Sunday, April 5, 2015

Another Opening Day

Chicago is abuzz this week with great anticipation over the upcoming seasons for the major league baseball teams on both sides of town. A cynic might say, "haven't we heard that all before?" But a true fan (short for fanatic), cannot be a cynic, at least not this time of year.

For me, this year's opening day brings with it a touch of melancholy as here in this city, we're still mourning the recent loss of two of our most beloved players, Ernie Banks and Minnie Miñoso.

On a personal note, high school is right around the corner for my boy, meaning that his Little League career will end soon, bringing to a close a happy chapter of our lives together.

Like every recurring event on the calendar, another opening day brings to mind the passage of time and memories of things past. Of the handful of major league opening days I've attended in my life, two come immediately to mind. Both of them were historic games for the home team, the Chicago White Sox. I was at the inaugural game of US Cellular Field, (then called new Comiskey Park), in 1991, obtaining the hard-to-get ticket from a friend in exchange for photographing his son's Bar Mitzvah. In the end it turned out my friend got the better end of the bargain as the Detroit Tigers ruined the opening of the new park by pummeling the Sox 16-0. To make it worse, the demolition of old Comiskey Park across the street, a place I had spent countless happy hours of my life, had just begun. The south-east corner of the grand old ballpark was already gone, exposing a depressing view of the rubble-strewn right field where Babe Ruth once patrolled.

A more poignant memory is opening day 1976 at old Comiskey. My friend Jeremy Pollack had two tickets of his father's, and he invited me to join him. His dad was an advertising guy who had some pretty sweet grandstand seats between third base and home plate. I remember those seats well as it my first and only time in that old ballpark where I could see the entire field without some kind of obstruction blocking the view.

That opening day was historic because it was the first game of Bill Veeck's second run as owner of the White Sox. If you don't know him, you should; Bill Veeck was perhaps the single most colorful character in the history of baseball. Veeck was born into the game as his father, William Veeck Sr. was the president of the Cubs under the Wrigley family. After Veeck Sr. died, his son worked for the Wrigleys and was responsible for the building of two of the most beloved features of Wrigley Field, the hand operated scoreboard, and the ivy covered outfield walls.

Veeck Jr. became a renegade owner who stood the game on its head with his devil-may-care approach to running a team. For years he was derided by his fellow owners and some baseball purists for the circus-like atmosphere he brought to the game. He's probably best known for stunts like sending a midget up to bat when he owned the old St. Louis Browns in 1951, and the infamous Disco Demolition Night here in Chicago in 1979,

But Bill Veeck's legacy goes much deeper than that. After World War II when he owned the Cleveland Indians, he singly-handedly integrated the American League by signing Larry Doby who would become only the second African American to officially play in the big leagues in the twentieth century. While other American League teams steadfastly refused to include black players, Veeck continued to do so, including his signing of the first black Latin American player in the MLB, Minnie Miñoso, and the man who by some accounts was the greatest pitcher of any color to ever play the game, Satchel Paige.

Veeck's purchase of the White Sox after the 1975 season would be his last hurrah. As Jeremy and I took our seats before the game, who should pass right by us but these three gentlemen reenacting the famous Archibald MacNeal Willard painting, The Spirit of '76 (aka Yankee Doodle). That's Veeck himself, peg leg and all, on the right playing the fife. The flag bearer was Paul Richards who managed the team that year. The tableau vivant was in honor of the American Bicentennial, as the game took place just months before the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Upon close examination of the photograph, you can probably find Jeremy and me in the stands at the top right corner of the picture.

I just finished reading a splendid biography of Veeck, written by Paul Dickenson titled: Bill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick, picking it up on the recommendation of someone who told me the book's appendix addressed an issue I've been interested in since I first wrote about it in this space two years ago. The issue is this: did Bill Veeck make a serious attempt to purchase the Philadelphia Phillies in 1943, intending to fill the team with star players from the Negro Leagues, only to have the plan quashed by MLB execs?

Bear in mind that Jackie Robinson wasn't signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers until 1945 and would not make his debut with the team until two years later. If the story is true and Veeck had actually pulled it off, then he, not Branch Rickey, would have become the man lionized as the Moses who led baseball out of the dark ages of the color-line.

The story of Veeck's failed attempt to buy the woebegone '43 Phillies, was challenged in an article that appeared in a publication of the highly regarded Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). The article titled, A Baseball Myth Exploded: Bill Veeck and the Sale of the 1943 Phillies, alleges that Veeck made the story up. The authors' case for their accusation was that the only written documentation they could find of the event was Veeck's own description of it in his autobiography, Veeck-- as in Wreck.

