Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Humboldt's Folly

The Humboldt Park Beach as it looks nine months out of the year. 
It seemed like a good idea at the time. Take half of the Humboldt Park lagoon and transform it into an inland beach. Instead of the dangerous age-old practice of opening up fire hydrants on blistering hot days, a new beach would provide the residents of the community a safe place to get cool relief from the summer heat. It would give kids a place to go during summer vacation, keeping them off the streets and out of trouble. And in true Chicago fashion, it would be a bone to throw at a community that was growing impatient about being ignored and disenfranchised.

My mother wasn't buying any of it. A resident of the Humboldt Park community since 1940, my mom had a great fondness for the park, its history and its beauty. Upon that lagoon she was a passenger on countless row boat rides in the summertime. She learned to skate as I did upon its frozen water in the winter. She'd stroll as a teenager, later as a mother pushing me in a stroller along the park's miles of paths along the lagoons, prairie river, and the artesian well that fed them. In her youth, the park was accessible day and night when people in the neighborhood would bring chairs, sit, and discus the affairs of the world until the wee hours. Some brave souls would even camp out all night to escape the summer heat in the days before air conditioning. Humboldt Park in the forties, still retained most of what made it one of the crown jewels of Chicago's park system.

That nighttime tradition was long gone, but another was still going strong when I arrived on the scene and lived three blocks from Humboldt Park in the sixties. A regal equestrian statue of the Polish (and American Revolutionary War) hero Tadeusz Kościuszko stood proudly near the north entrance to the park. Every year, on the Sunday closest to May 3rd, a parade would pass in front of our home on Humboldt Boulevard. It was Chicago's annual Polish Constitution Day parade, which would terminate at the base of the Kościuszko monument. There, politicians of all ethnic stripes gathered to address the assembled throngs of Chicago's Polonia. It was at one of these celebrations, most likely in 1966 or 1967, where upon my father's shoulders, I caught my first glimpse of the ruddy complexion of Mayor Richard J. Daley, and my one and only glimpse of Senator Robert F. Kennedy who made an annual pilgrimage to the festivities in front of that magnificent 1904 statue, the work of Kasimir Chodzinski.


Polish Constitution Day festivities, Humboldt Park, 1935. The lagoon
that was replaced by the current beach is visible in the background, behind the monument.
The monument was moved to its current location on Northerly Island in 1978.
(photographer unknown)
By the seventies, much had changed. Due to neglect both from the city, and the users of the park, Humboldt Park started to become rough around the edges. Trash carelessly strewn about was not collected, park buildings were vandalized and boarded up, and the statues of Alexander von Humboldt, Leif Ericson and Kościuszko, symbols of the ethnic communities who once called Humboldt Park home, were covered in graffiti.

Eventually the park became rotten to the core as gang violence, drug deals, prostitution, and the detritus that followed them, became as much a part of the park's landscape as Jens Jensen's prairie river, the Schmidt Garden and Martin boat house/refectory and the two Edward Kemeys bison that stand guard in front of the rose garden. No one in their right mind would dare venture into the park after dark, unless they were looking for drugs, sex or trouble. To many residents of the city even to this day, the words Humboldt Park evoke danger and despair.

Part of my mother's attitude about the inland beach which was built in 1973, was just sour grapes. She re-affirmed those feelings of long ago the other day when she told me she always felt the project was unnecessary as she got along just fine growing up without a beach in Humboldt Park. Why on earth she felt, couldn't the people living there at the time do the same? After all, there were plenty of other amenities in the park, including a perfectly functioning swimming pool. If folks had the urge to stick their toes in the sand, the beaches of Lake Michigan were a just short bus ride away; heck in a pinch, you could even walk there and back as she did many times in her youth.

But I think her feelings went deeper than that. The decline of the neighborhood where she spent her formative years and beyond, hit my mother harder than she ever let on. Back when the idea of replacing the lagoon with a beach was made public, she intimated that the people in the community who did not care enough about the park to take care of it or at the very least, pick up their own trash, had no business making demands to change it. In those days as an idealistic teenager, I thought her feelings were harsh, inflexible, and mixed with a touch of intolerance toward the community. After all, the whole world had changed since 1940, not just Humboldt Park.

Restored walk along lagoon and the most iconic building of Humbolt Park,
the Boat House and Refectory, May, 2015
Like I said, to me the inland beach seemed like a good idea.

