Passion is the accelerant that fuels our most exciting and our most painful experiences. My earliest passion was baseball—playing it and watching it. Now I run an anti-corruption watchdog group after a 37-year career in journalism. Those were also my passions. And they all share common denominators: Keeping score, even when the scores are hard to measure. And playing fair. Those lessons carry on, so I relish this opportunity to share a story from my baseball youth, where the journey began….
It wasn’t supposed to happen. I wasn’t supposed to pitch the Little League championship game in Evanston in the summer of 1960 because there wasn’t supposed to be a deciding game three. My team, Gillette Music, was supposed to win the three-game series in two and avoid the rubber game. But, as Forrest Gump says, “It happens…”
Usually it’s mundane and unremarkable, like my little league experience. Occasionally it’s historic. Like on June 2, 1925, when Yankee first baseman Wally Pipp took a day off to cope with a minor headache that turned into a major migraine when his replacement, a young sub named Lou Gehrig, stayed at first base for the next 2,129 games over 14 seasons—a streak that didn’t end until 1939 when the “Iron Horse” started feeling the effects of the debilitating neurological disease that would eventually bear his name and take his life. Gehrig is, of course, a baseball icon. And Wally Pipp? Relegated to the answer to a trivia question.
So “it” does happen. And it happened that I did indeed pitch the championship game way back when.
Baseball was my world in those days. My allegiance was to the White Sox. My dad’s family was from the South Side, they had season tickets behind the Sox dugout in the old Comiskey Park, and I’d been attending games there since I was old enough to walk.
I remember steamy mid-summer Friday nights in the mid 1950’s when the Yankees came to town a game or two or three ahead of the Sox. My dad and I drove into the city from Evanston and parked a few blocks from the stadium. We walked past crumbling wood-frame houses filled with low-income African American families who would soon be packed into high-rise projects east of the Dan Ryan Expressway that became one of Chicago’s most dismal failures in social engineering. But that’s another story.
We’re talking now about magic nights that still have vivid front-row seats in my memory stadium—nights marked by the fetid stench that wafted across Comiskey’s environs from the nearby Union Stockyards. Back then Chicago still was, in the words of Sandburg (Carl, not Ryne) “hog butcher for the world.”
Sox ace Billy Pierce would invariably face Yankee ace Whitey Ford on the opening night of the series, and the Yanks would invariably win 4-2 or 5-3 or something like that behind a crushing late-inning extra-base hit by Mantle, Maris, Skowron, Berra or Elston Howard— dashing the Sox’ hopes for a sweep and a chance to dethrone the Bronx Bombers.
The Sox actually did it once, in 1959, winning the American League championship over a resurgent Cleveland Indians team and then losing the World Series to the Dodgers in six games.
I attended the opening game of the ’59 series and almost caught one of Ted “Big Klu”” Kluszewski’s mammoth home runs to right field, where I sat alone in the upper deck off the foul line because the family box was taken by more deserving elders.
On opening day in April of the following year, my absence from sixth grade was explained, not by a note from mom, but by a picture on the back page of the Sun-Times featuring me holding a ball for Billy Pierce to sign. I escaped serious punishment because my teacher was a Sox fan.
I also attended Game One of the infinitely more satisfying 2005 World Series, and I thought then that I was among the very few lucky Sox fans who had the privilege and the pleasure of attending the opening game of the last two World Series in Chicago—games nearly half a century apart. It happens.
I know I’m the only Sox fan whose grandmother owned a delicatessen in the Hyde Park hotel where many of the Sox players lived during the baseball season in the ’50s, which afforded me the enviable opportunity to meet the players and score a dozen autographed baseballs.
Some of the balls are memorable. But none compares to the ball my father collected of future Hall of Fame signatures when the first All Star game was played in Chicago in 1933. That ball, which is still a proud possession, has the legible signatures of Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Gabby Hartnett, Eddie Collins, Ed Walsh, Ray Schalk and half a dozen other Hall of Famers.
I am, indeed, a die-hard White Sox fan—inattentive and dismissive when they’re playing poorly, which probably undermines my claim, somewhat—but rabid when, like this year, they’re in contention.
I actually applied twice for the job of color commentator on Sox radio broadcasts.