I won't go into details but Dickenson makes a very good case for Veeck by debunking the SABR article, which has also been discredited by other baseball historians, including SABR members. In the end it hardly matters since with or without the Phillies episode, Veeck's credentials as one of the most important individuals responsible for integrating the game, are unassailable.

In his biography, Dickenson portrays Bill Veeck as a man of deep courage, generosity, and good will. Coming from a privileged background, he could have easily avoided military service in World War II, or at least sought out a cushy officer's commission. Instead, despite his age and family status, he insisted upon entering the Marine Corps as an enlisted man. On top of that, he requested a transfer from the backup position at Bougainville where he was assigned, to the Third Division which was about to invade the island of Guam in the South Pacific. The transfer went through but as fate would have it, word of the transfer didn't reach Veeck in time, so he ended up manning an anti-aircraft gun as part of a defense battalion, rather than being put directly into harm's way as he had wished. That transfer snafu more than likely saved his life. Still, injuries incurred during his service in Bouganville ultimately cost him much of his right leg below the knee, hence the wooden leg you see in the picture.

Despite Veeck's fame as promoter extraordinaire, his baseball acumen was right up there with the best of them. Consider this: between 1947 and 1964, the New York Yankees won the American League pennant in all but three seasons. Two of those seasons, they lost the pennant to teams owned by Bill Veeck, the 1948 Indians and the 1959 White Sox. The third was the '54 Indians, a team which still had vestiges of the Cleveland team that Veeck once owned. Despite being under-capitalized in his second go-around with the White Sox, in 1977 Veeck had the brilliant idea of obtaining big time players in their option year before they became free agents and commanded exorbitant money. That "rent-a-team" became known as the "South Side Hit Men" and, filled with sluggers like Oscar Gamble, Ralph Garr and Ritchie Zisk, led their division for most of the season, ultimately winning 90 games, and creating more excitement in Chicago baseball than had been seen in years. And the heart of the 1983 White Sox, the first Chicago team to make the post-season since Veeck's "Go Go Sox" of '59, was made up of personnel (such as right fielder Harold Baines and manager Tony La Russa), who were brought to the team by Veeck.

But what made Bill Veeck truly stand head and shoulders above his peers in baseball, was his accessibility to the fans, and the belief that he was nothing without them. Perhaps his greatest promotion was inspired by a tongue-in-cheeck letter from a Cleveland Indians fan by the name of Joe Early who wrote:
Now they want a Bill Veeck Night. It’s a good idea, but here’s another suggestion. Let’s have a Joe Earley Night. I pay my rent, and my landlord spends it on things that keep business stimulated. I keep the gas station attendant in business by buying gas regularly. I keep the milkman in clover by buying milk. He uses trucks and tires and as a result big industry is kept going. The paper boy delivers the paper, wears out a pair of shoes occasionally and the shoemaker wins. My wife keeps a grocer and a butcher (don’t we all) in business and the department stores as well. A lot of people depend on me (and you) so let us all get together, and send in your contributions for that new car for Good Old Joe Earley Night.
In response, on September 28, 1948 at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, in the midst of a hotly contested pennant race, Veeck took the microphone and before 60,000 fans, officially declared that evening: “Good Old Joe Earley Night”, in honor not only of Joe, but of all the hard working Joes who represented the vast majority of the fans of the team. The crowd went wild, especially after Veeck handed out gag gifts to the Earleys including a broken down old horse, and a new house, actually an outhouse wheeled in from center field. The whole event wasn’t a complete gag, the team then presented the couple with a brand new convertible and other valuable take home gifts, as well as a handsome check in their names to their favorite charity, cancer research.

Until the day he died, Bill Veeck's telephone number was listed. I know this for a fact because a former workmate of mine, in perhaps a slightly altered state, picked up the phone early one morning and dialed the Veeck residence in Hyde Park to express some concerns about the White Sox. Veeck's wife Mary Frances picked up the phone (as Bill was probably still out on the town), and the two of them talked baseball for about an hour. Mrs. Veeck won my friend over to her husband's cause as she continues to do to this day as a spry 98 year old.

In the end, Veeck couldn't compete with the multi-millionaires who were taking over the game. He sold the White Sox in 1980 to the group that still owns the team. Put off by their comment that they were going to turn the team into a "first class operation", Veeck for a while boycotted the Sox for the team on the north side and their "friendly confines." There he could be found, usually shirtless in the bleachers he built, sitting in the cheap seats, holding court with the rest of the fans whom he felt knew the game the best. According to Veeck: "the knowledge of the game is usually in inverse proportion to the price of the seats." When the Cubs decided to sell the bleacher tickets in advance, thereby making them available to the highest bidder in the secondary ticket market, he left them too.

