By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
So why did so many Jews gravitate to vending at Chicago’s ballparks?
You could have formed a dozen minyans from the roster of peddlers of beer, hot dogs, Cokes and, especially, frosty malts back in the good ol’ days of low-cost concessions and admission baseball from the 1960s to the 1980s.
Foremost was a distinctive man almost any fan encountered. Toothless, almost sightless Irving Newer touted his frosty malts, especially in Wrigley Field’s bleachers. Irv seemed as old as Methuselah, yet every year he was back shuffling down the aisles, taking and dispensing small change while satisfying the mass sweet tooth on hot days with the frozen chocolate treats.
Only 5-foot-2, Martin “Marty Mo” Moshinsky plied his trade for 66 years at the ballparks, hauling beer through the aisles or selling $5 souvenir programs at the first Wrigley Field night game on 8/8/88. Destitute at the end of his life, the vendors’ union raised funds to pay for his funeral.
Solly Gold and George Levin manned the famous smokie links stands in the grandstand aisle or in the concourse. Then there was the West Rogers Park connection: siblings Randy and Howard Kadet, and Melinda and Arlen Korer along with Mark Resnick, Harlan Grabowsky, David Shanker, Glenn Smoler and Kenny Dolin, the latter noted for getting a jump on other vendors with quick and early sales. He who hesitates is lost.
Manning a hot dog stand and rescuing the Cubs’ Adolfo Phillips from a runaway concessions cart was a very young Larry Rosen.
And on and on and on…
The best explanation was the old Chicago Way, not necessarily a specific Jewish Way. One or two vendors knew someone in the vendors’ union, got jobs and recommended their friends. These friends got in more friends.
The narrative is picked up by Joel Levin, who with the still-active vendor Lloyd Rutzky, have co-authored a just-released breezy photo-heavy summer book, “Wrigley Field’s Amazing Vendors.”
“My brother Mitch and I went to a Cubs game in 1962 without a job,” Levin said. “Mitch met a vendor friend of his and thought this was great. The summer was halfway gone. The friend said you’re probably too late, you really have to apply the winter before, but I’ll give you the name and address of the union where you can go.
“We went down to 189 W. Madison. Nick LaPapa (vendors union president) took pity on us. He told us it was really too late to start, but you guys look nice. I’ll give you permits to work at the ballpark.”
Accessing a vending job was the same at Soldier Field for Bears games. West Rogers Park native Ron Shulkin worked only football games at a concession stand at Gate AA, but knew who to go with to obtain work and who to pitch.
“Randy Kadet’s ‘uncle’ was the man to see to get on board,” Shulkin said. “Camped out in a small dark basement room, Maury smoked nonstop, and skipped the use of an ash tray, merely putting his cigarette down on his desk, which was striped with the burn marks of previous smokes. He was a large, jowly man, and I never saw him come out from behind his desk. Signing up as a vendor was an eerie, slightly intimidating experience.
“Because I showed up with Kadet to sign up, we were the first of the season’s vendors checking in. Randy, Bobby Levine and I received our union buttons, numbers 1, 2 and 3. You were supposed to wear your union button at all times while on duty.
“One day I forgot mine at home and Maury’s alter ego, a tall, thin, unnamed, suited fellow with a $50 haircut, asked me where my button was. He told me to go see Maury and get a ‘temporary button’ for the day. I later learned he was our union steward, protecting the union’s interest.”
Even with characters straight out of Damon Runyon guiding the union, none of the vendors apparently opted for the slick, groomed, button-down style of the Andy Frain ushers, who worked for a modest set wage.
“The vendors were all sweaty and dirty, but the Frains maintained a clean appearance,” Levin said. Added Rutzky: “But we were making all the money.” Levin cannot recall any vendors becoming ushers, yet “I know of several Andy Frains who became vendors.”
Shulkin had the advantage of working huge crowds at Soldier Field. Levin, though, began trying to make money in a near-empty Wrigley Field. The 1962 Cubs, laboring under Phil Wrigley’s harebrained College of Coaches scheme and headed toward a team-record 103 losses, had trouble drawing 10,000 for any single game. Season attendance was a postwar-low 609,802 for a full season. Three consecutive weekday crowds near season’s end drew 930, 617 and 595.
But the Levins got lucky. Their first game as vendors was at the second of two annual All-Star Games on Monday, July 30, 1962 drawing a standing-room 38,359.
“That was the only time I realized Wrigley Field had an upper deck,” said Joel Levin. “Many times that season the upper deck was closed. There were many crowds of 2,000 or 3,000. I remember my first item was a 15-cent Coke. Wrigley wanted to give people a choice with a smaller item.”
If there was a Jewish sensibility to ballpark vending, it was the old ability to hustle up an income to supplement another job or provide for college tuition while enjoying the camaraderie — and competition – with your buddies.
