106 years of Cub fever for team's oldest fan
RICK TELANDER email@example.com March 21, 2011 10:28PM
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
PLANO, Texas — She’s got the cap, and she’s got the Ernie Banks photo (autographed), and she’s got Cubs balloons all around.
But above all, she’s got the spirit.
‘‘Oh, they’re gonna win this year,’’ Mary Melberg says, without a touch of doubt. ‘‘Oh, yes.’’
She means the Cubs, her beloved Cubs.
Mary should be listened to. She has a soft but passionate voice, a lively demeanor, and she has been around. She was born in the farm country of Virginia in 1905, before Kellogg’s sold cereal, before Ford sold Model T’s, before Frank Henry Fleer invented bubblegum.
In fact, unless somebody comes out of the woodwork real fast, somebody born a long, long time ago, we’re going to declare Mary Melberg the oldest Cubs fan in the world.
She turned 106 on March 11, and she is, astoundingly, older than the Cubs’ World Series drought itself.
The Cubs last won in 1908, when Mary was 3.
What was she doing back then?
She shrugs, unsure. I guess you can forgive somebody for not remembering what they were doing as a toddler 103 years ago.
Here at the Cottonwood Estates retirement community, a sunny compound just north of Dallas, Mary is a bit of a celebrity. And her certitude about the Cubs winning it all is a big part of that fame.
Consider: if you can believe in the Cubs after watching them never reach the zenith in over a century of striving, then you can take that belief and make it a sustaining force in life.
She’s a believer
‘‘Oh, she believes in the Cubs,’’ says her best friend, Bill Temples, seated next to her in the facility’s large dining hall. It’s St. Patrick’s Day, and a good number of the residents are decked out in green. But Mary is wearing a red blouse and her blue Cubbie cap with the big red ‘‘C’’ in the middle. Temples has an oxygen breathing tube in his nose, but he’s funny and fine with Mary’s passion.
The holiday dessert comes, vanilla cake died green.
Mary pushes it away.
‘‘I don’t like green,’’ she says.
‘‘But you like me, don’t you?’’ says Temples. ‘‘I’m wrinkled and green.’’
‘‘I enjoy every minute of life,’’ she says.
That includes watching a few Cubs games on TV, though she doesn’t much care for television. And it includes just thinking about the Cubs and their possibilities, and, yes, disliking the White Sox.
‘‘No, I don’t like them,’ says Mary, whose maiden name is Lawrence and who moved to Chicago in the late 1920s to be with relatives. In 1929 she was asked for her hand in marriage by Fred Melberg.
At Wrigley Field.
The two had met at the Chicago real-estate agency where they both worked, and they often spent afternoons watching the Cubs.
Mary’s own mother died while giving birth to her, and Frank was a man who would be by her side always, she believed.
‘‘He said he’d take care of me forever,’’ says Mary. ‘‘And then he died at 56, when I was 51. He left me all alone. And I never got remarried.’’
She had the Cubs, though, and she had given birth to one child, a son, Fred Jr., who then had three daughters. One of those three daughters, Jennifer Anderson, 47, works at a facility retirement home in nearby Richardson.
‘‘She was the youngest of six kids,’’ Anderson says of her grandmother. ‘‘She went to high school in Washington, D.C., and then she lived in Skokie on Kenneth Avenue. My dad, her son, died 22 years ago, and she is everything to me. I love her so much. I don’t know what I’d be without her.’’
Mary would walk to the bus stop in Skokie and go to Cubs games for years and years.
A cruise to remember
In 1983 she took a Cubs cruise on an ocean liner with her best friend, Marge LeVay, now deceased, and a lot of the glorious Cubs. She partied with Harry Caray and Bill Buckner and Ryne Sandberg. Well, maybe she didn’t party that hard — though she was a youngster of mere 78 — but she has photos of all of them on that cruise, and she had a passion that could not be broken.
Her official ‘‘Die-hard Cubs Fan’’ card declares her a ‘‘fan since 1929,’’ and that, if you think about it, was during Prohibition and the John Dillinger days.
‘‘Gangsters,’’ she says of the era. ‘‘I was scared to death all the time.’’
Whether she really was, well, does it matter? She has survived breast cancer (70 years ago), had a pacemaker installed two decades ago, and she hasn’t walked a lot unaided since she turned 105. But she feels good, and she looks even better.
Her favorite Cub of all time is Sandberg. And like the rest of us who have so much less faith than she, Mary just plows ahead. Maybe someday Mary and the Cubs will converge in a burst of excellence — victory, joy, finality, the big white light at the end of the tunnel. That would be something.
After some thought, you ask her: Is God a Cubs fan?
‘‘Oh, yes, I know it!’’ she says instantly.
You can’t even try not to smile.