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I Witnessed The Legendary Mike Royko Vs. Bernie Judge Fight In The Billy Goat Tavern

Former DNAinfo City Hall reporter Ted Cox was just out of school when the two Chicago journalism giants squared off in the Billy Goat Tavern in the 1980s. He finally put it in writing.

Bernie Judge, left, and Mike Royko.
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THE GOAT — I witnessed the fistfight at the Billy Goat between Mike Royko and Bernie Judge, the infamously caustic newspaper columnist and the equally pugnacious editor.

The whole incident is etched in memory, because over the years I’ve told the story time and again, to anyone who would listen, and always the same, never embellished. With a story this good, and this true to life, there was never any need to lay it on.

If you’re in the journalism profession and you never heard me tell it, it’s most likely because I didn’t want you to be the one to write it up before I did. The Sun-Times referred to it in Judge’s obituary last year as something “which everyone recalls and no one will recount.” With many journalists — especially sportswriters — scrambling for anything at all to write about on any topic these days, I decided to get it done sooner rather than later. For journalistic sticklers demanding a time peg, let’s say it marks the 23rd anniversary of Royko’s death on Wednesday.

So here it is, recounted.

I was working at the Chicago bureau of United Press International, on the 15th floor of what was then the old Stone Container Building, 360 N. Michigan Ave., what has now been converted into the London House hotel. I was writing rip-and-read radio news copy on the 4-to-midnight shift for the National Broadcast desk as a straight gig, while devoting myself on weekends to a regular sports column in the Chicago Reader. It had to be the mid- to late-‘80s. I had a few friends at UPI who’d all gone to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — in fact, they helped get me hired there — and as at many places of work, then and now, we were known as and jokingly called ourselves the Illini mafia. I might have been the only journalism major, but we were all alums of The Daily Illini.

I can present these as witnesses, too, if required, as we got together only last fall at Miller’s Pub to reminisce about old times, including the Royko-Judge fight. There shouldn’t be any need for that, though. It’s not as if anything in the story is so unbelievable. In fact, it’s the mundane quality of it all that makes it exceptional.

We got off at midnight, a few of us on National Broadcast and another guy working late on a story for the state desk, and as usual we went across the river and down the stairs to the Billy Goat to decompress. We sat down at a table, only to quickly notice that over our shoulders, sitting at the Wise Guy’s Corner of the bar — yes, to this day, there’s even a sign there denoting it as such — were Royko and Judge. They were quite clearly in their cups, hunched forward over their drinks with elbows on the bar, and they were talking. That is, Judge was talking.

Credit: Kim/Flickr
The Wise Guy’s corner inside the Billy Goat Tavern

Judge himself later admitted — in a quote repeated in his Tribune obit last year — that the fight stemmed from “stupid insult-trading that got out of hand.” That confirms my story, because we heard Judge needling Royko again and again, along the lines of “Royko, Royko, you’re the best writer in Chicago. Nobody can touch you. But, you know what? You’re an asshole!”

And then, “Royko, Royko, you’re the most popular guy in Chicago. Everybody loves you. But you know what? You’re an asshole!”

Keep in mind, this was spoken in that nasally accent known to all Chicagoans, so that any local would hear it as “urine azzhole” and know exactly what that inflection was meant to convey. And it went on for a while.

Until at some point Royko abruptly — and somewhat unsteadily — stood up and said, “All right, you, that’s enough!”

He leaned into Judge, and spoke lowly, but it soon became clear that he was calling Judge out to stand up and defend himself.

Credit: Eden, Janine and Jim/Flickr

Billy Goat owner Sam Sianis was there, as he often was just before closing, counting up the cash from the register drawers on the bar with little tics of the head as he swept coin into palm, but he knew trouble when he saw it and urged them not to fight, saying, “My friends, my friends, don’t do this. Sit down, have a drink.”

Royko and Judge, however, were by this time shambling over to the unoccupied far side of the bar, just beyond the steps leading down from the street, and they took off their jackets and handed them to the two waiters standing by with sort of bemused if helpless smiles on their faces. With Sianis still urging them to stop, they put up their dukes. Royko had his back to us, Judge was facing him, and — on a seemingly predetermined or perhaps instinctual cue passed on by generations at Chicago playgrounds — they all at once launched at each other. Both whiffed wide, however, and they landed in a clinch in which the only thing that seemed to be holding them up was their own mutual force of gravity tipped against the other.

Sam Sianis and Mike Royko in the Billy Goat Tavern.

Sianis swiftly waved the waiters in and they gingerly pulled the two apart, Sam calling for Royko and Judge all the while to return to the bar and have a drink.

Did Judge pull his punch and hold Royko up? He didn’t seem quite as drunk, but, no, I can’t say that. I know for certain though that Royko was not joking. They fought, but with no haymakers landed — not yet, anyway.

Spurred on by Sianis, who was even then leading them back to the bar, Judge tried to play peacemaker. “Yeah, c’mon, Royko,” he said, “lemme buy you a drink.”

To which Royko growled, “I wouldn’t drink a bowl of warm piss with you.”

Which is a really drunken thing to say, because no one in the world wants to share a bowl of warm piss with anybody — with the possible exception of Bernie Judge at that moment, who said in a spirit of pure conciliation, “Well, I would with you.”

There was a momentary beat in which Royko heard that remark and processed it — quite accurately, considering — by sending it on to the portion of the brain entrusted with withering comebacks, and he said, quite audibly, just as Judge had dropped his guard, “That’s why I’m somebody and you’re nobody.”

That shut Judge up but good. So they sat back on their stools in the Wise Guy’s Corner and resumed drinking in silence.

We left fairly shortly after that, with just another look over the shoulders as we went up the stairs, as we wanted to get out of there and start talking about it ourselves. We’d witnessed something out of another era, like the scene in the old “Ray Rayner and Friends” serial “Journey to the Beginning of Time” in which the boys find themselves in the Dinosaur Age watching a stegosaurus fight with a T. rex.

And if that confirms me as something of a dinosaur just to recall Ray Rayner’s morning children’s show on WGN-TV, well, sometimes it takes a dinosaur to confirm that dinosaurs once walked the earth.

Do millennial journalists fight, or do they just swap nasty memes on Twitter? Do Gen X journalists? Or is that just another thing to envy the Baby Boomers for and feel resentful about missing?

I’d like to think we’ve moved beyond all that. After all, journalists are no longer ink-stained wretches or chain-smoking wisenheimers (although we’re still wretches and wisenheimers). As for me, there aren’t but a couple people in all of Chicago media who’d be in trouble if I met up with them under the wrong circumstances.

No punches landed, but let the decision be recorded for Royko as the clear winner by TKO. There are reasons legends are legendary, even if it’s not necessarily what they’re legendary for.

Ted Cox is editor of One Illinois, a statewide nonprofit news outlet. But as a former DNAinfo staffer he’s also what his grandfather the football coach would have called a “friend of the program” for Block Club Chicago.