Thursday, April 17, 2014

My New Team

Long time readers of this blog, (five years old and still going strong thank you very much), know all about my affection for the Chicago Blackhawks hockey club, a team I have rooted for literally since the crib. I owe that affection to my hockey-loving Czech father; some of my favorite early childhood memories revolve around Saturday nights at home watching the team playing their "Original Six" rivals on our Zenith console TV set in living black and white. Usually once or twice a season we'd go to games at the old and sorely missed Chicago Stadium on the west side, usually in the standing room section at the top of the second balcony to watch my heros, Bobby and Dennis Hull, Pit Martin, Pat Stapleton, Keith Magnuson, and goaltenders Glenn Hall and later Tony Esposito. My greatest hero of all was Stan Mikita the great Czechoslovak-born center. The Black Hawks, as the team's name was officially spelled back in the day, won the Stanley Cup in 1961. I was around then, but at just over two years old, I have no recollection of the event. The Hawks were a very good team throughout most of my life, but wouldn't hoist the cup again until 2010. In most of the intervening 49 years, I deeply cared about the team and its ups and downs;  probably the only time I truly lost interest was when their tightwad owner William "Dollar Bill" Wirtz also lost interest. He sold off all the good players and things got so bad at the new United Center, that even the New York Times took notice. Then the old man kicked the bucket and before they laid him in the ground, his son Rocky said that things were about to change.

Rocky Wirtz was true to his word. In one of the most remarkable turnarounds in sports history, within a couple of years, the Blackhawks went from what ESPN described as the worst franchise in American sports, to winning the Stanley Cup. Last year, three years later, they won it again.

Then the unthinkable happened, I stopped caring. 

Well not entirely, This year I catch the Hawks whenever I can, but I no longer set my clock by them or hang on their every move. If they win I'm happy, but not ecstatic; if they lose I just shrug my shoulders and say "oh well." Some might say: "thank God, the old fogey has finally grown up and given up his childish obsession with sports." Unfortunately that's not the case. In reality, after fifty plus years as a Blackhawks fan, I have found another hockey team to root for. 

The seeds of change were planted a few years ago during a fund raiser for my daughter's pre-school. My wife was on the fund raising committee and her job was to organize a raffle. Among the local institutions she contacted to donate items for the raffle were all the local professional sports teams. Some simply ignored the request, while others sent token items. The Chicago Bulls for example sent several copies of the team yearbook. Not bad until we checked them out and discovered they were about four years old. They obviously used the request to facilitate their spring cleaning, The Blackhawks sent an autographed 8 x 10 photograph of forward Bryan Bickell who at the time was an obscure fourth line forward. Since then he's gained some notoriety as he scored a few big goals during their last championship run, but at the time, no one bothered to bid on the photo or the yearbooks, and my son by default got to keep them.

The only sports franchise that sent anything of value was a minor league hockey team, the Chicago Wolves. They sent tickets and a jersey. My guess is that hardly anyone at the auction cared much for ice hockey, let alone the Chicago Wolves, so we bid on the tickets and the jersey and won both, at a price well below their face value. From the time I took my son to his first game three years ago, he has been a dyed-in-the-wool Wolves fan.

I might add much to my chagrin at the outset because he came out and told me that since the Wolves were the farm club of the Hawks' despised rival, the Vancouver Canucks, he would root for that team whenever they played my beloved Blackhawks. That cut me to the core, even more than when my contrarian son years earlier proclaimed his loyalty to the Cubs. But I "manned" up to it; hockey is hockey after all, still my favorite sport to watch and to play, if badly. Since tickets to Wolves games cost a fraction of what tickets to the big league team cost, we can afford to go to five or six home games every season. We've even gone on the road with the team up to Milwaukee and Rockford, where the Blackhawks' farm club the Ice Hogs play. During those Rockford games, it was tough for me to pick a team to root for, especially since with the exception of their logo, (as ugly as sin), the Ice Hog uniforms are identical to the ones the Blackhawks wear. Rooting for the Wolves against the Hogs felt like cheating on my wife.

