'Bleacher Preacher' combines pride, passion for Cubs baseball
Jerry Pritikin calls himself a baseball nut.
Few who have witnessed the exploits of the "Bleacher Preacher" would argue.
For decades, wearing his trademark beenie, he has been spreading the gospel of Cubs baseball, preaching the word in the bleachers at Wrigley Field. A shameless proselytizer, he has held ceremonies converting fans of the opposition and rewarded fans for throwing back home run balls hit by the wrong team.
The Preacher has issued his own set of 10 CUBmandments related to his favorite team, including, "Thou shalt not start or participate in the wave," at Wrigley, or you will be "exfanmunicated."
Over the years, I have also known Jerry through his connection to my family -- he was my Uncle Lawrie's brother-in-law. Among my childhood memories are fleeting images of his dad, Hank Pritikin, the man who taught his son to love the North Siders and the game of baseball.
Jerry is also an important link between two communities, the baseball community and the LGBTQ+ community. He participated in America's first gay softball leagues in San Francisco. Among his softball opponents was the late Glenn Burke, the originator of the high-five along with Dodgers teammate Dusty Baker and one of the few major league players to come out, after retiring.
And when the Cubs' Julian Tavarez uttered a gay slur aimed at San Francisco Giants fans, Jerry publicly criticized him, suggesting the pitcher donate to a gay community center.
For Jerry, who attended Chicago's Von Steuben high school, my mom's alma mater, his memories of Cubs games stretch back to the 1940s, when he and his brother Allen spent summers at the Friendly Confines.
He said he and his brother would help the cleanup crew as it swept up the ballpark, receiving in return a free pass for the next game.
"Allen and I usually managed to do the cleaning up when there was a doubleheader the next day."
Favorite players included Lane Tech grad Phil Cavarretta and Bill "Swish" Nicholson, a power hitter who earned his moniker from his tendency to swing and miss.
He would often walk around the park with an $8.95 baseball uniform his dad bought at Sears. The uniform came with Yankees iron-on lettering, but he used a scissors to cut it out, replacing it with "CUBS."
One day in 1947, when the Cubs were playing the Pirates, he had two Hall-of-Famers, Hank Greenberg and Ralph Kiner, sign his scorecard before the game. But as he sat under the grandstands, "About the sixth inning, from the rafters a pigeon had a direct hit, and it might as well have been the atomic bomb. I couldn't save anything from it. But I was lucky because the splatter did not get on my uniform."
That year, he said, his father's house was the first in the neighborhood to have a television set -- his dad had found out Jerry was sneaking into a bar to watch sports. Jerry watched the Cubs on the 10-inch screen, as Whispering Joe Wilson, who gained his nickname as a bowling announcer, called the action on WBKB.
But Jerry didn't stay in Chicago, "where people were being arrested in Chicago for holding hands in gay bars," moving to San Francisco "to be myself," although, "San Francisco was not as liberal as it is now."
There, he worked as a publicist and a photographer and also played in the country's first gay softball league, where, in 1978, his Oil Can Harry's Oilers team was kicked out of the second annual Gay Softball League World Series in New York for having too many straight players.
He first became acquainted with Burke, who played against the Yankees in the 1977 World Series, through softball.
In one game, he struck out Burke, using a knuckleball.
"He was a fun guy to be with. And unfortunately he found himself with people he shouldn't have been with."
Burke's career never survived a trade to Oakland, where he was subjected to manager Billy Martin's homophobic barbs.
Jerry remembered passing a pawnshop in San Francisco and seeing Burke's World Series ring on display.
Later, Jerry attended Burke's funeral.
He revived his connection with the Cubs after he became the publicist for a San Francisco production of "Bleacher Bums." The production proved popular during the 1981 major league players strike.
He was able to arrange for a Cubs baseball display in Tribune Tower to be sent to San Francisco for display in the theater lobby.
He also convinced the Giants to pay tribute to Jack Brickhouse before his retirement and even spent time in the booth with the legendary broadcaster.
In the 1980s, Jerry returned to a much more LGBTQ+-friendly Chicago, finding a home in the bleachers and a reputation on the national stage, with recognition from Cubs executive Ned Colletti and broadcaster Harry Caray, who dubbed Jerry the No. 1 Cubs fan.
He has even been paid to make appearances at minor league ballparks.
Only once was he tossed from the Friendly Confines, for playing Frisbee with Mets pitcher Roger McDowell before a 1987 game.
In 2017, the Cubs' World Series trophy wore a rainbow flag as it was displayed on a float in the annual Pride Parade in Chicago.
And the Chicago that once arrested gay men for holding hands now has a mayor who belongs to the LGBTQ+ community.