Friday, September 21, 2012

In their footsteps

Call me a geek but there are few things more spine tingling to me than standing on the spot of a momentous historic event. On the top step leading up to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC there is a plaque that reads: "I Have a Dream." This was the spot where Martin Luther King delivered his most famous speech to the world and the throngs assembled on the Washington Mall during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. I've mentioned before that I can't imagine the experience of the gargantuan new Martin Luther King Memorial not too far away could possibly match the experience of being on that spot in front of this country's most hallowed memorial, literally standing in Dr. King's footsteps.

As our nation's capital, Washington has seen more than its share of famous and infamous speeches. One site has seen more than any other: the steps leading to the East Portico of the Capitol Building, the traditional site of presidential inaugurations. It was there in 1865, when Abraham Lincoln, seeking to heal the wounds of the deadliest conflict in our nation's history, delivered perhaps his and this country's greatest speech. On those same steps in 1933 Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his first address as president to the American people, reassuring them during the dark, early days of the Great Depression. John F. Kennedy stood there in 1961 inspiring a nation and the world toward a greater good.

Those same steps also saw the solemnest of processions as the bodies of Presidents Lincoln, Kennedy and several others (but not Roosevelt's) were carried over them as they were brought to lie in state inside the Capitol Rotunda.

The U.S. Capitol steps
Walking up those thirty four steps, standing in front of our most important building upon one of the most significant spots in this nation's history, was always a highlight during my trips to Washington. Unfortunately since 9/11, unless you have special credentials or are willing to take the chance of dodging security, you can't walk up those stairs or enter the Capitol Building from the East Portico anymore, one of the sad reminders of our troubled time.

My own city of Chicago has quite a few spots of distinction, some of them marking events of national and even worldwide significance. Chicago was a particularly important city for two of the presidents mentioned above:

As a lawyer, Abraham Lincoln argued many cases here. In perhaps his most important case, in 1857 he represented the interests that built a railroad bridge that spanned the Mississippi River at Rock Island, Illinois. That bridge was the first to cross the Great River. Its construction was contentious as riverboat companies argued that bridges posed an impediment to the navigation of the river. Their true concern was the inevitable fact that railroads would one day put them out of business. Just days after the Rock Island bridge opened, the steamboat, Effie Afton crashed into one of the bridge's piers, caught fire, and destroyed much of the bridge along with it. In the ensuing lawsuit, the defendants represented by Lincoln, hinted the boat intentionally rammed the bridge. Much more of course was at stake than awarding damages to the boat owners, and Lincoln argued that the very progress of the nation would be impeded if bridges were not allowed to span navigable waters. The case was dismissed as a result of a hung jury, which ended up a victory for the railroad interests and ultimately for Chicago as the tracks coming off the Rock Island bridge led directly here, making this city the rail hub of the United States. Meanwhile the glory days of old St. Louis whose fortunes were tied to the riverboats, would soon be behind it.

That case, Hurd vs. Rock Island Bridge Company, was argued in the Circuit Court of the United States for Northern Illinois which at the time met in the ramshackle Salon (later less than affectionately known as the Saloon) Building which stood at the southeast corner of Clark and Lake. The courts would later move into their new digs, the combined Court House and City Hall Building, designed by John van Osdel. After his assassination, Lincoln's body laid in state in that building (now the site of the Chicago City Hall/Cook County Building) during his long final journey home to Springfield. The Courthouse building was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. A fragment of that building stands today in front of the old Academy of Science Building at Clark Street and Armitage.

In 1960, Senator John Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon while campaigning for president, squared off in the first ever series of televised debates, the first of which took place in Chicago at the CBS studio at 630 North McClurg Court. In that debate, Nixon who had been ill, refused makeup and appeared disheveled and uncomfortable, while a well rested and made up Kennedy appeared confident and prepared. The majority of people who listened to the debate on the radio chose Nixon as the winner but those who saw it on TV overwhelmingly picked Kennedy. Historians credit that moment, a victory of style over substance, as a turning point in American politics. Chicago played a pivotal role in the final result of that election as its voters (some of them allegedly casting their votes from beyond the grave), gave Kennedy victory in Illinois which was the state that put him over the top in a very close election. The building where the debate took place, a former horse stable, was torn down in 2009 and its site remains one of the many vacant lots in the Streeterville neighborhood.

As far as I know, there are no historical markers commemorating these events, the places and events have simply been absorbed into the flow of life in the city, like drops of water in a river.

