Sunday morning, but the sun is already summertime high. Ten more minutes and we’re off for Barnes & Noble–air-conditioning, thousands of books, those delicious blueberry scones. That’s when the phone rings. My wife picks up. It’s James, her son-in-law. Do we want to go to the ball game? James has tickets to the Kane County Cougars.
I’ve heard of the Kane County Cougars. My baby boomer friends have been talking them up. The way baseball ought to be. Small field. Intimate setting. Inexpensive. Almost like the old days. Something I really ought to see. Vaguely, I imagine Kane County as someplace around O’Hare; not so. It’s really out there. Really, really out there. Out where the barbecues smoke and the American flags fly. Out where expressways cross expressways and you’re lucky if you can walk to the nearest store, which is only the White Hen.
I wouldn’t go at all if James weren’t driving.
So it’s down the Kennedy into the Loop and back out the Eisenhower till it turns into a toll road that roars through one nasty little gridlocked suburb after another, out where I no longer recognize the street names and doubt if I could ever get back to Chicago on my own.
At last we are directed into a parking spot that leaves us only a half-mile from Elfstrom Stadium. The sign above the ballpark entrance says, NO BEVERAGES PERMITTED IN THE PARK. We have water. My wife actually buys the stuff in little plastic bottles and carries it around with her. “They can’t mean water,” she says, and as usual she’s right; no one questions the water. Just inside the gate a man is stamping the backs of people’s hands to identify them as legal drinkers. Already staggering in the sun, she and I silently agree to skip that. One beer between us and we’ll drop dead in each other’s arms.
I used to read about minor-league baseball in the old Sporting News, a newspaper like no other, the ultimate baseball bible. You could get every box score and every batting average, every pitching and fielding statistic, even the attendance figures, and that’s for every league from the majors down to Class D. A kid who really followed baseball could walk to Raleigh’s Candy Store south of Canal Street in Blue Island and, if he was a very polite and likable kid (as I was), Mr. Raleigh would let him thumb through the Sporting News for free. They’d all be in there: the sore legs, the bum arms, the can’t-hit-the-curves, the can’t-find-the-plates, the sent-back-for-seasonings, all mixed in with the kids just out of high school who would someday get their butts shot off in World War II or maybe Korea; they’d all be playing for teams like Altoona or Springfield or Toledo (the Mudhens were one of my favorites) or even cities like Milwaukee and Seattle that actually think they’re major-league today. I found those old minor leagues even more fascinating than the big leagues. If only I had grown up in Peoria!
Just inside the gate, while James and my wife’s daughter are getting their hands stamped, I buy a program. We’re playing the Peoria Chiefs! Actually, the program spells it “Cheifs,” something I do not notice until my wife points it out. She’s the speller. My concern with this program is that it doesn’t even give us the lineup or batting order, let alone a scorecard–just the rosters, names, numbers, and statistics.
I take a deep breath, try to inhale the essence of small-town America. All those Middletowns and Fremonts and Troys, the rickety bleachers where people sat beneath feeble floodlights listening to the chatter of the players and the whine of the cicadas. I take a deep breath and inhale Wendy’s.
When did they start with Wendy’s? Fast-food America is right here in the stands? Quick now, here’s the park: open grandstands from first to third, no real outfield seats or bleachers–don’t need them, everyone here bleaches in the same shadeless sun. Seating capacity, take a guess, several thousand on the benches, as many more as will put up with it on the grass. The field itself looks pretty good: good foul lines, good groundskeeping, nice concrete dugouts, working scoreboard, and you sit close enough to the players to see their faces. Loudspeakers blare. They’re playing “Wild Thing.” They’re playing the Chicago Bulls theme; you know, the one that starts up just before the spotlight introductions. The announcer is yelling something over the PA, but it doesn’t sound like introductions, just yelling.
I remember my first major-league game. The Detroit Tigers were playing the White Sox. Hank Greenberg for Detroit. Luke Appling (“Old Aches and Pains”) for the Hose, as the sportswriters liked to call them. An outfielder named Taffy Wright. A catcher named Mike Tresh. Guys so old they’re dead now. I’d never seen a major-league park except in black-and-white movies. My uncle and I came in during batting practice, and even before we saw the field, I heard the crowd, I say, I heard the crowd. That sound had a swell and a power unlike anything I had ever heard, and there were goose bumps on my arms, and this was just the practice part of the game. Then we reached the top of the stairs, and the field, more green grass than I ever imagined could exist on this earth, opened up before my eyes. So what if I rooted for the Tigers? My Michigan uncle was paying for the tickets. Greenberg hit one to the wall and the Sox won anyway. Oh yes, that was almost as good as fishing.
Moline. Davenport. La Crosse. Minneapolis (another minor-league city that thinks it’s big-league). Shreveport. Akron. Albany. Nashville. All those leagues, all those teams, all those players. Who needed Little League?
