Thursday, September 22, 2016

Summer, where have you gone?

Photographers are more attuned to the changing seasons than average folks. Those of us who depend on where the sun is in the sky are particularly aware of two particular times of the year when everything changes. The change that takes place on the two solstices, winter and summer are subtle, barely perceptible for a least a few weeks when it becomes apparent that the daylight is either waxing or waning. It is the two equinoxes, spring and fall, as the sun crosses the equator, when the real change happens. In spring, anything that faces north will see it's first rays of sunshine for six months. Conversely in autumn, those northern exposures say goodbye to the sun for a long winter's nap,  It's especially apparent in a city like Chicago where streets run parallel to the lines of latitude and longitude. Here buildings on these perpendicular streets have a facade facing due north. If you want to photograph a north facade illuminated by sunlight, you have to shoot it roughly between March 22 and September 22nd, interestingly enough, my mother and wife's respective birthdays.

It's those streets running due east and due west that witness sunrise and sunset directly at their vanishing points. Case in point:


This picture was made yesterday, approximately 14 hours before the sun crossed the equator this morning, marking the inexorable march toward winter in the northern hemisphere, and summer in the southern hemisphere.

These milestones of every year, like birthdays, anniversaries, and the New Year, signify the inexorable march of time, or rather, in the words of the poet Henry Austin Dobson:

Time goes, you say? Ah no!
Alas, Time stays, we go.

Alas such is life. 
If only we wouldn't go so fast.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Some memories and a prayer for peace

This summer, my son and I visited the National September 11 Memorial, the magnificent tribute to the victims of the terror attacks built on the site of Ground Zero, where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center once stood in lower Manhattan. In case you missed it, here is my post about that visit.

Exactly ten years ago, New York Times Op Ed columnist Frank Rich wrote an article describing what in his opinion was America "letting go" of the events of September 11, 2001. To illustrate his point, he used a photograph made by Magnum photographer Thomas Hoepker of five young adults sitting on the banks of the East River, engaged in what appeared to be casual conversation while behind them, smoke billowed from the site where the World Trade Center stood just hours before. Rich's point was that not only had the country moved on from the tragedy after five years, but the folks in the photograph had already moved on that very day. Here's his assessment of the American character based upon that one photograph:
Traumatic as the attack on America was, 9/11 would recede quickly for many. This is a country that likes to move on, and fast. The young people in Mr. Hoepker’s photo aren’t necessarily callous. They’re just American.
Rich turned out to be dead wrong about the picture. Ten years after his article, one would be hard pressed to support his assumption that this country as a whole has gotten over 9/11. Yes there are exceptions, you can read about some of them in my post written five years ago on the tenth anniversary

Hard to believe, but today is the fifteenth anniversary of that terrible day. We continue to remember the victims, the places where they perished, Shanksville, PA.Washington D.C. and New York City, their loved ones, and the people who suffered and died in the wars that followed. In doing so we pray for peace in the world, an end to suffering and violence, and a time of understanding between nations and peoples. We most certainly will not see this come to pass in our lifetime, most likely not in our children's lifetimes, and possibly not ever, but it is our duty as citizens of the world to try.

How can we not?

In memory of that day, please indulge my quoting words that come from faith, but words I believe speak to all men and women of good will, regardless of their creed or lack of one, words that define what it means to be a human being.

The prayer of St. Francis:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

Peace.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Guilty as charged

In a Washington Post article titled It's time to stop talking about racism with white people, the author Zack Linly makes the point that most whites either cannot or refuse to comprehend the injustices facing black people in this country, especially in light of the recent focus on African American people being killed by the police. He cites many examples of white people being "dismissive" of the problem and as the title to the piece indicates, he's willing to throw in the towel as far as trying to convince them otherwise.

Here's a list of things white people say that proves, according to the author. they just don't get it:
  • “There must be more to the story.”
  • “If you people would just do what you’re told.”
  • “Cops have a hard job.”
  • “White people get shot too.”
  • “He was just another thug. Good riddance!”
  • “Why do you people make everything about race?”
  • “What about black on black crime?”
  • All lives matter.”
Turns out I'm one of those white people he's talking about. I've expressed at least four out of those eight sentiments right here in this space. And while in the context of this issue I understand the sentiment behind Black Lives Matter movement, I also believe deep in my heart that all lives (including blue ones) matter, although I don't state that publicly. Oops guess I just did, sorry, that makes five. 

So far this year, six people have been shot and killed by the police in the City of Chicago and eleven have been shot and wounded, which is roughly on the same pace as last year. I don't have the data on the race of the victims, the cops in those shootings, or the circumstances behind those deaths and injuries. I can only assume some may have been the result of power obsessed, racist cops abusing their authority. Others may have been tragic cases of mistaken motives or identity of the victims. And still others may have been the result of a police officer confronting an armed person both willing and able to take the life of that officer, and perhaps others. Most of the circumstances probably fall somewhere in between, as no two police shootings are the same.

Six instances of police killing civilians are indeed six too many but yes, there is more to the story.

