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So long old friend, and good night.

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John "Fred" Speck, Jr. was not big on social media.
If he had something to say about Merle Haggard, politics, or his beloved Chicago Cubs, he would pick up a phone and make his declarations loud and clear. He was a maverick street attorney.

Fred was big in so many ways, including a heart that gave out in late November.

Pat Embry, a college friend of Fred's who now lives in Nashville, Tenn., asked me to check on Fred Thursday night.
I drove to Fred's apartment, within walking distance of Wrigley Field. I found a couple weeks worth of unopened mail--including the Sports Illustrated that announced LeBron James as Sportsman of the Year. Fred would have something to say about that. I met Fred's neighbors and asked them to knock on his door. No answer. They heard a television set from within his apartment........


.....I called 311 and found a friend in dispatcher Mike Kessler. Catholic Charities did a wellness check with the Chicago police.

Fred had been dead about a week. He had a heart attack. Fred was 57 years old.
It's troubling that as the world becomes more connected, the darkness of loneliness becomes deeper.

Fred had hundreds of friends in the Wrigley Field bleachers. He was a force of good nature. He stood about 6'4" and and weighed around 210 in his playing days.

For 20 years in a row he hosted opening day baseball parties, serving hot dogs, chili, potato salad and beer first at his apartment and later at Guthrie's, 1300 W. Addison. He was featured in a September, 2008 Sports Illustrated cover story on Cubs fans, written by Gary Smith. After the story appeared, Fred kept a running correspondence with Smith.

"I've been all over the world," Fred told Smith. "I've scuba-dived the Great Barrier Reef and motorcycled the Icefields Parkway in the Canadian Rockies, and yes, they're both beautiful. But I realized when I first came here 45 years ago that this ballpark on a sunny day was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen, and that it still is today....Winning or losing stopped making me happy or sad years ago.
"I just love being here."

Fred was born in northwest suburban Barrington, but he was a true Chicago character.
He almost always wore Hawaiian shirts. He never married but he wanted a girl friend. Fred lost his right leg to diabetes around 2005 and then tooled around on a cane and random Wrigleyville rickshaws. He was a regular at the Italian Village, the oldest restaurant in the Loop. [Fred would agree the union busting Berghoff does not count anymore in terms of Chicago's legacy joints. ]Fred loved bartender Vinny Masini who has been at the Italian Village for 54 years.
Fred knew a good story.

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"Freddy always tried to have fun," Masini said Friday. "He loved the Cubs. A little bit on the loud side, but a good guy. Every year he would say this is the Cubs year. Every year."

The popular Chicago roots-rock singer Mike Jordan had his early 1990s wedding reception at FitzGerald's in Berwyn. Fred got on stage in a robin egg blue tux and sang the theme from "The Love Boat."
"It was a scream," club owner Bill FitzGerald said on Friday. "Fred had that unbridled enthusiasm. Mike Jordan exemplified what he felt was the true spirit of rock n' roll. Fred was always waiting for the grand slam, the spectacle of life. That's why people loved him."

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Fred obtained a journalism degree in 1977 from the University of Illinois. During his junior year he was sports editor of the Daily Illini. After graduation, he drove a UPS truck for a year before entering law school at DePaul University in Chicago.

Embry is former entertainment editor of The Tennessean and former executive editor of the Nashville Banner. Fred mentored Embry at the Daily Illini when Embry joined the sports deparment in 1975. "I go into his office and he's eating a hot fudge sundae," Embry said. "He goes, 'You want to write, huh? Name all the Rolling Stones.' So I rip off all the names of the Rolling Stones and he says. 'You're in'."

Embry remembered when Fred took a baseball vacation to Mexico during the height of "Fernandomania." "Fred runs into (National League President) Bill White in the hotel lobby and starts chatting him up," Embry recalled. "He regularly dashed off letters to (baseball commissioner) Bud Selig and occasionally get a response. He was like a big, exuberant kid. If he liked it, he really liked it."

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(L to R) Pat Embry, Doug Hoekstra, Fred Speck at my 50th birthday party

I have a truckload of Fred memories.
On Sept. 28, 2000 we attended the final game at County Stadium in Milwaukee. After the game many of the old Milwaukee Braves strolled onto the field. Former Braves--and Cubs--hurler Bob Buhl was in frail condition and was brought to the pitcher's mound in a cart. The lights above the 48-year-old stadium were turned off, one by one, in a measured fashion.
Milwaukee Brewers announcer Bob Uecker said in part, "..It's time to say goodbye. We will never forget you, for what was will always be. So long old friend and good night..."
I looked at Fred.
He had a tear streaming down from his right eye.

For the next 12 baseball seasons I would listen to Fred recite the end of Uecker's speech. I never got tired of hearing it.

