Friday, January 25, 2013

The Ball

The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, is famous for its plaques bearing the likenesses of hundreds of the greatest players of the game - those deemed worthy of induction into the institution's hallowed halls. Unless you've been there, you may not realize the Hall of Fame is also a baseball museum, and by that I mean literally a museum of baseballs. On display are hundreds of balls that were involved in one significant play or other in the game's history. For the faithful, it is akin to visiting a shrine containing saintly relics. For baseball agnostics, visiting the Hall can be an exercise in the most excruciating tedium, as I learned during my one and only visit with my first wife, the day I learned the literal meaning of the term "bored to tears."

My ex wife was a textile conservator who worked on a wide variety of objects from thousand year old tapestries to contemporary fiber arts pieces. However by far the most valuable objects (at least in terms of insurance value) that she ever worked on, were objects having to do with baseball memorabilia.

As a sport obsessed with its history, anything that has even the most tangential connection to the game at its highest level, is raised to the status of an object of devotion. It's been that way since the game's inception but today, just as the market for actual players has gone through the roof, so has the market for these objects of desire.

What makes the following story so charming, is that it depicts childhood innocence in a simpler time not so long ago, that would be almost unimaginable these days.

In 1960 Andy Jerpe was a fourteen year old ninth grader who lived in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Point Breeze, not far from Forbes Field. On the afternoon of Thursday October 13, on his way home from school, Andy found himself inside that venerable old ballpark as his hometown Pirates just happened to be playing the New York Yankees in the seventh game of the World Series. Now already this story is dated. For one thing, World Series games in our day are never played on weekday afternoons, they're played in prime time to attract the largest number of TV viewers. And today the idea of a kid just wandering into a ballpark during a World Series game seems preposterous.

Anyway that 1960 Series was one of the strangest ever. The Pirates were huge underdogs to the mighty Yankees that year and looking at the overall stats from the Series you could see why. In the three games the Yankees won, they outscored the Pirates 32 to 3. In the whole series they and outscored the Bucs 55 to 27. But the Pirates managed to win three games in more modest fashion, forcing a game seven. The last game in Pittsburgh turned into a slugfest and it seemed unlikely that the Pirates could out-slug Mantle, Maris & Co. The lead seesawed back and forth throughout the last half of the game and wonder of wonders, Pittsburgh found itself tied with New York at nine runs apiece in the bottom of the ninth.

Unfortunately for Andy Jerpe, he couldn't stay to watch, he had to get home to help his mother with dinner. Now just imagine that.

At precisely 3:36 p.m., Andy found himself outside the ballpark in Schenley Park just beyond the left field fence. He heard the crack of a bat and the roar of the crowd. When he looked up he saw the ball that just came off second baseman Bill Mazeroski's bat. Playing left field that day for the Yankees, Yogi Berra stood directly on the other side of the fence from Andy and could only watch helplessly as the ball sailed over his head and into the grove of cherry trees where it landed, about fifteen feet away from the fourteen year old boy.

Now a baseball is an easy thing to take for granted. In our home, the home of a little leaguer, we have dozens of them. Between all the manufacturing steps and curing time, it takes about one week to make a big league baseball. Topping it off, each ball, all 108 stitches of it, is sewn by hand. The Rawlings factory in Costa Rica makes about eight to ten thousand of them in one day. Given that, it's amazing you can still buy the same baseball used by the pros, signature of the president of the league and all, for only about nine bucks. Back in 1960 it might have been two or three. But the ball you buy at the store will never be worth more than nine bucks, and a lot less after you whack it around a few times. A ball that makes its way into the stands at a big league park on the other hand, even if it's only a foul ball, is usually found in a place of honor of someone's home. And a ball that is part of a significant play in a big league game, can be worth serious money.

That point was taken to absurdity in 2003 in Chicago with a ball that was hit during a playoff game. A home town fan reaching for a foul ball headed into the stands, prevented a possible out by deflecting the ball from the home town outfielder who had a chance to catch it. The batter got a second chance and got on base which precipitated a series of events that led to the collapse of the home team which shall remain nameless. The play instantly became notorious and the following year, the owner of a local restaurant paid tens of thousands of dollars for that ball, then staged a public event where he had the unfortunate baseball blown to bits.