Of course at the time, I had little understanding of the history and architecture of the park. Humboldt Park and its two sister west side parks, Garfield and Douglas Parks, were laid out back in the late 1860s. Their first architect was William LeBaron Jenney, most famous for being credited, at least here in Chicago, as the father of the skyscraper. Jenny's designs for the parks, much of them never realized, were very much based around the lagoons, with water comprising up to fifty percent of the area of his plans.

The man who today is most associated with these three great parks, is Jens Jensen, a native of Denmark, whose first job in the Chicago parks was as a laborer in Humboldt Park. Through hard work and talent with all things horticultural, Jensen quickly worked his way up the ladder to become that park's superintendent, only to find himself out of a job when he refused to play along with the corrupt administrators who were running the west side parks. His unemployment didn't last long, Jensen was soon re-instated and ultimately became the superintendent of Chicago's West Park District, this in the days before the umbrella organization, the Chicago Park District, back when the city's parks were governed by several smaller administrative bodies.

Build it and they will come: planting natural flora
in a park will inevitably attract natural fauna.
Case in point, this Great blue heron looking for
his dinner in the Humboldt Park lagoon. 
Jens Jensen fell in love with the landscape of his adopted home in the American Midwest. The plans for his parks called for features that embraced the local prairie landscape rather than rejecting it as was the custom of the day. Unlike his contemporaries, Jensen did not believe that he could improve upon nature. As landscape architect, he was particularly adamant about the use of native plants and materials in his designs. Jensen described the philosophy of his art in these words:
Every plant has fitness and must be placed in its proper surroundings so as to bring out its full beauty. Therein lies the art of landscaping.
Beyond Jens Jensen's philosophical ideals of reflecting nature by using native materials, there is a pragmatism to his approach as native species require little human intervention to keep them thirving. Long before the word "sustainability" crept into the common lexicon, Jensen's landscapes with their native species of plants which attracted and sustained native species of animals, required little maintenance compared to the work of his contemporaries featuring exotic plants which required constant attention. Jensen's landscapes, literally grew themselves.

That is certainly not the case with an inland beach. When the word came out last week that the Chicago Park District does not intend to open the beach this summer, they cited the astronomical cost it takes to sustain it. Water that supplies the beach has to be continually pumped in, filtered,  and chlorinated in order to make it safe for swimmers. Unlike a swimming pool, the used water in an inland beach cannot be recycled, it all ends up in the sewer. Sand, which is imported from the Indiana Dunes also has to be continually replenished. By the Park District's estimate, the cost of sustaining the Humboldt Park inland beach is about one million dollars per year.

Simply put, an inland beach is not only ecologically unsound, but financially impractical as well,  As the terrible state of the finances of the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois force drastic cuts in the operating budgets for each park, serious choices have to be made.

Unfortunately the Chicago Park District did itself no favors with it's tactic of not publicly announcing its plans to keep the beach closed this summer. Instead they chose to keep their cards close to the vest in the hope that by keeping the issue out of sight and mind, no one would notice the fact that the beach simply wasn't going to open this year.

Well the community did notice and not surprisingly, its members were not happy.

At a public meeting, hastily convened at the Humboldt Park Fieldhouse adjacent to the beach last week, Park District officials enumerated their reasons for not opening the beach, and community members expressed their reasons to keep it open. The PD folks suggested the money could be better spent in other ways that would keep the residents of the community happy and wet. They were figuratively speaking, booed off the stage.

It's a bitter pill to swallow for a community to have something taken away from them, but the Park District has compelling reasons to shut the beach down.

I don't have numbers to back this up, but from my personal experience, the Humboldt Park Beach never seemed to be heavily used. In the considerable time I've spent in the park, I rarely saw more than a handful of folks use it at any given time, it was in fact not unusual to see as many lifeguards on duty as visitors. Now this is not necessarily a bad thing. I've stated before that a park's success should not be measured entirely upon the number of people who use it. In fact, sometimes the exact opposite should be a factor, as one of the joys of a city park is being able to escape the maddening crowds. However given the tremendous expense and amount of land devoted to the this one amenity which is open for only 90 days out of the year, it may be hard to justify keeping the beach. On the 275 days every year when the beach is closed, the area taking up dozens of acres of precious parkland is partially fenced off, and resembles a construction zone. Combined with the mechanical equipment necessary to keep the beach running, for three quarters of a year, this considerable chunk of real estate in Humboldt Park is a no-man's land, and an eyesore,

Then there is the historical significance and the architectural integrity of Humboldt Park. Much work has been done in the past decade to restore Jens Jensen's Prairie River back to its original splendor. Unfortunately, the waters of the river have to be restricted by a levee in order to avoid mingling with the the beach water. Other smaller lagoons to the north and east which once were part of the greater lagoon, have been closed off as well. These transitions are ugly and disrupt the continuity of the system of lagoons and rivers that were so carefully planned by Jenny and later Jensen.

