Wrigley Field turns 100 and my dad, the message board operator, recalls 9 glorious years

Dad and I, 1995.jpg
Father and son, Opening Day, 1995, Wrigley Field, Chicago. (Chicago Cubs)
Allan Brettman | The Oregonian/OregonLive By Allan Brettman | The Oregonian/OregonLive The Oregonian
Email the author | Follow on Twitter
on April 23, 2014 at 1:25 PM, updated April 23, 2014 at 2:12 PM

I rarely miss an opportunity to say, “My father was the Wrigley Field message board operator for the Chicago Cubs.” And as today is the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field, an opportunity presents itself.

Leslie W. Brettman Jr. grew up on the North Side of Chicago. He’s a 1944 Carl Schurz High School graduate. Three months before graduation he enlisted in the Army at age 17. While stationed at Camp Shelby near Hattiesburg, Miss., he was being trained for an invasion of Japan but instead met my mom, his secretary at the time.

His first choice after graduating from DePaul University in Chicago was an entry-level job at Wilson Sporting Goods Co. of Chicago. They didn’t pay enough. Instead, he went to work for Motorola, then located on Chicago’s west side. He advanced in Motorola, stuck with a division that was sold to a competitor and retired in 1993 at age 66.

Anyway, back to the Cubs.

The year after retirement, he went to work at Wrigley Field as an usher. He once told future National Hockey League Hall of Famer Chris Chelios that he could not cross the left field family section with a beer. Chelios was OK with this. They chatted.

“You guys had a good year,” dad said to the then-member of the Chicago Blackhawks.

“We sucked.”

The following year, the Cubs had an opening to be the message board operator. The message board operator was not the guy in the venerable scoreboard, the one who changes the runs scored by hand.

The message board operator, at the time, was the person who entered data into a computer that appeared in what was then Wrigley’s state-of-the-art nod to in-game electronic entertainment: An illuminated rectangle that spread much of the width of the center field scoreboard.

My dad applied. The application process included a spelling test. My father is a spelling savant. He passed the test and got the job.

His first game, in 1995, was a rare Wrigley Field Opening Day that was not sold out. Baseball fans everywhere were punishing the game for the previous year’s strike that resulted in cancellation of the 1994 World Series. A free-lance photographer for the Cubs took the photo that accompanies this story. Right fielder Sammy Sosa, three years away from the home run chase with Mark McGwire that is credited with returning fans to Major League Baseball, launched a home run that 1995 Opening Day over the left center wall.

Over the next nine years, my dad would arrive a few hours before each home game, driving from his home in suburban River Forest and parking in a Cubs-owned garage across from Wrigley. He’d take his seat in the press box overlooking the third base side of home plate, a spot that was next to the public address announcer and in front of the organist, who is still Gary Pressy. At that time, that was pretty much the extent of the Cubs’ game day entertainment staff. My dad pretty much answered to one guy: team president John McDonough, now president of the Chicago Blackhawks.

A large crystal bowl at my home is full of baseballs that flew into his area of the press box.

After the 1994 strike season, in an effort to re-connect to fans, the Cubs started a practice of having youngsters, wearing new Cubs souvenir jerseys and caps, run out to the nine positions shortly before the team took to the field. The players would sign a baseball held by the child and send them on their way.

Usually, the lucky child was plucked from the crowd at random. Not always. When my son Greg was 9 years old and daughter Anne was 6, it was their turn. Greg ran to third base (we think it was Tyler Houston at that point in Cubs history). Anne, her jersey hanging past her knees and cap pulled so far down I do not think she could see, ran to home plate and stood on top. I have a photo of the four umpires and then-Cubs Manager Jim Riggleman looking down on her.

Dad’s time overlapped only two years with Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray, who was known for leading a seventh inning stretch rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

"Us old guys have to stick together!" Caray once told my dad.

Starting in 1998, after Caray’s passing, McDonough decided a celebrity would take over the seventh inning stretch singing duties. An inning or two before their act, the celebrities would stop inside the booth to coordinate with Pressy, the organist. So for the next six years, my dad met a parade of celebrities. Jamie Lee Curtis, Ann-Margret, Mickey Rooney, Russell Crowe and Mike Ditka were among his favorites.

His last game was in the Cubs’ 9-6 loss, on Oct. 15, 2003, in the seventh game of the National League Championship Series to the Florida Marlins, who would go on to win the World Series.

The Cubs replaced his message board with an updated model the following year.

I called my dad Wednesday.

“Being there every day was exciting,” he said. “It was good walking up those eight floors (to the press box), never using the elevator. Going in the cafeteria and seeing all these names, (National Baseball Hall of Fame third baseman) Ron Santo always coming to exclaim his opinions very loudly and very directly.”

My father attended his first Cubs game at Wrigley in 1935 when he was 8 years old. A few years later, he saw Brooklyn Dodgers first base coach Babe Ruth hitting fungoes before a game.

My dad is 87.

“Will the Cubs go all the way this year?” I asked.


“This year we diehards think if they get within 10 games of .500 on the losing side that will be satisfactory. Next year, .500. And then, next year, you know, contenders.”

-- Allan Brettman