The ball that Andy Jerpe picked up that Thursday afternoon in 1960 in Pittsburgh was certainly no ordinary baseball. In fact it was no ordinary home run ball hit in a major league game. Bill Mazeroski had just hit the home run that would win the World Series for the Pittsburgh Pirates against the storied New York Yankees. To this day, decades after the demise of Forbes Field, there is a plaque marking the event on the site where Andy picked up that ball. Every year on October 13th around 3:30 PM, fans gather around the plaque to celebrate the very special event in Pittsburgh sports history that took place over fifty years ago. Bill Mazerowski himself sometimes attends those ceremonies.

But that's not all. In the entire history of baseball, only two World Series were ended by a player on the home team hitting a home run, in baseball parlance, a "walk off" home run. And only one time in history was a decisive seventh game of a World Series settled by a walk off home run. The ball that Andy Jerpe held in his hands was part of the most important if not the most famous* home run in the game's history.

Andy was taken by security into the Pirate clubhouse where grown men were jumping up and down, in Andy's words, acting like children, spraying what Andy thought at the time was water all over themselves. Andy presented the ball to Mazerowski who according to legend told him: "It's OK kid, the memory is enough for me, you can keep the ball." Maz signed the ball and Andy went home.

Andy recalled years later that bringing the trophy home was the event that brought him and his father closer than any other in his young life. Now if this were a movie, the story would have to have a scene where the boy and the ball would become separated. Indeed, one year later that's exactly what happened. One day some friends came over and asked Andy if he wanted to play some ball, but none of his friends actually had a ball. "Hey how 'bout that ball you have in the case in your room?" said one of his friends. "I can't use that ball" said Andy. The friends assured him nothing would happen to his precious trophy. He gave in to peer pressure, pried opened the case he made in shop class and joined his friends across the street. When Andy came up to bat, he fouled off the ball which landed in the tall grass off to his right. Andy and his friends looked for the ball for hours but never came up with it.

In the movie version of our story, years later the ball would turn up in a garage sale, someone would recognize it, and return it to Andy. Andy would then be approached by a collector offering him a fortune for the ball. He'd think about it for a minute then say, no it's too precious, he'd never let go of it again.

Of course that part never happened. The baseball that was hit out of Forbes Field that beautiful fall day in 1960, perhaps the most important baseball of all time, has not been seen since, or so they say. One theory has it that one of Andy's friends pocketed the ball and later sold it to Mazeroski for two cases of beer.

Our movie could never end like that.

As for Andy Jerpe, well he's been told recently the ball that once was his would be worth between $500K and one million dollars. He just shrugs it off. Like his childhood hero Bill Mazeroski, he seems content with the sweet memory, and one hell of a story.

"Would you have sold it" he is constantly asked.

"If the price was right" is his response.

As usual, life does not imitate art.

*Arguably the most famous home run in baseball history took place nine years earlier. It was the "shot heard 'round the world", a walk off home run that Bobby Thompson of the Giants hit off the Brooklyn Dodgers to win a playoff series between the two teams.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Cable Cars

The fantastic site Forgotten Chicago, has this piece on a largely forgotten piece of Chicago history, its cable car system.

Legend has it that Andrew Hallidie, an engineer and manufacturer of wire rope, came up with the idea for cable cars one day while walking up one of San Franciso's steep hills. In the middle of a snowstorm, he saw a team of horses struggling to pull a streetcar up the slippery grade, then lose their grip on the pavement, sending them and the car and its passengers sliding and crashing at the bottom of the hill.

Hallidie's idea was to propel the cars up and down the hills by means of an onboard mechanical gripping system that a "gripman" would engage onto a continuously moving underground cable. Hallidie's invention is a classic example of 19th Century brilliance and audacity. Building such a system was an enormous undertaking, requiring a tremendous amount of maintenance. But it was a brilliant solution that worked perfectly well for the absurdly steep hills of the City by the Bay. As it does to this day as three lines still exist transporting mostly tourists.

