Photo courtesy of Ed McElroy
Muhammad Ali, who died last week, and Oak Lawn’s Ed McElroy pose during an event in 1978.
This was like bringing Donald Trump to a Mexican Pride meeting.
In the early 1970s, Muhammad Ali was a hated man by many white veterans for refusing to go into the military during the Viet Nam war era. The controversial boxer was stripped of his heavyweight boxing title and sentenced to five years in prison for draft evasion. He spent a lot of time in Chicago during and after his boxing exile.
White veterans back then didn’t like what Ali stood for and the n-word plus some cuss words were fairly prevalent when his name came up.
Chicago radio personality and public relations guru Ed McElroy, a longtime Oak Lawn resident and a veteran, wasn’t exactly in Ali’s corner about refusing to serve. But he met the former Cassius Clay through legendary politician Ed Kelly and McElroy’s jobs required that he interact with the pugilist.
They formed a relationship close enough that McElroy coaxed Ali to do something no one else would likely ask the Champ to do.
Ali, who died at age 74 last week, agreed to head out to the Maywood area with McElroy to Hines Hospital to meet some veterans.
“I brought out people all the time to meet with the veterans,” McElroy said. “I brought out Tommy Dorsey and Sammy Kaye and other celebrities.’’
Yeah, but those guys were bandleaders and not political powder kegs.
Yet, McElroy pulled it off. Ali may have been against the war, but he wasn’t against veterans who served in battles. And that’s what a lot of people didn’t realize at the time.
“No one said a thing,” McElroy said. “I said ‘if you tell me no, I won’t bring him out.’ No one booed or hissed him. There may have been some people who didn’t look at it as being a good idea, but the majority of the veterans said ‘bring him here.’ So I brought him and it turned out great.’’
There was no blowback after the fact. In fact, McElroy said he received more guff for another sports appearance under his watch.
“I brought White Sox players out there and people took more offense to that because a lot of the veterans were Cubs fans,” McElroy said.
McElroy had a few funny stories about Ali. McElroy was a guest one morning at his house in the 8500 block of South Jeffrey Avenue.
“He must have had 20 mirrors in his house – there were mirrors all over the place,” McElroy said. “He would walk by each mirror and show off his biceps. I laughed and he said ‘don’t you laugh’ and showed me his fist.’’
McElroy, who turns 91 in July, was stunned by Ali’s first meal in the morning.
“He had a dozen eggs for breakfast,” McElroy said. “I mean, eating two eggs is pretty good, right? He made his breakfast himself and he had some bacon, too. He said ‘the eggs are good for you – it gives me muscles’ and then he showed his biceps again.
“He was different. He was something else.’’
My moments with Muhammad
While my one encounter with Ali is not as cool as the McElroy stories, it shows what kind of a unique individual he was.
In July, 1999 while I was covering the Cubs, he made an appearance at Wrigley Field. After the game, he was meeting and greeting the players. He had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Syndrome 15 years prior and his arms were shaking.
I stood face to face with a guy who at one time was known all over the world and whose face was famous for being expressive in anger or joy. But this time, he had a blank look. His famous eyes were open but, as the old phrase goes, the lights were on but it looked like no one was home. I heard that despite his outward appearance, his mind was still sharp, so I said something like “Hi, Champ!”
The Champ kind of nodded at me and minutes later he nodded off in a chair.
His head was tilted and some spittle was running out of his mouth and down his cheek.
The man they called “The Greatest,” didn’t look so great and I felt horrible for seeing him in such a pathetic position.
Then he woke up, wiped his face, stood up and walked toward one of the Cubs players and out of nowhere pulled out a coin from behind his ear.
This guy who I was thinking should be in a nursing home and not a baseball clubhouse just pulled off a really cool magic trick and many of the Cubs players applauded.
To quote a soon-to-be 91-year-old Oak Lawn resident, Ali was something else.