Cubs fans bid farewell to bleachers regular who died during game


CHICAGO -- At the funeral Thursday, the Wrigley Field bleacher fans gravitated almost instinctively to one side of the funeral chapel. What else? They were right-field bleacher regulars. The deceased was one of their own.

Lester Wolper suffered a heart attack and died Saturday during the top of the 9th inning of the first game of a double-header with the St. Louis Cardinals, one of the last games of the season.

He was sitting in the front row of the right-field bleachers. He had sat there during virtually every weekend home game for the last 45 years or so.

Wolper and his lifelong friend Marvin Rich were legends within the legend of the bleachers. The two men had been attending ballgames together for nearly five decades.

Losing season after losing season, Marv would sit bare-chested , mouthing a cigar which he never lit before the 7th inning, next to Les. He called Les, who was two years younger, "Junior."

Marv was gruff. Les was quiet. The most emotion they showed was to curse under their breaths at a bad play. Marv muttered more than Les, and kept score.

If the Cubs lost, he threw away the score card . Les bit his nails and, under extreme baseball duress, could be seen to throw his hands up in the air.

Rich, a messenger, died two years ago of pneumonia at the age of 59. Now, also at the age of 59, Wolper, a mail room supervisor who lived on the North Side, has joined him. The bleacher regulars joined his family at Weinstein Brothers Memorial Chapel on the North Side to bid him farewell.

Among the mourners were a Cubs crowd control staffer in a blue Cubs jacket, and Ronnie Wickers, the ubiquitous fan who refrained from performing his trademark "Woo woo!" cheer, but bowed his head in his blue-and-white Cubs hat.

A number of those at the funeral had been at the Cubs-Cardinals game. Wolper had collapsed into the lap of Linda Eisenberg, a devoted right-field bleacher fan who is Marv Rich's niece.

Eisenberg yelled for Cubs crowd control officials to help. Within moments, she said, paramedics had laid him onto the first-row bench and were performing CPR, to no avail.

"When it was over, everyone just stood there, shocked," said Mary Ellen Hendricks, a bleacher regular who was sitting nearby. "Yet no one could deny that it was the right place to go."

"The first thing I said was, 'Marvin is going to be just so mad,' " said Eisenberg, a secretary. "Marvin died in a hospital. Les died at the game."

Moreover, several fans pointed out, the Cubs swept the series.

Ken Gorman, however, a Northwest Side collections manager who sat with Wolper for 18 years, was not cheered.

"It's a horrible tragedy," he said. "A man that's 59 years old should live another 20 years."

But Eisenberg said she was glad that Wolper, who lived alone, did not die alone. "He was with his ballpark family," she said.

And Wolper's ballpark family acted like one. Sherwin Esterman, a financial planner from the North Side, and Gorman left the ballpark to try to find relatives of Wolper, who was not married. Wolper's body lay unclaimed until Monday, when Eisenberg notified Wolper's place of work. His employers telephoned every Wilson family in Buffalo Grove until they located Florence Wilson, Wolper's sister.

"He loved his family," said Wilson, 68, a retired teacher. "But this I think became a second family to him."

Wolper grew up on the North Side in a family where no one else had any interest in baseball, Wilson recalled. Mildly retarded, he did not graduate high school until he was 21. He worked for 37 years as a mail room supervisor at two companies.

He and Rich, who also never married, attended every Cub game outside of working hours. When the Cubs were on the road, they went to a bar near where Rich lived at the Lincoln-Belmont YMCA, ordered pizza, drank beer and watched the game on TV.

In winter, they went on vacation. "Every year they would say, 'We're going to Florida, unless the Cubs are in the World Series,' " Eisenberg recalled. "And, of course, every year they went to Florida."

"They were always in the first row," Esterman said. "They were always the first ones there. Players knew them by sight. They were just part of the Cubs."

In the early years, the two men went on road trips. They became such familiar, and inseparable, figures, Esterman said, that when Cub announcer Lou Boudreau spotted Rich walking alone through a ballpark in Milwaukee in the 1960s, he said, "Hi, fellas," as if Wolper were there, too.

As the years passed, some of the younger bleacher fans grew protective.

"There were many times when the yuppie syndrome started that these young kids would make fun of them because they were in tattered clothes, had beer bellies and crew cuts," Eisenberg said. "The rest of us would give them the look of death."

Rich died in 1989. Wolper was shaken, his sister said. "I think he missed him," she said.

Bleacher fans watched over Wolper more carefully. They saved his seat so he wouldn't have to stand on line for hours. If he didn't show up for a game, Eisenberg called to check up on him.

Already blind in one eye, Wolper lost half the sight in his other eye. "I'm not sure he could see home plate," Hendricks said. "It wasn't so much that he could see the game, as that he wanted to be there."

After his death, Wolper's sister discovered a ticket for the next day's game among his effects. She plans to give it to Eisenberg, along with a Cubs sweat shirt and scarf and some baseball magazines.

She also found about two dozen Cubs caps. "I picked out the nicest one," she said, and had it placed next to him in his casket.

To their bleacher friends, the deaths of Rich and now Wolper mark the passing of a sweeter time when fans came to cheer, not to criticize, and when everyone in the stands did not look alike.

:. "They were two in a million," Gorman said.

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