by Ryan Lothian / Originally published: July 2011
The sign that changed David Cihla’s life came as an afterthought—a last minute idea scrawled on the back of a “Holy Cow” sign. A simple ploy he and his friends thought would get them on television during the four straight beer-soaked afternoons ahead of them in Wrigley’s left field bleachers.
Shortly before heading to the first game with Jim Cybul and Mindy Lehman on the morning of June 5, 1989, Cihla mentioned a story he caught on a late newscast the night before. Teammates jokingly awarded free-swinging Cubs shortstop Shawon Dunston the game ball after the previous day’s contest for finally raising his average above .200. The seemingly trivial anecdote inspired Cybul, a freelance graphic designer at the time, who thought, “We can take this bit of information, put it on a sign, and for four games we can actually track his batting average … he’s batting .203, early in the season, it’s going to jump with every at bat, it’s going to be something noticeable.”
Cybul quickly threw together the sign they took turns holding during the four-game series against the Mets—the phrase “Shawon-O-Meter” across the top, three changeable numbers displaying Dunston’s current batting average (updated after each at-bat) and the words “And Rising. Go Cubs” across the bottom. As Cihla recalls, “At the end of [the series], the sign was covered in mustard and ketchup and it was raining … we just kind of left it there … and that was it.”
But that wasn’t it. Twenty years later, the Shawon-O-Meter still looms large in the 45-year-old’s life. Cihla could have stopped after that series, but he never would have experienced the two seasons of celebrity status in the bleachers, the lucrative offer from Old Style or the insider trips to the Smithsonian and Baseball Hall of Fame. If he gave up on the sign after those two seasons, he never would have pursued a career in real estate, traveled the world or received his pilot’s license. If he didn’t retrofit the sign to promote his wife’s preferred presidential candidate, he probably would have been a Republican voter in the 2008 presidential election instead of a member on the Illinois Finance Committee of Obama for America.
These are the stories of an average fan who found himself at the crossroads of history and opportunity and took advantage. Over two seasons, he earned two decades worth of recognition not often seen today, when public interest rarely survives a 24-hour news cycle. It’s journey that couldn’t begin now—a time when no unemployed Cubs fan could possibly afford to spend a summer in the bleachers, or would ever be allowed to use a 30-by-40-inch piece of foam board or simply the words, “I’m the Shawon-O-Meter guy” as a ticket.
Cihla starts the Shawon-O-Meter story in 1989, but Cybul traces its origins back to 1984, “We picked out a four game set against the New York Mets, and our mission back in ‘84 was, ‘let’s do something to get on TV’ … so we were just media whores.” They made a few signs and had a good time, something they tried to replicate each summer.
Their earliest success came in 1985, when Cihla, Cybul and mutual friend Brent Davies sat in the bleachers, as usual, hurling insults at the Mets outfield. As Cihla recalls, Brent really struck a chord with a certain Mets outfielder, “Lenny Dykstra was playing center field and he just yelled out, ‘Lenny you’re a bed wetter’ … it was perfect.”
The next day Cybul created a sign for the phrase in the only reasonable way possible—by taking a giant white sheet, adding a huge yellow stain and writing “Lenny is bed wetter” across it. They brought the sign whenever Dykstra came to town. They said he’d flick them off and grab his crotch—but they didn’t think the sign had much effect until years later, when a friend mailed them a Philadelphia Inquirer interview with Dykstra that took place just before the 1990 All-Star Game at Wrigley Field. Dykstra, set to start in center field, described the sheet, “It’s huge, too. About six guys have to hold it … I’m curious to see if they have that [tonight].” They did.
After their four game run with the Shawon-O-Meter, Cihla and Lehman (Cybul’s girlfriend and now wife) wanted to resurrect the sign, but Cybul resisted, “Mindy and Dave were thrilled by the idea of being out there and getting recognition and exposure, I’m more of a hide behind the scenes, hide behind the sign, personality.”
Cybul relented and created the sturdier version they started bringing to the left field bleachers everyday—and Dunston started hitting. With all three working freelance or unemployed that summer, and the sign gaining popularity, getting it to games never posed a problem. Cihla remembers, “There were a few times when it was completely sold out … and the guys at the door would say, ‘just come on in’ … you could never do that now.”
By the end of the summer, rowdy bleacher bums hounded them for pictures and autographs, fighting for the chance just to sit next to them (which usually meant appearing on television). The fame continued outside Wrigley, where the three friends made their way into local papers and newscasts, including a memorable segment on NBC 5. Before the live appearance, Cihla recalls receiving encouragement from Cybul and others to loosen up, “So like an idiot I slam four beers and then we’re in the NBC studios, I was like a zombie.” Local anchor Mark Giangreco proceeded to play clips of Dunston at bat while a drunk Cihla fumbled to update the Shawon-O-Meter to reflect his new batting average.