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Milwaukee County Stadium

I last saw Fred on the final day of the miserable 2012 Cubs season.
He was sitting at his favorite corner at the end of the bar at Trace on North Clark Street. He liked to sit by the light of the window.

Fred wore a Hawaiian shirt. Fun loving rasta vendor Bob Shaw bought us all a round of shots. Fred, as he was known to do, bellowed out GOLLLD SCHLAGER!" I hugged Fred and told him I loved him.

A few minutes later about 12 members of the Cubs front office staff walked into Trace. The posse included Crane Kenney and Theo Epstein. They looked more like a casting call for GQ than the rumpled baseball figures Fred and I admired, guys like Bill Veeck and Branch Rickey. Cubs manager Dale Sveum then strolled in wearing his grimey Cubs jersey and sandals. This was far more interesting to Fred than the front office people.
He got up off his bar stool, hobbled over to Sveum and shook his hand. Fred wished him the best of luck for next season. He had already planned his two-week sojourn to Spring Training, 2013.
Fred returned to his friends by the light at the corner of the bar.

I think it was Saint Jerome who said, "The friendship that can cease has never been real."
Fred lived full tilt, two tires and a dusty windshield burning down a dirt road. I will miss him.
Could this lonely ending have been prevented with more phone calls, a stop by the house, or more personal touch than an e-mail? Part of Fred's legacy is for me to retain that sense of wonder with those around me. Fred was a loud guy who in the end taught me how to be a better listener.
So long old friend, and good night.

Fred Speck was preceded in death by his parents. He is survived by older sisters Sarah, Martha and Beth. A memorial service is planned, likely around the beginning of the year .
And for sure there will be an opening day celebration of Fred's life.

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15 Comments

What a beautiful tribute to Fred's life. Sadly, I only knew the most recent iteration of Fred, but Pat has regaled me with stories of the old Fred.... Fred the writer, Fred the Cubs fan, Fred the connector.. Fred's legacy will be the hundreds of people he brought together and the memories you all share of him. Thanks, Dave.

I matriculated to DePaul University Law School in the fall of 1978. On the first day of school, I looked to my immediate right. A student sat quietly in a three-piece suit. Looked nice. I looked to my immediate left. The dude wore sandals, cut off jean short, and a power blue T shirt that said "Disco Sucks" in glitter. "What's happening," came that booming voice of Fred Speck. We were instant friends.

In 1986, my wife and I moved to Phoenix, which meant every March we had a spring training visitor. The times together were special. TeePee (best Mexican food anywhere, including Mexico Fred said) in and TeePee out, the Pink Pony, Coach House and Scottsdale Stadium (second best in baseball, according to our resident expert). He would shout a indiscriminate times, "I own this town - where are we?"

I believe the term, "Mahatma" means Great Spirit. If true, I bid a sad farewell to Mahatma Fred Speck.

Godspeed my good friend! You lived life on your terms.

Fred liked sitting at the curve at the end of the bar at Gutheries. When he came in after a Cubs game the bar would be packed, but Fred's favorite seat would miraculously open for him. I picture him sitting at the curve of a bar up in heaven discussing a plethera of subjects with his new, and some old friends. What a great Guy! Thanks for the memories Fred!

Gutherie's Tavern employee 1994...the year we all went skydiving!
CHEERS-
DJ

While working at Guthries Tavern, we told MANY Fred stories, but this is my personal favorite, and I'd like to share it again.

Baseball was on suspension due to the tragedy of 911. When the first game was scheduled, Fred came to me and said (as only he could) "Tina Wina- you love baseball, and I'd like you to me my guest at the first game back" I of course said I'd love too--provided he wasn't late! I waited at Guthries, of course he was late so we went racing down to Wrigley Field. Fred, at 6'4" made much bigger strides that me at 5'4". "Hurry Tina Wina!!"

When the Kindergarden class started to recite the Pledge, there wasn't a dry eye in the house, including Fred's and mine. When most of us think of Fred we think of a loud, silly, opinionated, boisterous, (sometimes annoying), and always quotable guy. But there was also a sensative kid inside that big guy. If you were his friend he would give you the Hawaiian shirt off his back.

Now THAT'S GOOD COFFEE!

Freddie will be missed. He was a great guy, who truly danced to the beat of a different drummer. He loved life. The article is very well written.

I went to Junior High and High School with Fred in Barrington. Starting sometime in Junior High we would catch the 5:15 a.m. Chicago Northwestern train to Irving park stop and take the bus to Clark St. From there we would run all the way to the ticket booth at the bleachers of Wrigley Field. We would almost always sit in the front row in left field. For many years I recounted my stories to my children and anyone else who would listen about our fun times. I decided to take my kids and wife to Milwaukee to Old County Stadium to see the last Cub's game of the season(the game where a ball was dropped in the outfield causing a playoff game). I told the story again on the way to the ball game. As we walked to the will call window you could not miss a tall loud guy yelling to everyone he needed a single ticket. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a leather jacket. As our eyes met I knew it was Fred. He much to my delight recognized me right away and yelled out 5:15 train from Barrington! My family could not believe it.

