Heartfelt letter from Cubs players to young fan demonstrates power of national pastime
While the 2016 Chicago Cubs have certainly raised the spirits of their Windy City fans with a highly successful season, baseball has provided inspiration for its followers for more than 100 years.
Seventy-nine years ago, the Cubs did just that for a local boy suffering through a troubling health crisis.
In the permanent collection of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is a one-page typed letter on Cubs letterhead, dated June 19, 1937, and addressed to Lee Flanagan at his Chicago home. Flanagan, a 9-year-old Cubs fan, had contracted scarlet fever, a potentially fatal and extremely contagious childhood disease at the time known mostly for a bright red rash that covers the body, and thus Lee had to be quarantined at home.
The heartfelt letter, signed by almost two dozen members of a strong 1937 Cubs team that finished the season with 93 wins, reads:
“We have just learned of your sickness and knowing what a good Cub fan you are we thought a little note from us, most of whom have little boys of our own, would pep you up and make the long dreary days of quarantine much more pleasant. Every one of us is personally pulling hard for you to recover quickly and be able to get out into the fresh air and again play ball as you did before that nasty scarlet fever attacked you.
“Who knows but some day you may be wearing a Cub uniform and be able to do for other boys just what we are doing. You might be another ‘Gabby’ Hartnett, or a Billy Herman, or an Augie Galan, or a great pitcher like Charlie Root, Bill Lee, Larry French, or Dizzy Dean. You have just what it takes to become such an ideal player.
“Now we want you to snap into it. Do just what your father or mother wants you to do. Obey the doctor’s orders to the letter and then when you are able we want you to come to Wrigley Field as out guest and see a good game and meet us face to face. You will find enclosed a pass for two so that you may have some one with you to see that no accident befalls you.
“We are all for you and we’ll tell our little boys how sick you are and what we did in a meager way to boost your spirits and we feel it will act as a tonic and aid you materially in a speedy recovery.
“We’ll be waiting for you, Lee.
“So hurry and get well.”
Those signing the letter included Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley, team vice president John O. Seys, manager Charlie Grimm, coach John Corriden, and players Charlie Root, Augie Galan, Roy Parmelee, Joe Marty, Billy Jurges, Bill Lee, Clay Bryant, Phil Cavarretta, John Bottarini, Clyde Shoun, “Gabby” Hartnett, Billy Herman, Tex Carleton, Larry French, Stanley Hack, Curtis Davis, Frank Demaree, Tuck Stainback and James “Rip” Collins.
This was a powerful Cubs team in the midst of a very successful decade, as the franchise won pennants in 1932, 1935 and 1938, and finished in the first division every year.
The letter was donated to the Hall of Fame in 1995 by Ned Flanagan, Lee Flanagan’s son, and in a recent telephone interview he talked about his late father, who ultimately survived scarlet fever but passed away of cancer in 1978 at the age of 49, and his own brush with Cubs kindness.
“I had a great-uncle who had friends in the Wrigley organization and he was able to get them to send the letter,” said the 48-year-old Ned Flanagan. “And the family didn’t even know about the existence of the letter. When my mom moved from the house that I grew up in, she found the letter.”
According to Flanagan, his mother gave him the letter because he was a bigger baseball fan than his brother or two sisters.
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“Then I was thinking about what should I do with it. When she gave it to me I was 27 years old, single, living in Chicago, and I had bills to pay,” Flanagan said. “One thought was that I could sell this for a lot of money. At the time I was with a company doing promotions for McDonald’s and the Hall of Fame had reached out to see if there might be an opportunity to do a promotion with McDonald’s.
“Clearly the intent of this letter was an outreach to a little boy who had scarlet fever and no one should profit from that. So I reached out to the Hall of Fame,” he added. “I knew of his love of baseball and thought how neat it would be for him to be in the Hall of Fame. He got in by having scarlet fever but he’s still in the Hall of Fame.”
While Ned Flanagan has been a lifelong Cubs fan, even sharing a season ticket package until his three children were born, he found out later in life that his father, who had been the recipient of such a memorable act from the Cubs, had at some point changed his allegiance to the rival Cardinals.
“He was a Cubs fan then when he was a kid but he became a huge Cardinals fan and the reason why was he loved Stan Musial. He thought he was just the greatest,” Flanagan said. “As a side note on that, he joined the Businessmen for Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election and the reason why he joined was he did support John Kennedy but Musial was also big supporter and he knew he was going to come up to Chicago to do a luncheon. He didn’t care about meeting Kennedy; he wanted to meet Musial.
“But we did go to Wrigley Field every year,” he added. “He was in advertising, and did pretty well in that, and he had some relationship as well with the Cubs and he would get really good box seats behind the visitor’s dugout. And we always went to a Cubs-Cardinals game and I didn’t realize why until later. He never told me he was a Cardinals fan until my mom ratted him out.”
A poetic bookend to the story is that Ned Flanagan also received an act of Cubs kindness. After being diagnosed with brain cancer early in 2015, he received a video message that March when he was going through brain surgery from one of today’s Cubs stars that shares many of the same sentiments included in the letter his father received from the team in 1937.
“Hey Ned, this is Anthony Rizzo from the Chicago Cubs,” said the All-Star first baseman in the message, wearing his Cubs uniform and standing near the team’s Spring Training ballpark in Mesa, Ariz. “I just wanted to wish you well. Everyone here in Chicago, the Cubs, are pulling for you. Stay strong and keep fighting.”
Flanagan would add that he’s doing OK health-wise today.
“One of my friends is in advertising and he had a camera crew down in Mesa for the Cubs Spring Training. This was March of last year when I was diagnosed and I had surgery,” Flanagan said. “My friend asked Anthony Rizzo to send me a quick video message. He did and it was great. It was like the letter. But instead of scarlet fever it was glioma.
“I knew Rizzo’s whole history with cancer (battled Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2008) so I wanted to send him a thank you note along with a copy of this letter, just letting him know that the tradition continues of reaching out to sick Flanagans. But he didn’t give me two free tickets,” he added with a laugh.
Bill Francis is a Library Associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum