Tuesday, April 30, 2013

There goes the view

In her once legendary, now all but forgotten dismissal of Chicago in the New York Times, Rachel Shteir managed to find three things she actually liked about the city:
The beauty of Lake Michigan. A former rail yard has become Millennium Park. Thanks to global warming, the winters have softened.
Well I can't argue about the lakefront, but I do have a hard time rooting for global warming for many reasons, not the least of which is that around here, the last two winters have not provided us with a steady frost enabling my son and me to play outdoor hockey. And I may represent a party of one, but I actually liked the rail yard that was covered up (not replaced) by Millennium Park.

Illinois Central tracks as seen from the Art Institute
Today the presence of the railroad is still felt south of Millennium Park as its tracks continue to bisect Grant Park, Chicago's front yard. There is no longer the massive freight yard that once extended all the way north to the river, that's all been replaced by underground parking and other development. Today the tracks that remain in the Loop exclusively serve the Metra and South Shore commuter railroads.

There have been many calls to cover up the tracks, burying them beneath the park and the Art Institute of Chicago. The AIC plans to build more gallery space over them in the future, as the air rights over the tracks are the only free space the museum has available. As for the rest of Grant Park, well it might happen someday, but now it would be prohibitively expensive to cover up the remaining tracks from Jackson Street to Roosevelt Road.

And that's just fine by me. That railroad right of way, if not the actual tracks that sit about fifty feet behind me as I write this, has been around longer than just about anything extant in Chicago. It was the railroads that made Chicago the transportation hub of the nation, and consequently the booming city it would become. Those particular tracks, once the domain of the Illinois Central, and now owned by the Canadian National Railway, extend south to Memphis and New Orleans. Louis Armstrong came to Chicago aboard a train upon those tracks as did millions of other African Americans during the Great Migration, looking for a better life up north. Those who stayed, headed to the south side and Bronzeville, the one part of the city available to people of color in those days, and built a great community.

The Illinois Central tracks which to the casual observer appear to lie in an underground trench, were originally built upon trestles in the lake. The ground beneath them as well as all the ground east of Michigan Avenue is landfill, remnants of the First City destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire. The retaining walls that line the railroad trench we see today in this, the Second City, are made of Joliet limestone, the same material from which the Water Tower and many other buildings of its vintage were built. That stone was quarried in the vicinity of and transported up the Illinois/Michigan Canal, the original link between the Chicago River, and by extension the Great Lakes, to the Mississippi River. That link, and the dreams of building it, is the entire reason why Chicago exists in the first place.

So those railroad tracks represent much more than transportation conduits, they are a part of the living history of the city, the region, and even the country. If I were king, (which probably would not be a very good idea), I'd decree they remain just as they are, forever.

To me, a city is more than great architecture, museums, concert halls, sculptures and monuments. Cities are more than postcard vistas or the images of shiny happy people that you see in the visitor center. A city reads like a novel. Every brick, pane of glass, every bridge, water tank, smoke stack, every factory, greasy spoon, every home from balloon frame cottage to palatial mansion, every inch of the city holds a piece of that story. Who would want to read a novel that had no tension, no conflicts to resolve, (or not resolve), a novel where all the characters were forever content and nothing ever happened, a perpetual Lawrence Welk Show?

Great cities are like great novels. The stories they tell are not always pretty, they're often filled with pain and the struggle to survive against all odds. There are stories of desperation, of unfulfilled hopes and dreams, of unspeakable tragedy. On the other hand, there are times of triumph and joy; of great plans, some little, some not, conceived and occasionally carried out. Some people will be tested beyond their limits, responding with dignity, selflessness, and charity they never thought possible of themselves, just like we saw in Boston this month.

There lies the poetry of the city.

Lincoln Tower as seen from Garland Court, 2010
But mostly the story of the city is told in prose. It's the story of people going about their daily lives, getting up, feeding the kids, going to work, to school, to play, to church, to the tavern. Most of the story centers around the banality of life that takes place all around us, fixing up the house, mowing the lawn, shooting the breeze with the neighbors, the things we take for granted. In my career as a photographer, that part of the story interested me the most, as it continues to this day.

