Ballpark Requiem

Whenever one era gives way to another, someone whose heart is swollen with melancholy steps forward and writes a book. An era ended on September 30, 1990, date of the last baseball game in old Comiskey Park. Historian Doug Bukowski is the author.

This week Lyceum Books of Chicago published Baseball Palace of the World, Bukowski’s day-by-day meditation on the 82-year-old park’s last year. It’s an angry book, which is fine. The front office milked the old ball yard’s memories for every last nickel in 1990 and then tore the place down. Bukowski despises Jerry Reinsdorf. He despises the new stadium.

Have you seen a ball game there? we asked him.

“Yes,” Bukowski said mournfully. “It’s an abomination. Approximately half the seats in the new stadium are further away from the action than the last row of seats in the old ballpark. I want to know why that’s better, just because there’s not a post somewhere in the proximity.

“Secondly, I’m enough of a baseball populist to despise the luxury suites and the elevators and the wet bars that go with them. I dislike the mall aspect of the park. If I want a mall, I’ll go to a mall. I’ll get better prices.

“I find it ironic,” Bukowski went on, “the only thing that didn’t open on time was the White Sox hall of fame. Something with a sense of the past.”

Baseball Palace is larded with history, reflections on public policy, boyhood memories, and the lifelong fan’s inability to let go of anything, especially bygone pennant races that ended badly. Bukowski’s fancy roams where it will.

“Imagine if Monet had done a series of Comiskey Park studies,” he muses in the entry dated June 13. “This no doubt would offend those who love the views of Rouen Cathedral but see a ballpark as too pedestrian a subject. Monet haystacks and poplars also might seem a little on the simple side. They must be exempted under the ‘bucolic clause.'”

A rule of thumb when books appear is that the title is never what the author wanted. We asked Bukowksi about this.

“We had another working title,” he admitted. ‘A Year Before the Cranes.’ And everyone was afraid it wasn’t obvious.”

Which it certainly wasn’t, we said.

“No,” said Bukowski, who is 39 and teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “I fancy myself a literary type.” His wife Michele came up with Baseball Palace. “It was the original nickname of the park,” Bukowski explained. “I have it traced back to a 1911 scorecard.”

In South Haven, Michigan, Bukowski tracked down David Davis, the 80-year-old son of the architect who created Comiskey Park. Bukowski has a deep respect for Zachary Davis. “Comiskey Park is not just some bricks and grandstands, as a reporter once suggested to me,” Bukowski writes. “It is a design meant to fit the working-class neighborhood of Bridgeport.

“Those arches that extend around the park suggest the windows of a church or one of the multistory factories that were once so common here. Comiskey put his ballpark in the middle of a neighborhood filled with people [who] still viewed life the way peasants did and sought connections between work and play and worship.”

The new concrete stadium “relates to nothing. It doesn’t have to; we’re supposed to relate to it.” Before the stadium was finished, the White Sox led the press through. “The park looks old, but it’s going to function new,” Bukowski heard his guide say, and he thought, “Sometimes the best lies are the big ones.”

Find the Candidate

We’d never heard of Al Hofeld until he started buying space on TV to promote his run for the Senate. These ads didn’t make us wildly curious to know more, but they aroused Raymond Coffey, the dyspeptic editor of the Sun-Times’s editorial page.

“Where’s the rest of him?” Coffey wondered in a column this month. “Do we ever get a view of him from the belt south? Does he wear shoes? Is that all there is?”

Coffey fretted, “Is candidate Hofeld between now and the March 17 primary going to make any speeches, put together any position papers, give us anything more to chew on–about where he stands and what he believes and how he thinks–than can be artfully crammed into 30 seconds’ worth of TV tape?”

Actually, journalists have little use for position papers. They happily carp at the candidates who don’t provide them, but recoil from the programs of the ones who do.