On the flip side, there have been 500 homicides in Chicago so far this year, surpassing the total number of murders from last year, and it's barely September. The vast majority, 78.2 percent of those murdered in Chicago this year were black people. We can't know exactly because most of those crimes will never be solved, but I think it's fairly safe to assume that the racial breakdown of people doing the killing is a comparable number. Using those statistics and assumptions, if you were a black person in Chicago this year, you were at least sixty five times more likely to be murdered by another black person than by a police officer. As I've said before, separating the violence in the African American community from the police killings is disingenuous.

The author of the Post article claims that white people
aren’t paying attention to these stories (of the police shootings) out of fear for their lives and the lives of their children and spouses; they are only tuned in out of black and brown contempt.
Obviously I can't speak for all white people. The author is absolutely correct in assuming that as a white man, I cannot possibly know what it's like to be black in this country. I don't know what it's like to be constantly harassed by cops, or judged harshly by people unlike me simply because of the color of my skin.

It's also true that I cannot imagine having been brought up without two loving parents who taught me to respect others as well as myself, parents who praised me when I did right and let me know in no uncertain terms when I didn't. I don't know what it's like to have to find a parental figure somewhere out on the streets, someone who doesn't have my best interests at heart, someone who wouldn't give his or her life for me if he or she had to, in other words, a parental figure who doesn't give a shit about me.

That's exactly the plight of far too many children living in our cities today. No child should have to live under those circumstances, not is there a good reason for it to be so, but that's the reality for tens of thousands of children in our city alone. Combine those kids growing into teenagers who don't give a shit about themselves or anybody else, poverty, segregation, and the criminally outrageous availability of guns in this country, and we get the situation we find ourselves in today.

By the way Mr. Linly, I live in a neighborhood where it's not unusual to hear gunshots from our home, and in a city where life is often considered cheap. So please don't tell me that I'm "not invested", "don't have skin in the game" or that I don't live in constant fear for the safety of my wife and children. I've invested plenty in this city that I love dearly, both the black and white of it, with literally my blood, sweat and tears.

The same is true for all the hard working people of Chicago of every race, creed and walk of life.

Incidentally, the Washington Post article came to my attention as it was posted by a white Facebook friend who lives in San Francisco. It was followed in my FB feed by a picture of a young black girl holding up a sign that read, "Stop the violence, let me grow up" posted by a black friend who lives on the south side of Chicago.

That little girl's chances of growing up, something all of us should be concerned about. are not going to improve by well intentioned people sitting out the national anthem, or chanting inflammatory slogans. Unfortunately we live in a society where ideology, slogans and symbols are more important than critical thinking and self-reflection.

Until that changes, I'm afraid we can only expect more of the same.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Photographs of the Month


August 3, Colander Art, My Kitchen

August 5, Adams Street, Chicago

August 6, Downtown Chicago

August 10, Pritzker Pavilion, Chicago

August 17, Terminal Tower from Progressive Field, Cleveland

August 18, Cleveland Arcade

August 18, Street Singer, Little Italy, Cleveland

August 18, League Field, Cleveland

August 19, Site of Forbes Field, Pittsburgh
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August 19, Allegheny County Courthouse, Pittsburgh

August 20, Fallingwater, Mill Run Pennsylvania

August 20, High Street, Morgantown, West Virginia


August 20, Statue of Don Knotts, Morgantown West Virginia

August 31, Purple Line above Chicago River


Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Beer and Whiskey: There Used to be a Ballpark Part II

We left our tour of major league ballparks past and present at Miller Park, home of the Milwaukee Brewers, a team named after the industry that made its home town famous, playing in a ballpark named for one of the biggest companies in that industry. It's entirely appropriate that this should be so. While it's not mentioned in either the refrain or any of the twelve or so verses of the game's official anthem, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame",  beer has been an integral part of baseball for all, well almost all of the game's history. Here it might be prudent to have a brief refresher in beer and baseball.

The first major league, the National League was founded in 1876 when William Hulbert, owner of the Chicago White Stockings, decided to put together a serious league of professional ballplayers rather than what already existed, a loosely held together association of teams with erratic schedules, no system in place to keep players from jumping teams, and perhaps most important, no discipline in regard to player or fan conduct.

In that respect we must remember that back then, baseball had to compete with sports like dog fighting and rat baiting for the public's attention and what made those activities popular, beyond their obvious artistic value, was wagering. In that sense, baseball was no different; back then it was a tough sell to convince a workingman to spend his hard eared money and one day off watching grown men in knickers playing a children's game, just for the fun of it. Gambling was the reason baseball became a spectator sport in the first place, as it emerged from the pastoral game played by elite clubs like the New York Knickerbockers in the Elysian Fields of New Jersey, to the more rambunctious game played in places like rough and tumble Brooklyn, and ultimately our "national pastime", the game we know today.

Beyond more than occasional lapses of honesty on the part of players not necessarily trying their best to win games, all the gambling that went on in the open lent a certain air of disreputability to the game of baseball. And what should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever attended a ballgame, so did drinking to excess which believe it or not, people did every once in a while when they got the chance back in the day. William Hulbert wanted no part of any of that.