Those of you who have followed this blog no doubt have noticed posts that describe my commute to and from work. Unlike others who see commuting as wasted time, I enjoy that part of my life, two hours a day that belong to me alone. Each commute is a story within a story, no two are ever quite the same.

I have a several options to get to work, I can either come into the city through the front or the back door. From the front side I ride my bike along the lake; it's about as beautiful a trip as one can imagine, 'nuff said. As you can imagine, it's usually more interesting to come in through the back door. When I want to arrive that way, I can either take the elevated (the L as we call it), which runs through residential neighborhoods above the alleys of the north side, or I can take the commuter train that takes me along the old Chicago and Northwestern RR right of way through the guts of the city, past industrial sites, some thriving, some moribund. That train deposits me at the other end of the Loop from work meaning I get to walk about three quarters of a mile through one of my favorite places on earth. I've often said, hardly a day goes by when I don't discover something new about the city. But the old stuff thrills me too, especially some of the amazing vistas through the streets of the Loop.

Garland Court, April, 2013
On my walk from the train I pass several iconic Chicago views, first down the canyons of LaSalle Street which terminate with the magnificent Art Deco Board of Trade Building. Next comes the view up and down Dearborn Avenue with its collection of architectural gems, and State Street, punctuated on the south with the bombastic facade of the Harold Washington Library and to the north, the vertical marquee of the theater proudly bearing its name and the name of its city, Chicago. Perhaps my favorite street in the Loop is Wabash Avenue covered by the L structure, and above that, a wonderfully eclectic collection of nineteenth and early twentieth century facades. That view has remained virtually unchanged for a century until the recent addition of Trump Tower north of the river. The contrast of the new and the old makes the view up Wabash not unlike of the view up the Yellow Brick Road toward the Emerald City of Oz. Lastly the walled-in city opens up as you hit Michigan Avenue, kept forever open (for the most part) thanks to the efforts of A. Montgomery Ward who wanted to keep his view of the lake from his office in the tower he built at Six North Michigan.

But my favorite view of the city, until just a few weeks ago that is, was up an alley. North of Madison Street, the alley is known as Garland Court. It is lined with the buildings that front on Michigan and Wabash Avenues, but you'd never know it. Instead of a few feet to the east where men and women in their Gucci loafers and Balenciaga sandals stride up and down the avenue, on Garland, Sears work boots are de rigueur. On the "Court" you won't see taxicabs depositing people in front of expensive restaurants, but trucks hauling dumpsters and restaurant staff sneaking away for a quick cigarette break. Rather than ornate limestone and terra cotta facades, gothic tracery and Louis Sullivan ornament, the backs of these buildings are sheathed in common brick and support exhaust fans, air ducts, smokestacks, HVAC units and fire escapes. One would be hard pressed to identify these well known buildings from their backsides.

Downtown Chicago is filled with such alleys. My friend Bob Thall published a book of photographs on that very subject. As these alleys all lead to a commercial street, the views of them are punctuated by a building front, providing a dramatic visual contrast: the dark, sinister alley framing the facade of a glorious building. It's the perfect illustration for the complexity of the city, and I believe our city is all the more glorious because of these views.

Anyway, the alley in question terminates at Randolph Street and the Italianate facade of an 1870s post-Chicago Fire structure. Beyond that was a layered texture of buildings at varying heights, (another one of my favorite visual themes of the city). Topping off the view was the glorious Lincoln (originally Mather) Tower, the eccentric 1928 Herbert Hugh Riddle building at 75 East Wacker Drive. Its design was influenced by Chicago's zoning ordinance of the time which stated that a building could be any height so long as the surface area of the top floor did not exceed 25 percent of that of the ground floor. The "set-back" ordinance, similar to New York City's, resulted in the construction of some of the most iconic American skyscrapers of the twentieth century. There is another aspect of many of these towers such as the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings in New York, Terminal Tower in Cleveland, and Lincoln Tower. Since forests of trees have been sacrificed dedcicated to writings on the subject, I'll leave it at that, other than to say that their thrusting, vertical erection, er... construction, may evoke something other than pure architectural form, if you catch my drift.