Lagoon split in half: on the levee that separates the waters of the restored prairie river, right, from the beach,
Of course most users of parks are not concerned about historical significance and architectural integrity, they are interested in the amenities that cater to their needs. This is entirely reasonable, as a public park is many things to many people. For that reason, our parks are the most democratic of all our public spaces. Jens Jensen, Frederick Law Olmsted, Alfred Caldwell, and all the great landscape architects responsible for our parks understood this.

My son and I visited our old stomping grounds this past Sunday. As he went off to play basketball, I ran into a friend who was exploring the nooks and crannies of the park with his daughter, as I did with my children and my parents did with me. As I continued my own exploration, I came in contact with people of different ages, ethnicities and tax brackets. They were engaged in all sorts of activities: fathers playing soccer with their kids, families picnicking, old men (and a heron) fishing, children on swings and monkey bars in the playground, couples (and several turtles) sunbathing, nature lovers enjoying nature, ballplayers playing ball, bikers biking, joggers jogging, and folks just strolling, taking in a lovely spring day in what is still one of the most beautiful places in Chicago. All the while, salsa music blasting from a large party at the east end of the park, no doubt a preview of the massive Puerto Rican Festival to be held in a few weeks, provided the soundtrack for a magnificent urban experience.

Tanks containing chlorine and no swimming sign in front of the no-man's
land that is the site of the Humboldt Park Beach when it is not in use,
which is most of the time.
The architects of our parks knew that in order to achieve the goal of providing as many functions a park could reasonably accommodate, a careful balance had to be reached where one function flows seamlessly into another, contributing but not interfering. On top of that, the great landscape architects like the ones mentioned above, designed their parks to appear effortless and natural, as if they were not designed at all.

Unfortunately, the Humboldt Park beach disrupts Jens Jensen's thoughtful balance in every respect; it could just as well have been dropped into the park from outer space. The inland beach is a very nice perk for the people in the neighborhood who take advantage of it. But given the fact that the beach serves only a handful of people for a brief part of the year at a great cost, in terms of the environment, aesthetics, economics, and space, I believe that its ultimate fate needs to be seriously questioned. At the risk of sounding like my mother, perhaps the thing should never have been built in the first place.

I have no doubt the Humboldt Park community who struggled to get the beach built in the seventies, will not let it go without a fight, which of course is their right. As I said, it's a very difficult proposition to take something away from a community, especially a lovely amenity like a neighborhood beach. Humboldt Park today may not be exactly what it was during my mother's childhood, but what is indisputable, is that today it is light years ahead of where it was forty years ago when the beach was built. Inside the park's boundaries are limitless year round opportunities for visitors to take advantage of, just as Jens Jensen intended. Much has been lost in the nearly one hundred fifty years of the park's existence, such as boats upon the lagoon, camping out under the stars, and Kościuszko. But other great things have come along to replace what has been lost, and I dare say that Humboldt Park today is as vital and vibrant as ever.

Sad as the possible loss of the neighborhood beach may be, reclaiming the enormous amount of space it takes up has the potential of making Humboldt Park all the better. Painful as it might be, in the end I believe rethinking the beach is the right choice for the park and vast majority of people who use it.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Sign of the times...

As I walked past a local public school on the way to work this morning, a little girl about eight years old was taunting some friends with a variation of the classic playground song:

Betty and Michael sitting in a tree,
K-I-S-S-I-N-G,
first comes love,
then comes marriage,
then comes baby in a baby carriage.

Except in this girl's version, she cut right to the chase:

Betty and Michael sitting in a tree,
K-I-S-S-I-N-G,
first comes love,
then comes baby.