His singing "career" also started in his youth. He was a fabulously funny guy and much loved by all who knew him. Thank you for a nice article about a great human being.

Great writing.
I knew Fred in college. Sometimes people say "he was larger than life," but in this case it is true.q

I knew Fred as the brother of my (then) girlfriend, Martha, back in my college days. Even as a kid of sixteen, Fred had this undeniable energy and enthusiasm for everything he did. I remember listening to Fred, in the basement of his Barrington home, one afternoon, as he regaled everyone down there with a story about something that had happened at his high school, the day before. What a story teller! Even his buddies, who were, themselves, on the loud and energetic side, paid rapt attention to the star in their midst. It would appear, from the excellent article above, that Fred hardly slowed down as he grew older. Way to go, Fred! You lived life the way it should be lived.

As Ollie O'Shea, front man for the Rattler's said, "Here comes Fred Speck; he can't drink and he can't whisper". We will miss you.

"Its better to burn out then fade away". So said Neil Young. Fred was a comet in his lifetime. Burning bright and leaving a trail memories in his wake. I can see the foursome now. Fred, Harry, Jackie Gleason and Hank. The latter three are barely getting a word in. Will hoist a brewski to you Fred next time at Wrigley. Thanks Dave for remembering Fred.

I grew up down the street from Fred Speck. He went by Fredrico and Buttman in our circles. Both terms of endearment, of course. He was a few years older than me and so he was closer connected to my older brother then, but when we went over to the Speck's (usually to go swimming, as they were the ONLY people in our neighborhood with a pool!), I always tried to wedge myself into conversations and games (Yahtzee! was a favorite) with Fred. First and foremost was his amazing knowledge of not just baseball history, but sports history. As I too was a sports trivia nut, I often sat enthralled with his stories and mastery of statistics. We could sit for hours playing Strato-Matic All Star baseball and he would go to great lengths to explain why the home run pie slice on Babe Ruths disc was so much bigger than Willie Stargells.
I believe I may have been with Fred at his first day at Wrigley Field -- our two families traveled down to Chicago to see a game, my first also at Wrigley. My experience was the same as Fred's: on a sunny day, in mid-summer, at Wrigley Field, you are quite sure you are in the next best place to heaven.
I am quite certain that Fred is in heaven, and he's sitting in the bleachers at Wrigley Field and he's holding a Budweiser in one hand and a hot dog in the other and he's cheering on a team of old Cub greats. Or he's sitting up in the booth with Jack Brickhouse or Harey Carey (he did a wicked imitation of both!).
But one this is for sure: Fred lived life his way -- with volume and with conviction. When I think of Fred, I will always imagine staring into the clear blue skies at Wrigley Field, and seeing a white flag with a big blue "W" on it.
I'll miss you, Fredrico.

For 40 years, Michael and I have been lucky enough to enjoy the Speck Family celebrations. Fred was a master at playing the right music at the right time and with amazing facts about the performers. It warms our hearts to hear and read all of these wonderful tributes.

" The light that burns twice as bright....burns twice as fast "

Fred made my opening day trips up from Cincinnati memorable. From standing and watching the whole game leaning on the left field fence, to the pre-game chili he made, of which I believe a chunk is still lodged in my colon !!!

Godspeed around the base paths my friend....

I don't have the words freddie, that was your dept. see ya down the road

Fred gave my son his first baseball bat. We were friends from The Village, and my husband and I, with our 12 month old son in tow met up with him at the Pink Pony in Mesa, AZ during spring training in the early afternoon in March of 2004. Freddy hollers over to the bartender, "Hey, give the kid a bat" (one of those miniature bats with The Pink Pony inscribed on it), and the bartender dutifully complies. It's one of our most cherished possessions, and may also explain why our son is not athletically inclined in any way. Life moved swiftly and we lost touch, but I will always remember and cherish the moments I spent with Fred, He always brought a huge smile to my face.

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Dave Hoekstra

Dave Hoekstra has been a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer since 1985. His collection of Sun-Times travel columns, "Ticket To Everywhere," was published in 2000 by Lake Claremont Press. He was lead writer for "Farm Aid: Song for America" (Rodale Press, 2005) which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Willie Nelson inspired effort.
He won a 1987 Chicago Newspaper Guild Stick O-Type Award for Column Writing. Hoekstra wrote and co-proudced the WTTW-Channel 11 PBS special: "The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement," nominated for a 2001-02 Chicago Emmy for a documentary program/cultural significance.
He lives in Chicago.

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