The last time the White Sox had won the pennant was 1919, when they threw the Series, and that team would forevermore be known as the Black Sox.
Baseball was America’s pastime, rooted in the 19th century, it had a head start on every other professional league by half a century, but the owners were cheap bastards who didn’t realize that when they belittled the players in contract negotiations, thereby diminishing their star power, it cheapened their commodity.
Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946.
The Cubs weren’t half-bad that year, finishing in the first division. It’d be the last time for a long, long time.
Jackie Robinson, having to travel from LA to Daytona Beach to get to spring training, by car, by bus, by train, harassed all the way, he wanted to quit before he even got there.
In 1947 Jackie Robinson was breaking into the major leagues.
Bobby Bragan signed his name to a letter in the clubhouse telling Brooklyn management that he and the other players who signed weren’t going to step on the field with Jackie Robinson. Bragan came to regret it. He truly regretted it.
May 19, 1947, Wrigley Field was packed to see the Cubs lose 4-2 to the Brooklyn Dodgers, and in the stands, dressed like they were going to church, was what seemed like every black person in the city of Chicago, who had come to see Jackie Robinson play.
Jackie Robinson remembered sitting by himself at a table in the dining room of the Chase Hotel in St. Louis, in the morning, six o’clock till maybe a little after seven, and nobody would wait on him. The waiters ignored him.
The Negro League had a team in Indianapolis called the Clowns.
The National League had black players, and the American League didn’t. The Yankees and the Red Sox ended up being the holdouts, and as long as the Yankees could dominate the World Series with white players, helped along by nationwide discrimination that kept limiting black opportunities, the difference between the two leagues could persist, but all the American League teams were going to suffer for it, because sooner or later there’s always some truth to sports, and in a fair fight, the better man wins.
It was the Communist Party of the USA that made integration a priority in 1939, circulating petitions in major league ballparks. Just as in the Civil War, when slaves turned soldiers, it was difficult to deny Black men the same rights as the men they fought side by side with and died with, now Black men were joining up to fight fascism, so why the Hell couldn’t they play ball with white Americans fighting the same enemy?
Once Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947, the Negro Leagues were through, all its players greedily gobbled up by big league clubs.
Bill Veeck brought up Larry Doby to be a Cleveland Indian, but Veeck didn’t prep Doby the way Rickey had Robinson, cluing him into just what the world of racism had in store for him. Doby just walked into all of it, practically blind.
Now the owners could no longer resist, and they stuck both hands into the Negro League cookie jar – and plucked out Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roy Campanella, and Ernie Banks.
Hank Aaron’s secret weapon, like Ernie Banks, was all in the wrists.
Was Hank Aaron Babe Ruth’s equal?
No, he was better.
Ruth was like the little league pitcher who’s a head taller than all the other kids. He simply overpowered the opposition, whether it was pitching or hitting.
But pitching can’t be all power, and neither can batting – if it’s for average as well as power.
Did Leo the Lip really steal Babe Ruth’s watch? He very well might have. Durocher was only in his early 20s at the time, a rookie, good-field/no-hit, shortstop for the Yankees, impulsive, reckless, and greedy, and the Babe got drunk one night and a couple of his teammates, one of them Durocher, helped the Bambino to his hotel room, and the next morning his watch was gone. He pinned the deed on Leo and never gave up his theory, which he then promulgated to anyone who would hear it, till the day he died in 1947.
From 1948 on, Wrigley Field was the only ballpark in the major leagues without lights, which was fine, unless the Cubs ever did make it to the playoffs, because the TV advertisers were paying for prime time, not daytime.
Bill Veeck signed Minnie Minoso in 1948 for the Indians, and he was playing in the big leagues by 1951, when Veeck traded him to the Sox.
There was this Cleveland-Chicago connection with Veeck, who was the son of the Cubs’ general manager, a sportswriter who wrote himself into the job, which connected Veeck to the Cubs, and he would end up owning the Sox – twice.
Lou Brock, Maury Wills, Luis Aparicio, the base stealers.
In 1951 Maury Wills was just a teenager, but he was already playing minor league ball. Then he sort of got trapped in it, and was still a minor leaguer eight years later. He’d never make it to Ebbett’s Field. The Dodgers would move to LA before he ever got a shot at the major leagues. It didn’t look like he would ever make it. He couldn’t hit. He was afraid of a curveball. He flinched when he saw it coming.