Bill Veeck is responsible for many aspects of baseball that we take for granted these days. He was an early supporter of the designated hitter rule, and a fervent critic of the reserve clause. He introduced the exploding scoreboard, players' names on the back of their uniforms, as well as many of the side show attractions that appeal mostly to kids and indifferent spectators. To many traditionalist fans, myself included, many of the things Veeck either supported or introduced to the game annoy us to no end. But Veeck understood that if a baseball team were to depend upon only the serious fans, it would be "out of business by September." To that end, one of his proudest achievements was vastly improving the condition of the ladies rooms of his ballparks. Those efforts paid off in spades as many of the attendance records his teams set were due in a large part to the numbers of "female members of the species" (as he preferred to call them) in the seats.

Despite all the antics and his puckish nature, deep down Bill Veeck truly had the best interest of the game, the fans and its players at heart, often at his own expense. Veeck understood that God did not hand down the rules of baseball on a tablet to Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown. He was the kind of guy who respected the spirit of the game, but didn't necessarily respect the letter of its rules, which he felt had been used time and again to strangle the game and the people who play and watch it. Toward the end of his book, Paul Dickenson quotes Veeck's son Mike who commented on how his dad would have reacted to his induction into the National baseball Hall of Fame in 1991. The quote I think sums up Veeck pretty well. Mike Veeck said:
My father would have loved Cooperstown. He would've loved to set up a table on Main Street, put a case of beer next to a sawhorse, and sign autographs for free while the other inductees charge $30 a copy.
His dad was one of the good guys in an industry where such things are few and far between.

We lost Bill Veeck in 1986. Ernie Banks and Minnie Miñoso are gone, and as of late last year, so too is my friend Jeremy. Because of their presence, the four of them all left the world a much better place than they found it.

The beautiful thing about baseball is that it ties together the past, the present and the future seamlessly. This is especially true on opening day when we remember fondly those who went before us, as our hope springs eternal, looking forward to a brilliant season, all the while playing the game in real time.

We trudge on without our fallen heroes knowing full well that everything we have we owe to them, The best thing we can do is pass on the stories of their adventures to those who will be around when we're gone too.

That's baseball, that's life.

Now lets go out and play some ball.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Taken to the Cleaners

To me, one of the most disheartening sights in big American cities is the proliferation of empty storefronts on our major commercial avenues. When I was growing up, those storefronts hosted all sorts of businesses serving the everyday needs of people who lived in the communities where the establishments were located. Today we bemoan the demise of the neighborhood baker, delicatessen and butcher shop, whose days were numbered with the advent of the automobile and with it, the supermarket, the strip mall, and the big-box store. Then along came the internet...

But I think the demise of the American storefront goes deeper than that as few children grow up in our country dreaming of one day opening up their own "mom and pop" store. It's hard work, the hours are terrible, competition from the national chains is strangling, and let's face it, owning your own store usually is not lucrative or glamorous work.

One could do a case study on me, as I had the opportunity to take over my father's paint and wallpaper store when health issues forced him to retire back in the eighties. As much as I loved my dad and was proud of all the work he put into building up his business, I'd have just as much relished the thought of jumping off a bridge as spending the rest of my life eking out a living by selling paint in suburban Cicero, Illinois.

There are exceptions to the desolate commercial streets bereft of successful storefronts. Go to a trendy neighborhood like Andersenville or Lincoln Square in Chicago and you'll find plenty of occupied storefronts featuring boutiques, and other off-beat, specialty businesses that you simply won't find in the malls. Another exception are the commercial streets that run through neighborhoods with high concentrations of immigrants. On those avenues you'll find entrepreneurs fulfilling their own American Dream by owning small shops catering to the appetites, fashion, and entertainment of their compatriot neighbors. A good example is Devon Avenue, a few blocks from our home, once the heart of Jewish Chicago, now the commercial heart of Indian and Pakistani Chicago. There, sari emporiums, halal butchers, and Indian spice shops mix in with the ubiquitous electronic shops and a variety of restaurants featuring the varied epicurean delights of South-Central Asia. Unlike the vast majority of commercial streets in Chicago, on Devon, empty storefronts are the exception, not the rule.