Alas, that view is disappearing for as we speak, a new building is being constructed at 73 East Lake Street. The future luxury rental apartment building will top off at 42 stories. It's probably half the way there now and as you can see from the photograph made last week, it has already covered up the buildings immediately to its north and is about to eclipse the view of Lincoln Tower. I bet the views from that building, especially to the north and to the south will be fantastic. Lucky those folks who will live there.

Still, I'm not happy about this turn of events. The view up Garland Court will still be interesting, but never the same. The wannabe king in me would have prevented this new building going up from the get go. But the wheels of progress keep on turning and change is inevitable.

After all, that's life in the big city.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Open season

Trust me, I haven't been seeking out articles that slam Chicago, they're just everywhere to be found these days, even where you least expect them.

Like everybody else, I've been pouring over accounts of the multiple tragedies in Boston last week, beginning with the two bombs set off at the Boston Marathon. I just came across an article by David Gergen titled: Boston Never Surrenders. In it, the author listing some of the hardships suffered in The Hub over more or less the last three centuries, says this:
In the late 1980s, gang violence and murder were rampant; by 1990, Boston felt like Chicago today as it had the highest number of killings in its history, many among the young.
The spike of murders that Chicago has been experiencing in the last couple of years, has indeed gotten us unwelcome worldwide attention. That attention peaked, hopefully, after the murder of a teenage girl, Hadiya Pendleton, who had participated in the inauguration ceremonies of the president just a few weeks earlier, and was killed not far from the Obama family house in the neighborhood of Kenwood.

There is simply no obfuscating tragedies like this one, they have sadly become a fact of life in many parts of Chicago. This is not a new phenomenon, the murder rate in Chicago today is in fact far less than it was in the eighties. Without question, one murder is one too many, and to waste a human life, no matter how young or old, rich or poor, significant or seemingly insignificant, is horrible and unacceptable.

However, it's not simply a Chicago problem. These tragedies are happening all over the country, as they have ever since human beings inhabited the world. There are many causes for violence in our time: the breakup of the family, the ready availability of guns, excessive violence in the mass media, poverty, loss of hope, faith, and values of decency in our society, the list goes on and on. Chicago becoming the symbolic, if not the actual murder capital this country, while somewhat unfair and unfortunate, is understandable. Given readers' short attention spans and the professional laziness that is rampant among many journalists looking for an easy, glib hook to their stories, we can expect this dubious distinction to hang over our heads until we become famous for something else. Where's Michael Jordan when we need him?

Two of my recent posts featured a trend in journalism, something I consider to be a prime example of journalistic sloth: the internet top ten list. As you may recall, one of these lists, courtesy of the folks at Forbes Magazine,  rated Chicago the fourth most miserable city in the country, just behind Detroit, Flint, MI, and Rockford, IL. Another from HuffPost Travel, lists Chicago as the seventh most overrated place to visit in the ENTIRE WORLD.

The latter list cites the lack of Chicago to live up to the boosterism that is so common among its advocates. Again I have to admit that we in this city are guilty of being hucksters to the extreme. As I said in the earlier post, depending upon how you look at it, bluster is either our greatest fault or our greatest charm.

Someone who decidedly finds no charm in our bluster is Rachel Shteir whose article, ostensibly a review of three recent books on Chicago, made the cover of this Sunday's New York Times Weekly Book Review. Shteir uses the books as a launching pad into a diatribe; the article is a no holds barred trashing of this city. Shteir opens her piece with this:
“Poor Chicago,” a friend of mine recently said. Given the number of urban apocalypses here, I couldn’t tell which problem she was referring to.
Then she reads off a litany of a widely divergent set of problems such as the Cubs' record, bad weather, Ritchie Daley's parking meter fiasco, the drop in population, the high murder rate, the high sales tax, the high foreclosure rate, the high segregation rate, the state's pension crisis, the Tribune's bankruptcy, and of course Hadiya Pendleton.  The tag line about the tragically symbolic Ms. Pendleton was redundant since our high murder rate was already mentioned, but how could she resist mentioning the teen?