Even without hills, the system worked pretty well in Chicago as well, ours would become the largest cable car system built anywhere. It wouldn't last long however as the cumbersome system was replaced by the much simpler system of self-propelled streetcars in 1906 after only 24 years of operation.

The Forgotten Chicago article lists some extant remnants of the old cable car system, including vehicle barns and power plants. These buildings contained the enormous steam engines with their gigantic pulleys that set miles of cable in motion. One of these buildings stands today at LaSalle and Illinois Streets,  you may know it as the building that once housed Michael Jordan's Restaurant.

The most famous remnant of the cable car system however is the term we use to describe our downtown. The term "the Loop" was originally coined to describe the loop of cable cars that once circled Chicago's central business district, an area much larger than the area defined by today's L tracks.

An interesting fact I recently learned about San Francisco's cable cars is that one of the early investors in the system was one Abner Doubleday, who is today most famous as being the man mistakenly credited with the invention of baseball. He may not have invented the National Pastime but among other significant achievements, was indeed a big player in what would become one of the coolest transportation systems ever invented.

If you ever find yourself in San Francisco, by all means treat yourself to a cable car ride. If you dare, don't sit inside but stand on the platform and hang over the edge as the little Powell-Hyde car makes its way up Russian Hill. It may sound hokey but it is indeed one of the greatest urban experiences anywhere.

Sweet memories

A copy of the book Remembering Marshall Field's just came into my possession. It's from the ubiquitous Images of America series, published by Arcadia Publishing and written by Leslie Goddard. Like all the books in this series, there's no body of text to speak of; words illustrate the photographs, not the other way around. That aside, the photographs are terrific, and even though most of them were taken before I was born (hard to believe), they made my life flash before my eyes.

Nostalgia is a double edged sword; handled correctly it can help us reflect upon our lives, remembering especially the happy times of our past and keeping alive the people and places that made us who we are. On the other hand, if we fall under it's grip, nostalgia can stick us into the past and not let us out. Sometimes the more past we accumulate, the more we want to stay there.

Field's at Christmastime, c. 1977
I wrote that last paragraph much for my own benefit as I don't want to believe the past is actually a better place to be than the present. But looking at the pictures in this book make it really difficult.

In case you don't know, Marshall Field's was a department store whose flagship occupied an entire city block right in the heart of Chicago bounded by State Street on the west, Randolph and Washington Streets on the north and south, and Wabash Avenue on the east. Business was so successful that the company built an annex building to the south to house a store devoted exclusively to men. That men's store alone by today's standards would be considered enormous but back in the day, it paled in comparison to the big store across the street. Even though State Street at one time was the home to at least a dozen big department stores all of them with Chicago roots, Field's was the grandaddy of them all. It alone captured the heart and minds of visitors to this city, as such it was an indelible symbol of Chicago. Marshall Field's was to Chicago what Higby's was to Cleveland, Dayton's was to Minneapolis, Wanamaker's was to Philadelphia, Filene's was to Boston, and Macy's was to New York - only much more so.

Those names are only memories now, save for Macy's, which today exists in name alone. The economics of the retail business have changed drastically over the past century, and department stores, at least the great downtown ones, are dinosaurs struggling to survive in the days of strip malls, big box stores and the internet. The few that survive are either very high end stores like Nieman-Marcus and Bloomingdales, or have been absorbed (like Field's) by huge corporations of which there are about three in this country. But even these are struggling big time and in a way it's a small miracle that there are any department stores left. Reluctantly I say that Marshall Fields as a mere shadow of its former self as a Macy's store, is better than having nothing at all.