Well, it was coming right at him.
Bobby Bragan saved Maury Wills.
That Bobby Bragan. The one who signed the letter against Jackie Robinson. He was sorry. He wanted to do something to make up for it. If there was ever a way. And all these years later, maybe he could still do something.
He saw what was happening and he knew how to fix it. It came to him when he saw Maury in the batting cage just fooling around, hitting left-handed. He was a righty of course, and he was only swinging left-handed because he didn’t much give a shit anymore. He’d lost his drive and purpose after eight years of trying to bust out of the minors. He was pretty sure now he’d never make it. He couldn’t hit a curveball and he knew it and everybody else knew it too, but Bobby Bragan knew why.
You know what? You’re not half bad at that.
I’m just messing around.
You ought to think about it.
If you hit left-handed against righties, and right-handed against lefties, that curveball wouldn’t scare you so much.
Think about it.
What’re you saying?
Why do you flinch?
You telling me you don’t?
What difference does it make? I’m going home.
It’s natural. Ball’s coming right at you. Only natural to shy away.
Guys hit the curve, and they go up. I’ve been down here for eight years and I can’t hit it. Eight years.
Think about it. It wouldn’t be coming at you the same way, like out of nowhere, if you looked at it from the other side. You could watch it all the way in. I’m just saying. You should at least try it. Before you go home.
I appreciate it.
Of course you’d have to work at it, to at least be decent, but it looks like you got a good stroke.
Wills thought about it. It was possible. Not at all likely, but possible. He would have to bust his ass to have any chance at all.
Mantle and Mays both came in as rookies in 1951.
Durocher’s New York Giants played in the Polo Grounds.
Red Barber didn’t say a word for over a minute when Bobby Thompson hit that homerun in the Polo Grounds on October 3, 1951.
Vin Scully would be silent for nearly that long when Koufax threw his perfect game against the Cubs.
The Cubs had last won the pennant in 1945, six years before Danny arrived on the scene, and they had had losing seasons ever since.
Phil Cavaretta graduated from lane Tech in 1934.
Lane Tech is 4.7 miles from Wrigley Field.
Cavaretta played for the Cubs for 20 years, and he was player-manager from 1951 to 53. He was fired in spring training of 1954, when he said flatly that the Cubs looked like a second division club to him. First manager ever to be fired in spring training!
Phil Cavaretta, the great player, was the manager when the Cubs brought up Ernie Banks in the fall of 1952.
Ernie Banks could hit a curve ball.
Danny could only just imagine Ernie Banks at shortstop. All he ever saw was Ernie Banks playing first base. The image you have of a shortstop is totally different from that of a first baseman.
The Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee.
The Braves didn’t get to Milwaukee till 1952. Before that they had been in Boston from the very beginning. Eddie Matthews would play for the Braves in Boston, Milwaukee, and Atlanta.
The Cubs were the fourth team to break the color line, after Brooklyn, Cleveland, and the Giants.
There were eight teams in each league, American and National.
The great thing about baseball before inter-league play was that you had to imagine what teams and players would do against each other. There was a distinctly different tone, feel, and color to each League. Especially color.
Ernie Banks had a buddy, Gene Baker, the second baseman who was really a shortstop but was being moved over to make room for Banks. They’d be MLB’s first black double play combo, and they thought they’d take in a movie on an off day in St. Louis, and as they walked up to the ticket booth, the ticket seller just waved them away, and Ernie’s buddy just turned to him and said: “How’d you like the movie?”
Ernie Banks was a good shortstop, but not a great one. He had trouble with throws from deep in the hole. He didn’t have a very strong arm. He had great wrists for batting, but he didn’t have a great arm.
In 1958 and 1959 Ernie Banks was the National League MVP. He had come up to the Cubs in 1953. Gene Baker was brought up then too. He was brought up to be Banks’s roommate. Cool Papa Bell had signed Ernie Banks to the Kansas City Monarchs. Ernie Banks was one of the top power hitters in the game. He hit more homers in the 1950s than Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ted Williams, and Mickey Mantle. He hit five grand slams in one season (1955)!
The Dodgers and the Giants were leaving New York and heading for the west coast, the play of politics and sentiments, and the highways spreading, and the suburbs draining energy from the cities, and the American League holding out against integration, the racism as stark as black and white. Willie Mays and Micky Mantle.