To make his new league respectable in that particularly rowdy era, drinking and gambling would be strictly prohibited at all National League games. In order to assure players would be paid well enough to resist the temptation of being bought off by gamblers who still plied their trade, just not in the open, the admission price to every ballgame would be fifty cents, steep for those days. Oh and one more thing, there would be no games played on Sunday.

All those restrictions did indeed attract the clientele that Hulbert desired for his new league. Those haughty, mid to upper-crust early National League fans were just as happy not to have to rub shoulders with the working stiffs who were kept away in droves because Sunday was their only day off, they couldn't afford the steep price of admission, and last but far from least, they liked their beer.

Enter the American Association (no relation to the current American League) which was founded in 1881 and began play the following year. The charter franchises of this new league represented big cities, mostly old river towns like Pittsburgh and St. Louis, whose shall we say, "worldly values" set them apart from the rest of Puritan America. One of those cities was Cincinnati whose team, the Red Stockings, was expelled from the National League for defying its ban on beer and Sunday ball. Most of the sponsors of this new league were brewers and distillers which inspired the pejorative term "Beer and Whiskey League", imposed on them by National League owners. As has happened so often in the game of baseball, a term intended to be a slam against a team or in this case an entire league, became a symbol of pride for the offended party. The American Association made no bones about being the league of the working man, who was free to drink all he wanted at their games, especially on Sunday. It should be noted that in those days, fans or "cranks" as they were called, were almost always men.

One of those members of the imbibing industry who entered a team into the American Association was a fellow by the name of Chris von der Ahe, the owner of the St. Louis Browns. Von der Ahe, an immigrant from Prussia, owned a saloon on the north side of town. He knew virtually nothing about the game of baseball except that beer sales at his bar rose considerably whenever the team located down the street at the corner of Grand and Dodier played ball. So he bought the team.

By either sheer brilliance or just dumb luck, von der Ahe signed Charles Comiskey to play first base as well as manage his newly acquired team. Comiskey who today is better known as the founder and long time owner of the Chicago White Sox as well as one of the founding fathers of today's American League, turned the struggling Browns into the powerhouse of the AA, winning four championships out of the ten seasons the league was in existence. The two men had a great run together, Comiskey's brilliance as a baseball man brought success on the field while von der Ahe's talent for promotion, showmanship and giving the customers what they wanted, brought fans into the stands in record numbers.

For starters, von der Ahe charged a quarter to get in to his park, half the going rate of the National League. Not only did he allow the consumption of alcoholic beverages in his ballpark, he set up concession stands to sell the stuff, further advancing his bottom line. Without question, games would be played on Sunday, although open gambling was still verboten. Above all, Chris von der Ahe understood that sometimes it took more than a good team on the field to bring in the crowds. Always the master showman, in the days before there were clubhouses at ballparks, he would have his team dress in his saloon, or their hotel if  they were on the road. Wearing a silk hat and accompanied by his two greyhounds, Snoozer and Schnauzer, he proudly lead his team like a Prussian general as they walked in parade formation to the ballpark. Von der Ahe was the first baseball owner to offer promotions and creating a carnival atmosphere at the ballpark, the true forebear of baseball impresarios such as Bill Veeck and Charlie Finley.

Von der Ahe also believed it was prudent to have AA teams participate in exhibition games outside of officially sanctioned league games, something the National League frowned upon. One exhibition series the  NL could not turn up its nose at was a championship between between its pennant winner, and that of the renegade league. The first of these "World Series" took place in 1884 when the NL Providence Grays defeated the AA New York Metropolitans three games to none. The next two of these championship series pitted von der Ahe's Browns (today's Cardinals) against the White Stockings (today's Cubs), starting what would become one of the most enduring rivalries in all of sports. If you're interested in bragging rights, the first series ended in a tie when Comiskey pulled his team from the field after a disputed call with the series ties at three games. St. Louis won the second series four games to two.

The final resting place of Chris von der Ahe
as well as the statue he had cast of himself
which once stood at the entrance of his
St. Louis ballpark.
Part maverick and part buffoon, von der Ahe didn't know when to leave well enough alone. He became subject to ridicule when he had a statue of himself placed in front of his ballpark. A sportswriter sardonically dubbed the it, "von der Ehe discovers Illinois." His constant meddling with the team exasperated Comiskey who eventually left for the Cincinnati Reds, sending the St. Louis nine into a tailspin from which they wouldn't recover for thirty years. Von der Ahe may have known how to make money but he didn't know how to keep it. He ended up losing his personal fortune and spent the last years of his life tending other people's bars and depending on the kindness of friends, including Charlie Comiskey who sent him a monthly sustenance check until his death in 1913. He is buried in Bellafonte Cemetery in St. Louis underneath the statue he had built for himself.

Despite the early success of the AA, in the end the owners of the NL had deeper pockets and were better able to endure difficult economic times and threats from another league that formed in 1890, the Players' League. The AA folded in 1891. Four of its teams, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Brooklyn and Cincinnati were absorbed into the  National League, where they remain today respectively as the Cardinals, the Pirates, the LA Dodgers and the Reds.

