopefully bury a few of those dark moments in his life which had happened so many years ago.
This very decent man deserved that much.