After getting shut out of playoff tickets at the end of the season, they even used their status to get Chicago Tribune writer Bruce Dold to help them out, who victoriously exclaimed in his column, “So the corporate world has some of its priorities straight after all. The Shawon-O-Meter is going to the playoffs.”
“None of us are as enthusiastic as Dave about continuing it into infinity … which really he needs to seek treatment.”
Attention came from other places in the corporate world as well. Several local bars tried to buy the sign and Old Style made an enticing offer—$1,000, airfare, accommodations, and tickets to the playoff games against the Giants in San Francisco. The catch? They’d provide a new professional looking Shawon-O-Meter with an Old Style logo. Cihla recalls, “Our heads were so big, we’re like ‘no, we can’t be bought out, we’re not going to go corporate.’”
Cihla claims he regrets turning it down, despite making the trip to San Francisco anyway, “We were like idiots, we should have just taken it and ran with it. It’s just a stupid sign.” It’s hard to believe Cihla when he calls the Shawon-O-Meter stupid—and hard to believe that he regrets turning down the offer. His life wouldn’t be the same had he accepted it.
“None of us are as enthusiastic as Dave about continuing it into infinity … which really he needs to seek treatment,” Cybul says, half joking. But it shows even 20 years later—whenever Cihla talks about the sign, he beams like the 25-year-old baby-faced bleacher bum emphatically holding proof of Shawon Dunston’s batting average high overhead.
“I was telling all my friends, ‘Shawon-O-Meter is going to the Smithsonian’, they’re like, ‘you’re crazy, you’re insane.’”
As Cybul and Lehman’s interest in the sign waned after the 1989 season, Cihla promoted the sign any way he could—press releases, events and even t-shirts (Dunston bought 45 for teammates and wore one under his jersey). Cihla recalls, “I was just blasting this thing out anywhere, I would make a copy of a VHS tape and send it to people. I was relentless.” He has the hand signed rejection letters to prove it—Johnny Carson, David Letterman and Arsenio Hall all passed.
So he got creative. While traveling for a freelance gig, he came across a story about the Smithsonian in an in-flight magazine and discovered anyone could donate a piece of history. “I was telling all my friends, ‘Shawon-O-Meter is going to the Smithsonian’, they’re like, ‘you’re crazy, you’re insane.’” A month after offering the sign, he received notice of his donation’s approval. But curator Ellen Roney Hughes explained in the acceptance letter, “we would not, however, be willing to cope with a lot of publicity.” Cue press release announcing the Shawon-O-Meter’s new honor—Cihla claims, “I didn’t read that paragraph.”
He personally delivered the sign with a friend and Hughes took them on a tour of the sign’s new home. “We got to go back into the vaults. It’s like Indiana Jones ... this huge room, plastic everywhere, humidity controlled and all this stuff from The Wizard of Oz is hanging everywhere.” After the tour, he made an interesting discovery, “So I’m in her office and there’s this ratty red robe hanging … I ask ‘what’s this,’ she goes, ‘it’s Alan Alda’s robe from M*A*S*H’—just hanging there, like a piece of garbage.” When she refused to let him wear it, he waited for her to leave to make copies and tossed it on for an impromptu photo shoot. While not currently displayed, according to Hughes, the sign has the distinction of being one of, and maybe only, piece of their expansive baseball collection created by fans.
Cihla donated 1990’s iteration of the Shawon-O-Meter—used to campaign for Dunston’s eventual inclusion in the All-Star Game—to the Baseball Hall of Fame, where it’s displayed in a fan exhibit. He made the trip to Cooperstown alone, where they actually encouraged him to get hands-on during his insider’s tour of their vast archive, “So here I am standing, swinging Babe Ruth’s bat. It was just unbelievable. Standing there going like this [swinging], with this archived piece of history.”
During the first two seasons, Cihla’s commitment couldn’t be questioned. In 1990, after being laid off from a cable company, he rushed directly to the game in suit and tie with the Shawon-O-Meter, adding, “I just got fired” across the bottom of the sign.
But in 1991, Cihla couldn’t make it to many games. He finally had a full-time job, struggling as a sales associate for a cabinet company. Earning a paltry $7,000 in his first seven months, bills piled up and the monthly mortgage payments on his Wrigleyville condo went unpaid. Then the Shawon-O-Meter came to his rescue.
“For a while there, I wasn’t doing any real work … I was like his travel buddy and we’d go flying.”
During a day of cold calls, Cihla found Scott Ross, whose family owned 900 apartment units on Lake Shore Drive. Ross was willing to hear his pitch over lunch, and when the meeting wound down into small talk, Cihla brought up the Shawon-O-Meter. Ross reacted immediately—of course he knew the Shawon-O-Meter. “We totally bonded right at that moment,” Cihla recalls. He grabbed Ross a few t-shirts from his car and hoped for the best.