As I mentioned above, von der Ahe's Browns didn't fare too well after Comiskey's departure. Hoping for a fresh start, the team exchanged their brown stockings for those of a crimson hue. Not long after that, someone connected the color with the red bird known commonly as the Eastern Cardinal and the name stuck. Alas the team's color and name changed but its fortunes did not.

In 1901, yet another major league was formed, the American League. Ironically it was billed as a respectable alternative to the National League which with Hulbert having been dead for two decades, had degenerated into everything its founder tried to avoid. One of its original members was a team from Milwaukee, nicknamed the Brewers. That team lasted all of one year in Brewtown before it moved to St. Louis where they picked up another traditional name, the Browns. These Browns are known for one thing, they were the most God-awful team in major league history. The three most famous players in AL St. Louis Browns history were a bona-fide Hall of Famer, (first baseman George Sisler), a one armed outfielder, and a midget who had one major league at bat.

The AL Browns moved into the old ballpark at Grand and Dodier, a site where baseball had been played in one form or other since the 1860s. Chris von der Ahe had moved his team away from that site to a facility he built next to an amusement park in 1890. In 1909 the Browns rebuilt their ballpark up to the same standards as other major league ballparks of that era, using steel and concrete as the primary structural components rather than wood. As such, Sportsmans Park became one of the classic ballparks in the major leagues, along with Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, the Polo Grounds in New York, Fenway Park in Boston, Comiskey Park and Wrigley Field both in Chicago. The Cardinals continued to play in their dilapidated old wooden ballpark until 1920 when they moved to Sportsmans Park and became tenants of the Browns.

In the 1920s, the Cardinals' fortunes began to change because of the fruits of the labor of one man, Branch Rickey. Rickey, the general manager of the team understood that the woefully underfunded Cardinals could not compete against the likes of the New York Giants or the Cubs when it came to attracting established talented players to their team. So Rickey came up with the brilliant idea of buying up minor league clubs in order to develop talent from the ground up. It took several years but eventually Rickey's implementation of the farm system paid off and in 1926, the Cardinals won their first modern day World Series, defeating the mighty Yankees in seven games. They have been a force to be reckoned with ever since; as far as championships go, they are the most successful club in National League history, and second only to the Yankees in MLB history.

As for the Browns, well not so much. They spent most of their existence in the second division of the American League. Despite the disparity of talent, the Browns held their own with the Cardinals in terms of fan support. When the time of reckoning came and it became obvious in the fifties that St. Louis couldn't support two teams, it was a virtual coin toss which team would leave. Once again, beer played a pivotal role in history as the brewing company Anheuser-Busch bought the Cardinals. Bill Veeck who owned the Browns knew he couldn't compete with Budweiser and threw in the towel, even though the Browns owned the ballpark and the Cardinals were their tenants. The Browns headed east, without Veeck to become the Baltimore Orioles. Once the Cards were the only game in town, they purchased the ballpark and renamed it after their owner, but the name never stuck with the fans.

Sportsmans Park or Busch Stadium I if you prefer, lasted until 1966 when the Cardinals moved into what would become Busch Stadium II, a downtown multi-purpose stadium, the first of the "cookie cutter" bowl shaped stadiums built in the sixties and seventies for both football and baseball. That stadium lasted less than forty years when it was replaced by the current retro style, baseball only ballpark with the fabulous view of Downtown St. Louis and the Eero Saarinen's iconic Gateway Memorial Arch pictured below.

Busch Stadium III, current home of the St. Louis Cardinals

Baseball has been played at this site continuously for 150 years
and counting. That must be some kind of record.
The last game at Sportsmans Park took place on May 8th, 1966. After the game, home plate was dug up, placed aboard a helicopter and flown to the new stadium downtown. That might have ended one hundred years of continuous baseball at Grand and Dodier but not quite. The Busch family donated the land to charity to become the Herbert Hoover Boys and Girls Club. The club continues to maintain the field for baseball and other sports meaning that baseball has continuously been played on that site going on 150 years and counting.

One would be hard pressed to pick one out of the many memorable events that took place at the Corner of Grand and Dodier in North St. Louis. Ten modern World Series were played at Sportsmans Park, as well as four nineteenth American Association/National League championship series in its predecessor. Dozens of baseball immortals played on that field, you can read some of their names on the plaque marking the site of the old ballpark below. Two names not on the plaque are Pete Gray, the one armed right fielder who played for the Browns in 1945 during the closing years of WWII, and Eddie Gaedel, the 3'7" midget Bill Veeck sent up to the plate as a gag in a meaningless game on August 19, 1951.

A few of the stats about Sportsmans Park as noted on the
plaque posted on the Herbert Hoover Boys and Girls Club
of St. Louis, the site of old Sportsmans Park.
Giving it considerable thought, my choice for the most memorable moment in Sportsmans Park would be the 1944 World Series which pitted the Cardinals against the Browns, an all St. Louis World Series. In a year where just about all the good ballplayers were off fighting a war, the Browns fielded a team of senior citizens, featuring an all 4F infield. But doggone it, they had the best, old, mentally unstable, half blind, flat footed players in the league that year and they won their one and only American League pennant. The Cards did have one legitimate major leaguer who would´t enlist until the following year, Stan Musial. He and the Cardinals took the Series in six from the once and future hapless Browns. Regardless of the circumstances, for a brief moment in the fall of 1944, St. Louis was truly the center of the baseball world.