That's kids today for you,
no sense of verse.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Race Bating

Commenting this week on the scandal du jour known as "Deflategate", Father Michael Phleger posted the following on his Facebook page:
Today ESPN reported that New England Patriots most probably deliberately DEFLATED the balls in the AFC Championship Game......If this is true then shouldn't the New England Patriots lose their title as was done to the Jackie Robinson West Team???? but, oh that's right the JRW team was all Black....silly me!!!!!!!! 
He was referring to investigations that have concluded that the National Football League champion New England Patriots tampered with balls used in the game leading up to the Super Bowl. At this writing, the NFL is contemplating punishments to both the team, and their quarterback Tom Brady, the alleged instigator of the transgression. Suspensions and fines most likely will be the result, not the stripping of their championship title, as was done to the Jackie Robinson West Little League team on account of rules violations.

I admire Father Pfleger, his ministry and his commitment to the predominantly African American community in which his parish, St. Sabina resides. I agree that the punishment to the JRW team was unnecessarily severe and bemoan the likelihood that the punishment to the Brady Bunch will probably be little more than a slap on the wrist. But I strongly object to Father Pfleger's defining the comparison of the two teams and their punishments around the issue of race.

First and foremost, the NFL and Little League Baseball are two unrelated governing bodies, the rulings of one have absolutely no relevance with the rulings of the other. Had LLB a history of letting off white teams for comparable rule violations, then Pfleger would have a point. However LLB already has a precedent of revoking the championships of teams who broke their rules. Had they given a lighter penalty to JRW, they most certainly would have been accused of favoritism toward an all black team.

Likewise, had a black quarterback, say Seattle's Russell Wilson, been accused of a similar offense as Brady's, and his team's Super Bowl championship from last year been revoked, the good Father would have been spot on. But neither the NFL, nor any other major American professional sports league to the best of my knowledge, has a precedent of revoking a championship for any reason.

If you look at the details of each case separately, I think it's clear that Father Pfleger's implication that race played into either decision is absurd. Last summer, the entire nation tuned in as two little league teams captured the public's imagination. The Taney Dragons of Philadelphia, featured Mo'ne Davis, a 5'4" girl with a 70 mph fastball. The other team was Jackie Robinson West, from the south side of Chicago. What was unusual about both teams as far as the Little League tournament was concerned, was that both came from big cities and were made up predominantly of African American players. The last part is particularly significant as organized baseball has witnessed a steady decline in the numbers of black players in its ranks for the past few decades. Nobody knows the exact reason for this but the attention paid to the two little league teams from Philadelphia and Chicago was seen as a shot in the arm for baseball in the African American community.

I don't have the numbers but I can't ever remember as much attention paid to the annual Little League Tournament held in Willimasport, PA. When the JRW team returned home to Chicago after capturing the American championship, they were hailed as conquering heroes, the celebration for them downtown was not unlike celebrations of Chicago's championship professional teams. Their championship was seen as a happy story which contrasted sharply with tales of violence and misery in much of Chicago's African American community.

With all the attention to youth baseball, all the good will generated, not to mention all the revenue gained from advertising and contributions brought through the efforts of the Jackie Robinson West team to the game, it's inconceivable to me that Little League Baseball would single out JRW for punishment because of their race. In fact, I'm not entirely convinced that the opposite was not true, that JRW may have been given special treatment by receiving every benefit of the doubt, as the allegations of the team's fielding players from outside their district had been well known for a long time. It turned out that during the tournament, LLB simply chose to look the other way. It was not until long after the championship was awarded, when irrefutable evidence surfaced that the allegations of rules violations were true, that LLB was forced to act. Although I strongly disagree with the revoking of JRW's championship, LLB's decision was entirely consistent with their actions of the past.

There have been a number of instances where national championships have been revoked for rules violations in amateur sports organizations such as the NCAA. As a professional league, the National Football League has different commitments than amateur leagues, namely contracts, stock holders, team owners, and the most important source of revenue, the fans who pay for it all. A disqualification of a team's championship would go a long way to disrupt the ungodly revenue stream that comes into the NFL and other professional sports leagues. No one in the industry wants that. Unlike Major League Baseball, the majority of NFL players are black. A very large number of its fans are black. A different set of standards for blacks and whites would definitely not be in the best interest of an industry for whom the only color that matters, is green.

Father Pfleger does have one point. I said I do not believe that the ultimate decisions of the NFL and LLB were racially motivated, but the public's opinion, at least judging by the comments to Pfleger's post, is certainly racially charged. Unfortunately, most of the hundreds of comments the post received, seem to follow along racial lines; most of the black commenters supported Father Pfleger's implications, while most of the whites attacked him, sometimes in the most vulgar of terms. It must be pointed out that Father Pfleger himself is white.

