Remembering Les Grobstein — and the Lee Elia rant

The radio icon’s death brings back memories of the former Cubs manager’s tirade in 1983 and a column-that-wasn’t two decades later.

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Lee Elia (right) had a lot to be frustrated about in his two seasons as the Cubs’ manager.

Lee Elia (right) had a lot to be frustrated about in his two seasons as the Cubs’ manager.

Sun-Times

My friend and ultimate sports nut Les Grobstein died Sunday, and as the shock and sadness wear off, I’m left, as one is at such moments, with memories.

And the biggest one with Les — and maybe the most amusing (certainly the wildest and longest-lasting) — is of him recording Cubs manager Lee Elia’s profane, hide-the-children rant after a game at Wrigley Field almost 39 years ago.

I wasn’t there that day, but I heard about the tape the way other writers in Chicago and around the country did: via word spreading of an underground sports recording so intense, filthy and hilarious that you had to hear it to believe it.

You now can check out Elia’s diatribe word-for-word on YouTube, but back then — before the internet, Sirius XM and other broadcast mediums that don’t need FCC licenses — you had to hear it on somebody’s tape recorder with a tape somehow connected to Les’ original.

This was 1983. The Cubs were lousy. Attendance was bad. Elia was in his second season as their manager, and he was angry.

Les himself was one of the first press-box techno-nerds, way ahead of his time. The dude always had a tape player with him. How radical! And he was the only one in the postgame quote session that day who actually held out a little microphone and got Elia’s rage down verbatim.

I asked Les one time who else was there to hear it live, and he said he recalled Joel Bierig, Robert Markus and Don Friske were there. Great old names.

At any rate, let’s jump ahead to a night game between the Cubs and Devil Rays on June 3, 2003, at Wrigley Field.

It was my day to write a column for the paper. Night games can go way past deadline, so I chose a topic that was not dependent on time. I could interview Elia, now the Devil Rays’ hitting coach, who had returned to Wrigley Field for, as far as I knew, the first time since his rant and subsequent firing by the Cubs almost two decades earlier.

Les’ legendary recording would be the topic. What did Elia think about it now?

Before he game, I talked with Elia, filling my notepad with his reflections. It was amusing and poignant stuff. The old skipper was a good sport.

Then something weird happened.

I was well into the column, with one eye on the game down below. It was the first inning, two men on base for the Cubs, Sammy Sosa batting.

Sosa swung at an outside pitch, and his bat shattered into pieces. The shortstop picked up a shard. Word soon started to fly around the open-air press box: Sammy’s bat was corked. Oh, boy.

Elia went into the delete can. The column was all about Sosa, the suspected steroid cheater, now a corker.

I never wrote anything about Elia.

Yet he had a lot to say about his old recorded diatribe with its multitudinous profanities in just 164 seconds, including 38 F-bombs used as verbs, nouns and adjectives. He was blasting Cubs fans who were ridiculing his 5-14 team. ‘‘Eighty-five percent of the [bleeping] world’s working, the other 15 come out here’’ is his classic.

But he loved Wrigley and the Cubs, he wanted it known.

‘‘This is the place you want to play,’’ he told me. ‘‘You can’t be a pro baseball player and not understand the beauty of this place. And Chicago is without a doubt the greatest city at the major-league level.’’

This from a guy who played briefly for the White Sox and Cubs.

But that day when he lost it completely?

‘‘The thing that really bothers me — we lost on a wild pitch by Lee Smith, one of the greatest relievers ever,’’ he said.

That was tough, he said, but worse was a handful of fans going after his players, particularly Larry Bowa and Keith Moreland.

‘‘Larry’s was a shouting match; Keith’s was physical,’’ Elia said.

The main culprits, he said, were ‘‘six or seven guys, something like that. In my mind, I was talking about them, a bunch of rednecks. I don’t know if they were drunk, but they were close.’’

Most salient in his rant that day was his command: ‘‘Print it!’’

He didn’t holler, ‘‘Play it!’’ How could he have? He didn’t realize the fine young ‘‘Grobber’’ — Chicago’s own — was taping the audio goods forever.

God bless Les.

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