Talking Cubs baseball is one of the most enjoyable and therapeutic human experiences I’m aware of (sorry, Cards, fans). Talking Cubs baseball with a Wrigley Field historian takes it to another level. Brian Bernardoni is a lifelong Cubs fan who has worked part-time for the team as a tour guide for two decades and knows the ballpark inside and out.
I recently had the privilege of speaking with Bernardoni about everything from Wrigley, the World Series, Cubs stories of the past, 2018 predictions, and more.
TS: Brian, thanks so much for taking the time to chat. If you could, start out by telling the fans how you became a historian with the Cubs.
BB: Sure! The Cubs have their official historian, Ed Hartig, who most Cubs fans would know writes for Vine Line, among other things. I started working for the Cubs in 1998 and started as a Wrigley Field tour guide. During the course of that season, the Cubs were still owned by the Chicago Tribune, and there were standard tour notes that were out there for the tours. I looked at them and felt they were inadequate and a little inaccurate as well. So I thought, maybe I can redo these notes and make them more accurate. What ending up happening was, I redid the notes, used them for my tours, and the Cubs took notice of that. They started using those notes for the base points for the tours. A majority of my notes are still part of the Wrigley Field tours. I ended up putting together about 300 pages of research about the ballpark; it’s been very rewarding.
TS: That’s great. Wrigley Field to me is the best sports venue on the planet. This might be a tough question for you to answer since you know Wrigley more intimately than most, but what’s your absolute favorite part of the ballpark?
BB: My favorite part is the home dugout. Every time I’m in the home dugout and seeing the field at ground level — sometimes very, very early in the morning — and just watching how the ballpark comes alive, watching the grounds crew prepping the field, watching the dedication of the Cubs employees, it’s really awesome. The vantage point from the home dugout is pretty amazing. And you know, after all these years of giving tours, I still get the same level of excitement that I did walking on the field for the first time in 1996. It’s a pretty special thing. The dedication of Cubs employees is without question, they’re doing this for love. You’re part of something much bigger than you.
TS: That seems to be the sentiment of every Cubs fan or employee I’ve ever talked to. We all get the same feeling every time we walk into Wrigley, and it’s really second to none. I understand the Cubs asked you to speak on their behalf in 2010 for their landmark status. Can you give us some background on what went down with that?
BB: I think there are two different ideas of Wrigley. There’s this romantic notion that Wrigley will always be the same. People take a snapshot and they think, This is the same ballpark that was here in 1914. I’ve seen it from baseball purists, even. But the building is a mosaic. The building is a patchwork of different owners, different trends in baseball that have built it into what it is today. There were changes to the park within weeks of it’s opening. Even the whole notion that there was never anything blocking the rooftops, those are refuted by photographic evidence.
My grandmother played there in 1933.. there weren’t even the bleachers at that time. There’s a whole series of arguments that we put together to help refute the “Don’t touch Wrigley, it’s perfect” crowd. It’s an old building, there’s realities that go along with it. It’s far from me being anti-Wrigley field. I love the building with every breath I take. It’s a building that has shown amazing resilience to adapt to changing with the needs. The Ricketts and the architects have done it in such a way to make it really special. The Ricketts really care about the place and they want it to last.
TS: From the first minute Ricketts took over the team, I was excited that he not only wanted to win, but he wanted to keep Wrigley Field. To keep it, updates were clearly needed and Cubs fans should be glad all of this fell into the right hands. I’ve got to ask about the World Series. Since you’ve been around the team for so long, what was it like to you when it finally happened?
BB: My 10-year-old daughter was sleeping upstairs. She fell asleep after nine innings. When we went into extra innings, I was just walking up and down the stairs. There’s nothing you can do, right? You can’t sit still. You’re basically preparing two different speeches. Speech 1 is “We won the World Series,” and Speech 2 is “Sweetheart, this is what it means to be a Cubs fan and we’ll win it next year.” And you’ve got both speeches in your head. You just know the narrative and the history.
When they won this thing, I literally didn’t know what to do. There was overwhelming joy and craziness. I had to be on a flight to Orlando the next morning and a part of me just didn’t believe it. I think I only slept two hours. First thing in the morning, I went to a couple gas stations looking for a newspaper because I needed to see it in print. I needed something tangible to believe it. Finally I get to O’Hare and I see a newspaper that said “At Last” on the headline.