Again, I applaud much of the work Father Pfleger has done at St. Sabinas, but I strongly urge him to tone the race bating down. There are plenty of instances of bigotry and racism in our society that deserve to be attacked. Finding racism in places where it does not exist, and further dividing us along the color line, is in no one's best interest, except sad to say, Father Pfleger's and others who seem to thrive on the attention it generates.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Baltimore

We had dinner the other night with some old friends at a German restaurant on Chicago's north side. The bier, wiener schnitzel and gemütlichkeit of the surroundings, inspired one friend to tell a story about the daughter of a neighbor who last summer worked as an au pair in Stuttgart. At the end of her summer job, she spent the rest of her time abroad in Naples. With a wink of the eye, our friend told us that everywhere she went in Naples, men "complemented her on her appearance." Then expressing mock surprise, he added that did not happen once while she was in Germany. My other friend, who is married to a German woman, in an equally mocking tone chimed in: "it's what they call being polite."

Such is the power of cultural stereotypes that everyone at the table, with the possible exception of my eight year old daughter, was in on the joke. We all know the stereotype: Italians, especially men, are hot blooded and openly lustful, while Germans by comparison are reserved and uptight. As much as we'd like to think ethnic stereotypes are figments of the imagination, let's face it, different cultures have different customs, values and traditions, and along with that, behavior. Of course not all Italian men whistle at ladies on the street and not all German men are perfect gentlemen; but as the teenager found out, the odds of getting "compliments" from strangers of the male persuasion on the street are much greater in Italy than in Germany.

From my experience I'd say the majority of Germans I've known, to some degree fit the stereotype. But you can throw all that out the window when you combine a few factors, namely large groups of them, especially male teenagers, alcohol, and a reason to get a little crazy. I witnessed that during my first trip to Prague which had just opened up after years behind the Iron Curtain. There, thousands of young German tourists on spring break in the Czech capital, roamed the city en masse. Away from the rigid structure of their homeland and ingesting copious amounts of good České pivo, the German kids I saw in Prague were just about the most unpleasant, obnoxious bunch of louts I've ever encountered.

Germany gave us Schiller, Beethoven and Goethe. It also gave us the Nazis. It shouldn't come as a surprise that Hitler chose the beer halls of Munich to cultivate his nascent movement. A little beer, some irreverent camaraderie, a lot of bitterness over losing the war, thrown in with members of the criminal element and a little more beer, is a volatile combination. Hitler understood that people who may be quite sane as individuals, can turn into raving lunatics when they get swept up in a mob set upon mischief. It takes courage to stand up to a mob, and most of us don't have that kind of courage, as most of us are not heroes. We follow because that is what we do. This is not a particular German characteristic, it is human nature.

A lot of rhetoric has been spewed this week as the city of Baltimore has erupted after the funeral of Freddie Gray who died from injuries suffered while in police custody. Reminiscent of the unrest that took place in Ferguson, Missouri after the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager who was killed by a police officer after a confrontation, protests over Gray's death turned violent and the streets of Baltimore became a war zone. Protesters threw rocks at police, looters broke into businesses and stole whatever they could get their hands on, while arsonists followed and burned those businesses down.

Just as the aftermath of Ferguson, those on the right blamed the riots on the African American community and the look the other way attitude of its self-proclaimed leaders. Those on the left blame the police and an unjust society. Leaving his comfort zone, President Obama, no particular friend of the right, made a distinction between legitimate protesters and the rock throwers, looters and arsonists, calling them, "a handful of people taking advantage of a situation for their own purposes, (who) need to be treated as criminals," For that he was excoriated by the left who apparently see nothing wrong with gangs of thugs burning and looting their own community. It's unclear how the critics would feel if the rioters came to loot and burn their communities but that's a story for another day.

The causes of the problems involving race, poverty, crime and violence in our cities are as numerous as the grains of sand on a beach. Rage over police killing unarmed black men has gone beyond reaching the boiling point, yet as much as some of us would like to lump all instances of police brutality toward black men together, every situation is different, even if the tragic results are the same.

