Chicago Cubs' legendary 'Bleacher Preacher' celebrates 80 years at Wrigley Field

ByJohn Owens Localish logo
Monday, November 13, 2023
Cubs' legendary 'Bleacher Preacher' celebrates 80 years at Wrigley
Jerry Pritikin, now 86, has done much of his cheering for the Cubs in character as "The Bleacher Preacher."

CHICAGO -- Major League Baseball's post-season started this week. And once again, the two MLB teams in Chicago aren't represented.

But don't blame Jerry Pritikin for that. He did his part by making his usual multiple appearances at Wrigley Field this summer, rooting on the Cubs as he has done for the past 80 years.

"Its disappointing; I thought we had a dynasty starting in 2016," Pritikin said about the Cubs September collapse this year, which left them out of the playoffs. "But this year wasn't that bad. I remember Opening Day 1980; I saw some fans holding up signs in the bleachers saying 'Wait Until Next Year! And they started holding up those signs in the first inning! Turns out, they were right -- the Cubs lost 98 games that year."

Pritikin, now 86, has done much of his cheering for the Cubs in character as "The Bleacher Preacher," one of the most beloved denizens of the Wrigley Field scene over the past four decades. He's often present in the left field bleachers, wearing his trademark white jersey with the name "Bleacher Preacher" on the front, and a pith helmet topped with a beanie-style propeller, which random fans will occasionally spin, much to Pritikin's delight.

Harry Caray, the legendary announcer for Cubs, White Sox and St. Louis Cardinals games, once called Pritikin "the world's greatest Cubs fan." And Pritikin is still routinely recognized by longtime Cubs fans when he takes in a game at Wrigley.

"You should root for no other team but the Cubs while you're in the bleachers," Pritikin will tell younger fans who are in the stands with him.

Pritikin and Cubs super-fan Ronnie "Woo Woo" Wickers are perhaps the most high-profile Cub fans making it to Wrigley Field on a regular basis over the past 50 years.

"Guys like Jerry Pritikin and Ronnie 'Woo Woo' Wickers are like performance artists," said George Castle, a veteran baseball journalist who was also a regular in the Wrigley Field bleachers back in the 1970s and 1980s.

"Those guys didn't just come to the ballpark to watch a game," Castle said. "They actually got actively involved with their personalities, as off-key as those personalities could be. And they got other fans involved."

Ronnie "Woo-Woo's" shtick has always been basic: He simply repeats the phrase "Cubs-Woo!" at the top of his lungs.

Pritikin's work as "Bleacher Preacher" is a little more nuanced than that of his friend Wickers. His act includes team "conversions," where he convinces fans of other teams to become Cub fans.

"Every once and awhile, I'd succeed," Pritikin said.

But Pritikin's best-known creation as "Bleacher Preacher" are his signs. He has created hundreds of signs that he's displayed in the Wrigley bleachers over the years. Some are vintage, like his classic 80s era tribute sign to Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg: "To Error Is Human, To Not Is Sandberg."

And some of his classic signs are from more recent times, like the one he created in the Cubs World Series year of 2016: "Our Long National League Nightmare is Over."

"Arne Harris (the longtime director of Cubs games on WGN-TV), once he started showing my signs on the air, it became a tradition," Pritikin recalled.

Now, his signs are so well-known, that the Chicago History Museum is talking with Pritikin about adding them to the institutions collection of Chicago memorabilia.

"I still have all the signs, and they go back to the 80s and they're all over my (one-bedroom Gold Coast) apartment," Prikitin said. "I really need to get them out of my place, to make more room."

Pritikin has been a Cubs fan as long as he can remember. His father, Hank, who moved the Pritikin family from Santa Monica, California to Chicago's Albany Park neighborhood in 1941, first got Jerry into the North Side team. The father and son first attended a game at Wrigley in 1943, when Jerry was 6.

"I just remember that the game got rained out," Pritikin said.

But two years later, in 1945, Jerry and Hank went to a number of games at Wrigley. That happened to be the last Cubs team to make it to the World Series until 2016. And that was the team that the future "Bleacher Preacher" fell in love with.

"I still clearly remember the numbers of all the players on that team," Pritikin said. "Andy Pakfo was number 44, Bill Nicholson was 43, 37 was Peanuts Lowery, Stan Hack was 6 and so on. And I can't remember what I did yesterday!"

Pritikin also fell in love with Wrigley's fans, including a guy nicknamed "Slow-Motion Happy," who was a bleacher regular in the 1940s. His shtick was doing slow-motion reenactments of the action on the field.

"He would be a major influence on me as a fan," Pritikin recalled.

Pritikin never finished high school; instead, he would start working as a successful salesman at Marshall Fields Department store in the late 1950s, and as a jewelry salesman on Chicago's West Side.