The other day my mother, wife, children and I found ourselves inside the great State Street store formerly known as Field's, (most life-long Chicagoans still refuse to call the place by the "M" name). My mom reminded me of our days together when I was a child, and Saturdays meant going to the Loop, lunching at any one of the number of eateries all gone now, and ending up at Marshall Field's. If I had a nickel for every hour I spent accompanying her while she did her Saturday stopping, I'd be a rich man today. But my reward would always be a trip to the fourth floor where they had the toy store. It's hard to imagine these days how magnificent that place once was. Half of the entire fourth floor, that is, one half of an entire city block, was devoted exclusively to toys. It was not a toy warehouse like a Toys 'R Us, but a place that was put together with as much creativity and care as the rest of the store which was dedicated to adults. The book has several photographs of that very special place from my childhood, but it also has something even more special. There is a reproduction of a little block print found perhaps in an early catalog (the book doesn't say), which spells out what could be the mission statement of the store's toy department, founded in 1912. It reads:
Toys do for children what literature and art do for their elders-supply the mind with images and develop breadth and activity of thought.
Imagine finding that written at your local WalMart or Target. You certainly won't find it at Macy's/Field's stores anymore which (with the exception of a brief, failed appearance of FAO Schwartz), stopped selling toys on a large scale decades ago.

If Marshall Field's put that much effort into the selling of toys back then, imagine what the rest of the store was like. Old Marshall Field himself coined the motto of his establishment when he told his staff to: "give the lady what she wants." My mother who considers herself an expert on such things, talks about the old store's commitment of service to their customers. "Service keeps getting worse and worse these days" she says, but I always remember her complaining about how the service used to be better; in fact I recall her saying that forty years ago.

Yes, life was always better in the good old days, they even felt that way back in the good old days. Looking at all the wonderful pictures of the Marshall Field's store of bygone days with a critical eye, one begins to notice a few unsettling things. In very few of the pictures, and none of them made before the seventies will you find a person of color, not the customers, nor the staff. With its Gilded Age opulence and style, Marshall Field's reflected its time; it was a place exclusively for upper middle class white people, or in our case, people who strove to become that.

Realistically of course, the good old days weren't all that good. Two World Wars, a Great Depression, the lack of equal rights not only for minorities but for women, were facts of the past we wouldn't particularly choose to re-live. Not to mention polio, smallpox, TB, and other horrible diseases that had yet to be eradicated, and scores of other facts of life that we no longer have to deal with. Even during the "golden years" of my childhood, the Vietnam War, race riots, the disintegration of American cities and the crumbling of other worthwhile institutions, are all things few of us want to revisit.

That's the thing about the past, it's certainly a nice place to visit, but none of us should want to live there. That's not to say we can't learn from the past, especially from the things they did better back then. I have a cousin who comes from the marketing world. When I expressed my objection about the parent company of Macy's converting Marshall Field's into another Macy's, he assured me it was a prudent business decision. It's important he said, that they shore up their corporate image, including replacing the traditional Field's green with Macy's red. It was all a matter of looking at the big picture he said.

I'm not convinced. These are things stockholders like to hear. While they may be pleased, I'm not sure the customers are. For years Marshall Field's took measures to insure their success by nurturing their customer base by providing the best possible service. The care they extended even to the toy section was not frivolous, they were catering to their future customers. It worked well for generations, and it worked for me. Until the store became a Macy's, I was a regular customer of Marshall Field's. Today I can't say I no longer set foot in the place, I go there mostly these days to use the bathroom. But I can't for the life of me remember the last time I actually bought something at Macy's.

I don't think I'm alone.

Saturday, January 12, 2013


I haven't posted lately on birds because frankly I haven't been noticing birds much these days, and the ones I have seen have been, well let's just say, nothing special. Of course all God's creatures are special, it's just that to someone who is interested in looking at birds, it's the ones we don't see every day that we get all tingly about.

Today, at 3:00PM, Saturday, January 12, 2013, I saw a Perigrine Falcon, or Falco peregrinus, flying west just above Randolph Street at Michigan Avenue. These birds as you probably know are the fastest animals on earth. At level flight, perigrines fly at a good clip, about the same as pigeons, their favorite food. But they can dive at speeds of 150mph and beyond which gives them the advantage over their prey. Still our friends Columba livia have many natural defenses against the raptors and only the old and sick really need to worry. That's why we see so many more pigeons than falcons.