Shteir goes on to say calling Chicago "'poor' seems kind."

You can spin statistics to tell any story you like and Ms. Shteir does seem hellbent to paint as bleak a picture of Chicago as possible. There's nothing wrong with her laundry list, it simply paints an incomplete picture, by a long shot. Except for the Cubs of course, Chicago is not alone in suffering any of these ills. To balance the Shteir list of misery, I could compose my own list of inspiring things about Chicago, but what would be the point? Cities exist as complex organisms, you take the good with the bad; if you tackle one problem you invariably create another one. It's true for example that Boston and New York City's murder rates have gone way down in the last few decades. It's also true that in the same period of time, those two cities have virtually priced themselves out of the market for poor and even some middle class people. Poverty as we know is at the heart of much discontent in our society, and that discontent sometimes leads to crime. Boston and New York did not all of a sudden create magnificent opportunities for the poor, they just became too expensive; poor people in those cities were forced to move to the fringes, out of sight and out of mind. If you look at Chicago's declining population that Shteir mentions, you'll find that a good number of the people that left town, were also poor. While this may be a band-aid solution to the crime problem for a community, it's certainly not a good one.

Shtier also mentions Chicago's high segregation rate. I'm not an expert on how data regarding segregation rates in cities are gathered, but I assume they're made by measuring populations, community by community. Chicago certainly has many community tracts where the population of one race or other is over ninety percent. My own community, Rogers Park by contrast, is probably one of the most integrated in the United States. About as many black people live in Chicago as white people. Chicago also has a large Latin American population, one of the few cities in the country represented by significant numbers of people from all the regions of Latin America instead of just one or two. Chicago in fact has significant numbers of people from all over the world, my guess is that only New York City is more ethnically diverse in the US.

Pardon me for showing a little swagger in defending my city, apparently it does nothing to help. In Shteil's words:
...the bloviating roars on, as if hot air could prevent Chicago from turning into Detroit.
Those are fighting words to be sure, not just in the hearts and minds of Chicagoans, but especially in those of Detroiters. For if we in Chicago don't appreciate being the symbol of murder and mayhem in this country, imagine how our brothers and sisters in Detroit feel about their city being labelled the symbol of all that can possibly go wrong in an urban area, as I can only assume Shteil intended it to be. I have no idea what she knows about Detroit, I wouldn't be surprised if she's never been there. While she's lived in Chicago for the past thirteen years, she apparently hasn't visited much of this city either. Here's what she writes about her alma mater, the University of Chicago:
I have often wondered if geographical isolation — the campus is seven miles away from downtown, connected by a highway that circumvents the poor neighborhoods in between — breeds myopia even more devastating than that in the rest of the city. Did Milton Friedman ever see the burned-out projects as he sped along Lake Shore Drive?
Why does she call the University of Chicago "geographically isolated?" No, it's not surrounded by an industrial region or in the middle of a corn field; it's smack dab in the middle of the city. Northwestern University is twice as far from downtown and nobody, presumably not even Rachel Shteir would call it isolated. You take the same Lake Shore Drive most of the way up to NU from downtown as you do to go down to the Uof C on the south side. The difference is that Northwestern is surrounded by the affluent, tree lined, lily white (at least the area around the university) suburb of Evanston, while the University of Chicago is surrounded by urban neighborhoods whose population is predominantly African American. In those neighborhoods, home to hundreds of thousands of people, some poor, some rich, some in between, you will find some of the most beautiful parks and residential blocks in the city of Chicago. The "burned out projects" she speaks of were indeed once clearly visible as she sped by them on Lake Shore Drive, but anybody taking the time to explore the city between the University and the Loop would realize those projects (now  demolished) in no way represented that part of the city. I can't speak for Milton Friedman, but clearly Rachel Shteir never bothered to take the time to discover those neighborhoods for herself. You can draw your own conclusions as to why.