But not anymore. Over one million folks, the vast majority of them under 25, wearing the beautiful red, white, and black Indian-head sweater, showed up to the Stanley Cup victory celebration in the Loop last June. Due to their recent success, the Hawks have become the most talked about team in this town. My guess is the vast majority of the folks who showed up at the rally could not have cared less about the Blackhawks a few years ago, before they started to have some success. Truth be told, I have absolutely no problem with that. However, since contrarianism runs in the family, I've begun to switch allegiances.

Unlike the Blackhawks, the Wolves are barely ever mentioned in the media. Even on a local radio station whose sportscast is sponsored by the Wolves, the results of their games are never mentioned. It's not too hard to understand why. In a city with big league teams in every major sport, there's little time or interest to cover a minor league club, even a successful one. In their twenty years of existence, the Wolves have won four championships in the two leagues in which they belonged. They have never had a losing season and have missed the playoffs only four times. Given the history of Chicago sports teams, that's remarkable.

Because it is the feeder league for the NHL, the best hockey league in the world, the American Hockey League to which the Wolves belong, has to be considered one of the premier hockey leagues in the world in its own right. The quality of hockey found in the AHL, while not quite up to NHL standards, is still exceedingly high. While NHL ticket prices can be five to ten times higher than those of the AHL, the quality of the product is not proportionally that much higher.

One of the charms of minor league sports is that the players are much more accessible. After a game you can wait around the gate to get autographs or just shoot the breeze with them. More often than not, the players will oblige, especially for kids. Like players in other minor sports leagues with major league affiliations, there are several categories of AHL players. There are the young, big league-bound players who are just biding their time in the minors before they get the call from upstairs. There are aging NHL players who no longer are up to competing at the major league level, but aren't quite ready to hang up the skates. Chris Chelios and Al Secord, two former Blackhawk stars ended their careers with the Wolves. Then there are the AHL lifers, the guys who for one reason or other, will never get the chance to land a steady gig in the big show. While most of the Wolves tower over me, it was surprising to see that even with my five foot eight inch frame (on a good day), I could look over the heads of some of them. Despite all of the players being great athletes, at times situations beyond their control, (such as their size) prevents them from making it in the majors.

You can't get too attached to minor league players. Minor league clubs are constantly in a state of flux, at the mercy of the big league club who can bring players up or send them back down at will on a moment's notice. What's more, a team can switch affiliations which happened to the Wolves this past off-season. That means all the players that are under contract to the big club, which is most of them, suddenly belong to another team. In our case, the players we were rooting for as Chicago Wolves last year are now playing for the Utica Comets, and the most of the players from the Peoria Rivermen, last year's chief rival, are now playing for the Wolves.

This year the Wolves are affiliated with the St. Louis Blues, another rival of the Blackhawks, a team even more despised than the Canucks. It so happens that as the NHL regular season has just concluded, the Blackhawks' first playoff opponent will be none other than the Blues. The biggest Wolves star this season was a Czech player of Russian descent, named Dmitri Yaskin. In the last couple of months he's been shuttling between St. Louis and Chicago and now is a regular member of the Blues.

This past Sunday as my boy and I attended our last regular season Wolves game, we discovered two stalwart players were also missing from the lineup. "Where's Keith Aucoin?" I asked my son. Aucoin, at thirty five is an old man for hockey. He's a highly skilled American born center who spent most of his hockey career as a journeyman AHL player with some stints in the NHL. Listed officially at 5'8", Aucoin is one of those players whom I could have eaten the proverbial bowl of soup off his head. For obvious reasons I have an affinity for him.

My son missed Ty Rattie, a 21 year old forward with a bright future, when he failed to show up after the game to sign autographs. It turned out both players had been sent up to St. Louis the night before as the Blues have been decimated by injuries.

That means three of our favorite players who on occasion played together on the Wolves' premier line at the beginning of the season, will likely be playing for the Blues against the Blackhawks in the first round of the NHL playoffs. Which is a bit of a dilemma for me.

Honestly, it's a nice problem to have. While the Blackhawks were competing for the first Stanley Cup in my memory four years ago, I was in a perpetual state of pins and needles and can't say I truly enjoyed the experience until the final moment when Patrick Kane's ridiculously impossible sudden death overtime shot found its way into the back of the net in game six of the finals in Philadelphia. Last year's run when they beat the Boston Bruins was much more enjoyable for me, I was so calm I even managed to miss seeing the two goals scored seventeen seconds apart that won Chicago the championship. I can now go to my grave having seen my favorite team in the world winning not one but two world championships. We Chicagoans have set the bar ridiculously low as far as sports expectations go. Cubs fans should only be so lucky.

