To truly understand Cubs manager Lee Elia’s historic rant in early 1983, it’s important to put things in context.
1983 was the second year of Tribune Co. ownership of the Cubs. They had come off horrendous years in the last years of the Wrigley regime in 1980 (64-98, .395) and 1981 (38-65, .369 and if not for the strike, that team would surely have broken the franchise record for losses). That’s when Tribune and general manager Dallas Green took over. Green made significant moves and the team improved somewhat in 1982 to a 73-89 (.451) mark that included a 33-24 record after August 1, the second-best record in the National League in that span.
So there was some optimism heading into the ‘83 season, but those Cubs got off to an awful start. They lost their first six games and were 5-13 going into a game April 29 at Wrigley Field against the Dodgers.
The details of the 4-3 loss to the Dodgers that day don’t really matter, except for the way L.A. scored the winning run. The Cubs had blown a 3-1 lead and Lee Smith entered with the game tied 3-3 in the eighth. He threw a wild pitch to the first batter he faced with a runner on third, allowing the lead, and eventually winning, run to score.
Just 9,391 people paid to see that game, and some of the few that hung around afterward started heckling Cubs players as they trudged across left field to the clubhouse, which was still located in the left-field corner (it wouldn’t be moved to behind the dugout until the following year). In the Tribune recap of the game, Robert Markus wrote:
[Keith] Moreland had to be restrained from climbing onto the dugout roof to get at three fans who were taunting the Cubs as they walked off the field.
“I saw it,” said [general manager Dallas] Green. “They were drunk. There were three guys with their hands full of beer, and Keith tried to get over the dugout.”
After that was when Elia let loose with this tirade in the clubhouse. I realize it’s Saturday, but... if you’re at work, this is definitely NSFW.
We have the late Chicago radio reporter Les Grobstein to thank for that recording — he was reporting from the Cubs clubhouse that afternoon and dutifully recorded all of Elia’s tirade. If you don’t want to play the video, there’s a full transcript here via Chris Jaffe at Hardball Times, published 10 years ago on the rant’s 30th anniversary.
After that 85 percent — 15 percent remark, someone made up buttons reading “I’m a working Cub Fan.” That’s what you see pictured at the top of this post. The button is mine — I still have it. I was, and still am, a “working Cub fan.”
The Tribune’s Markus reported that Green said Elia’s job was “in jeopardy” after the clubhouse tirade, but in the end Green didn’t dismiss Elia after the rant. The embattled Cubs manager did wind up getting fired later that year, for a different reason — after Braves rookie Gerald Perry had come into Wrigley and led Atlanta to a three-game sweep by going 4-for-9 with a home run and six RBI, Elia was quoted as saying he had “never heard” of Perry.
That was the last straw for Green, who replaced Elia with Charlie Fox for the rest of the season. The Cubs finished two games worse than they had in 1982, at 71-91. Little did we know what we had waiting for us just one year later, the N.L. East title in 1984.
In June 1987, Elia was interviewed by Jerome Holtzman, then a Tribune writer, when he returned to Wrigley Field as the Phillies’ third-base coach:
‘’It sounded like I was cursing the entire Cub kingdom,’’ Elia explained Monday. ‘’But that`s not true. I was only talking about those fans who were harassing Moreland and Bowa.’’
The tirade sure sounded like “cursing the entire Cub kingdom” to me. Elia did get a second chance to manage, taking over the Phillies literally the day after Holtzman spoke to him in Chicago, after the Cubs took the first two games of a three-game set against Philadelphia at Wrigley Field. He managed in Philadelphia until the final week of 1988, when he was fired with a 60-92 record. Elia served as a Yankees coach in 1989 and managed in the Phillies system from 1990-92 before retiring from baseball.
Incidentally, Elia also played briefly for the Cubs, 15 games as a utility infielder in 1968. The following April he was traded to the Yankees for Nate Oliver.
He’s still living, aged 85, with his family in Florida. I wish him well — he was a good baseball man and deserves to be remembered for more than just his clubhouse rant, which happened 40 years ago today, Friday, April 29, 1983.