I don't have numbers to back it up but would be willing to wager that the majority of small retail businesses in the city of Chicago are owned by foreign-born Americans.

While local bakeries, butcher shops and other businesses once common to storefront Chicago have all but disappeared, there are certain types of businesses that have not been replaced by national chains in the malls. Most of them provide services rather than merchandise, such as hair and nail salons, auto repair shops and dry cleaners.

It's the dry-cleaners that caught my eye several years ago. There is something to me that is timeless about these businesses. they could have opened up fifty years ago, or yesterday. Perhaps it's because they fulfill such as basic need therefore are not in danger of disappearing, that their propriators don't feel compelled to upgrade or change their appearance. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, or so they say.

Driving by the cleaning establishment pictured above on Touhy Avenue, a few blocks from our home inspired me to think of a photographic project centered around storefront dry-cleaner businesses about town.

As is the case with about ninety five percent of the projects I've come up with in my career, nothing ever came of it...

...until now that is. Equipped with my new iPhone which follows me wherever I go, I'm in a better position to follow my muse which today is pointing me in a cleaner direction. 

Perhaps in the near future you'll be seeing on these pages more images of these little pieces of the city that seem to never change.

Friday, March 20, 2015

La vie en Rose

Baseball fans eagerly awaiting the administration of new MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, are debating how the new tzar of the game will rule on cases close to their heart.  One of those cases is the ongoing drama, saga, soap opera, or whatever you choose to label it, of discredited star Pete Rose, and his attempts to be reinstated into Major League Baseball.

Pete Rose 2008
Pete Rose
Rose you may recall, was banned from the game by the late commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti back in 1989 for gambling on baseball games, including ones in which he participated as player and manager. Fans appear to be split over the fate of Rose, aka “Charlie Hustle.” Those who support him say the man with more hits than any other player in the history of the game has paid the price for his transgressions. His detractors on the other hand, feel a suitable punishment is nothing less than a lifetime ban. Some are not even satisfied with that, as the possibility of extending Rose’s punishment into eternity is very real. Case in point, the great outfielder “Shoeless”Joe Jackson has been dead for over 60 years, yet efforts to forgive his sins (of participating in the 1919 Black Sox scandal), and rehabilitate his credibility in order to induct him into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, have thus far fallen upon the deaf ears of the Commissioner’s office. There are those who feel that Rose shouldn’t be allowed into the Hall of Fame (if at all) before Jackson, and Jackson certainly isn’t getting inducted anytime soon.

Rose’s detractors have a compelling case in their favor, namely the rules of baseball, Rule 21(d) to be exact, which addresses the subject of  “betting on ball games”. The rule in its entirety states:

Any player, umpire, or club official or employee, who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has no duty to perform shall be declared ineligible for one year.   

Any player, umpire, or club or league official or employee, who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has a duty to perform shall be declared permanently ineligible.

Clearly, Pete Rose falls into the second category and according to the rule, should be “declared permanently ineligible,” case closed.

Rules are rules after all.

Baseball is a game governed by rules, and no individual, no matter how great or important, is larger than the game.

I agree with that statement completely. By the same token, I believe that no rule is bigger than the game either.

Any student of the game knows that baseball has evolved a great deal over the 170 years since the first rules were put down on paper. Since then, rules have come and gone, they’ve been expanded, contracted, stretched, repealed, amended, side-stepped, tweaked, broken, ignored, and just about everything else you can do with a rule. There once was a rule that banned professionals from playing the game. Pitchers in the early days threw underhand (hence the term pitching), because the rules said they had to. And then there was the time, when any player who had dark skin was prevented by the rules from playing "organized baseball" of any kind.

A rule comes to be a rule because a perceived problem needs to be addressed. The gambling rule came about after multiple betting scandals rocked the game in the late ‘teen’s and early twenties of the twentieth century. The throwing the of the 1919 World Series by the Chicago White Sox was only the tip of the iceberg. There is very good evidence that players for the 1918 Cubs as well as the 1914 Athletics also were compensated for doing their best to lose World Series games, which they did. Gambling and game throwing were simply means to supplement the relatively paltry incomes of ballplayers of that era. The practice was rampant and threatened to destroy public trust in the “National Pastime.”

Kennesaw Mountain Landis
To combat the problem, major league owners created a new position, that of commissioner, the first of whom was the sour-pussed Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis. Landis, granted by the owners the power of chief judge, jury, and executioner, wasted no time in giving eight White Sox players including Jackson, the boot for their part in throwing the 1919 Series. He later put through the no-gambling rule along with its severe punishments. Landis for all his shortcomings, did manage to clean up the game as his treatment of the White Sox players, and everybody else whom he happened to think was not on the up and up, sent an unequivocal signal to MLB employees that it was to be either the commissioner's way, or the highway.