As the NHL playoffs begin for the Blackhawks this evening, I'll be rooting for them for sure, but this year I'll also be rooting for old man Aucoin and the youngster Yaskin. Rattie for the time being is back with the Wolves, at least he was as of yesterday and we'll be rooting for him as well as the Wolves have also made it into the playoffs, and my boy and I will have at least one more hockey game to go to this year.

Hockey is hockey after all and in my humble opinion, there is nothing more exciting in sports than playoff ice hockey. Honestly could life get any better than having your two favorite teams in the playoffs?


I hardly think so.

Go Blackhawks.
Go Wolves.




Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Marian Anderson

Marian Anderson, Washington Mall, April 9, 1939
On Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, the great American contralto Marian Anderson performed in Washington DC in front of a live audience estimated at 75,000 and a radio audience perhaps in the millions. Performing with her was longtime accompanist, pianist Kosti Vehanen. By 1939, Miss Anderson had a tremendous following in Europe, especially in the north, where she had developed a close relationship with the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius who proclaimed that her singing had "penetrated the Nordic soul". No less of a figure than the venerable conductor Arturo Toscanini declared Anderson's, "the voice of the century." Despite those prodigious credentials, Anderson still found difficulties performing in her own country because of her race. The most famous snub came at the hands of the Daughters of the American Revolution who in 1939 barred her from performing in Constitution Hall, a large venue in Washington DC owned by the DAR. Less well known is that Anderson was even barred from performing in a white District of Columbia high school. Eleanor Roosevelt, the first lady, famously resigned from the DAR, but came under criticism when she failed to the comment on the issue of the Board of Education's ban, perhaps because it would not have been politically prudent for her and her husband to do so. Nevertheless, in response to the snub, Mrs. Roosevelt and her husband the president, convinced Secretary of the Interior, Harold L. Ickes to arrange an open-air concert on the Washington Mall. The stage for Miss Anderson and Mr. Vehanen was built upon the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, with Daniel Chester French's famous marble image of the 16th president looking over the singer's shoulder. Ickes introduced Miss Anderson that evening by telling the crowd to great applause: "In this great auditorium under the sky, all of us are free." The secretary added: "Genius draws no color line." You can hear his entire introduction and Miss Anderson singing the opening verse of "America" (My Country, 'Tis of Thee) here.

Martin Luther King who was ten years old at the time was greatly moved by the event. Five years later during an oratory contest, the future civil rights leader and martyr would say this:
She sang as never before, with tears in her eyes. When the words of ‘America’ and ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I Seen’ rang out over that great gathering, there was a hush on the sea of uplifted faces, black and white, and a new baptism of liberty, equality, and fraternity. That was a touching tribute, but Miss Anderson may not as yet spend the night in any good hotel in America.
It cannot be a coincidence that standing upon the exact spot nearly 25 years later, Dr. King would also quote "America", using the song's first verses's closing words: "let freedom ring" as the lead in to the rousing conclusion of his "I Have a Dream" speech.

The great symbolism of the event was not lost upon much of the nation. One newsreel prefaced its story of the recital with the following: "Nation’s Capital Gets Lesson in Tolerance." But that lesson was a brief respite, like the moment of calm inside the eye of a hurricane. The United States was bitterly divided by race, the military about to go to war was segregated, the government was about to persecute tens of thousands of American citizens because of their Japanese heritage. Jim Crow laws were still on the books in the south and poll taxes and other restrictions would continue to disenfranchise American citizens for another three decades. And yes Miss Anderson's hotel options in this country were still limited.

Unfortunately as bad as it was in the United States, things were much worse in Europe. In the thirties while the continent welcomed Miss Anderson with open arms, the writing was already on the wall for Europe's Jewish community as well as members of other ethnic minorities deemed unacceptable by society. Less than five months after Marian Anderson's Washington Mall concert, Germany invaded Poland to mark the beginning of the most terrible war humankind has ever experienced. The world that everyone knew up to that point was about to end.