A couple years ago I was in Washington DC during the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington. The day after the celebration, in front of the US Capitol Building I met a father and son who were from Baltimore. When I mentioned to them how much I liked their city, they told me in no uncertain terms how little there was to like about it. The son, about my age, was old enough to remember Baltimore at the time of the march. Obviously the father went much farther back. These two African American men told me that as bad as things were in Baltimore during the Jim Crow era which still held the city in its grips in 1963, things are much worse now. Crime, unemployment, and especially the lack of hope for the future, have turned much of their city to despair. They were quick to point out that Baltimore is a city run and policed primarily by African Americans. Both men in fact themselves were policemen, the father long since retired, and the son still on the force.

No one on either side of the ideological morass can for a second even consider the possibility that folks on other side have a point. It's the age old battle between personal and public responsibility. This week, idiotic sentiments from finger pointing, know-it-all loudmouths on both sides filled the airwaves and social media.

Which brings me back to the role of cultural stereotypes. Many white folks on the right side of the fence see black people as lazy, ne'er-do-wells who would just assume live on the dole, accepting handouts and blaming society for all their problems, rather than working hard and taking responsibility for their own lives.

Many on the left see African Americans as victims whom society has put continuously behind the eight ball. They are unwilling to accept the notion that black people are responsible for their own destiny, just like everybody else. I've said it before and I'll say it again, well-intentioned as that point of view is, it is also demeaning and patronizing.

Just as it's wrong to attribute the violence that took place in Baltimore this week to deficiencies in the character of African American people, it's wrong to claim solidarity with the looters and arsonists.

The orgy of violence and destruction that we saw in Baltimore this week, was not altogether different from other riots in other times and places, from raucous "celebrations" of sports championships to Kristallnacht. In Baltimore, groups of people, mostly young men, stirred into a frenzy by a force, in this case not alcohol, but righteous anger and rage, helped along by some people with really bad intentions, were swept into participating in a wave of mayhem that shut the city down for several days.

There's nothing heroic about rock throwing, looting and arson, but as I stated above, most of us are not heroes. We would all do well to honestly ask how we would act if we were to find ourselves in the middle of a mob. Most of the rioters most likely did not begin the day thinking they'd be committing criminal acts, they were just swept into the moment. This is not a particular characteristic of African American people. Riots and their causes come in every shape, size, and color.

It a just another unfortunate reminder that human nature is not always a pretty thing.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

My iPhone and I in the Loop


From the evening commute...

Five cellos



The bench




Homage to Umbo


Columba livia in flight

Not the Loop

Monday, April 27, 2015

Cardinal George

This month, Chicago lost its archbishop emeritus, Francis Cardinal George. Cardinal George served at the helm of the third largest American Roman Catholic archdiocese for seventeen years before stepping down last November due to his declining health.

The last quarter century has been a time of great struggle for the Church. The ongoing problem of declining membership and respect for the institution along with the inevitable church closings that followed were merely the tip of the iceberg of problems Cardinal George faced when he took over the job from his predecessor, the late Joseph Cardinal Bernadin in 1997.

The issue that has hung like a dark cloud over the Church for several decades now, is the sexual abuse crisis that rocked American Catholicism to its core. It was bad enough that there were priests who abused children, and worse that those acts were covered up by officials in charge. But by far the worst violation of trust was the fact that many known perpetrators were simply transferred by their superiors to other parishes where they could continue their pattern of abuse, rather than being taken out of commission, not to mention prosecuted and punished.

The indignation and outrage that followed every story of a fallen priest and criminally irresponsible bishop was justified. Yet as these things go, righteous, moral indignation has a way of taking on a life of its own. The outcry that followed the Church's sexual abuse crisis is no exception. Once the story was made public, retribution was swift and fierce; all priests, the good and the small handful of bad ones, were lumped together by an all-knowing, cynical body politic. Tragically it came to the point where many priests refused to wear in public the collar, once a symbol of honor, and pride, lest they be mistaken for sexual predators.

Even the widely respected and beloved Cardinal Bernadin fell victim to the general public's assumption of a priest's guilt until proof of innocence, as he was wrongly accused of sexually molesting a young man. When his accuser recanted his story, the Cardinal was magnanimous in forgiveness, but the damage to his reputation was done. This was the climate in the Archdiocese of Chicago when Cardinal George took over its reigns after Bernadin's death.