The Say Hey Kid. The basket catch. As much as for The Catch, which is indisputably the greatest catch of all time, Mays was famous for the Basket Catch, catching routine fly balls as they dropped into his open glove, held at waist level. Little Leaguers were cautioned not to catch routine fly balls this way, because they would inevitably drop one, but Gump caught fly balls this way all the time and never dropped one. Anything Gump saw a player do on TV, he could mimic. He could bat like Stan the Man Musial or Ernie Banks, he could switch-hit, but he never played on any organized team in school or little league, never played any kind of organized sport, just with the bunch of kids at the park.
In 1954 Willie Mays, Elston Howard, Hank Aaron, and Ernie Banks would crash the party, and baseball would never be the same. You didn’t have to be a Negro to like Willie Mays better than Mickey Mantle. The Say Hey Kid was a better player and a nicer guy, and if you didn’t like Ernie Banks, there had to be something wrong with you.
When he had first come up with the Cubs Banks often found solace by hanging out with an old sportswriter who seemed to him to have discovered a kind of peace of mind, and what was that all about?
Most things in life, Ernie, you care about them, but when you look back at what you really care about, you don’t care all that much about some things that seemed really important at the time, but they weren’t that important really, even though you cared about it. You really didn’t care about it that much – not compared to what you really did care about. Most things in life, you care about them, but not that much.
So, when the Cubs would lose a game, go on a losing streak, have a losing season, have losing season after losing season, did you even care anymore, Ernie?
I cared, but not that much.
In 1954, when Danny was two and a half years old, Ernie Banks was playing for the Cubs. Jackie had broken the color line back in the late 40’s. Branch Rickey brought him up.
August 14, 1954, the first issue of Sports Illustrated hit the stands. Danny was not quite three and did not read it.
Willie Mays won the batting crown in ‘54 and also the MVP and also the pennant and also the World Series, and he made the catch of all time. Say hey!
The 1954 Series was the first with black players on both sides. The Giants and Willie Mays versus the Indians with Larry Doby. It was the first time in seven years the Yankees weren’t in the series.
It was 1954 when Jackie Robinson went with the Dodgers to St. Louis and had the balls to bitch at the front desk of the Chase Hotel when the racists wouldn’t let him stay there with his teammates.
Mantle versus Mays. Willie Mays was the best centerfielder ever to play the game, defensively. The Catch in 54 with his back to the infield, catching the ball over his shoulder, and then the throw. The throw alone was spectacular, and issuing as it did out of The Catch, was awesome, because it all happened in the World Series no less!
But who hit more homeruns?
The last MLB teams to integrate were the Detroit Tigers, Boston Red Sox, and the Yankees of course.
A whole series of contrasts emanated from the world of sports, the way it felt to root for the Sox as opposed to the Cubs, the way the American League felt as opposed to the National league, the East in the NBA and the West, the NFL felt completely different than the AFL, the contrasts couldn’t be starker.
Mantle and Mays.
Mantle and Maris.
Yankees and Giants.
The Yankees were the white supremacists of the baseball world, proving their superiority, until the black guys started showing up.
Maybe Danny’s memories start then, but they would be memories of summer, not really memories of baseball until Danny could bounce a rubber ball off the front steps. He’d have to be at least five years old for that, so, in the fall of 1956, say, when his brother Brendan arrived.
Mean Gene said he got lost at Comiskey Park, and that much was true, because Mary Jewell confirmed it and she always told the truth, but then he said the Andy Frain ushers took him into a room where he met Louis Aparicio and Nellie Fox and then he hung out with them for a while. That never happened. Gene was lying. Other people told lies too.
The White Sox played in a bad neighborhood on the South Side in a ballpark called Comiskey Park, which didn’t look anything at all like Wrigley Field. It looked more like Kiddieland, the amusement park on North Avenue where you could ride roller coasters and rides that didn’t scare the shit out of you, meant for little kids, a place where Nano had taken Dan and Gene and Mary Jewel, and it was there that Dan had taken Patti Viglione sophomore year and made out with her between rides after having been lustily tossed against her in the tilt-a-whirl.
It was hard to argue that Mantle was not the best when he won the American League triple crown in 1956.
The Dodgers and the Giants moved west in 1957.
The 1959 World Series was the first one the Dodgers ever won in LA.