I can't begin to estimate the significance of the event that took place three quarters of a century ago. It was a tremendous, if fleeting victory for justice and decency. Looking at those iconic photographs of Marian Anderson standing and singing upon this nation's most hallowed spot fills me with a great deal of pride and sadness. The sadness comes from the remembrance of the struggle, inhuman cruelty, and suffering that took place on so many levels for so long after that glorious event. The pride comes from the fact that our country and our government actually did something right. 

Corny as it may sound, for one brief, shining moment 75 years ago today, the good guys won.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Boy did we need this one

After the longest winter anyone in these parts can remember, it just so happened that the day of the first outdoor practice of the season came on the first warm day of the year. And what do you know, despite there having been considerable snow on the ground just last week, today is Opening Day in the big leagues, a day that should be a national holiday. And it's supposed to be even warmer than yesterday. 

The baseball gods surely must be smiling upon us.

There is a famous quote from the cultural historian Jacques Barzun regarding baseball and the American soul. You've probably heard it.  Taken out of context as it usually is, it sounds simplistic and trite. Here is the quote, neither simplistic nor trite, in more detail but still far from complete:

Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game - and do it by watching first some high school or small-town teams. The big league games are too fast for the beginner and the newspapers don't help. To read them with profit you have to know a language that comes easy only after philosophy has taught you to judge practice. Here is scholarship that takes effort on the part of the outsider, but it is so bred into the native that it never becomes a dreary round of technicalities. The wonderful purging of the passions that we all experienced in the fall of 51, the despair groaned out over the fate of the Dodgers, from whom the league pennant was snatched at the last minute, give us some idea of what Greek tragedy was like. Baseball is Greek in being national, heroic, and broken up in the rivalries of city-states. How sad that Europe knows nothing like it! Its Olympics generate anger, not unity, and its interstate politics follow no rules that a people can grasp. At least Americans understand baseball, the true realm of clear ideas.*
I've always been a baseball fan but I fell in love with the game in earnest during a ball game at U.S. Cellular Field here in Chicago, sitting in the stands with my wife who was pregnant with our first child. We knew we were going to have a boy and it dawned on me that beautiful August evening in the year 2000 that in a few years, I'd be playing catch with my son. Suddenly the game took on a whole new meaning. No longer was it the casual amusement I once took for granted. It was the game of my country and its people, a precious institution I'd be entrusted to pass on to the next generation.

My son has never read Barzun, but he certainly would understand the connection between baseball and Greek tragedy; he has experienced it himself. Baseball as the late A. Bartlett Giamatti wrote: "is designed to break your heart." My heart has been broken along with my son's on many an occasion.

But not today.

As is my annual tradition, I repeat two truly simplistic and trite axioms, that define what this day is all about:

The slate is wiped clean,

and

All hope springs eternal.


If you don't buy that, maybe these photos will help:

Undisclosed child on his first opening day, undisclosed date.
Aforementioned child's first at bat.

Opening day at its purest, the future secure,

play ball!



* Excerpt from: God's Country and Mine: A Declaration of Love Spiced with a Few Harsh Words - Jacques Barzun
You can read more from this passage here.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Prudential Building


To the best of my knowledge, the Prudential Building is not on anybody's top ten list of best buildings in Chicago. It might not even make very many top 100 lists either. That's too bad because the building sits on Chicago's most prominent site, just across the street from the vast open expanse of Grant Park. Because of that, the Prudential can be clearly seen for miles. My guess is most people hardly think about it at all as it seems rather insignificant today, dwarfed by neighboring skyscrapers.

When I was a child, it was the tallest building in the city and the most prominent building in the skyline. Going up to the observation deck on the top floor and if lucky, having lunch at the restaurant called The Top of the Rock, was an occasional highlight of my weekly trips to the Loop with my mother. Of all the lost possessions of my childhood including my baseball cards, my greatest regret is the loss of a souvenir model of the Prudential Building made of cast metal. It measured about nine inches high; it's detail was incredible, down to the building's trademark relief sculpture of the Rock of Gibraltar, the symbol of the company that built it. The sculpture carved into the wall of the stubby tower to the east (visible on the lower right of this somewhat out of proportion rendering), is the work of Alfonso Iannelli, a wonderful work of Modernist design.