The Haymarket Memorial by Mary Brogger, unveiled in 2004.
One site in Chicago was commemorated, un-commemorated, then re-commemorated. It is the site of an event that would set in motion one of the most dramatic periods in Chicago history, the labor riot in the former Haymarket district just west of the Loop. Eight police officers were killed on the fateful evening of May 4th, 1886, as were many protesters. For years a statue of a police officer, his right arm raised as if to say either: "stop thief" or "hello compadre" stood at the site. For years that monument was the victim of poor placement, vehicular accidents or protesters who saw the police more as instigators of the riot rather than victims. Poor Officer Friendly had been moved, run into, defaced and blown up so many times that he was eventually relocated to the safety of Police Headquarters where he remains today. The site of the riot, Desplaines Street between Lake and Randolph Streets remained unmarked and virtually unnoticed for decades because of the contrasting sensitivities involved. Eventually the Police seeing themselves as a part of the labor movement, lightened up about building a new monument that seemed to express the event from a more complete perspective. My first experience of the site was during a tour led by Chicago's official cultural historian Tim Samuelson, who reenacted the throwing of the bomb that set off the riot by tossing a muffin onto the empty street. That could be the explanation why to this day, whenever I think of the Haymarket Riot, I get hungry.

There are loads of historical markers around Chicago commemorating events, people, or inventions. Inside the Fire Academy on Canal and DeKoven Streets,  you can find a plaque marking the spot of the O'Leary barn where the Great Fire began on October 7th, 1871. Almost five miles to the north at Fullerton and Lakeview Avenues is another marker commemorating the northern boundary of the fire where it died out two days later. The haunts of important Chicagoans of the past are popular locations of markers. During our regular walks from our old home to Humbolt Park, my son and I would pass a marker in front of a CHA housing project pointing out the site where once stood the home of Frank Baum, the author of the Wizard of Oz.

Many years ago viewing a plaque on a building in the Loop made me aware of something I had always taken for granted, Standard Time. Before the age of railroads, unless you were a sailor and navigated using Greenwich Mean Time, you set your clock by the sun. Consequently, high noon in Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City all came at different times, and no one was any the worse for wear. It was the railroads and their necessity of accurate timetables that led to the invention of a system where time was measured consistently everywhere. Within a given zone, twenty four of them encompassing the globe, the time would be the same. The United States (the contiguous 48 states) was so large it required four different time zones. The system of standard time that we use today was adopted you guessed it, right here in Chicago on October 11, 1883 inside the Great Pacific Hotel which stood on Jackson Street between Clark and LaSalle Streets.

On the campus of the University of Chicago in Hyde Park sits by far the most sublime monument above the most sobering spot in Chicago. It is the 1967 Henry Moore sculpture titled Nuclear Energy. It stands above the site where the world's first self-sustaining nuclear reaction took place, marking the birth of the Atomic Age.

The other day my son and I visited a site that stands in marked contrast to any of the others above.
It could hardly be considered having any worldwide significance. In fact it can be argued that this place is not significant at all unless you measure its significance by the hours of enjoyment with a little misery thrown in, shared by countless Chicagoans.

The site now is a parking lot on the South Side at the northeast intersection of 35th Street and Shields Avenue. If that location alone doesn't give itself away, you may as well stop reading now as you likely won't care that this was once the location of beautiful Comiskey Park, for eighty years the home of the Chicago White Sox.

All that's left of the once great baseball palace across the street from the team's not so new baseball palace (named after a cell phone company) is a marble slab in the pentagonal shape of home plate inlaid into the pavement right on the spot so they say, of the original, along with two batter's boxes placed on either side. Foul lines extending the length of the long lost field are painted on the pavement so motorists can tell whether they are parked in fair or foul territory.

Babe Ruth in action at Comiskey Park, 1929.  The catcher is Moe Berg,
perhaps one of the most interesting men to have ever played the game. 
My boy walked into the left handed batter's box and said: "Just imagine, Babe Ruth stood here." Through all the trepidations over the past eleven years about my parenting skills, I realized that I had done at least one thing right.

Tongue tied and blown away by his unsolicited remark, I tried to add to the list of great left handed American League batters who stood on that spot, but all I could come up with at the moment was Ted Williams.

The names have been coming to me all week: Gehrig, Maris, Berra...

One of my cherished memories of the old ballpark came sometime in the early eighties, when the Yankees were in town. The White Sox were struggling to hold on to a lead late in the game when the Yankees loaded the bases with Reggie Jackson at the plate as pinch hitter. In comes White Sox reliever Kevin Hickey. Prior to coming up with the Sox, Hickey who grew up walking distance from Comiskey Park, was a star Chicago 16" softball center fielder with an incredible arm. In 1978 during an open tryout for the big league team, Hickey got a contract and made his big league debut in 1981. In a scene that could have been scripted for a bad tele-drama, with everyone in the house on their feet, the neighborhood boy came in and saved the day by striking out the future Hall of Fame slugger, standing in the very spot where my son stood the other day.