-

Sportsmans Park was not the only ballpark to host a World Series all by itself. From 1913 to 1922, the Polo Grounds in New York City was the home to both the Giants and the Yankees, and in the last two of those years, the National League Giants played the American League Yankees in the World Series, the Giants winning them both.

Today the words New York City and baseball when combined, are so synonymous with the Yankees, it's hard to imagine that the Bronx Bombers were Johnny-come-lateliess when it comes to baseball in the Big Apple. William Hulbert's original National League included a New York team, The Mutuals who were around almost as long as organized baseball itself. They played in 1857 as amateurs (as all ball clubs were at the time) against the Knickerbockers in the storied Elysian Fields of Hoboken, mentioned above. The Mutuals would re-locate to Brooklyn and came along with Hulbert when he created his new league. But things didn't go so well for the Natioanl League Muts as Hulbert's team the Chicago White Stockings dominated the league on the field. The New York club and the Philadelphia Athletics who were in the same predicament, decided it wasn't worth the time, money or effort to play out the remainder of their season on the road. For this affront, the imperious Hulbert banished the teams from the league. Amazingly, the three most populous cities in the US including Brooklyn, an independent city at the time, would not have representatives in the major leagues for six years, until the American Association was formed six years later. They and the National League desperately wanted a New York franchise to join their ranks and both leagues made offers to an independent club called the Metropolitans. The owners of the Mets said yes, to both offers.

With a little slight of hand, they produced two teams, the Mets would enter the AA, while an existing National League team from Troy, NY disbanded, and most of their players, and the team's space in the league, became the New York Gothams, who ultimately became the Giants. That team won the NL pennant in 1889 and played the AA champion Brooklyn Bridegrooms (today's LA Dodgers), in the early incarnation of the World Series, marking the beginning of the second oldest extant rivalry in baseball.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the Giants were firmly established as New York's team. Such was their clout, they were able to use their leverage to prevent the fledgling American League from establishing a team in New York City. So the team intended for the city of New York ended up in a different city but with a very familiar name, the Baltimore Orioles. That situation only lasted a couple of years and the team ended up back in the town which it was intended, playing in a ballpark in Washington Heights, the highest point in Manhattan. Appropriately enough, they were originally called the Highlanders.

The New York American League team had a promising start but never finished better than second place in their first five years of existence. Then that old ennui set in with the owners who were more interested in other activities and rarely invested in their team. In 1915, the team, now known as the Yankees was sold to the man with the most improbable of baseball names, Tillinghast L'Hommedieu Huston, along with his partner, Jacob Ruppert who was in the (you guessed it) brewing business. It was this pair of well to do businessmen, genuinely interested in baseball who were able to make the deal that would forever change the course of Yankee and indeed baseball history, and would make the name Harry Frazee, the most reviled name in Boston since Benedict Arnold.

You probably know the story. Frazee, a theatrical impressario who moonlighted as the owner of the Boston Red Sox, needed cash for a theatrical production. So he sold his incorrigible star pitcher who was also pretty good with the bat to the Yankees. The player's name was George Herman (Babe) Ruth. 

As they say, the rest is history...

It's a bit of a minomer to call the era before Ruth's, the "Deadball Era." The assumption that home runs were scarce because the balls were less lively in those days has been overstated, There were actually fewer home runs during that era because batters weren't  trying to hit them. The approach they took could be summed up in the words of Wee Willie Keeler, an early Yankee star who famously described his approach to hitting this way: "you gotta hit 'em where they ain't" The greatest hitter of the Deadball Era was Ty Cobb who to this day holds the record for greatest lifetime batting average. His scientific approach to hitting enabled him to take advantage of weaknesses in the defense, and his take no prisoners style of base running made him the most dangerous offensive player of his time.  Babe Ruth, the most dangerous offensive player of all time, had a different approach, he swung the bat as hard as he could every time he came to the plate.

It would not be an overstatement to say that Babe Ruth single-handedly changed the game of baseball. What was once a game of small ball played mostly on the base paths featuring daring base running, sacrifice bunts, the hit and run and spikes flying in the air, became the game at the plate with sluggers trying to do it all with one swing of the bat. Old timers like Cobb and longtime Giants manager John McGraw may have berated the new style, but the fans loved it. When the acrimony between the Giants and the Yankees became unbearable, the Yanks built themselves a new ballpark just across the Harlem River from the Polo Grounds less than a half mile away. It was nicknamed "the House that Ruth Built", but the great Bambino was just as responsible for the expansion of many American League ballparks, including Chicago's Comiskey Park, whose outfield grandstands were built specifically to accommodate the crowds that Babe Rut drew when the Yankees came to town.

Yankee Stadium was both the last of the classic ballpark, and the forerunner of the modern baseball stadium. It was completed in time for the start of the 1923 season, and in its first year hosted the World Series, same two teams as the two previous years, however the outcome was reversed. The torch had been passed. It was the definitive blow to the deadball era, Baseball for better or worse, would never be the same.