An enterprising, charismatic vendor could make more money from a doubleheader than most staff wage earners of the day. Or even younger ballplayers.
Rutzky started keeping a diary at age 10. On June 29, 1969, in his third season of vending at Wrigley Field at age 21, he sold frosty malts to the SRO crowd of 41,060 for “The Billy Williams Day” doubleheader with the Cardinals. Rutzky cleared $87.90 peddling. The day before, a single game, he made $45.80. “At that time, $30 was a considered a real good day,” he said.
Pro rated, Rutzky probably made more money from that doubleheader than Cubs center fielder Don Young, a rookie making a minimum baseball salary of $12,000. For another comparison, an assistant Chicago city corporation counsel working in West Rogers Park resident Richard Elrod’s office made $6,300 annually.
The job was a “rite of passage” for many young men – and later a few women, said Levin.
“It appeals to any young guy to have a sense of independence,” he added. “You have a sense of freedom. It’s almost as if you’re an independent entrepreneur. You could work as much as you want. It was such a convenient job. You could do it on top of another job, as I did for seven years when I was a (Chicago Public Schools) teacher. I was off summers.”
Stamina seemed the only limit to how much money a vendor could clear after he settled with the “wet room” off the Wrigley Field concourse after the game. Levin would get no sympathy for toting cases of malts up the steep ramps and staying on his feet for up to eight hours. His mother, Toby Levin, had the longest tenure – 55 years – of any waitress at The Bagel restaurant.
“Some ambitious sorts would always be on the prowl to sell as many trays per game as possible,” said Shulkin. “Ken Dolin would work a baseball game during the day, then (while everyone else went home exhausted) he’d take a train to vend a hockey game later that night. I’m pretty sure he paid for his own first car as a result.”
Before the Mather group donned the 1960s-1970s military fatigue-style pale blue vendors uniforms — later converted to red-white-and-blue striped smokes and even red robes – a whole bunch of Jewish guys from Von Steuben worked the crowds. Levin grew up around Kedzie and Lawrence in Albany Park. However, there were fewer South Shore natives like Rutzky, who went to South Shore and Bowen High Schools before moving to Glenview in 1969 and eventually to his present far northwest suburban home.
Rutzky and others still ply their trade at ballparks today, but “Wrigley Field’s Amazing Vendors” captures a time and a place that simply can’t be duplicated today.
The book re-creates the ballpark experience of older fans who could wake up that day and simply decide to attend a ballgame with as many as 22,000 unreserved grandstand and bleacher seats set aside for single-game sale at Wrigley Field. The shots of vendors against the backdrop of a less-crowded Wrigley Field promotes the concept that baseball was once a pastime.
Both Levin and Rutzky wanted to do books on their experiences. But Rutzky had an ace up his sleeve. While attending Columbia College, Rutzky developed a photography hobby. He took a camera to Wrigley Field in 1970 and began shooting images of his fellow vendors with a Nikon 35 mm camera. At first they were puzzled at Rutzky’s inquisitiveness, but later many wanted copies of his photo handiwork.
“I collected baseball cards, and I fantasized like I was a baseball player,” Rutzky said. “I thought taking pictures of vendors was like their baseball cards. I wanted to take pictures of everyone at the park because I didn’t know if I’d see them the next year. It’s very transient.”
The photo collection proved just right when Arcadia Press of Charleston, S.C., wanted to publish another in a series of its “Images of Modern America” photo-history books.
Levin and Rutzky truly captured a kind of golden age of vending at the ballparks, particularly at Wrigley Field.
Working the stands when the Cubs developed a contender under manager Leo Durocher in the late 1960s, they sold basic low-cost lunch and snack items when fans had few fast-food and drinking alternatives around the ballpark. McDonalds and Taco Bell outlets were not yet constructed, and only several corner bars like Ray’s Bleachers were open. The concept of “Wrigleyville” as an entertainment center supplementing the ballpark was at least 15 years into the future.
With all the unreserved seats available, fans often arrived early to stake their perches. Absolute mania gripped the city when the Cubs seized first place on Opening Day 1969 and did not let go until Sept. 10 in Philadelphia. The team often had to open the gates as early as 9 or 9:30 a.m. A savvy vendor could literally sell his wares for three hours prior to the 12:30 (doubleheader), 1:15 or 1:30 p.m. first pitch with the fans already filling the grandstands and bleachers for Cubs batting practice. Rutzky said he worked 73 dates, including six doubleheaders, in 1969.
In contrast, Wrigley Field and Guaranteed Rate Field don’t open their gates until two hours before first pitch now. With the vast majority of seats sold in advance, fans often don’t show up until almost game time – and sometimes not until the second inning. That cuts into vendors’ sales times, along with the dramatically increased prices. A 45-cent beer of 1969 is now sold by Rutzky for $10, and some fans are nearly tapped out after paying up to $100 for tickets.