The Prudential, completed in 1955, was the first major construction project in Chicago since 1934, the age of the great Art Deco skyscrapers. Its simple, no-frills design almost picks up where Art Deco left off. The "steamlined" articulated spandrels, and the facade punctuated by the pattern of light and dark coming through the windows that mimics a computer punch card, championed technology and modern industry back in an era when it was still acceptable to do so. Unlike the timeless quality of "International Style" buildings that were built around the same time, the Prudential speaks to the decade of the fifties more than any other building I can think of in Chicago.

The head of the firm responsible for the design of the Prudential Building had a long and distinguished career spanning several generations of Chicago architecture. Charles Foster Murphy got his start working in Daniel Burnham's firm and its successor Graham Anderson Probst & White in the twenties. He worked on several major commissions in those years including the Merchandise Mart, Union Station and the old Post Office Building. One common thread of those three projects is they all involved the development of property above the "air rights" of railways. Murphy's experience with this legally and technically complicated issue, was an important factor for the choice of his new firm, Naess and Murphy to design the Prudential, which was to be the first of many developments above the highly sought after property of the Illinois Central Railroad along the lakefront.

Here is a photograph of the site of the Prudential Building made by Jack Delano about a decade before the building's construction:


Just about everything in the photograph with the exception of the buildings at the extreme right and the Pabst Blue Ribbon sign on the left exists today, including the railroad tracks, now under the Prudential Building. On this earlier post, you can find another Delano photograph looking toward the sign.

Two other Loop buildings by Naess and Murphy very much reflected the style of the Prudential, the Executive House Hotel on East Wacker Drive, and directly across the river, the old Sun Times Building. The hotel was re-clad about twenty years ago and the Sun Times Building was demolished to make way for Trump Tower. Only the Prudential Building, now referred to as One Prudential Plaza remains in its original form, more or less, with the exception of the great sign at the top which is now in its third iteration. The vast expanse of windows on the south elevation of the Prudential has doubled as a message board throughout the years, a trend that has been picked up recently by neighboring buildings. For years at Christmas and Easter-time, at dusk, members of the housekeeping staff would selectively draw shades and leave on lights to create the image of an enormous cross on the building's facade. That highly charged symbolism hasn't been seen for a long time now but you'll still see messages produced in the same manner every now and then rooting on local sports teams of in support of a particular cause. 

The inspiration truth be told, for this post is that the building has recently undergone a cleaning of the facade. For the past several months on the way to work I walked in plain view of the building and watched the slow progress of the workers as the painstaking process of cleaning the building in vertical columns took place. After months of work, they finished and the result can be seen in the photograph below.  



My old friend the Prudential Building gleams once again; it's amazing but in just the right light, the fifty nine year old building looks as good as new.


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Sign of the times...



...on the front door of a local branch of the public library.

The gun crowd must be appalled; after all what would a law abiding, concealed gun carrying visitor do when a criminal librarian (who obviously would not obey the sign) goes on a rampage?

I honestly never thought I'd live to see this.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Dream Team

BOSTON , March 19, 1936- Coming off his team's worst season ever and on the verge of bankruptcy, Emil Fuchs, the owner of the Boston Braves has come up with a brilliant plan to save his team. With nothing to lose, Fuchs has had a change of heart and asked Babe Ruth, who retired in mid-season last year after an un-productive three months, to re-join and manage the team. Ruth who has long expressed an interest in managing, gladly accepted the offer under the condition that he would have complete control over player personnel. Fuchs has obliged.

Babe Ruth
Ruth's first move sent shock waves through the major leagues as he single-handedly erased forty years of organized baseball tradition by breaking up the team and signing several Negro players to join the club. The starting nine of the new look Braves includes some of the luminaries of black baseball: first baseman Oscar Charleston, second baseman Sam Bankhead, third baseman Judy Johnson, outfielders Jimmy Crutchfield and Cool Papa Bell, and a battery consisting of catcher Josh Gibson and the incomparable pitcher, Satchel Paige. Joining Paige on the mound will be Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe, and lefty Leroy Matlock.

As bench-minder, Babe Ruth plans to insert himself into the lineup on occasion as pinch hitter.