We picked sides by tossing the bat. You caught it in one hand, then you and the other guy went hand over hand up the bat until there was no more bat left to clutch. If you were the one clutching it, you got to pick first. Unless you were using “chicken fingers.” Then the other guy got a chance to kick it out of your hand. These rules were not very precise. The only thing certain was that I would be the last one chosen–and with good reason. I closed my eyes when I was at bat. I might as well have closed them when I was in the field. I couldn’t throw. I ran so slowly that the only time I ever got a hit I was thrown out at first by the left fielder. Such humiliation. Why suffer it in the presence of your parents?
The nearest thing to a minor-league ballpark in my hometown was the 123rd Street Stadium, where semipro and high-grade amateur softball was played. Fast-pitch, not this 16-inch junk where you get fat guys running the bases with cans of Miller Lite in their hands. Listen, one night the Chicago White Sox, Don Kolloway and all, came out to play fast-pitch softball with the locals and the locals creamed them. It was a joke. Big-leaguers couldn’t get their bats around fast enough for that 12-inch rocket, fired at close range. The games I like the best were the girls’–all women of course were girls in those days. You’d see this big strong dark-haired girl of about 19 pitch that ball over the plate so fast it was a blur. Fifty years later you’d still be dreaming about her. Eventually the stadium was taken over by Little League and that was that, another cultural treasure lost forever.
I got to play in that ballpark. Once. At the yearly Kiwanis Donkey Ball Game. You played this game on donkeys. You batted on foot, but as soon as you hit the ball you jumped on your ass and aimed for first. Of course the donkeys were trained to run in the opposite direction. As was my luck, I got a hit, and the next thing I knew I was riding this donkey upside down. I was looking up into his big brown eyes, and I could tell he didn’t like me much. I can’t remember what happened next, except that it involved much pain and limping.
Donkeys aside, baseball was serious. Bill Veeck and his midget hadn’t come along yet. You went to a game, you sat down and watched. You kept score, marking that little card–AB, R, H, E–inning by inning. And when some fleet-footed fellow corked a triple all the way to the wall, you stood on your feet and hollered for all you were worth. The way baseball ought to be.
Kane County Cougars. Who’s on first, who’s on second, who’s at bat? I try to keep track, using this dinky little program that can’t even spell right. I don’t know these players, but even so, I can see they’re good. It’s been so long since I sat at an actual ball game I’ve almost forgotten how far it really is from deep short to first, how fast those pitches really are, how high those infielders really can leap. These kids play their hearts out. A few errors, sure, but anyone who grew up following the Cubs and White Sox can put up with that. A good game, close; there’s even a home run. Whack! Right over the fence…
…and dead silence from the crowd. No roar like I heard for Hank Greenberg when he merely made a long out. There’s plenty of noise, yes, because the guy on the PA hasn’t shut up except to put on music. James is sitting two seats away and I can’t hear what he’s saying. I can’t hear the infield chatter, either. But no roar from the crowd. Who’s watching this game? The stands are ringed by concession booths, and the concession booths are ringed by customers. There’s a constant flow of people, back and forth; it looks like Taste of Chicago. Hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, soft pretzels you cover with mustard, ice cream, cheesecake, Famous Amos cookies, and signs all over pointing toward BEER.
A guy dressed up like Elvis is working the crowd. Another guy is selling Dennis Rodman wraparound sunglasses. Pretty soon every kid in the park is wearing a pair. I listen to the voices around me, whenever the loudspeaker allows. A little boy is cheering the batter, “Come on, buddy, you can do it.” Buddy pops up, and a new guy steps in. “Come on, buddy, you can do it.” They’re all buddy to this kid. Some parent two rows back is explaining the game to her son. “See how he looks that runner back toward third before he makes the throw?” The poor kid is only about four.
Kids like ball games. They can fidget all they want, tussle with their siblings, spill soda pop and melted ice cream all over the place. They can leave for the bathroom and nobody misses them for hours. I once took my sons to a Comiskey Park doubleheader (two entire baseball games!), and the number-one son took it into his perverse head to root for the Yankees. They were winning, too, and then vengeance came, swift and terrible. Some guy on the White Sox named Jack (the coach later fired him from the team because he caught him combing his hair during a rally) whacked a grand-slam home run, and poor number-one son fell down in the excitement and cracked his chin on the back of a seat. Today we would sue the ballpark for big money. Back then we told the kid it was his own fault for being disloyal. And we stayed till the last man was out.