Minnie Minoso, nobody knew how old he was. Best guess was that he was about 32 in 1954, the first black Hispanic major leaguer, when he got the White Sox into a real pennant race for the first time since 1940.
Minnie Minoso was in the running for the 54 MVP, but he didn’t play for the Go-Go Sox in 59. What happened to him between 54 and 59? The Cuban Comet.
The Sox traded Minoso to Cleveland to get more pitching, and it worked well enough to win them the pennant in ‘59.
In Comiskey Park somebody had the bright idea to plant a fire hose down the first and third base lines instead of just painting it white.
There were no names on the backs of the players’ jerseys. Why would you even think about putting your name on the back of the jersey? That’s what numbers and scorecards were for.
Early Wynn, Jungle Jim Rivera, Earl Torgeson.
El Senor – Al Lopez.
Candlestick Park opened in 1960, and Vice-President Nixon threw out the first ball.
In the 1960 the Cubs fired Charlie Grimm and hired Lou Boudreau right out of the WGN radio booth.
In 1961 P.K. Wrigley replaced The Kid with the College of Coaches. Mantle and Maris were chasing Babe Ruth. The Zephyrs in the Coliseum.
In September 1961 Casey Stengel was named Manager of the New York Mets, a job Durocher figured he should have had, and he was probably right.
In 1962 NL teams played 160 games, and the AL played 162. Mantle and Maris were both going after Babe Ruth’s record.
That asterisk that Ford Frick put in the record book when Roger Maris hit 61 homers in 1961 was an asshole thing to do. Done out of some perverse reverence for the Babe. What bullshit. Major League baseball had done everything to exploit the Babe when he was alive, and now the racists were trotting him out again because Hank Aaron was sneaking up on the all-time homerun record, despite the fact that when the Babe was alive the racists were loudly laying the N-word on him.
If you were playing in the field while Koufax was pitching, didn’t matter infield or outfield, after a while you would fade into oblivion. You would disappear and Koufax would be out there by himself, like a concert pianist, and you weren’t even there — because you didn’t need to be there, what was the reason for your existence, except to watch him work? He just struck everybody out.
To score runs they would all have to work together, Maury Wills would get on base, and then they would move him around. They only had a few guys with any power. Then they would go out on the field, and Koufax would single-handedly dispatch the other team.
The Go-Go Sox ran into Koufax in 59, but that was when Sandy was just starting to get warmed up.
Koufax was blowing his arm out, pitch by pitch.
Maury Wills was ripping his legs apart, stealing bases.
Then came a game in the World Series and Koufax wouldn’t pitch because he’s Jewish.
He’s Jewish, Sandy Koufax?
You didn’t know?
Hey, Samson was Jewish.
Maury Wills stole base number 104 against the Giants in a playoff for the pennant. It was October 3, 1962. Wills stole third. Then he scored and the Dodgers went up 4-2. It was the seventh inning, and they were at home. And then they blew it.
Pitcher Bob Buhl got traded to the Cubs in 1962. He couldn’t hit. At all. He went to bat 70 times that season and made an out every time.
The Cubs traded Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio in 1964, and the kids joked that they’d given up a star for an old-timer. Broglio was 28.
Brock immediately helped the Cards win the World Series.
Alvin Dark managed the Giants, and he was dark all right, hateful and racist, and he said aloud that blacks and Latino players weren’t as smart or reliable as white players. At the same time, 1964, Leo Durocher was being his own kind of asshole as a coach for the Dodgers, and the Dodgers had had just about enough of his shit. Next stop for Leo the Lip would be Chi-Town.
Leo the Lip Durocher had been lurking in the background of this picture from the beginning. Christ, he went all the way back to Babe Ruth!
Babe Ruth didn’t like him. They were teammates, and Durocher, the rookie, had done something to piss Ruth off.
The Cubs hired Leo the Lip in 1965. You could go see the Cubs and there were only about 8,000 fans in the stands.
The capacity of Wrigley Field then was 37,000. So, you could go there and be surrounded by nearly 30.000 empty seats.
Jesus Christ, Bob Hendley pitched a one-hitter for the Cubs, and lost.
It took a couple of years, but in 1967 the Cubs finally started to turn things around, and they finished third in the 10-team National League. First time in the first division since 1946.