NEW YORK CITY, October 8, 1936- At Yankee Stadium today the unthinkable took place as the Boston Braves, a team who last year posted the third worst record in baseball history, took the World Series from the mighty New York Yankees, winning the Fall Classic in a decisive game seven. Led by the greatest Yank of all, rookie manager Babe Ruth, the Braves with their new cast of characters, mostly players from the Negro Leagues, took everything the Yankees were able to dish out and then some as they frustrated the Bronx Bombers almost every step along the way.

The old Bambino whose qualifications to be manager were once discounted in the baseball world, seemed to let the team manage itself as his players played old school, opportunistic ball, slap-hitting, bunting and running at will on the unsuspecting New York pitchers and infield. Indicative of the style of play that won the championship, the winning run came in the top of the seventh in game seven as the Braves' Cool Papa Bell, showing little signs of slowing down at 33, advanced from first to third on a Sam Bankhead bunt, then later scored the game's only run on a Lefty Gomez wild pitch. Satchel Paige, while giving up early hits to Bill Dickey, Lou Gehrig, George Selkirk, (Ruth's replacement in the outfield), and youngster Joe DiMaggio, shut down the Bronx Bombers in order in the final three innings, preserving a brilliant four hit shut out; final score, Braves 1, Yankees 0.

But it wasn't all running and pitching that won Boston the championship, these Braves have power to back up their speed on the base paths. Josh Gibson who at only 25, has already been compared to his famous manager on a number of occasions, hit a remarkable six home runs in the series. Veteran Oscar Charleston, who many believe is the real brains behind the team, hit four dingers and drove in twelve runs in the series. Even Bell, not usually known for his power, hit two round trippers, and recorded seven RBI.

For many, the highlight of the series came late in game six when Babe Ruth put himself in to pinch-hit. With nobody on base, the Yankees had the game well in hand leading by six runs when Ruth came up to bat against his former teammate Johnny Broaca. The bespectacled right-hander (perhaps out of compassion), floated a curve ball over the plate and as in days of old, the Sultan of Swat parked the ball into the upper deck of the right field stands. Not a soul was seated nor a dry eye in the house as the greatest ballplayer ever circled the bases of the house they say he built, perhaps for the last time.

But it was the future not the past that reigned supreme this year as Satchel Paige stole the show. He won all three of his starts, allowing only four runs, frustrating the Yankee hitters with his control of a fastball that has few if any peers in the game. While most of these Yanks including DiMaggio have faced Paige before in exhibition games, the high-kicking "Satchelfoot" seemed to save his best for this series. Showing typical confidence in his stuff, Paige brought to his game a new found seriousness, a sense of purpose born out of the desire to prove that he and his teammates indeed deserved to stand exactly where they were standing, on top of the world.

-

That account of the 1936 baseball season is of course, fiction. It was inspired by a recent New York Times article about Julia Ruth Stevens, the daughter of Babe Ruth. In the article, Mrs. Stevens claims that her father, who expressed a strong desire to manage a ball club, was overlooked not because of his lack of qualifications, but because he intended to hire black ballplayers.

Except for his well documented respect for some African American ballplayers, Mrs.Stevens's memories fly in the face of just about everything that has been written about Babe Ruth. The popular image of him is of a carousing, carefree, but lovable lout. The general impression was that he was not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer; great as he was as a player, no one in the game took the idea of him managing a ball club seriously.

In the article, Mrs. Stevens claims that while her dad was quite the rake in the early days, he had settled down by the time his playing days were over, and was in fact, quite an intelligent, caring human being. One could discount Mrs. Stevens's remarks as a 97 year old’s sweet remembrances of her long departed old man; but maybe, just maybe, there might be something to it.

In 1936, the Babe's full year of retirement, hiring blacks to play ball was not a threat that would have gone unnoticed. Baseball famously had excluded African Americans as participants in the game since the 1890s, and that ban, which was not officially spelled out on paper, was as binding as a straight jacket. In 1936 that jacket was pulled as tight as ever and no one, not even someone with the clout of Babe Ruth could loosen it.