Like the Cardinals, the Yankees developed players in their farm system and became the most successful franchise in major league history. The Stadium with its distinctive arch motif fascia witnessed several Yankee dynasties. Their single greatest era took place between 1947 and 1964 when they appeared in fifteen World Series and won ten of them. During that time they won an unprecedented five consecutive championships. That record more than likely will stand for eternity.

It's from that era of gaudy glory, when the Yankees were expected to win it all every year, that I'll pick my memorable moment at old Yankee Stadium. In a game that took place on October 4th, 1955, Yank catcher Elston Howard faced Johnny Podres and grounded out to Pee Wee Reese, thrilling Yankee haters the world over as the Bombers lost the World Series that year to the Brooklyn Dodgers.

It would be dem Bums' (as the Dodgers were known affectionately by their fans) only championship. They would pack their bags, along with the Giants, and head for the west coast three years later leaving a void in that town some people believe (the Mets notwithstanding) has never been filled.

My boy and I didn't make it to the sites of Ebbets Field or the Polo Grounds on our recent visit to New York this summer. Much to his chagrin, we didn't make it to Citi Field, home of the Mets either. There is a housing project named after Jackie Robinson where Ebbets Field once stood at 55 Sullivan Place in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The old stairway in Harlem where fans would descend Coogans Bluff to get to the Polo Grounds is still there. Other than that from what I can tell, save for a few plaques, there is little indication of all the glorious summers that took place on those sites, hardly anything to remind us of Willie Mays's Catch in the '54 Series, the day Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, the Shot Heard 'Round the World, or the time three Brooklyn Dodger runners all ended up on third base. 



Heritage Field, left and new Yankee Stadium. If you squint hard enough, you can almost imagine...

The same can't be said for the site of old Yankee Stadium in the South Bronx. The original house that Ruth built was demolished after New Yankee Stadium was built across the street. The new park looks more like Yankee Stadium than the old one did after it was defaced during its unfortunate renovation in the seventies. In the biggest most expensive city in the country, the most successful team in baseball could have built a parking lot for its fans on the site of the baseball shrine, or sold the property for a fortune to developers. Instead they outdid every other ball club when it came to honoring the site of their old ballpark. They built a public park on the site accessible to all, day and night. Fragments of the old fascia are mounted to a wall where center field once was, making you realize exactly where you are. Of course the main feature of the park are ballfields where kids from the neighborhood gather to play the game in the footsteps of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Maris, Jackson and Jeter.

Kids of all ages play baseball on the field where immortals once trod.
Perhaps one day they will join them in that Pantheon.

Baseball, our national pastime is as alive and well as ever on that hallowed ground. It's almost enough to make an old Yankee hater fall in love with the team.

Nah.

Next up, Saving the best for last, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Stay tuned...


Monday, August 29, 2016

Our National Anthem

The controversy du jour is whether or not a football player has the right to not stand as The Star Spangled Banner is played before a pre-season football game. As you can imagine, the media, social or otherwise has gone all aflutter over the matter of San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick's decision to literally sit out the anthem as it played before his team's game last Friday against the Green Bay Packers. Here's Kaepernick's explanation:
I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.
Kaepernick here is speaking of the recent publicity surrounding black men being killed by police officers, and of his support for the "Black Lives Matter" movement.

His critics claim that as a privileged highly paid athlete, Kaepernick should shut up, mind his Ps an Qs, and just be grateful for his good fortune to live in a country that allows him to make several million dollars per year to play a game. The flag and the anthem they feel, is a symbol of the men and women who have served this country in the armed forces. Showing disrespect for those symbols they feel, is tantamount to showing disrespect for our servicemen and women.

Quite honestly I haven't had the chance to hear the opinions of people who support Kaepernick's statement, but I can imagine they are saying that he has every right to protest a situation that he feels is unjust. By making such a controversial statement so publicly, Kaepernick they feel is doing a great service to the oppressed people of this country.

In supporting their quarterback, Kaepernick's team, the 49ers essentially said that by refusing to stand for the anthem, Kaepernick is actually doing more to support the ideals our flag and our country stand for, than the people who are trying to vilify him.
The National Anthem is and always will be a special part of the pre-game ceremony... It is an opportunity to honor our country and reflect on the great liberties we are afforded as its citizens. In respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.
I agree with them. Similar to the issue of making an amendment to the constitution that bans the burning of the flag, the fuss over standing for the national anthem is quite ironic. What this country stands for more than anything else is liberty, and what could be a greater expression of liberty and freedom than allowing people to take an unpopular stand, or in this case, an unpopular sit?

As for the anthem at sporting events, I myself stand, doff my cap if I'm wearing one, and even place it over my heart if the spirit so moves. I do so out of respect for the hard working people of this country, both in the military and not. I do so out of respect for the other team and their fans showing solidarity with them as fellow citizens of my country. And if I am at an international event standing for the national anthem of another country, I do so out of respect and solidarity with the people of that country and the fact that we are all citizens of this planet.

