Column: 40 years later, the Lee Elia tapes are just as enjoyable as ever — thanks to the ‘Grobber’

Holli Levine and family members went through her late brother’s belongings last year shortly after his death, trying to save items that had value and toss the dumpster-ready leftovers.

Her brother was a prolific collector of sports memorabilia, so it was difficult to know what was valuable and what was worthless junk. But Levine looked inside a kitchen cabinet in the apartment and knew she had struck gold.

“Guys, you’ll never guess what I just found,” she said.

It was the Holy Grail of Chicago sports: a white, plastic garbage bag featuring a microphone, cassette tape recorder, cassette tape and reel-to-reel tape, all of which contributed to the famous rant about Cubs fans by former manager Lee Elia.

“It was sealed up and wrapped up and stashed in a cabinet,” Levine said. “It was him saying: ‘This is not going to sit out. Nobody is going to see this.’”

Levine’s brother was former Chicago sports radio personality Les Grobstein (aka ”The Grobber”), the keeper of the flame of the Elia tirade.

Grobstein, who died in January 2022, had the only original recordings of the famous 1983 diatribe, which has been played on hundreds of radio stations since thanks to copies made over the years. Grobstein retold the legendary story every year on his overnight show on WSCR-AM 670 and replayed parts so often his listeners knew the lines by heart.

The cassette tape featured the original recording. The reel-to-reel was the original copy made by a WLS-AM 890 sound engineer, who put in bleeps for the dozens of F-bombs and other profanities Elia used in order to get it on the air.

Levine immediately realized the importance of her discovery. It was almost as if Al Capone’s vault had been opened, except this time all the goods were still inside.

Other than the rare championship moments, the Elia tirade stands out as one of the biggest single events in Cubs history, alongside the “Called Shot” home run by Babe Ruth, the so-called “Bartman game,” the “Homer in the Gloamin’” and Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game.

It’s such an iconic moment that Nisei Lounge, a Wrigleyville bar, holds a Lee Elia Day every April 29. Former White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko also was obsessed with the incident, including knowing most of the lines.

“Paulie had wanted to buy the microphone,” Levine said.

Grobstein’s only child, Scott Grobstein, inherited his father’s belongings, including all the memorabilia. Scott said he had it for a year and “celebrated” the tapes, but mostly the stuff just sat in his basement. So he eventually decided to auction off most of his father’s items online at The microphone, recorder and tapes of the Elia rant sold for $1,800 on April 1.

“The 40th anniversary of the tirade gave me a little bit of (an idea) maybe this would be a good time to move it forward,” said Scott, a 43-year-old suburban high school teacher. “Originally Konerko was very interested in it and I tried to pursue that. Recently A.J. Pierzynski has expressed interest in it.”

Why not keep the tapes and sell the rest?

“It was just kind of time,” he said. “Was it closure? I don’t know. Is there a part of me that had mixed feelings? Absolutely.”

Scott Grobstein declined to reveal the name of the buyer or speculate on the buyer’s intent.

“I’m hoping it’s used for the right reasons,” he said. “And I’m guessing it was a collector because there is such a niche for these things.”

Whether the items will appreciate in value over time is debatable. The audio version doesn’t sound much different from the thousands of copies made of the rant since 1983. And while Les Grobstein was well-known locally, he probably wasn’t famous enough to make his microphone a must-have item for sports collectors.

But who knows? It’s a weird business.

Scott Grobstein said Saturday’s Lee Elia Day likely would be “bittersweet,” knowing what the tapes meant to his father. But to the average Cubs fan, the mere mention of the Elia tape always brings a knowing nod and smile.

Elia was an otherwise forgettable person in Cubs history, but the rant was a Chicago sports oddity that continues to fascinate 40 years later for a few simple reasons.

Biting the hand that fed him — then chewing it up and spitting it out and biting the other one — is Elia’s legacy. And it wasn’t just any manager ripping his fan base. The fact Elia was ripping 1980s Cubs fans, who were considered lemmings by much of America for perpetually supporting a losing team, makes the moment even more nostalgic.

There have been Cubs managers as bad or worse than Elia since 1983 but none that publicly called the fans “c———-” or “m————” after a tough loss. Most try to ingratiate themselves with the fan base from the introductory news conference on, calling them the greatest fans in the world.

Even though Elia apologized for his remarks afterward, no one really believed him. And there was no accountability from Tribune Co., then the team’s owner. General manager Dallas Green, a product of baseball’s “old boys network” that continually put friends in managerial, coaching and front-office positions no matter their lack of credentials, didn’t bother to fire his pal until many months later and for a different reason.

Anyway, as we celebrated Lee Elia Day on the 40th anniversary of the rant, we also should thank Elia for putting our sports-addicted lives in perspective.

Bad teams come and go here, but we keep watching, hoping things will change. You can’t “quiet quit” a team in Chicago because no one is quietly accepting a losing season.

And whenever we see a team “mired in a little difficulty,” we think of what Elia said and chuckle.


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