One measure of  Landis's efficacy in cleaning up the game is the simple fact that between the early 1920s and 1989 when Pete Rose was banned from the game, not a single major league ballplayer was suspended for betting on baseball, or conspiring with gamblers to fix games. That doesn't mean they weren't doing it, they just weren't caught, that is, until old Charlie Hustle.

That it works so well is a good argument that Baseball Rule 21(d) is sound and effective. I have no problem with the rule itself, just with its inflexibility and the severity of punishment. Some might say that there are no distinctions in gambling, that the very act of betting by someone involved in the game betted upon, undermines the very nature of competitive baseball. In other words, a two dollar bet is no different than a twenty thousand dollar bet, or that betting on your team to win is no different than betting on your team to lose. Granted, Pete Rose's bets were more in the twenty thousand dollar range than the two dollar range, but no one with any credibility has ever proven or even suggested that he bet on his teams to lose.

I agree there still is a conflict of interest when a manager of a ball club has money riding on his team to win. He may for example, because of his vested interest in a particular game, play starters whom he should be resting, or do other things to win that particular game to the detriment of winning other games down the line, or even a championship.  Common sense however would dictate that this transgression is much different from a manager betting on his team to lose.

I think it would be very difficult to prove that the Cincinnati Reds, both the team and the franchise while under the management of Pete Rose, were hurt by his gambling on them to win. If they were it would stand to reason that Reds fans would be the ones screaming the loudest for a lifetime ban on Pete Rose. In fact, quite the opposite is true, his biggest supporters are the fans from his hometown, which happens to be Cincinnati.

The same cannot be said of Joe Jackson's 1919 White Sox, who did indeed lose that year's World Series, were not contenders for many years after the team was broken up in 1920, and struggled mightily at the gate after the fans on the south side of Chicago lost faith in their team.

As far as disciplinary action goes, I believe that the punishment should fit the crime. A two dollar bet should not be penalized as severely as a twenty thousand dollar bet, and betting on your own team should not be dealt with as severely as betting against your team.

And I believe that under no circumstances, should a player be banned from the game for life, without any chance for redemption.

Yes friends I do believe in forgiveness, even for characters like Pete Rose.

One other issue I'd like to mention before I shut up, in this day and age where average MLB salaries are measured well into the seven digits, it's very hard to imagine that any player who makes that kind of scratch would be tempted to sacrifice a lucrative career for whatever amount gambling or associating with gamblers could possibly offer. Unless of course they have an addiction like Pete Rose, in which case the cure for the problem would be intervention, rather than banishment.

You might not like Pete Rose nor the things he did to get himself into trouble. But his contributions to the game of baseball are significant and should not be overlooked. In my opinion, those contributions should make Pete Rose eligible for a one way ticket to Cooperstown, despite his transgressions.

He deserves to be there, as does Joe Jackson, albeit, posthumously. As for Judge Landis's rule well, I think a little tweaking would be in order. A graded systems of penalties to match the severity of wrongdoing would be a good start. Perhaps a twenty year maximum suspension for the most egregious offenses would be enough to prevent players from crossing the line. After all as far as a baseball career is concerned, twenty years for all intents and purposes is a life sentence, even for a manager.

The punishment of an eternity in baseball oblivion for the crimes of people like Jackson and Rose, is ridiculously excessive, if you asked me. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

An elegy for soon to be Lost Chicago

Ask me to name my favorite street in Chicago's Loop and I'd have to go with Wabash Avenue. The buildings that line the street aren't necessarily the best this city's architects had to offer, but they all reflect the attention to quality and detail that late nineteenth and early twentieth century architects put into their work. While not one single building is what you might call a masterpiece of design, when you put them all together, they create a breathtaking streetscape, speaking to each other in a distinctly turn of the twentieth century language. The loudest voice in that conversation, both visually and audibly, is the elevated structure that has dominated Wasbash Avenue since 1894. The L is to Chicago what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, the Brooklyn Bridge is to New York, and the cable cars are to San Francisco, that is to say, a magnificent work of late nineteenth century engineering that continues to stir hearts, and symbolize its city.