There are moments of just absolute pride. I could’ve floated on air the entire week after. When I got back to Chicago, my wife took me to the ballpark and one of my most cherished photos was at the marquee.
TS: I’m right there with you. Sometimes I’ll pop the DVD in just to prove it actually happened. It’s still incredible to think about 15 months later. Well, you’ve been with the Cubs since the Sammy Sosa days in 1998, I’m sure you have a crazy amount of stories with former players, coaches, broadcasters, etc. Can you think of one or two stories that might be interesting for fans to hear?
BB: I’ve been real fortunate to have relationships with a lot of people in the ballpark. Gary Pressy, Jack Brickhouse, Dutchie Caray, Billy Williams comes to mind. Ernie Banks actually introduced me to my wife! Anyone who has ever been around Ernie knows the last thing he would talk about is baseball. He’d ask you if you were married, and he’d find a woman in the crowd and try to set you up with her. Ernie did that for thousands of people over his lifetime. He would never talk about himself, he would turn every conversation around to be about you, which made you in that moment feel like the most important person in the world. So that’s a great personal story.
One of my other favorite stories is a quirky one. It was at Cubs convention, the year we were honoring Ron Santo. I was a big Dave Kingman fan growing up, I got to see Kingman at Cub convention. I walked up to him and I felt like a 10-year-old kid again. I said, “Mr. Kingman, I want you to know you were my first No. 10.” Kingman ended up buying me a couple drinks and talking to me for hours. It was a really amazing day.
TS: That’s amazing that Ernie Banks introduced you to your wife. How cool is that? I love hearing stories from the past, but it’s also great to have so much excitement surrounding the present. Let’s talk about the 2018 Cubs a little bit. What are your thoughts coming into this season?
BB: Schwarber is a beast, man. This is a kid who is in full belief, he’s out to prove everyone wrong. We’ve got an excellent starting rotation. We’ll be okay in middle relief. There’s always questions about closers in baseball, but we’ve got good arms. The attitude is clearly there with Rizzo, Bryant, and what you’re seeing from Russell; he should have a comeback season, his attitude is sharp. Baez will continue to be the most exciting player in baseball, he’s in great shape. The change in coaching will prove out. Quintana is who I’m most excited to see.
The organization is set. Culture is important [and] I think this team will come together. I don’t see any outliers that would cause friction in the system. The Cardinals could spark up the rivalry, the Cardinals will be good. We’re going to be in it and we’ll be watching the scoreboard pretty early in the season. Cubs fans can feel pretty comfortable that they’re going to be a good team for a very long time. Joe knows when to play the quirks and when not to play the quirks. It’s theirs to lose. Teams have figured out the Cubs way and that’s going to be the challenge.
This is not a team that hit lightning in a bottle, this is the makings of the Blackhawks. This is a core of competitors that complement each other; people don’t talk about that. This is a very, very good team. A very well-managed team. This is the real deal. We expect this team to win.
TS: I’m glad you said that about Kyle Schwarber. I think he’s going to have a great year. This team will be in great shape if even one of Schwarber, Baez, or Russell take it up a step offensively. Brian, thanks so much for your time. It has been awesome to talk Cubs baseball and hear some of the stories. Before we let you go, tell us about the Wrigley tours.
BB: People should go to cubs.com and check out the tours. If you want to book larger groups, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Its arguably the best tour in sports. We have passionate tour guides, very talented people. They bring that passion to the ballpark. It’s not just a job, it’s a passion. Getting to go to Wrigley and seeing it in a behind-the-curtains way is a really cool thing. I’ve never seen a fan come out of it saying they’ve seen it all before. If you have a passion for life and you love what you do, and you find the right organization to be part of, where loyalty does matter, it just doesn’t get any better. Mr. Ricketts rewards people like that.
You can follow Brian on Twitter (@Brianbernardoni) and you can find him during the season guiding tours around the ballpark. If you have time before a game or just want to stop by Wrigley when the Cubs are out of town, those tours cost $25 and last approximately 75-90 minutes