1968 was the last season that MLB had no division playoff. The pennant winner went right into the World Series. So, in 1969 the Cubs had an 8-game lead late in the season, but that was just to get out of the East.
After the Tigers beat the Cards and Bob Gibson in Game 7, coming back from a 3-1 hole, MLB went to divisional playoffs, lowered the pitcher’s mound by 5 inches, and reduced the strike zone from the letters to the armpit and the top of the knees. Baseball would never be the same.
Don Drysdale pitched six straight shutouts, went 58 innings without giving up a run.
June 4, 1968, Drysdale pitches shutout number six against the Pirates, and playing for the Pirates is Maury Wills. It was the night of the Democratic Primary in California, McCarthy v Kennedy. It was the night Kennedy was killed.
MLB was going to go on about its business after Robert Kennedy was killed, same as it had done when Martin Luther King was killed, but the players said fuck you, we’re not playing.
The Cubs story builds to their collapse in 69. It takes 18 years, as long as it took Sophocles to write Oedipus Rex.
“Let’s play two.” And it’s ninety-six degrees in Wrigley. Durocher imploded and so did the 69 Cubs.
Men walked on the moon. The Cubs pitcher called the catcher up to the mound.
They’re up there right now.
There. On the fucking moon.
Leo Durocher went off on Ernie Banks.
He couldn’t run, couldn’t field; toward the end he couldn’t even hit. But I had to play him. Ernie Banks owned Chicago. With every other player we had the usual signs, an indicator followed by a combination. With Ernie we had to have flash signs, like little league. Ernie, you’re always hitting unless we flash something at you. If I tip my cap, now you’re taking. Pull up my belt, it’s hit and run.
Randy Hundley, C; Banks, 1b, Beckert, 2b; Kessinger, SS; Santo, 3b; Williams,
September 9, 1969 in Shea, the black cat spooked everybody, especially Leo. And when the Cubs were drubbed, the New York fans chanted Goodbye, Leo, and waved their hankies at him.
Joey Mantegna’s play Bleacher Bums celebrated the behavior of people the rest of the NL called Bleacher Scum, who threw such things at opposing outfielders as bottles, batteries, and white mice. The 69 Cubs ended up at 92-70, 8 games back of the Mets. The Miracle Mets beat the Braves for the NL pennant, then the Orioles in 5 to win the Series.
Camp Ojibwa in Wisconsin — where Leo skipped to, saying he was sick, in the middle of a tight game in July, while PK was in Lake Geneva watching the game on WGN.
Joey Amalfatano said Leo was heart-broken at the end of the season.
August 7, 1969, the Cubs were in first place with a 9-game lead, and as Dan left Oak Park for Dekalb, it started slipping away. A month later the lead was down to two games, and then the Cubs fell completely apart, and they finished the season 8 games behind the Miracle Mets.
The Cubs were too good to be true. To Dan they looked like world beaters. He didn’t know that Ernie Banks was washed up. Didn’t know Leo the Lip was wearing out his starters. Didn’t know that the Cub clubhouse was a snake-pit. There was this surge of more than hope, of great anticipated relief, the skies about to break and pour down the welcome rain after a long, long drought, generations had passed, and now there was thunder and lightning.
The Cubs were going to burn out like a cigarette butt tossed in the street.
To Dan and all the rest of the Cub fans in the world, it seemed the cruelest of jokes that not only did the Cubs blow and 8-game lead in the last weeks of the season, but they lost to the Mets, who went on to win the World Series in only the eighth year of their existence. But for the Met fans, many of whom were Brooklyn Dodger fans who had cheered all their lives for a team that disappeared, and those who were not Dodger fans were Giants fans to whom the same damn thing had happened, and their team had been around since the beginning of baseball. Cub fans were sad, Mets fans were happy, but everybody had a right to be.
Dan was playing pinners against the stairs. He had learned it from the Lambs, who lived across the street. There were a bunch of them. When Dan’s little brother Brendan came along, he called them My Lambs because they had taken him into their flock. A typical Irish Catholic family from the south side of Oak Park, there were a lot of Lambs. The ones near Dan’s age were Paul and his brother Jerome, known as Rome or Romer, and his twin sister Rose who went by Ro-Ro. They were all athletes who would play anything, Ro-Ro too, she was fast as hell, like Dan, and she had a couple of older brothers who played on real teams – football, baseball, basketball.