It was also during that time when Pritikin came out as gay. In 1961, he would move to San Francisco, which was by that time becoming a haven for the gay community. He would spend the next 20-plus years in San Francisco, working as a photographer who was embedded within the gay community. He would become something of a personal photographer for Harvey Milk, the San Francisco city councilman who would become that city's first open gay elected official. And Pritikin sold many of his photos to AP, UPI and a variety of gay publications in the Bay Area.

Many of those San Francisco photos from the 1970s were recently on display at the Chicago Center for Photojournalism in Uptown, which devoted an entire month to an exhibit of Pritikin's photos, called "When Then Was NOW"!

"Our gallery has concentrated on human rights, humanitarian issues and photojournalism," said Denise Keim, the owner of the Chicago Center for Photojournalism. "Jerry's photos were a perfect fit for us, because he touches on all of these things. His photos really capture an important time in our country's history."

While in San Francisco, Pritikin would remain attached to the Cubs. He was a publicist for the play "Bleacher Bums," when that classic Chicago production about Cubs fans traveled to the Bay Area in the late 1970s. He also organized a tribute to longtime Cubs announcer Jack Brickhouse at San Francisco's Candlestick Park when the WGN-TV broadcaster announced his retirement in 1981.

But Pritikin missed Chicago and was distressed by the number of his San Francisco friends who were taken by the AIDS epidemic. So he moved back to Chicago in 1984, the same year that the Cubs returned to the post-season for the first time since 1945.

It was in 1984 that Pritikin created his "Bleacher Preacher" character.

"I originally called myself the 'Bleacher Creature,' but I found out that there were a section of fans at Detroit's old Tiger Stadium that already called themselves 'Bleacher Creatures.' So I smoked a little number and thought about it for a few hours and came up with 'Bleacher Preacher.' And that's what I've been known as ever since," he said.

He quickly became a national phenomenon, with the Wall Street Journal publishing a major piece about him in the late 1980s. Topps even issued a "Bleacher Preacher" baseball card featuring Pritikin in full costume.

In addition to his signs, the "Bleacher Preacher" also became known for his "Ten Fan-Mandments," which he would display on signs made up like Old Testament tablets. He would revise these "Fan-Mandments" (which he also called "Cub-Mandments") every year, with unique orders like "Thou Shalt Not Take The Name Of Ernie Banks In Vain" or "Thou Shall Stand Up With Harry Caray In The 7th Inning".

"I kind of developed a Moses complex with the 'Fan-Mandments,'" Pritikin said. "Cause Moses never made it to the Promised Land. And in baseball the Promised Land is the World Series, which the Cubs never made for years."

In 2014, thirty years after he created the "Bleacher Preacher" character, Pritikin was honored by the Baseball Reliquary, a not-for-profit educational organization dedicated to baseball history. That group gave Pritikin its Hilda Award, which recognizes distinguished service by fans. It's named after Hilda Chester, the longtime Brooklyn Dodgers fan who was a staple at Ebbets Field.

"I'm so proud of that honor," he said.

He used to be a daily presence at Wrigley Field, as long as the Cubs were in town. But he's cut back on his appearances at Wrigley. It's not because of his age Pritikin is still very active. But the Cubs now have an average ticket price of $186, the fourth most expensive ticket in Major League Baseball, behind only the L.A. Dodgers, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

Those prices are far too steep for Pritikin, a retiree who lives on his Social Security income. It's also too steep for a number of other Cubs regulars like Ronnie "Woo Woo." In fact, the colorful fans who were regulars and impromptu mascots at stadiums across the country have been similarly priced out of attending games.

"You don't see the colorful fans at baseball games anymore, and it's a big loss to the game," Castle said. "It's unfortunate, but it you charge that kind of money, these colorful fans just can't afford to show up."

Pritikin also isn't a big fan of the extensive renovations done to Wrigley Field over the past 20 years or so, especially those additions made by the Ricketts family after purchasing the team from the Tribune Company in 2009, including the video boards inside the park and the elaborate village outside.

"I'm having a hard time adapting to the Ricketts ballpark. It's just not what it used to be," Pritikin said. "Like, it used to be you were able to see the pitchers warm up, but now that's not something we're privileged enough to see. It's really depressing."

Still, Pritikin made it to a number of games at Wrigley this past season, usually getting tickets from his longtime admirers.

Castle said the Cubs should honor Pritikin for his work as "The Bleacher Preacher."

"The team should recognize Jerry as he gets into his late 80s, while he's still with us, simply because of his seniority," Castle said. "If a man's fandom goes back to (1930s Cubs players) Gabby Harnett and Phil Cavaretta and Bill Nicholson, that's pretty impressive."