The first time, in 1975, Bill Veeck had just purchased the Sox for the second time, and Harry Caray was the main announcer. I was a journalist who’d written sports stories and done radio work in college, so my job application wasn’t all that farfetched, and Veeck was actually intrigued by the idea when we discussed it over a drink in the lobby of the old Executive House Hotel on Wacker. Intrigued, but not enough to hire me. The job went to former baseball star and “head case” Jimmy Piersall, who teamed up with Caray to form one of baseball’s most colorful broadcast duos until, predictably, Piersall crashed and burned a few years later.
I tried for the color job again 30 years later when musical broadcasting-chairs created an opening, and that time a radio executive found it intriguing. But once again not enough to hire me, so I kept my day job as a political reporter at ABC 7 in Chicago.
But back to July of 1960, the highlight of my baseball “career.”
I was an all-star catcher that season and contributed to an opening game victory over a strong American Legion team behind Bobby Hackman’s typically stellar pitching. Miles Zaremski, the coach’s son, was expected to win game two the next night and clinch the championship
But Miles got rocked, we lost big, and that forced a deciding Game Three. Our team had only two starting pitchers, so I got the call.
I started that Friday night game and my teammates staked me to a five-run lead in the first inning. But I struggled, and by the time the game was postponed by rain in the third or fourth inning—the details are a bit sketchy 50-plus years later—we were only leading by a run, 6-5. I went home to sleep on the razor-thin lead and the challenge of holding it the next day.
I did…barely. I struck out 10 and walked half that many in the six-inning game, which we won 7-6. I have that game ball too—autographed by all my teammates.
My baseball career went downhill from there.
Vision problems that required glasses ended my days as a catcher, and I was never a good enough pitcher, batter or fielder to excel at another position. So I played on and off into college and then gave it up. I still find occasional pickup games, play catch with my daughters, and hit the batting cage once or twice a season. I think about attending a “fantasy camp” or playing in an oldsters league. But it probably won’t happen.
Still, I’ll always be a fan. And as I told White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf over lunch a few months ago, a real fan is someone who would never say, “What’s your favorite baseball memory?” Because, to a real fan, baseball doesn’t work that way. It’s the game that moves along at the languorous pace of real time summer life. Almost every warm day has another game to enrich it.
And the memories span a lifetime of favorite moments that include, for me, the rancid smell of hot Friday nights at the old Comiskey, Grandma Frieda’s deli in Hyde Park, a ’59 World Series that came up short, wonderful and not-so-wonderful seasons over the ensuing decades, trips around the country to catch Sox games in the American League’s most iconic stadiums, fantasy broadcast job applications, a World Series that exceeded all expectations in ’05, a 2012 season that’s providing the same unexpected joy, the discovery of “Game Day” on my computer when I’m out of town and can’t get the Sox on TV or radio, and that “it” moment when Sam Zaremski handed me the ball to pitch a Little League championship game that his son was supposed to win the day before.
The star of our team, Bobby Hackman, was a top athlete and student at Evanston High School who went on to Harvard, where a case of late adolescent schizophrenia blunted a brilliant future.
The coach’s son, Miles Zaremski, became a soccer star at Evanston High and a successful lawyer in Chicago. Our opponents, American Legion, had several remarkable jocks whose athletic exploits went on through college and beyond. Some of them tell me at high school reunions they still can’t believe I beat them that day.
The game was 52 years ago this month. And I can’t help but think, more than half a century later, that a moment of glory, no matter when, can provide a sense of accomplishment and a feeling of confidence that help us confront the myriad challenges that come up along life’s highways and byways. That when “it happens” we’ll be ready.
Ready in part because we’re ready to compete, and let’s be frank here: Baseball, like life, is competition. I competed successfully in Little League, but less so in high school and college, when family issues interfered, and more so in my 20′s when I caught the wind as a journalist and then a non-profit anti-corruption warrior. But I’ve always competed.
Which is why it’s especially fun for this baseball fan to reminisce. We play this game when we’re young, occasionally savoring a moment of fame, and then we settle into permanent fandom. And it becomes our lifelong companion and touchstone—a summer shadow.
We, along with the players, are always the “boys of summer.”
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ANDY SHAW is president and CEO of the Better Government Association. Follow him on Twitter @AndyShawBGA.
STORY ART: Photos by Solomon Lieberman.