The kids here are all wearing gloves, boys and girls alike, but the only thing they get to catch with them is water balloons. Between innings the grounds crew fires water balloons into the crowd with a huge slingshot. This really excites people, gets them on their feet. It’s hard to tell what matters most, the between-inning stunts or the game. There’s a mascot, of course, a cougar, and I wonder how hot that guy is inside his silly cougar suit. “Let’s all roar for the cougar,” the announcer yells, and some people actually try, but who the hell knows what kind of sound a cougar makes? The cougar takes a blanket out to second base and lies down. A little girl dashes out onto the field. Her father follows. The players wait patiently. “Come on, buddy, you can do it,” the kid behind me cries.
There is a dog that shags foul balls, a nice big retriever type that actually brings them back. The dogs I remember would stop entire games while you chased them down. Then you had to play with this wet, slobbery ball. Worse than a spitter. I wonder if this kid who keeps rooting for buddy knows what a spitter is. Was.
Bill Veeck started all this. Bought a team called the Saint Louis Browns that was so bad the only way people would enter the ballpark was to see some clown, a real clown, coach at first base. And then the midget. The idea was that the midget’s strike zone was so small the pitchers would end up walking him. Veeck got the idea from a short story, so don’t tell me fiction writers don’t have an impact on real life. In the story the midget actually took a swing and hit the ball, but could not run fast enough to get anywhere near first base. Veeck’s midget just took his walk, and the next day or the next week, or at least very soon, the commissioner banned him. Today we would call that discrimination, and we would be right.
I got my one and only chance to play league hardball when my sister married a guy who was good enough to get an offer from the Class D leagues and smart enough to turn it down. He could play any position, but when you were on the other side, you sure didn’t want to see him pitch. He could throw a fastball that would scare the heart right out of you, and then come up with a curve that would start out behind your back and at the last moment break over the plate. Guys with good reflexes would be all the way back on the bench before it got there. I hit a foul ball off him once, but only once. It was enough. The only kid I ever saw hit him was some little peewee about five feet tall, maybe less–sort of a midget you might say. My brother-in-law took something off the ball, threaded the needle, and that kid hit one so far it hasn’t been found yet.
We played ball down by the sanitary canal, for barrels of beer. The losers bought for the winners, who tapped it in their sponsor’s tavern. One afternoon everyone had a wedding to go to except my brother-in-law and me. We drank the whole barrel.
When we came into the stadium, they gave us free tickets for the “Goose is Loose” race. Mine is shoved in my back pocket, where I forget about it until it comes time to do the laundry. That’s when I learn that I would have won 50 cents off on my next Goose Island Beer if my goose had come in first. Micro beers at the ball game. Goose races. It might be fun if they used real geese, but they don’t. Along about the third inning, I see them suiting up a couple of young women in what look like parachutes, and what turn out to be goose suits, complete with flappy feet that make it nearly impossible to walk, let alone run. Between innings the geese race from third to second and back. Whenever one falls (which is often) someone runs out, lifts her up, and plumps up her costume.
Can’t beat fun at the old ballpark. A horse race (cardboard horse heads on broom handles race along the outfield fence), a giant bowling ball with a kid inside, a giant die that wins something for somebody, Elvis throwing Famous Amos cookies into the crowd, the dog chasing Frisbees and bringing water to the umps, a bat spin (I saw this one again on major-league television), Elvis in his white jumpsuit dancing with the cougar, more water balloons, and even a hose to wet down the people in back of first base. It’s hot, I can’t believe it could be this hot. I put my hand on the top of my wife’s head and it feels like she’s cooking her brain. “Are you all right?” I ask. “I’ll make it,” she says.
Turns out she’s under the mistaken impression the game will only last seven innings. We flee to the shaded concession stands, gobble a hot dog, and order two Mr. Frostees. “It’s nine innings,” I tell her. “Nine.” I offer to lend her my hat but she says no, hats make her ugly. It takes a real long time for us to get back to our seats. When we do, her daughter asks, “Would you like to leave early?”
The loudspeaker is blaring, more music. It’s the Village People! “Y.M.C.A.!” And the crowd is singing and dancing right along. There’s a woman in shorts and a halter in front of me who is neither young nor small. She’s on her feet and doing the “Y.M.C.A.” thing in which, I am later told, you actually pantomime the letters with your limbs. Then they’re playing “Macho Man!” Macho macho man, I want to be a macho man! Would we like to leave early?
We meet Elvis in the aisle and he gives us a package of Famous Amos cookies.
So who won? With the bases loaded and one out in a 6-5 game, buddy hits a deep fly to left. The runner tags up and apparently comes in. The guy on second tries for third. The throw, a close play. The umpire thinks about it for several long seconds before signaling, “You’re out!” And the run doesn’t score? Apparently not, and why not I will never know. Maybe the Cougars didn’t need it. Maybe the Cheifs rallied. Maybe the whole thing went into extra innings (which my wife calls “overtime”). Maybe we all would have gotten sunstroke. We stagger toward the parking lot.
“And a good thing,” I am told, “that somebody thought to bring water.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration by Mike Werner.