Of the four, Chicago's L is probably the least universally loved. It's noisy and it casts a perpetual shadow on the street below. It can be terrifying as well, as anyone who has ever traveled on or stood below trains as they make the tight, precarious curves twenty feet above ground can testify. Fears of trains falling from the sky came true in 1977, when an Oak Park bound train bumped into another train standing just east of the State and Lake station. The forward momentum of the trailing cars on the 90 degree curve at Lake and Wabash caused them to jump the tracks and topple to the street below.

The technology was well in place in the 1890s and a subway system as intricate as New York City's was considered. Because the Chicago rapid transit companies were privately owned by different entities, overwhelming difficulties and costs prevented it. The Union Loop as it was originally called, would enable the L lines to arrive downtown, traverse the overhead tracks, then return to their original destination without having separate terminals in the central business district of the city. This greatly facilitated transferring from one line to another as there were no routes that ran through downtown. As a private entity, city statutes mandated that the construction of the elevated structure above city streets would require 100 percent approval from the property owners along those streets. This being Chicago, you can imagine the shenanigans that went on to get the approval to build the Union Loop. But build it they did, and despite all the commotion and racket over the years, the 120 year old structure is still serving us well as it thrills and terrifies us at the same time.

The real beauty of our L, is the structure itself. As one of the consolations to property owners along the proposed route who feared the structure would cast the entire street in shadow, the builders agreed to build the structure supporting the tracks using an open, lattice-work system of trusses,  rather the solid beams. Consequently the Loop L, as opposed to the rest of Chicago s elevated structures, has a light, open feel to it, which perhaps enhances the death-defying quality of the experience of  trains rumbling above your head.

Madison St. station house
The elegant, functional design of the L structure, contrasts with the design of the stations which were built in a more traditional, historic-revival style, such as the neo-rennaisance of the station house on the left, reflecting the popular architectural fashion of the time. Most of the Loop stations have been significantly altered over the years, with the exception of the Quincy and Wells station, which has been restored virtually to its original appearance, and the Madison and Wabash station, which at this writing, has just been closed for good and is awaiting demolition.

The purpose of the demolition is to replace two Wasbash stations, the one at Madison, and eventually the one at Randolph two blocks to the north, with one modern station spanning from Madison to Washington Street. This would serve two very practical purposes. Reduction of the number of stops in the Loop, as they did a decade ago on Wells Street will, theoretically anyway, reduce congestion and improve travel times. Perhaps more significantly, the new station will be built to current ADA standards, making it possible for people with disabilities to better access public transportation, a very good thing by any standard.

On the other hand it's likely that another reason for the new construction to cut costs in the long run by reducing the staff needed to operate one extra station. Of course politicians love to get their names all over shiny new things and you can bet you'll see the mayor's name (whatever name that may be) plastered all over the new station.

The old Madison and Wabash station was built in 1894 along with the Wabash Avenue leg of the Loop structure, the first section of the Union Loop to be built. As you can see from the photographs, the station has seen better days, no doubt a result of receiving only the most basic maintenance as its days have been numbered for a good time now. Yet even through the rust, the pigeon proofing screens, and the grime, you can still appreciate the fine detail work of the ornamentation of the station. The new station as you can see in the photograph of the "Coming Soon" poster below, will sport undulating rib-like beams (a recent article compared the station's design to the work of Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava), which will support a transparent canopy to protect passengers from the elements, while giving them an unobstructed view of the architecture that surrounds them. From the renderings, the new station appears attractive, exceptionally functional, and respectful of its surroundings.

Still I'm going to miss the old station which I must say was one of my very favorite places in Chicago if for nothing else, the spectacular views of Wabash Avenue, provided by the bridge that spanned the tracks.

That bridge has long been redundant as passengers can now walk beneath the station to transfer to the opposite tracks, and there are no plans to replace it with another one in the new station.

Attractive as it may be, the new station will definitely change the character of the street, which is not entirely a bad thing. Still, destroying a structure that's been around for 120 years shouldn't be something to be taken lightly. Then there's the view...

Take a good look, once the bridge is demolished along with the old station, no one will ever have this view of  Chicago again.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The president punts

In my last post about Chicago's bid for the Barack Obama Presidential Library, I speculated that the final decision to be made by President Obama and the First Lady about the library's location, scheduled to be announced at the end of this month, would have a tremendous impact on Chicago's upcoming mayoral election to be held on April 7. Well the president it seems has wisely chosen to delay the announcement until after the election.

Regardless of the decision where to locate his legacy museum/library, New York City, Honolulu, or Chicago, the president would have been in a lose-lose situation had he announced the winner right before the election.