In the winter they would play hockey. Dan could barely skate then. But in the spring and summer you could play pinners all by yourself against the front stairs for hours. All you needed was a rubber ball and a glove. Didn’t even really need the glove since it was a rubber ball, but if you wanted to get better with the glove you used the glove.
You were the pitcher, and then you were everybody else. Your imaginary mound was only about twelve or fifteen feet away from the steps, right in front, so your reactions were going to have to be quick.
You could go into a wind-up or you could pitch from the stretch. Fastball, knuckleball, palm-ball, slider, split-finger, overhand, sidearm, underhand ala Ted Abernathy. Nobody really knew how to throw a curve. Except for Gump.
And Dan let fly. The ball pitched into the stairs wherever it might. If it struck between steps, the ball would come straight back at him like a line drive, but if the pitch drove the rubber ball into the edge of the stair, then it would do just about anything but come straight back at him. It might take off like a shot over his head, soaring across the street, and if it landed on the other side of the street it was a homerun.
A high fly ball into the street you might be able to shag for an out or it might drop in for a hit or even extra bases, and you had to make the throw off the stairs to hold the runner.
If the ball struck the edge of the step at a downward angle it would ricochet back at you as a hot grounder, and you’d have to pluck it off the ground or snare it on the short hop, or stretch for it, or reach across your body to glove it before it got by you. Pinners was the best training in the world for fielding, especially for infielders.
You fancy yourself a shortstop, do you?
Natural position. Feel comfortable there. Like nothing can get by me.
What about the throw?
The beauty of pinners was that you could play it by yourself. You could be both teams and all the players. A whole major league season could be played on the front steps. John Duff taught Dan the fine points of pinners. He was slick. You got where you knew all of a guys’ moves, and John Duff – you said it like one word, Johnduff – knew everybody’s better than they did themselves, he was slick. He wasn’t that strong, but he was smooth and slick and would come up with moves you never saw before. He’d get guys out with the hidden ball trick.
Johnduff could play all the sports. Of course, all of the guys could play all the sports because that’s what they did together – play all the sports. Every day you wanted to play something, so whatever was in season was what you played. Basketball, baseball, ice hockey, football, tennis, golf, bowling, swimming, diving, racing on bikes and on foot, roller skating.
Johnduff would trick you, pull the hidden ball trick on you and catch you off base. He’d pretend to throw the ball back to the pitcher, but he’d keep the ball in his mitt and then swipe you with it. It was the oldest trick in the book, but he was so slick with it he’d still pull it off, and then he’d laugh at you, and he could get all the other guys to laugh at you too. Johnduff was the first guy Dan ever knew who was adept at psychological warfare in sports. He would psyche you out and taunt you and make you mad and get you off your game.
You played pinners and then you could go over to Lincoln, the public school, and rectangles for the strike zone had been painted on the walls, and two or three guys could play, with one guy at bat and one guy pitching and the other guy in the field, which was a pair of asphalt basketball courts, so that sometimes guys would be trying to play basketball while the baseball players were rocketing line drives at them.
Dan went over to Lincoln to play basketball and two kids were playing baseball against the wall with a rubber ball. They asked Dan if he wanted to play in the outfield and he said sure. The kid who was up to bat said Dan could use his glove. It was long and flapped over,
What kind of glove is this?
Dan couldn’t play first base, and he couldn’t much play the outfield, and he sure as shit couldn’t play the outfield with a first baseman’s glove. This was going to be embarrassing.
The guy hit a towering fly ball. Dan lost it in the sun. When he turned around it was bouncing toward the fence.
Softball, sixteen-inch. What about playing softball? The Clarence Alley Boys were always up for a game of softball.
Gotta get enough guys to play.
If we can get enough guys for tackle football, we can easy get enough for softball, even if we gotta make it right-field-out and pitcher’s hands.
One guy could pitch for both teams. Gump could pitch. He’d pitch the same way for both sides, be impartial. You could trust Gump.
Have your own bat. Head over to Fox Park with your bat.
You don’t use a glove when you play 16-inch. Don’t need one, especially if it’s a nice ball that’s been broken in and smudged, not still slick and hard as a rock, but not too beat up, too soft, too much of a mushed melon.
Play nine innings of softball, hang out, a double-header, nice sunny day, head on over to Madison Street after the game and get a pop and some chips and a candy bar and then look at the new Pontiacs through the showroom window, or even walk around inside till you get thrown out.