It would take eleven more years before Jackie Robinson would become the first African American ball player in the major leagues in the twentieth century. In the intervening years, several events took place to make that possible:
  • World War II: African Americans in the armed forces fought valiantly to help establish democracy in Europe and the Pacific only to come home to a country where they were treated as second class individuals. That irony was not lost on many Americans, both black and white. 
  • The death of the Commissioner : Perhaps no man has ever been so aptly named as Judge Kenesaw Mountain (as in, he who will not be moved) Landis. Baseball Commissioner Landis's rule was law and that law extended to the so called "gentlemen's agreement" banning black players from the game. Any time the issue of the color line was brought before him, Landis would explicitly deny that there was any ban in place, then move on to the next issue, thereby tabling all propositions to integrate the game. When he died in 1944, his replacement Happy Chandler expressed his support of integrating the game. 
  • Joe Nuxhall and Pete Gray: Despite the fact that baseball lost many of its best players to the war effort, in 1942, President Roosevelt wrote the Green Light Letter, commanding that baseball go on in any way it could for the morale of the nation. The game went on with teams that were made up largely of men who were not eligible for military service. Joe Nuxhall was a 15 year old left handed pitcher who the Cincinnati Reds briefly put in their lineup, and Pete Gray was a one armed-outfielder who played one season for the St. Louis Browns. The fact that baseball owners would gleefully accept children and players missing limbs, but still not blacks, was truly a bitter pill to swallow. 
  • Politics: Government officials in Boston and New York City put pressure on their cities' teams to enact equal opportunity hiring programs, extending to players.The big league teams in those cities conducted tryouts for black players in 1945 with no results; they turned out to be shams, show trials at best. 
  • $$$: Despite all the changes mentioned above, the one issue that ultimately moved baseball to integrate was money. Attendance at Negro League games was booming by the mid-forties, especially at the East/West All Star game held annually at Comiskey Park in Chicago. That game alone drew over 50,000 every year. Owners couldn't help but notice.
The Houdini baseball needed to free itself from the straight-jacket of segregation turned out to be Branch Rickey. Egalitarianism may have played a role in his efforts to bring a black player to the Brooklyn Dodgers but Rickey, the team's president and general manager made no bones about the money that could be made with the potential of the black community's dollars spent at the ballpark. Rickey stopped at nothing to achieve his goal. The most important piece to the puzzle was to find the right player to break the barrier. He understood that any mistake could set the cause back ten years. Unlike others who publicly expressed their desire to integrate the game, Rickey kept quiet until the last possible moment. To that end, in order to alleviate suspicions while scouting black players for his team, Rickey announced plans to create a new, (and bogus) Negro League. Once Rickey found his man, he took pains to lecture the black community on how to behave in the stands when Jackie Robinson took the field. For their part, the black fans who attended Dodger games in every National League park in 1947, understood what was at stake and took those words to heart.

A brilliant account of the atmosphere at one of those ballparks, written by Mike Royko on the day Jackie Robinson died, can be found here (found among other articles by the great columnist).

I wrote a piece last year that bemoaned the fact that while Jackie Robinson is deservedly a national hero and icon, the people who immediately followed him into the big leagues are all but forgotten. Larry Doby, Hank Thompson, Willard Brown, and Dan Bankhead (Sam's brother) all played in the major leagues in 1947 but none of them are household names. The same can be said for the black ballplayers who preceded Robinson. The scenario at the top of this post was made up, but the teams were not. The players listed as members of the Boston Braves were actually members of a real team at the time. Some called it the greatest (non all-star) team ever assembled, others called it the best team money could buy. The Pittsburgh Crawfords were put together by a Steel City entrepreneur who worked on both sides of the law named Gus Greenlee. Taking advantage of the Great Depression, a power vacuum in the Negro Leagues, and the lack of any rules preventing him from doing so, Greenlee was able to rob other teams of their best players. He knew what he was doing; five of the Crawfords' starters are in the Baseball Hall of Fame, which is saying something as it is exponentially more difficult for a Negro League player to be honored by that institution than a major league player from the same era. Of those players, only Satchel Paige would ever play in the big leagues where at 42 he became the oldest "rookie" in baseball history.