The announcement of the delay itself has created considerable speculation among the pundits as to the final outcome of the competition. Some suggest it means that the president has not chosen Chicago, but doesn't want that decision to hurt the chances of his friend and former Chief of Staff, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel of winning re-election. Others suggest that Chicago is indeed the choice, and the president does not want to be accused of using the announcement as a weapon to put the mayor over the top.

Of course, Obama knows full well that he will be raked over the coals for whatever he does; as someone humorously suggested, if Barack Obama were to openly come out in favor of air, 80 percent of Republicans in this country would hold their breath. As he is in his final term however, it's very likely that he is immune to fear of criticism from the intransigent right. That leads me to feel that the president is probably leaning toward New York or Honolulu, (as he wouldn't be fazed by making the controversial move to help the chances of his friend and political ally), but I wouldn't put serious money on it.

As far as the candidates' positions on the library, as I pointed out, Emanuel has engineered a land swap with the Chicago Park District, who agreed to hand over roughly twenty acres of one of two historic parks, Jackson or Washington Parks, both on the south side, in exchange for undisclosed vacant land owned by the city that would theoretically become devoted in one way or other to park use.

Personally I believe this is a terrible idea for reasons I enumerated here and here.

Emanuel's opponent, city commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, originally opposed the idea of the park swap as well, but has softened his stance as building the library at whatever cost is an exceptionally popular issue with a large percentage of Chicago's African American community, a constituency that both candidates desperately need to win the election.

So it turns out that both Emanuel and Garcia are willing to give up precious park land, and our historic and architectural legacy for votes.

And this election for me, at least as far as this issue goes, is a wash.

Friday, March 6, 2015

My iPhone and I during the evening commute...

So I've had my iPhone for about two months and haven't quite gotten to the point where I feel lost without it, but I'm getting there. There are still a few things I'm fumbling around with, I still haven't mastered the art of typing on the device, especially on a moving train, as being able to write this blog during my daily commute was one of the justifications for getting this thing in the first place.

Another justification was being able to have a camera with me at all times without having to carry around my rather cumbersome gear. Again, taking pictures with my phone at a moment's notice, isn't second nature to me just yet.

But the other night on the way home during a spectacular "sky event" as a good friend would call it, I got inspired...

I posted this image on Facebook and got about 50 likes in a day, I'm guessing it was the sunset. A friend asked if I used any digital manipulation or if I published the image straight from the camera file. I responded merely that the image corresponded more or less to the way I saw the scene at the time, which was in fact, true. Having been a serious photographer since high school, a very long time ago, I know that photographs seldom look the way you see the image in your mind's eye when you take the picture. There are lots of reasons for this but the most obvious one is that a camera and the recording medium, whether it be film or an electronic sensor, do not "see" an image the way our eyes and brain do. Photographers since the advent of the medium over 175 years ago, have understood this and have worked very hard to make their final images look just the way they think they ought to look.

Yet another surreptitious smartphone photograph of
people using smartphones on the train.
In the case of the picture above, there is a great difference between the amount of light coming from the sky and the amount of light reflected by the woman's coat or the tracks. Photographers call this the dynamic range. Photographic media can record a far more limited dynamic range than we can see. When we take a picture, if the range between brightest part of the image and the darkest is too great, compromises have to be made. If we want to preserve detail in the shadow areas, then we have to be willing to lose some detail in the highlights which will be rendered as solid white. Likewise; if we want to preserve details in the highlights, such as the vivid colors in the sky, we have to acccept that the shadow areas will be rendered solid black, unless of course we do something about it.

Back in the day when we shot black and white negatives, we could control the exposure and the development of the film to maximize its potential of producing a suitable print.  Ansel Adams took this technique to its logical extreme when he developed what he called the "Zone System." Then when we made a print in the darkroom, we had the ability to selectively control the amount of dark and light by means of what we call burning (adding more exposure) or dodging, (subtracting exposure), to specific areas of the print. Burning and dodging a print is an art form unto itself; watching the hand gestures of a skilled photographic printer dodging and burning in the darkroom is a truly sight to behold, akin to watching a potter on a wheel or a woodworker on a lathe.

Moonrise, Rogers Park
Alas, as a result of modern technology, this is becoming a lost art as most of the post-production of the photographic images we see today is done on a computer. If prints are made, they are produced on a machine. Today we can digitally control images to a degree that we could only dream about in the old days.

We like to think of photography as a medium that accurately represents reality but the fact is, photographs represent reality no more than paintings or any other kind of visual representation, as the act of framing and recording any three dimensional image onto a two dimensional surface, whether it be film, paper, canvas, or a computer monitor, is by its very nature, artificial.

