By Tacuma Roeback
I tramped around Wrigleyville on a chilly October night in search of a World Series Game 4 story for my Journalism Methods class.
I had squat.
The deadline for my Features with a News Hook assignment was in less than 24 hours, and by hour number three of my quest, the 73-degree day had turned drastically colder as dusk engulfed the sky.
My first story fell through when a nursing administrator from Thorek Memorial Hospital blocked me from entering their emergency room. It wasn’t her words that dissuaded me. It was the burly security guard who lurked behind the glass entrance. He had a stoic face but an unwavering gaze.
Strike “What goes on at a hospital emergency room during the World Series” from the story list.
On to Plan B: How the World Series is impacting police officers.
That was also a no-go. No officer wanted to talk to me on the record, so I had nothing.
My sore feet flared as I trekked back down North Clark St. through packs of revelers who seemed to be enjoying the times of their lives. Cigar smoke mingled with the smell of grilled sausage and wafted over us all.
People were filing under some scaffolding, across the street from Wrigley Field. As I pushed my way into the makeshift tunnel, I heard a booming voice that towered above all the chatter.
It belonged to a man who sounded like he had a laugh caught in his throat.
“Get your ticket holders here! You got a ticket? Get yourself a ticket holder.”
When I finally made my way to the source of that pleasant-sounding voice, there he stood: a short, bald man with a coy smile wearing shades. He cradled a box under his right arm and had at least a dozen of those ticket holders hanging off his neck.
“What’s up brother?” he said.
I greeted him and pulled out my notebook.
That’s what the last six years of my professional life have been, but nothing out of the ordinary. I worked jobs I hated, and I was refused employment for gigs where I was clearly overqualified.
For me, attending Medill feels like professional and intellectual resuscitation. Who knows what will happen after this, but without Medill, I was sure to experience a career pocked with toil and unrealized expectations.
So, I entered Methods having literally written hundreds of stories and covering multiple news beats.
Generating stories was a test, but the greater challenge posed by this class was to my beliefs about conventional journalism. The seed of this provocative concept was embedded in a casual utterance by one of our guest speakers.
It’s better to be a great reporter and a good writer than it is to be a good reporter and a great writer.
David Haugh, the Chicago Tribune’s signature sports columnist, said that to us one day and it still sticks with me today. Some derivation of Haugh’s sentiment was drilled into us by our professors, Karen Springen and Paul Tenorio. Yet it was the way Haugh phrased it. What he said convicted me.
Because I viewed reporting as this obligatory exercise needed for the more pleasant act of writing and composing stories. Throughout my career, I have had some memorable reporting experiences. But it was rote and it did not conjure the same exhilaration I got from writing.
Nevertheless, I learned there was an art to good reporting, that a creative and imaginative editor can help you uncover unconventional sources that can further enrich your stories. This quarter, professors Springen and Tenorio did that for me, and it transformed my perspective.
Reporting can be fun.
More than that, I still must hone my ability to find and report stories, no matter the situation – even if it’s close to 7 p.m. under a jet-black sky when my feet, stomach and thousands of people around me are screaming.
His name was Joe Gray, and he took a bus from Philadelphia to Chicago with some other men to sell unlicensed World Series gear, like $15 ticket holders.
Gray’s bellow caught one potential customer, so he took off one of the holders and opened the thin plastic pouch.
“You put your ticket inside there to keep it from turning brown,” Gray said.
The man nodded and walked away.
But Gray kept on talking as anxious fans made their way to Wrigley or a bar before the 7:08 p.m. first pitch.
Eventually, he got the attention of this lanky, spiky-haired kid who stopped.
“You got any tickets to go with those ticket holders?” the kid asked.
“Sure,” Gray said, “for $5,100 dollars.”
When you’re in the business of selling unlicensed World Series gear as a street vendor, it is in your best interest not to give anyone your government name. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure Joe Gray is a fake handle – ultra-common first name paired with a non-distinct color for a sir name.
Nevertheless, he let me hang out with him for an hour.
He told me how much money he needed to make for this trip: $1,300.
He even told me his plans going forward if the Cubs beat the Indians and pushed the series back to Cleveland.
“I can sell these in Cleveland, too,” he said.
His ticket holders had “World Series” printed on them in white lettering against a navy-blue border speckled with red squares, a scheme that meshes well with Cubs and Indians colors.
I also found out that he took the 760-mile bus trip with two sandwiches to eat and enough money to purchase a City of Chicago peddler’s license.
His reason for being out here for eight hours on a Saturday?
“If I sell enough of these, I’ll get married,” he said.
Mr. Gray was the centerpiece for my “Features with a News Hook assignment,” which had to be a story related to the Cubs berth in the World Series and its impact on the city.
The team eventually lost Game 4, and another vendor I talked to told me the defeat hurt his sales. Dispirited fans weren’t in the mood to buy T-shirts that read “I ain’t afraid of no goat.”
As for me, that night yielded a better outcome: a grade of 94 for my assignment.
At Wrigley Field on Saturday night, two games commenced: Game 4 between the
Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians and street peddlers versus potential customers.
The stakes were high for both.
Make that three games — you can include my own. I felt like I had, at least on that night, lived up to Haugh’s words.
A decent writer became a better reporter.