The bird I saw today was flying at high speed and I watched as she (I'm guessing it was a she because of her size, females of this species are bigger than males), flew above the Cultural Center, then banked left and disappeared behind the Pittsfield Building. It made my heart skip a beat, frankly I was a little jealous.

Imagine seeing this city from a Falcon's eye view. Now that would be some tour.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

A case for walking

Urban planner Jeff Speck has written a new book called Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time. I haven't gotten my hands on a copy yet but here is a capsule review from the site Brain Pickings. Here is an interview with him from the blog DC.Streets.

Speck's views are nothing new, he is channelling the work of Jane Jacobs who wrote the groundbreaking book The Death and Life of Great American Cities back in the early sixties. In Speck's words:
We’ve known for three decades how to make livable cities — after forgetting for four — yet we’ve somehow not been able to pull it off. Jane Jacobs, who wrote in 1960, won over the planners by 1980. But the planners have yet to win over the city.
Jacobs' startling idea was that cities as they had been built for millennia actually worked, and that two generations of "progressive" urban planning led to lifeless, boring cities. As Speck points out today, Jacobs' work turned out to be prophetic; fifty years after the publication of her book, people are finding old fashioned, big, congested, walkable cities very attractive places in which to live. In contrast, newer cities emphasizing open space and convenience built around the automobile are falling into disfavor. Yet we continue to build them.

Speck's argument is that while planners today do accept Jacobs' work, they continue to answer the demand to design cities to be the servant of the automobile rather than the other way around. The typical response in this country to complaints about bad traffic is to build more roads. And the inevitable result of more road construction is this: more people getting into their cars creating even more congestion. The solution to more congestion is, guess what, more roads.

Now take Chicago. Anyone who has lived here for a while, knows that driving in this city has progressively become more and more of a hassle in recent years. Congestion on the roads has gotten much worse not to mention that parking, especially in the Loop has become prohibitively expensive. When I drive I admit myself to cursing the bad condition of the roads, the seemingly endless construction delays, and the ridiculously expensive parking. Conventional wisdom might say this is a bad thing; the hassle factor keeps people away from the city. Adding traffic lanes to ease congestion and building more parking lots in the Loop would certainly reduce at least some of that hassle.

But not so fast. It is not necessary to drive in Chicago. This is one of the very few places to live in the United States where owning a car is not a prerequisite. True our public transportation system leaves much to be desired, but it is a functional system just the same that is light years ahead of those of most other cities in this country. What's more, there are transportation alternatives in Chicago that go beyond public transportation. Chicago remains a very walkable city and day by day strives to become more bike friendly.

Reducing the number of cars on the road seems to be the most reasonable solution to our traffic congestion problems. Other big cities around the world have recognized this and have proposed charging drivers a fee for the privilege of driving in their central business districts. Chicago seems to be doing it inadvertently. Bad planning and budget restraints have resulted in the crumbling infrastructure of our highways. Former mayor Richard M. Daley's sale of parking meter revenue to a private concern has come under a great deal of scrutiny, not the least of which is the fact that the company that now owns the right to charge us to park on the city's streets has continually raised their parking fees. "Unfair" cry the critics, including myself at times. But in reality, these cases of what seem to be bad policy, may in fact be working in our favor. If people insist on driving downtown, which they certainly continue to do, they must pay a price in both time and money. Those who don't care to pay that price, find a plethora of alternatives to get around town, including walking.

Building cities around the automobile creates an endless cycle of road construction, increased automobile usage, and congestion. Building cities around the pedestrian creates another cycle: as more people walk around the city, more amenities for them are created. The more amenities, the more vibrant and interesting the city becomes, which attracts more people. Speck's conclusion is that generalists such as mayors, who have a vision the direction the city should take are better to be in charge of urban planning rather than specialists like public works commissioners, who are more concerned with solving specific problems, such as traffic congestion.

Not surprisingly, Jeff Speck cites New York, San Francisco and Chicago as examples of vibrant, walkable cities in the U.S. that have a bright future. Whether by design or just dumb luck, we end up ahead in the long run by making driving less attractive.

In case you're interested, here's an interactive map of the United States that describes state by state how people commute to work. Not too many surprises.