The amazing story behind the Chicago Cubs’ No. 11
CHICAGO – Every Cub was soaked, drenched in champagne. But not hitting coach John Mallee.
No, Mallee’s uniform was completely dry as he stood in the outfield chatting with family about an hour after the Cubs advanced to the World Series for the first time since 1945 on Saturday night.
Mallee had not participated in the wild clubhouse celebration inside the home clubhouse at Wrigley Field. He had remained at his locker in the coach’s room, holding an imaginary conversation with his late father, John Sr.
“I went and sat with him for a little while, sat with him and had a little chat,” Mallee said. “It was kind of cool. I was looking up at him, talking to him a little bit.
“I thanked him. And I told him, ‘We’re not done yet. Don’t be over there partying in heaven’s night club. We’ve still got work to do.’”
John Sr., a retired Chicago police officer, was a Cubs fan who died on Feb. 13 at the age of 82. The last time he saw his son, shortly before spring training, he said, “You and the Cubs are going to win the city a World Series this year.”
Four days later he was gone, according to a story first reported by the Chicago Tribune. But in death, John Sr. has grown almost larger than life to his remaining children, John Jr., 47, and his older sister, Kathy, 51.
Growing up in Hegewisch, a neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, John Jr. and Kathy had only a vague understanding that their father was in the military – their mother, Charmaine, had told them that he was in the army and jumped out of airplanes, but that was it.
John Jr. and Kathy did not know he was a veteran of the Korean War. Nor did they know he was part of the Army’s 11th Airborne Division, which formed during World War II and consisted of one parachute and two glider infantry regiments.
Only after the death of John Sr. did John Jr. and Kathy discover why their father was fixated on the No. 11, why he insisted that John Jr. wear the number on his baseball uniform from the time he was a small boy.
“We never knew,” Kathy said. “My dad would change my brother’s uniform, make people give him that number, even pulled him off a team one time so he could have it. He was his coach in Little League because he wanted to make sure he had that number. It has been on his back since he was 3 years old.”
Charmaine had told Kathy and John Jr. that their father would not go on planes due to his military experience; John Sr. actually bought a van so he could drive Jr. all over the country to help the youngster pursue his passion for baseball.
Only while planning for their father’s wake and funeral did Kathy and John Jr. learn that John Sr. had fought in Korea. Kathy, unbeknownst to other family members, made arrangements for military representatives to present their mother with the flag at the funeral and play taps as a final tribute.
Shortly after that, while going through her father’s boxes, Kathy discovered patches and military paperwork indicating that he was part of the Army’s 11th Airborne Division.
It was then that the meaning of No. 11 became clear.
“I was sitting on my bedroom floor in tears. I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s why,’” Kathy said.
Kathy took photographs of what she had found and forwarded them to her brother, who by then had returned to spring training. John met someone in Arizona who shared information with him about the 11th Airborne Division, and proudly related to Kathy that their father was “a bad ass.”
A few months later, as Father’s Day approached, Kathy had another idea.
Her mother had given her the flag – the family had suffered another loss, the death of the middle child, Kelly, 46, to cervical cancer less than nine months before the death of John Sr. Charmaine, in anguish over losing her daughter and husband so close to one another, did not want anything in the house, Kathy said.
Kathy bought a frame for the flag and had a plaque made for it. The plaque included her father’s name, the dates of his birth and death, the words “11th Airborne Division” and an army logo.
On Father’s Day, before a home game against the Pirates, Kathy hand-delivered the framed flag to John, along with a separate, smaller frame that included three of their father’s military patches.
“I had it. But it just didn’t feel right,” Kathy said of the flag. “To me, that should be passed on to a son, knowing how important it was for my brother, how close they were. He was meant to have that. And I wanted my dad to be with him.”
John hung the flag over his locker at Wrigley and displayed the patches inside. He taps both frames before every home game, quietly telling his father, “Help me get through today, Pops.”
But that isn’t the only time John asks Pops for assistance.
During the eighth inning of Game 5 against the Dodgers, with the Cubs leading, 3-1, John recalled telling his father, “If I ever needed you, I need you now – I’ve got to have it.”
The Cubs scored five runs that inning on their way to an 8-4 victory, then returned to Wrigley and clinched the NL title on Saturday night.
The No. 11, meanwhile, keeps popping up in the Mallee’s lives.
Charmaine recently talked with John about how a team needs 11 victories in the postseason to win the World Series. The Cubs lost Game 3 of the Division Series to the Giants on Oct. 10, but completed their four-game triumph on Oct. 11.
John had worn No. 11 in his previous job as the Astros’ hitting coach, worn it as a minor-league player and instructor. But infielder Tommy La Stella had that number with the Cubs in 2015, while Mallee, in his first year with the team, wore No. 2.
Shortly before Christmas, La Stella called Mallee and said he wanted to give him his old No. 11 back. La Stella took No. 2. Neither knew the true significance of No. 11 to the Mallee family. John Sr. was still alive at that time.
“I wanted to do something nice for a guy who I really cared about,” La Stella said. “He’s an incredible friend and even better coach. That’s what it was about for me.”
And so No. 11 endures, not only on John’s back in the World Series, but also on the back of his younger son, Austin, 12, who plays baseball and basketball.
John Sr.’s headstone says: “Rest in God’s Dugout.”
Right now, the view from that dugout is pretty good.