“The late 1960s were magical times for vendors,” Levin said. “Everyone’s going to make money. Everyone’s going to go home happy.”
A full house would consume 60,000 soft drinks at 15 and 25 cents apiece, 50,000 hot dogs at 30 cents apiece and 40,000 bottles of beer. No number of frosty malts was estimated, but Levin and Rutzky could not sell them fast enough. In some cases, trudging three loads of the 25-cent treats to the upper deck, which lacked concession stands, all Levin had to do was set up in one location in the aisle and the fans would mob him.
“You could sell out of product by early in the game,” Rutzky said. “Sometimes they’d reorder and the Borden’s truck would show up during the game. The vendors would load up their cases straight from the truck.”
Vending a 40,000 house in 1969 required manpower – or in some cases, boypower. One hot-dog stand owner in the main concourse employed 13-year-olds, under the minimum working age and without the endorsement of the Cubs. One such child laborer was Larry Rosen, now a real-estate man in Managua, Nicaragua. He was just as busy as the wandering vendors.
“Johnny Morris, the all-time Bears great (then working as a WMAQ-TV sportscaster), came to the stand to buy some hot dogs,” Rosen said. “Johnny was second in a long line. The guy in front of him ordered 60 dogs and cleaned out our cooked inventory. Johnny was really pissed off because he didn’t have time to wait. But he was a very nice guy, and I laughed about it.”
Another time Rosen gave a well-timed warning to center fielder Phillips.
“There were also a few storage carts which were wooden on wheels for moving products throughout the park,” he said. “One day a cart got loose and could have continued down the ramp into the area (where players warmed up behind the dugout). Phillips was back there taking warmup swings with his back to me. I yelled out to him ‘heads up!’ so he wouldn’t get hit with the cart.”
But if a child could save a Cub from harm, then a shuffling senior could win friends and influence people simply by being himself. Newer did not have a shtick, a special verbal sales pitch to sell his malts. He was at the time literally older than Wrigley Field, and fans bought from him. Left Field Bleacher Bums president Ron Grousl once gave Irv $8, buying out his entire stock before tossing the malts to fans all over the bleachers.
“Unlike a lot of vendors, Irving bore no grudges,” Levin said. “He was a gentle, good guy. He was a mensch. When I started in ’62, the older vendors did not want to have anything to do with the teen-agers. But Irving used to mentor young people and give you advice.
“He just wanted to do his job. He had a rough, rough life. He lived in northwest Indiana. I think he had to stay at a single-room occupancy hotel during homestands.”
Said Rutzky: “He looked older than he was. I idolized him. He was such an icon of vending. I used to worry about him. He would tell us stories about selling Coke in bottles in the Forties.”
Now, Rutzky is trying to match Newer and Martin Moshinsky for longevity. He officially has 54 seasons in, having started at a concession stand at old Comiskey Park in 1965. He first worked at Wrigley Field in Dec. 1966 for the end of the Bears season. He picked up at Clark and Addison the following spring just in time for the sudden Durocher-era revival.
Rutzky has made vending his life’s work, eschewing office jobs early on. His wife worked customer service in the corrugated box industry as the main breadwinner as Rutzky took care of their children when he was not at the ballpark.
“Once the weather got nice, I couldn’t wear a tie and suit,” he said. “I had to be outside at a baseball game. I was an addicted baseball fan since I was 5.”
Although pushing 70, Rutzky worked through the heat waves that engulfed Wrigley Field as June turned into July. He cannot imagine being anywhere else.
Rutzky and other vendors still have that cache with fans even as their sales ability has changed with fewer hours pitching fans skyrocketing prices. Ex-vendor Shulkin noticed that when selling technology to large Chicago companies, he’d bring his prospects and customers to Wrigley Field.
“My guests were always impressed when vendors like Harlan Grabowsky or Howard Kadet would come over to say hello,” he said.
They may have virtually elbowed each other for a sale, taking out the knives in a sometimes cutthroat business. But the vendors were a close-knit group long after they stopped hustling.
Moshinsky died penniless at 86 in 2008. The Service Employees International Union Local One led an effort to provide him a proper Jewish funeral. A local funeral home paid for the burial. Ex-vendor Michael Ginsburg led a fund-raising campaign among his colleagues for a specialized headstone inscribed with Marty Mo’s trademark saying, “I don’t worry about nuttin.’” Joel and Mitch Levin were among the pallbearers.
Nearly a decade later, Joel Levin and wife Peggy visited the grave on a cold November day to officially inform an old friend he had “nuttin’ to worry about.” The Cubs had finally won the World Series.