I say this because something the radio guy said this morning struck a nerve. Talking indignantly about the Kaepernick kerfuffle, he brought up standing for the anthem at "sporting events like (Chicago) Blackhawks games." Now I'm as big a Blackhawk fan as the next guy, but I do feel a little uncomfortable about their approach to the anthem. Several years ago at Hawks games at the old Chicago Stadium, some fans began spontaneously cheering during the anthem. What started as a bunch of drunken rowdy fans cheering on their team during what was supposed to be a solemn moment, grew and grew until it became a cherished tradition. Nowadays everyone at the United Center is on their feet screaming their lungs out to the point where it is impossible to hear the anthem. Everyone talks about the "electric atmosphere during the anthem at the UC during Hawks games." How this translates to respect for the anthem, the flag or the country, I have no idea. This tradition has spilled over to other NHL cities where Blackhawk fans hoot and holler during the anthem while the fans of the hometown team remain silent. Clearly this boorish behavior is more directed at supporting a team than a country.

Yes sports fans, I detect no small amount of hypocrisy out there when it comes to respect for the flag and the anthem.

For the record, while I appreciate Kaepernick's concern for those less fortunate than himself, I don't agree with the histrionics in his statement, which oversimplify the issue of killings at the hands of police to an almost laughable degree. I also believe that sitting out the Star Spangled Banner is nothing but an empty and misguided symbol in itself.

Like it or not, symbols do matter and even though I don't believe that his actions dishonor our servicemen and women, many people in this country do, even many of the people he claims to support. Colin Kaepernick has every right to not stand for our national anthem. What that means is this: he should not under any circumstances be arrested for making his statement, as that would be a direct violation of the First Amendment of our Constitution.

On the other hand it does not mean that by making his statement, he should be exempt from criticism or from sanctions placed upon him by his employers, the 49ers and the NFL, should they chose to do so. As an employee and public representative of those organizations, he is responsible for following their rules and mandates. If he fails to do so, he bears the responsibility for any consequences brought upon himself. Kaepernick seems prepared for that possibility:

If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.

My guess is the bottom line for those two organizations is money rather than liberty, and there is a very good chance that both the league and the team will at some point buckle under public pressure to sanction Kaepernick for his actions.

Then we'll see if Kaepernick is willing to put his money where his mouth is. If he is, then all power to him. If not, then he can be dismissed as just another publicity seeking yahoo.

We'll just have to wait and see who blinks first.   

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

There Used to Be a Ballpark

Now the children try to find it
And they can't believe their eyes
`cause the old team just isn't playing
And the new team hardly tries
And the sky has got so cloudy
When it used to be so clear
And the summer went so quickly this year
Yes, there used to be a ballpark right here
Those are the words that sum up Joe Reposo's maudlin tune about the loss of innocence. Written for Frank Sinatra, the song was titled There Used to Be a Ballpark.

Baseball of late has become a bittersweet passion for my son. My boy the high school ballplayer is learning the harsh reality that the higher up the mountain he climbs, the weight of each step becomes heavier and heavier, as the air sustaining him becomes thinner and thinner.

Yet the flame burns within him as bright as ever.

Meanwhile, my son the rabid baseball fan is in the process of "collecting" major league ballpark experiences, an interest I also had at his age. Unlike me however, he has a father who is almost as passionate about the game as he, and is willing to frame summer vacations around visits to ballparks. This summer has been particularly fruitful as we made it to three new parks (for us), bringing his total including the two hometown parks, to seven.

In addition to the extant parks, my passion extends to visiting the sites described in the Reposo song "where the field was (once) warm and green and the people played their crazy game with a joy I'd never seen."

I wrote about two such sites on this blog. In a post from 2012 called "In Their Footsteps" I wrote about the thrill of standing upon a spot where something important happened. In this case the spot was the former left handed batters box of Old Comiskey Park in Chicago, where luminaries such as Joe Jackson, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson performed their magic. The significance of that spot was not lost on my then eleven year old son. The site of the old lost ballpark with a monument marking where home plate and the batters boxes once sat is now the parking lot for the new(er) ballpark across the street.

A month later I wrote a piece called "The Corner" about the patch of land at the intersection of Michigan and Trumbull Avenues in the Detroit neighborhood of Corktown. At the time of that writing, control of the site where two ballparks stood, was bitterly contested by the city of Detroit who wanted the site reserved for potential commercial development, and a group of baseball enthusiasts who hoped the site could be used as a public space devoted to baseball. That group, who called itself the Navin Field Ground Crew, much to the chagrin of the powers that be, took over the abandoned site, brought the field back to playing condition, and encouraged passionate, like-minded fans to come back to the park to play ball, get married, even scatter the ashes of loved ones on the hallowed ground where their beloved Tigers played for over 100 years. It remained that way until this year when the site was taken over by the Detroit Police Athletic League who plans to build their headquarters on the land formerly occupied by Tiger Stadium's grandstands, and retain the playing field, making it accessible to the public on a limited basis.

The three cities my son and I visited this summer were New York, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Last year we visited St. Louis. The current ballparks in those cities were built in the retro style, doing their best to emulate the classic ballparks of old while providing visitors modern amenities such as luxury skyboxes and up-to-date concession stands designed to separate fans from their money as efficiently as possible.