Of course not all the great American League lefties were Yankees; the guy who would take Ted Williams' place in left field at Fenway Park, Carl Yastrzemski, the last person to hit for the Triple Crown, also stood in that batter's box. His replacement, Jim Rice batted from the other side of the plate. Since my son didn't stand in the right handed batter's box that day, Rice and all the other great righties are a subject for another day.

The irascible Tiger, Ty Cobb, one of a handful of ballplayers who could legitimately challenge the Bambino for the title of "best ever", batted from that box when he was in Chicago for all but five years of his career.

The great Cool Papa Bell of whom Satchel Paige said: "was so fast he could flip the switch in the bedroom and be in bed before the lights went out", like Mickey Mantle, batted from both sides of that plate. He played ball before the Major Leagues became integrated but would play in Comiskey Park at least once every year during the annual Negro League All Star Game.

I still remember one of the greatest hitters of my time, Rod Carew, or "RRRRRod CaRewwwww" as Harry Caray used to call him, batting from that box as a Twin and later a California Angel, my heart sinking every time he came up to bat.

Oh yes, there were a few good White Sox players to bat from the left side: Larry Doby, the first African American to play in the American League batted from that left handed batter's box. Doby broke in with the Indians but was a member of the 1959 Sox team that won the American League pennant. He also had the distinction of being the second African American manager of a big league team, which happened to be the White Sox. A couple other members of that '59 "Go Go" White Sox team, Ted Kluszewski with his bulging biceps, and the great second baseman, Nellie Fox were lefties as well, as was one my all time favorite Sox players and the team's current first base coach, Harold Baines.

But I save the best for last. Without question the greatest player to ever wear a White Sox uniform, the man whose style Babe Ruth emulated, and whose name and image would hang prominently in the hallowed shrine to baseball in Cooperstown, NY had it not been for his involvement from the fringes of the greatest scandal to ever rock baseball, Shoeless Joe Jackson batted from that box.

I get shivers just thinking about it.

My boy and I did what any American father and son would do given the chance to be in such a place, we played catch. Since a few hours before there had been a game across the street and were still cars lingering in the parking lot, we were prevented from tossing the ball around home plate. Still I paced off approximately 60 feet six inches, the distance from home plate to the pitcher's rubber, and stood where White Sox greats Ted Lyons, Early Wynn, Billy Pierce and all the other great and not so great American League pitchers between 1910 and 1990 applied their craft, while my son crouched behind home plate, the workplace of Moe Berg, Sherm Lollar and my other favorite ballplayer, Carlton Fisk, who contrary to fans of that other Sox team back east, will to me always be a member of the White Sox.

We then went out to left field where we played catch in earnest. He stood where Ron Kittle, another Chicago area boy and one of the handful of players to hit a home run over the roof of old Comiskey Park tentatively played his position in the early eighties. I stood in short left, where the great shortstops Luke Appling (who rumor has it, once lived in our building), and Luis Aparicio might have fielded a popup or two. On one toss my boy threw the ball at least ten feet wide of me. The ball rolled all the way from left field to deep right field where Harold Baines in his prime might have scooped it up, and thrown out a batter trying foolishly to turn a double into a triple.

The Last Game at Comiskey Park
 Photograph by Tom Harney
There are so many memories from that particular square block patch of land; if you close your eyes, you can almost hear the crack of the bat, the screaming fans, Bill Veeck's exploding scoreboard, and Nancy Faust playing Na Na Hey Hey Goodbye on the organ. If you squint you might be able to picture Armour Square Park just north of the old ballpark framed through the distinctive arches that were cut out of the left field facade. And with a little imagination, your mind's eye can conjure up all those larger than life players of the past, the legends still in their prime, warming up on that beautiful green diamond shaped field in Charles Comiskey's baseball palace on the South Side of Chicago.

My son, every bit the 21st Century boy, totally got it. I can't say this experience was as thrilling for him as it was for me, or that it even came close to walking around the field of the current ballpark across the street before a game this year and standing beside some genuine big leaguers. But for about one half hour on a beautiful late summer afternoon, for the two of us that parking lot became our own field of dreams.



Here is a site devoted to the Effie Afton incident, and here is a nice history of old Comiskey Park.

Here is a site with some tremendous historic photographs of the old ballpark.

The following is an incomplete list of players who hit home runs that cleared the roof of Comiskey Park:
  • Babe Ruth
  • Lou Gehrig
  • Jimmy Foxx
  • Hank Greenberg
  • Ted Williams
  • Mickey Mantle
  • Bill Skowron
  • Elston Howard
  • Eddie Robinson
  • Minnie Minoso
  • Dave Nicholson
  • Harmon Killebrew
  • Dick Allen
  • Ron Kittle
  • Carlton Fisk
  • Greg Luzinski
Finally, here is the incredible story of Kevin Hickey's life, unfortunately as told in his Sun Times obituary from earlier this  year.

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