Cardinal George was himself never implicated with impropriety, but early on in his tenure, he was seen as not acting quickly enough in the pursuit of accused priests. He also made the "mistake" of insisting that even wayward priests were deserving of compassion and forgiveness. As a result, he was lumped together will all the other bishops who were enablers of the criminal behavior of their charges. Ultimately, George who became president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2007, spearheaded the zero tolerance policy, which barred men who had credibly been accused of sexual abuse, from serving in the ministry.

A native of Chicago, Cardinal George's personality contrasted with the genial warmth of Cardinal Bernadin. An intensely private man, the new archbishop was reticent to reveal an "inner self", preferring to stick to the business at hand. In his writing and homilies to the faithful, George displayed a brilliant, analytical mind, one deeply influenced by years of the study of literature, theology, and philosophy. Yet many found his style to be lacking a personal touch, leading some to mistakenly assume him to be cold and impersonal.

Cardinal George's unequivocal stance on issues such as gay marriage and birth control, made him a polarizing figure in the Church. Many in the Church's left saw the Cardinal's views as outdated and out of touch with those of his flock. However the Cardinal was no mouthpiece for the conservative right as he was equally adamant in his support of social justice, especially the rights of the poor, of immigrants, and outcasts from society. On holidays such as Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving, the Cardinal could be found ministering to inmates at Cook County Jail.  It was the greater good spelled out in the "truth found in the Gospel" that Cardinal George insisted he followed, rather than current fashion, public opinion, or political ideology.

Despite his devotion to the tenets of his faith, there was a pragmatism in Cardinal George's leadership style, as he was not rigidly bound to a particular cause, if the pursuit of it proved to be impractical or untenable. A good example is his dealings with the Reverend Michael Pflager, the controversial priest who is pastor of St. Sabina Parish on the city's south side. Church rules place a time limit on the tenure of a pastor at a particular parish. Father Pflager's tenure at St. Sabina has nearly tripled that limit and a few years ago, Cardinal George felt it was time for a change. The community at the predominantly African American parish disagreed and in no uncertain terms threatened to leave the Catholic Church if Pfleger was relieved from his duties. Despite a war of words, suspensions and loads of media coverage, Cardinal George agreed to compromise, a victory for Pfleger and his parish, At this writing, Father Pfleger remains in place in his thirty fourth year as pastor at St. Sabina.

Francis Cardinal George was particularly well suited to the call of service and personal sacrifice required of the life of a priest and archbishop. If you never saw him in person, you may not have realized that he walked with a distinct limp. That limp was the result of having being stricken with polio at the age of 13. The disease and its aftermath had a profound impact upon his life.

Francis George lived in constant physical pain. One leg, rendered virtually useless, was strapped to a painful brace which he wore throughout his life. Denied his dream of entering the seminary of the Archdiocese of Chicago because of his affliction, George became a member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a congregation founded in France just after the Revolution, whose primary mission was working with the poor of the world.

From a Catholic point of view, the pain that Francis Gorge endured along with his service to the poor, paved the way for a lifetime of devotion, compassion and empathy for the suffering, as he indeed was one of them. The bladder cancer that would eventually claim his life was diagnosed in 2006, and would introduce him to an entirely new form of pain.  Despite the cancer, he continued his strenuous work schedule barely missing a beat, until he voluntarily stepped down a few months ago, but not before he presided over the seamless transition of the episcopate of Chicago's new archbishop, Blase Cupich.

I last saw the Cardinal in October just before he left his position. He was presiding at a function honoring a friend of mine who received the Catholic Lawyer of the year award, At the function, the Cardinal, describing one of the pitfalls of his job, quipped that there was no group of people whom he both sought the advice, and ran away from as quickly as possible as lawyers. Clearly he would have preferred a life of ministering to the downtrodden, rather than dealing with the quagmire  of running an enormous institution fraught with a myriad of problems. Yet as always, this man of tremendous strength and faith, left it in God's hands.

They say that God works in mysterious ways. If you believe that everything happens for a reason as I do, the pain, suffering, and heartache that Cardinal George endured, led him on the path to accomplish some very important things. We may not all agree with everything the man stood for, but no one can honestly question his integrity or the sincerity in which he pursued those ideals.

He guided the Church through very troubling waters with little regard for his own comfort, security, and most of all popularity. Francis George may not have been the most popular or beloved archbishop of Chicago, but I firmly believe that in the end, God chose the right man for a very difficult job.

His earthly pain and suffering now over, Francis George is perhaps no longer is in need of our prayers. We on the other hand, are desperately in need of his.

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 July." 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.