How the 1936 Crawfords would have fared against the Yankees (who in 1936 were on the verge of yet another dynasty era), is anybody's guess. The comparison between black baseball and the major leagues is a difficult task because Negro League statistics are notoriously unreliable and even when stats were complete, competition was erratic. All the black teams barnstormed extensively each season and some of those games were against teams comprised of major leaguers. More often than not, the black teams won. Some point out that's not a fair comparison because the black players had more to prove than the whites. I'm not so sure I buy that argument. Like all professional athletes, the white players were competitors at the pinnacle of their profession; they hardly would have allowed themselves to be beaten, especially those players who couldn't stand the humiliation of losing to blacks. Ty Cobb who was often on the losing end of those games eventually refused to play against blacks for exactly that reason. So many big league teams lost to black teams in the twenties that Judge Landis barred major league teams from participating in games against black teams. (He did not prevent big leaguers from playing on non-sanctioned teams however).

Perhaps a more reasonable standard of judgement are the testimonies of countless baseball people, including some major league stars who like Babe Ruth, claimed the best black players were as good as the best white players and deserved to be in the majors. Another reasonable standard was the performance of the first black players who made it into the big leagues. Jackie Robinson won the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 1947, despite the fact that he was by most accounts, not the best player in the Negro Leagues when he became the chosen one. In the decade after Robinson was signed by the Dodgers, a trickle of black players made it into the big leagues, yet some of the most recognizable names of that era, Roy Campanella, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, and of course, Jackie Robinson, were black players. In the fifties, Sam Jethroe, Joe Black, Jim Gilliam, Frank Robinson, and Willie McCovey, won Rookie of the Year honors. Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks (two years in a row) all won the MVP award. Brooklyn pitcher Don Newcombe won both awards as well as the being the first winner of the Cy Young Award. According to the Win Shares system of evaluating ballplayers devised by Bill James, approximately twenty percent of the best players in the National League in the early fifties were black players, a percentage far in excess of their numbers in the league.

Given that, it's not much of a leap to realize that a good number of the best players playing the game before Jackie Robinson, were indeed Negro League players. Banning a high percentage of the best players available, the major leagues before 1947 did not truly represent the best baseball of the era. It's tantalizing to imagine what if his daughter is right, and Babe Ruth had been chosen to be the manager of a major league team, AND been allowed to include black players.

One thing's for sure: it would have been a hell of a team.

The 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords
Top Row: L-R: Olan Taylor (1B), Judy Johnson (2B), Leroy Matlock (P), ?, Josh Gibson (C), Hood Witter (trainer).
Middle Row: L-R: 'Cool Papa' Bell (CF), Sam Bankhead (SS), Oscar Charleston (1B), Clarence 'Spoony' Palm (C), Jimmie Crutchfield (OF), Ernest 'Spoon' Carter (P), William Perkins (C/OF).
Bottom Row: L-R: Timothy Bond (SS/3B), Howard, Bertrum Hunter (P), Sam Streeter (P), Harry 'Tin Can' Kincannon (P), Duro Davis (P).

If only...


Friday, March 14, 2014

A Winter's Tale



It was the 9th of March and after an unusually cold and snowy winter even for Chicago, the weather finally broke and the temperature soared into the 50s. Folks were walking about town jacket-less, well some of them anyway, and there was a positive vibe coming from most people who thought maybe, just maybe, spring might be right around the corner. Except for the people that is who read the weather report and knew that yet another winter storm was on its way. The weatherman predicted eight to twelve inches of new snow that would re-blanket the ground that was just beginning to reawaken after a long winter's nap.

We awoke the next morning to find that the meteorologists had overestimated the precipitation by about six inches. What did happen was the skies opened up while the temperature was still above freezing. As the mercury dropped, the moisture on the limbs of trees froze and the snow that replaced the rain stuck to the branches and twigs, gently delineating them against the gray morning sky. 

It was a thing of beauty, not missed by friends who captured the scene with their smartphones and posted the pictures over social media.

By the time I grabbed an actual camera and headed out to take my own pictures in Millennium Park across the street, the sun came out and as luck would have it the trees remained covered with their flattering adornment. 


Despite everyone's weariness of the season, even the most ardent summer lover couldn't help but marvel at the scene. 

Today two days later, it was back up to fifty and most of that snow is already gone. Soon enough, the place will look like this:


But not quite yet, it's supposed to snow again tomorrow.