Miller Park, Milwaukee
Way back in 2010, we went to a game up in Miller Park in Milwaukee. You can read about that visit here. That park in contrast to those mentioned above, while paying lip service to the past in the form of superficial design elements found on its outer facade, is a thoroughly modern ballpark complete with a retractable roof. Miller Park was built to replace the fifties vintage Milwaukee County Stadium, which stood only a few feet away.

From 1903 until 1953, Major League Baseball was remarkably stable. During that period there was no expansion or contraction, and all sixteen teams in the two leagues stayed put in the cities in which they played. Several things changed after the Second World War. More and more people were moving out of the big cities and into the suburbs, and the automobile became the primary means of transportation for many Americans. The old ballparks built in a bygone era where people got around by streetcar, were ill equipped to handle people coming from the 'burbs in their cars. Making it worse, television and other amusements were competing for the public's attention. Adding to that, games were broadcast on the tube making some people feel no need to go down to the ballpark.

As you might surmise from its name, Milwaukee County Stadium was built with public funds and administered by the local government. It wasn't the first major league ballpark to have that distinction, more on that later, but it does have the distinction of being the first "build it and they will come ballpark", constructed with the expectation that it would attract a big league team to its city. They built Country Stadium atop a defunct stone quarry on the outskirts of town, on a site with acres of land, perfect for lots of parking spaces.

By the fifties, Major League Baseball was in trouble and it was becoming clear that cities like Boston, Philadelphia and St. Louis could no longer support two teams. So in 1953, the oldest team in baseball, the Boston Braves headed west for greener pastures in Milwaukee. That move proved to be a huge success as Milwaukee's new team set attendance records year after year. Their success at the gate was matched by their success on the field. In the thirteen year existence of the Milwaukee Braves, the team never had a losing record, a feat never duplicated in baseball. These Braves, led by baseball immortals Warren Spahn, Eddie Matthews and Henry Aaron, were one of only two teams who beat the Yankees in the World Series in the fifties. If anything, the Milwaukee Braves were victims of their own success. In the mid-sixties the owners, well aware of the success of their original move, looked to make even more money by exploiting a then untapped resource, the south. So in 1966, the Braves packed their bags again and headed down to Atlanta. Five years later, Milwaukee snagged another struggling franchise, the Seattle Pilots, who have played in Brewtown ever since. They were christened with a nickname that has adorned the uniforms of players on several teams in that city since the mid-nineteenth century, the Brewers.

Pretty much a no frills ballpark, there was nothing particularly beautiful about County Stadium as a building. It was a deceptively large ballpark, at its maximum it could hold well over fifty thousand fans. Despite all that, it was beloved for its intimacy; it didn't look all that big and the fans were never far away from the action. As it was set in a ravine created by the old quarry, it sported a lovely view of the Story Hill neighborhood, which sat beyond team mascot Bernie Brewer's chalet in the center field stands, from where he would slide into a huge beer stein after every Brewer home run.

Ballparks are not designed to last forever, their typical life expectancy is about fifty years. County Stadium exceeded that by seven years. Lots of memorable games in that ballpark in those years, I even saw a couple of them. But the craziest game had to be the one that took place on May 26, 1959 when "Hard Luck" Harvey Haddix of the Pirates, (more on him later), retired the first 36 Braves he faced in the game. In the bottom of the thirteenth inning, an error on a ground ball to third hit by Felix Mantilla broke up his twelve inning perfect game. Eddie Matthews sacrificed the runner to second, then Hank Aaron was intentionally walked. Haddix next faced Joe Adcock who blasted a home run to right-center field, but it wasn't quite over yet. As the Braves were running the bases, Aaron headed for the dugout, thinking Adcock's ball hit the outfield wall for a double which would have ended the game with Mantilla's run. As Aaron left the base paths, Adcock kept running his home run trot, passing up disappearin'  Hammerin' Hank, making both men out and nullifying his home run. However since Mantilla crosssed the plate before the infraction and the third out occurring, his run was ruled to have counted thereby ending the game, the no-hitter, and a chance for a "W" for Haddix. Final score Braves 1, Pirates 0. The Committee for Statistical Accuracy in Baseball would later decree that a no-hitter constituted  "a game in which a pitcher or pitchers complete a game of nine innings or more without allowing a hit." Since Haddix did not complete the game without allowing a hit (Adcock's home run would eventually be ruled a double), any reference to a no-hitter, let alone a perfect game would be washed away in the record books. Sadly all that Harvey Haddix would have to show for one of the greatest performances in the history of the game, at least in the record books, was a tough luck "L".

Helfaer Field, built atop the infield of old Milwaukee County Stadium
Unlike the sad memorial to Comiskey Park in the middle of a parking lot, the folks up in Milwaukee got it right by building a little league ballpark on the site of old Country Stadium. Today, youngsters can play the game at Helfaer Field in the shadow of the statues honoring the great Milwaukee Braves and Brewers players their parents and grandparents rooted for, a true field of dreams. Perhaps even the spirit of old Harvey Haddix is there rooting them on.

Next up: New York and St, Louis