The assholes from the other side of Madison had challenged the Clarence Alley Boys in softball, and they were like their twins, same age, same range of sizes and shapes, same style of play, same arrogant attitude, and neither could scratch a run off the other till, finally, Terry Joyce got hold of one and hit it high over the center fielder’s head, and, taking off like the Flash the instant he smacked it, Terry flew down the first baseline, rounded first and he was touching second, the legend soon spread, before the ball hit the ground, and when he rounded third and blazed across the plate, and the cut-off man didn’t even bother to make a throw.
You could collect baseball cards.
You don’t want to buy one pack of baseball cards, you want to buy two or three, and open them right away and stuff all three sticks of pink bubblegum in your mouth and wad it up in your cheek like Nellie Fox, whose chaw would only kill him one day.
You organized your baseball cards into teams, the teams into leagues, American and National.
There was a baseball card war going on between Topps and Bowman.
Steve Hayward had the best collection. His dad had played pro baseball. His dad had a first baseman’s mitt. It was long and flapped over.
A catcher’s mitt was like a round pillow.
A fungo bat was to hit high fly balls.
You had to figure out what position you were going to play, so you knew which mitt to get. If there was a track and field meet, you had to figure out which events to enter. You had to know where to line up on the football field, what spot you had in the batting order, your position on a basketball team. You had to know that, or you didn’t even know what you were.
The top contenders for the Oak Park little league crown were Village Savings and Suburban Bank. The VS team wore blue. The SB team wore green.
Billy Novolio of Village Savings had pitched a no-hitter in the first game of the season and hit two home runs.
If you could play pinners, you could play baseball.
Real baseball? You mean hardball?
Hardball. Yeah. In the League. League ball. You know, cowhide, with seams, with stitching.
Yeah. It’s hard.
You played tee-ball, didn’t you? How’d you do?
I didn’t even know what I was doing.
You hit the ball?
Sure. It’s sitting right there on the tee. You can’t miss it. Well, if you did miss it, that was just strike one.
So, you missed it?
I never struck out.
Tee-ball. Guys’d whack the hell out of the tee, miss the ball altogether, and the ball would dribble off the tee and the ump would yell “In play!” and Eddie Sullivan, the pitcher, would gobble it up and throw to first for the out. But not this time.
Tee-ball was a blur for Danny, He didn’t even know the rules. And here he was going out for the League, going to the try-outs, and the try-outs were a blur. Danny couldn’t hit live pitching, are you kidding? With a hardball, a league, and all the other kids were two years older than he was anyway, he wasn’t surprised when he didn’t make the team. And the League season started without Danny.
In the summer of 1962 Danny’s little league team won the Village Championship. To call it Danny’s team is somewhat misleading. It was the little league team that Danny was on.
In 1962, in the summer, Danny was just 10, when out of the blue he was called up to the League, the Little League, to play for the Village Savings team, even though the season was nearly half-over, because the Village Savings’ star pitcher, Billy Novolio, who had already pitched two no-hitters, was discovered to have turned 13 years old and was ineligible.
You got called up?
You got called up?
Danny had played t-ball, but never real baseball. He didn’t even know the rules. He sort of knew the rules. He knew three strikes and you’re out, but that was about it.
It was pure luck that carried Danny to that baseball trophy, but it was his luck. Danny had good luck. Mary recognized it and gave him the feeling that it was somehow his birth right, his luck, but, more than that, Mary felt he was blessed. Of course, Danny’s team won the village championship, even though Danny had almost nothing to do with it, his only value to the team was filling out the roster. What did that matter – it was a trophy, wasn’t it?
The reason Dan was on the team was that somebody found out Billy Novolio was too old and was ineligible, and Danny was the only player the coach could find to fill the roster spot.
Why’d he replace a kid who had just pitched a no-hitter with a kid who couldn’t play?
He could play a little.
He couldn’t hit.
Lots of guys can’t hit. Billy Novolio wasn’t much of a hitter
But he was the best pitcher in the league.
Dan was 10 years old, and everybody else was 12. He was out of his league.
If you were a red-blooded American boy in the middle of the 20th century, you loved baseball – even if the ball itself scared you, even if you couldn’t hit worth a lick and you didn’t have much of an arm, couldn’t make that throw from deep in the hole at short.