Which kind of candidate is Hofeld? The same day Coffey’s column appeared, Hofeld staged a press conference outside a shuttered factory and announced his 13-point “domestic defense agenda.” We’re talking about a two-page press release here, not an inch-thick report. Still, it was more than Hofeld could have read off a teleprompter in 30 seconds.

The Hofeld agenda received four sentences in the Sun-Times, in a February 7 roundup story on the Senate race that ran at the bottom of page eight. Hofeld would have gotten more space if he’d made an announcement that he wears shoes.

America Unbashed

On the same page as Coffey’s column was an editorial waxing Prime Minister Miyazawa for his infamous remarks on the American work ethic. “Japan should clean up its act,” said the headline. The text condemned Miyazawa’s comments as “one more in a series of disparaging assaults against U.S. workers, their ‘work ethic,’ their productivity, and so forth–all basically belied by economic data.”

The Sun-Times certainly wasn’t alone in letting the prime minister get under its skin. Now a letter’s come to us from Kyoko Inoue, an associate professor of linguistics at UIC. She observes that the “angry reaction against Japan” might not have occurred had Miyazawa been more accurately translated.

Inoue, who grew up in Japan, was watching when Channel 26 carried the prime minister’s remarks. She thought him “contemplative and ambiguous.” Then Inoue found a text of Miyazawa’s comments in the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun. She sent us her own translation, with “expressions that are essential to English structure but are not found in Japanese” placed in brackets:

“Thinking about what is lacking in America now, and looking back on the past ten years that have led [to the present situation], the attitude toward producing things of value has considerably loosened. Many young university graduates have entered Wall Street for high salaries, and [the number of] engineers who create things has decreased rapidly. [Activities in] the money market went forward, and for the past ten years [people] engaged in activities that one would not think would last, such as buying someone else’s businesses without using any of their own money, and then end up being unable to pay interest and [then] go bankrupt.

“I have been thinking/wondering for a long time if there might be a lack of ethic of work in such activities. In some sense, I think there were such elements in the economy of our own. Thus, although we [the United States and Japan] are having difficulty solving the mess, I even think that it has been a lesson for the people. It is important to work with sweat on one’s brow . . .”

Far from condemning all American workers, Inoue writes, the prime minister was stating his concern with financial adventurism that creates debt instead of goods and has already come in for enormous criticism right here in the United States.

All the News You Knew

The Tribune went to town last Friday on the Lake Calumet airport story. Three articles were clustered on page one around a color picture captioned: “Gov. Jim Edgar and Mayor Richard Daley congratulate each other after the signing.”

One article explained how the proposed airport “would radically alter the balance of economic power throughout the metropolitan region.” Another said that despite Edgar’s action, the project still “faces a long, winding and turbulent ride before it can become a reality.” The third observed that Edgar had given Daley’s “pipe dream” a “jump-start,” bringing the mayor a new reputation as a “visionary.”

Inside the Chicagoland section were six more articles on the proposed airport, with yet another on the financial pages.

We studied the Tribune’s front page and felt like a damn fool. Edgar and Daley obviously had produced some sort of millennial document. But what in God’s name was it?

Seven paragraphs into one of those page-one stories, we found a clue. The mayor and the governor had “signed a ‘memorandum of understanding’ that spells out their sponsorship of the project.” But what was it about this memorandum that merited ten articles in one edition?

The Sun-Times played the story with somewhat more restraint. And by comparison, its page-one lead was a model of clarity:

“Mayor Daley and Gov. Edgar cleared the Lake Calumet airport for takeoff Thursday . . .

“Edgar put his support for the project in writing by signing a ‘memorandum of understanding’ with Daley that spells out their roles in planning, developing and controlling the $10.8 billion airport, the biggest public works project in Illinois history.

“The governor’s action ensures that the site-selection committee will pick Lake Calumet when it meets Monday. But it doesn’t ensure that the airport will be built.”

Tribune editors should read what their TV critic’s been writing lately about TV news. It’s not safe to assume that everyone who reads their paper in the morning already knows what’s going on.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.