Thursday, June 27, 2013

Goodbye old friend

Thillens Stadium, c. 1984
Recently we inducted another member into the club of iconic landmarks that now qualify as lost Chicago. I don't know exactly how many years this oversized baseball held court on the border of Lincolnwood and Chicago on the city's far northwest side, but it was demolished a few weeks ago as the current owner and operator of the venerable facility formerly known as Thillens Stadium, the Chicago Park District, feared that years of neglect  might cause the beloved sign advertising both the ballpark and the company that built it, to come down on its own, perhaps taking a little league ballplayer with it. Thillens Stadium which consists of two reduced sized baseball fields, grandstand seats, announcers booths, and scoreboards, was built by Mel Thillens Sr. the owner of a check cashing business, in 1938. Ever since, Little Leaguers from all over the Chicago area have played at this miniature version of a big league ballpark, turning it into their own field of dreams. One of them is my son who can be seen in the photo below, taken at Thillens with his team three years ago.

Both the stadium and the big ball that advertised it have been local landmarks for years. Recently, the Park District removed all traces of the Thillens name from the stadium and its environs. The facility is now officially known as "The Stadium at Devon and Kedzie." Before its destruction, the ball was whitewashed, removing the seams and the Thillens name. On the scoreboard, the words "Thillens Checashers" were removed, but not the words above, leaving a very perplexing message. The armored truck above the sign sadly was also removed. Back in the day, little sluggers who hit the truck with a ball from home plate would be awarded a cash prize, not unllike the famous ad for Abe Stark the Taylor at old Ebbets Field in Brooklyn that offered a free suit to any player who could hit the sign.

Thillens Stadium does have at least one historic distinction going for it that should be enough to qualify it at the very least for a mention it the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, if not official landmark status. Back in the fifties, WGN TV, the local Chicago station, televised little league games from Thillens. One of the station's cameramen suggested placing a camera in the scoreboard (only 200 feet from home plate) in order to capture the face of the batter and catchers flashing their signals. That was the first time this now standard shot was used in televising a ballgame.

The stadium, still called Thillens by locals, is very much alive. The CPD and the Chicago Cubs dropped two million dollars to repair the place a few years ago. It's still a big deal any time a kid gets to play there and hear his or her name announced over the PA system. But without the big ball, which once was lit up at night and spun upon its spindle, the plywood truck, and the name Thillens splashed all over the place, something will forever be lost.

Corny as it all was, the little and not so little bits and pieces that made Thillens Thillens, were themselves a link to games past; of warm afternoons or pleasant summer evenings at the ballpark, playing ball, or rooting for your sibling, child or grandchild as they lived out their, and possibly your dreams.

Driving past that silly ball on Devon Avenue evoked all those memories for Chicagoans who had a direct connection to Thillens. And for those who had no connection, it evoked at least a smile.

Now, countless smiles have been removed from Chicago as driving past Thillens today you barely notice the place; from the street it's just another parking lot in a sea filled with more parking lots.

What a shame.

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