Neither could Ernie Banks.
Andre Rogers replaced Banks at short, and the Cubs moved Banks to first, where he would hardly have to make any throws.
Even if you couldn’t do any of that, you could still run the bases.
Athletes were human beings at the peak of their physical powers, and it seemed to Danny that having attained such a state of grace they had entered a timeless moment of perfection and they hovered there. It had come from somewhere in the legendary past and the time of heroes and the time of Babe Ruth, so that when Danny came upon this world of baseball and there was Willie Mays and baseball cards and gloves and bats and balls and base-paths to run and bases to steal, and Nellie Fox always had a plug of tobacco puffing up his cheek and it was fixing to kill him one day, and Danny had no idea where it had all come from, that the Giants and Dodgers had deserted New York and left it to the Yankees.
The next step up from little league was pony league and Dan could see right away he was never going that far. The ball was too hard. It hurt your hand when you caught it. If you didn’t catch the ball in the web of your glove and it hit you right on the bone above your palm, it hurt like hell, and you’d catch it and make your throw as quick as you could and then whip your glove off and rub your hand and shake it, as if you could shake the pain out. Dan liked playing with a rubber ball better, playing pinners off the front steps, and nothing could get by him, not line drives, hot smashes, pop-ups, and when a grounder was hit sharply it might take a short hop or an odd bounce, Danny was all over it. He got a jump on the ball and gobbled it up. There was no better infielder than Dan among all the Clarence Alley Boys, and that included Gump, who did everything perfectly, but was neither as quick nor as fast as Dan, and John Duff, who was quick as a cat but just as lazy. Dan played shortstop when the Boys hung out and played softball at Fox Park, 16-inch softball, and sometimes there were only enough guys to play pitcher’s hands and right field was out. You didn’t use a mitt when you played 16-inch, and the Boys usually used a battered ball that had been softened up a little and wasn’t hard as a rock like a brand new 16-inch. Dan could play softball and Dan could play with a rubber ball, but Dan could not play Little League, let alone Pony League, because Danny was a baby. Still, he knew what it felt like to play shortstop, and so he could watch a game and enjoy it, experience it vicariously, and he could idolize Maury Wills and Louis Aparicio and Nellie Fox. Dan could move the way they did and he could picture himself doing what they did. Dan was delusional, but he was also loving a game and learning from it.
The Village Championship was decided in a three-game series held at Ridgeland-Commons field, on the dividing line, Lake Street, between north and south Oak Park. Village Savings, the champions of the South, versus, Fair Oaks Pharmacy, the champs of the North. It was an economic division too, the north being significantly more affluent, more like River Forest, while south oak Park was more like Berwyn and Forest Park.
Village Savings won the first game and was comfortably ahead in the second and on its way to the championship, when Danny finally got a chance to play. He took the field at second base and watched a strikeout and a flyball caught in the outfield bring his team within an out of the championship, when a hot grounder came at him.
You don’t tag second when there’s nobody on first.
Nicest pick-up I’d ever seen.
The coach really say that?
Then he starts shaking his head.
What were you thinking, Danny?
I don’t know.
The kid makes the nicest pick-up I’ve ever seen, and then for some unknown reason he races over, and he touches second base. There was nobody on first base. There was nobody on first base, Danny.
Now you know. Did you know then? Because it looked you thought you were going to force the runner on first going to second – but there was no runner on first, you get it?
We were about to win the game.
All you had to do was make the easy throw to first.
Instead he had sailed the ball into the dugout. His own dugout.
He still had him. He still had the guy, the batter. The kid runs over and tags second, who knows why, even he doesn’t know why, but he’s still got time to throw the guy out. Everybody’s yelling at him to throw it to first, and he sails it into the dugout,
The rest of the game was a blur. They didn’t get out of the inning till Fair Oaks won the game and tied the series.
Village Savings would win the deciding game and the Village Championship, while Dan watched safely from the same dugout he sailed the ball into the game before. Dan “won” a trophy. A gold trophy.
You had to be good to win a trophy, right?
You had to be on the winning team.
You had to be good to be on the winning team, right?
But you were probably good. The last guy on the bench for the Celtics had a championship ring. Maybe he was a sorry player compared to Bill Russell, but he was on the team for a reason and probably the reason was that he was pretty good.