Moonrise  RP2
Ever since the advent of the revolutionary digital photo editing software Photoshop in 1988. many people have viewed any kind of image manipulation as artificial, and therefore, cheating. Some folks for example, go to the extreme of claiming that the photographs they publish on the social media site Instagram, were made without the benefit of one of that app's many image-altering filters. Somehow they feel this is more pure and honest. But the truth is that every photograph made since the very beginning of the medium has in one way or other been manipulated.

Do photographs lie? Of course they do. Every one of them, to some extent.

All digital technology has done is make the process simpler and more accessible to the general public.

Today, there are apps for smartphones that make it painfully easy to do what once took a skill developed after years of practice in the darkroom to accomplish.

So there's the long winded answer to my friend's question if I used Instagram filters and other digital manipulation techniques on these photographs from the other day. Here's the sort version:

You're damn right I did.

Casa Bonita and Venus (the planet)

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Cuban Comet

When on April 19, 1951, Saturnino Orestes Armas Miñoso Arrieta became the first black man to play for a Chicago major league baseball team, he hit a home run in his first at-bat. Before that in 1949, Bill Veeck bought Miñoso's contract from the Negro League New York Cubans and signed him with his Cleveland Indians, making Minnie Miñoso the first black player of Latin American origin to play in the big leagues. Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda wrote that Miñoso is "to Latin ballplayers what Jackie Robinson is to black ballplayers... the one who made it possible, ... the first Latin to become a superstar."

It's a strange coincidence that the seven time all star, three time gold-glover died just weeks after another Chicago baseball icon, Ernie Banks. Not only were both the first players of color to play on their respective Chicago teams, not only did both men have long and distinguished careers, but each would become unquestionably the heart and soul of their teams, even long after their playing days were over.

In Miñoso's case, it's difficult to say exactly when the end of his career came; he is perhaps best known as the only player to have appeared in a major league baseball game in five different decades, (seven decades in pro ball if you count plate appearances for minor league teams in 1993 and 2003). Miñoso's role was limited to pinch hitter for his old friend Veeck's White Sox, appearing at the plate eight times in 1976 and twice in 1980. In those ten at bats, Miñoso collected just one hit. Folks my age who never saw him in his prime, (and I'm no spring chicken), are more likely to think of Minnie Miñoso as a spry old man, rather than the "The Cuban Comet" as he was known in his glory days.

Call it respect, nostalgia, or a gag, just another bit of Veeckian mischief, but it's likely that those ten extra at bats for the White Sox while he was in his fifties, cost Miñoso some respect, at least among the folks who determine every ball player's ultimate dream, induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

In his 2001 epic tome, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, the author rates Miñoso as the tenth best left fielder of all time, between Willie Stargell and Billy Williams, both Hall of Famers. In his argument for Miñoso's induction, James lists by his reckoning, something not to be dismissed, the twenty greatest players in MLB history between the ages of 30 and 39. Minnie Miñoso is number 16 on the list, and the only one who is not in the Hall of Fame, with the exception of Pete Rose, who was excluded for his off-the-field shenanigans. Given that Miñoso didn't break into the big leagues until he was in his mid to late twenties (depending upon which birth date you accept), his already impressive career stats could have been better, had he more years in his prime to play in the majors, were it not for the color-barrier.

The latest snub of Miñoso came less than three months before his death, when the "Golden Era Committee" made up of eight Hall of Fame players and the same number of executives, rejected all ten of the stellar players of the fifties and sixties who came before them, Miñoso included.

In an ESPN article published just two days before he died, Christina Karhl interviewed Miñoso at length about his career, his disappointment at the snub, and the open hostility he faced as a player. Miñoso says:

My father and my mother taught me there was a way to pay somebody back, if they tried to break your arm or break your face: Pay them back on the field with a smile on your face. I used to keep my teeth clean all the time, just to make sure that's how I gave it back to them that way all the time.

He added this story about a confrontation with an opposing pitcher:

One day, this pitcher said he was going to get me. And I go up to the plate thinking, if I bunt it past this pitcher I'll get a base hit. So I put my hand out and push the ball up the line; we're both heading to first base -- and I didn't go after him. And he asked, "Why did you do that, why did you save me?" And I told him, "Because you have a wife, you have a kid, you have a mother. If you'd broken your leg or if I'd cut you, that would be on my conscience." Later on, he sent me a thank-you note, saying that I had earned his respect from then on.

Fitting last words I think for a great ballplayer and an even greater man.