A few days later Ross called requesting a couple kitchens worth of cabinets. A few weeks later he asked Cihla to go flying with him—his family owned several planes and a helicopter. By the end of that summer, they’d become friends and Ross offered him a concierge position with his family’s business. Cihla claims, “I probably got hired because of [the Shawon-O-Meter], that maybe pulled me out of … it was a dismal point in my life.”
The job included a free apartment on Lake Shore Drive, allowing him to sell his condo at a profit—money he later invested in a plane with Ross while getting his pilot’s license. They traveled to France, Italy, Switzerland and Africa, among other places, “For a while there, I wasn’t doing any real work … I was like his travel buddy and we’d go flying.”
After spending the last four of his six years with Ross doing the company’s accounting, he developed a passion for real estate and obtained his license. He’s been an agent ever since.
Over the next few years, with Cihla working consistently and Dunston injured, the sign seldom made it to the bleachers. When Dunston and the Cubs parted ways after the 1995 season, the Shawon-O-Meter era seemed done for good—until two years ago when Cihla retrofitted it for a new cause.
“I’ve always voted Republican. I voted, unfortunately, for Bush twice and my wife has always been a Democrat,” Cihla admits bashfully. But in December of 2007, he took his wife to a fundraiser featuring then Senator Obama and several music acts for her birthday.
“You think about this goofy little Shawon-O-Meter and it opens up this whole window into this … experience, this unbelievable American experience.”
Inspired by the event, an idea struck him, “That was before Iowa … he was down low ... probably in the 20% range … I’m thinking, it ties in perfectly, he’s batting like .200, like Dunston was when it started!” He created the Barack-O-Meter out of an old Shawon-O-Meter (replacing batting average with Obama’s poll numbers) and emailed the Illinois arm of the campaign. The email found Jordan Kaplan, the Illinois Finance Director, whom Cihla says loved the idea—remembering the original sign from the ’89 season.
After bringing the sign to an event, Kaplan invited Cihla and his family to tour the campaign’s headquarters. He met David Plouffe, David Axelrod and other campaign heavyweights while handing out personalized Barack-O-Meter buttons to all the staff—he’d looked up their names on the website beforehand, about 150 in all.
After their visit, the invitations kept coming. Cihla and his wife found themselves spending time mingling with the Chicago elite at exclusive Obama events, often handing out Barack-O-Meter buttons, “We started going to all these events, and I’d make up these buttons … I was like the class … campaign clown.” Cihla eventually joined the Illinois Finance Committee of Obama for America.
They watched on in Denver as Obama became the Democratic nominee, celebrated next to the stage in Grant Park on election night and made the trip to Washington D.C. to watch him sworn in as the President of the United States. Cihla reflects, “You think about this goofy little Shawon-O-Meter and it opens up this whole window into this … experience, this unbelievable American experience.”
During the 2009 season, Cihla made a push to have the Shawon-O-Meter crew sing during the seventh inning stretch at Wrigley to commemorate the sign’s 20th anniversary. Cihla put together a YouTube parody of the opening scene of the The Wrestler, followed by a petition and Shawon-O-Meetup at Murphy’s Bleachers. It never gained much traction and the Cubs didn’t respond, “We made an effort, that’s the best you can do I guess.”
It seemed like Cihla finally decided to hang it up.
Even if that disappointment spells the end for the Shawon-O-Meter, the sign’s legacy is still inspiring today’s sports fans. Cihla passed along a blog entry profiling a sign, inspired by the Shawon-O-Meter, appearing at the University of Kentucky’s football games. Created by Mike Murphy, “The Legend of Cobb” sign tracks versatile quarter back/wide receiver Randall Cobb’s passing, rushing, receiving and return touchdown totals. Murphy claims, “It’s nothing compared to the Shawon-O-Meter, but we are in the infant stages right now and its gaining a lot of momentum.”
Doug Holt—currently a Professor of Marketing in the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford—also sat in the bleachers in ‘89 and ‘90, but he spent those summers researching fan behavior while earning his doctorate at Northwestern University. He explains the Shawon-O-Meter in the context of his research, “In sport fans want to be ‘agents’—part of the game. … Getting a reaction from a player, or creating a perception that you have some small influence on the game, are smallish and routine examples of the sports fan version of this.”
Whether or not Cihla intended to have an influence on the game, it’s clear when he tells the Shawon-O-Meter’s story that the game has had an influence on him.
During a pause in the first interview with Cihla, he approached the bar at Ricochet’s, a small dive near his home, to grab a few more Old Styles. Game one of the World Series played on the television overhead as he struck up a conversation with one of the regulars about what to expect from the series. Cihla offered him this bit of wisdom:
“Baseball is a funny thing, you know … anything can happen.”
You can keep up with the latest Shawon-O-Meter happenings on Cihla’s SOM Facebook page.