If there is in fact myopia in the world view of the University of Chicago, then Rachel Shteir would be the standard bearer for it. Shteir's piece evokes the memory of A. J. Liebling and his 1950s New Yorker essays on Chicago grouped together in book form as Chicago, The Second City:
Before anyone accuses me of being some latter-day A. J. Liebling,... let me say there are some good things about living here. The beauty of Lake Michigan. A former rail yard has become Millennium Park. Thanks to global warming, the winters have softened.
She's right, she's no Liebling. His pieces lambasting the city are filled with cheeky humor, combined with at least a superficial understanding of the city. At times he nails Chicago to a tee:
People you meet at a party (in Chicago) devote a great deal more time than people elsewhere to talking about good government, but they usually wind up the evening boasting about the high quality of the crooks they have met.   
and again:
Walking through a cocktail lounge and into another dining room in the Sherman, known as the Well of the Sea, I was handed a bill of fare proposing "Bahama Conch Chowder with Barbados Rum, said to be a favorite soup of Ernest Hemingway, believed by the natives of the Bahama Islands to promote virility and longevity" and "Scallops in Season: Called St. James Shells in England. Says Elliot Paul, 'Cleverest and most tasty of Mollusks.' " The Sherman menu writer is in the great tradition of a Chicago restaurateur named Dario Toffenetti, who opened a New York suecursale, where, in season, he sells "Autumnal Pumpkin Pie in an Avalanche of Whipped Cream.
Now there's some New York parochialism and arrogance at its finest. By contrast, the writing of Rachel Shteir, (who lived in New York before moving to Chicago), is simply mean and vindictive. Compared to Ms. Shteir's rantings about Chicago, Liebling's book reads like a love letter to this town.

Which brings up the question of why anyone who hates a place so much, would choose to live there for thirteen years. Perhaps it comes from a burning desire to write negative, scurrilous works. In that vein, Chicago appears to be a muse, providing her much inspiration. She has published three books, one called:  The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting. The other two books are about strippers. I haven't read any of them so I'll give her the benefit of doubt that she refuses to give the city of Chicago, that is, withholding comment on something which I know virtually nothing about.

To illustrate my point, Shteir once wrote an essay for an internet magazine called Tablet. It was written during the last Chicago mayoral election. Here's a sample:
Chicago might be rough and tumble, but where Jews are concerned the most racially and ethnically segregated city in the nation prefers repressed politesse, a country-club attitude more pre-Civil Rights than post-racial. Whenever I complain about this to New Yorkers I get bewildered stares and shrugs. They’re too concerned with Palestine to bother with what’s going on in a flyover zone.
Bullshit like that merits no comment, it stands on its own. It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that the Tablet article those insightful comments came from was titled: Out of the Loop: Rahm Emanuel won’t be Chicago’s next mayor, because the city won’t elect a Jew.

Well she was dead on about that one.

Her last sentence in the Times piece reads:

So Chicago is not Detroit, not yet. But the city is trapped by its location, its past, and what philosophers would have called its facticity — its limitations, given the circumstances. Boosterism has been perfected here because the reality is too painful to look at. Poor Chicago, indeed.

Stuck in the "flyover zone" for thirteen years, readers of the New York Times should really be saying this: "poor Rachel Shteir." I think we Chicagoans all owe her a debt of gratitude for pointing out our foibles, that is, fooling ourselves into believing that we live in a special place. In her honor, I'd like to propose a fund in her behalf, to purchase a one way ticket to get her out of this hellhole of a city, to someplace, anyplace where she could be happy.

You can put me down for one hundred dollars.


Chicago Sun Times writer Neil Steinberg whose book, You Were Never in Chicago which was lambasted by Ms. Shteir, had this to say about being panned in the New York Times.

Rachel Shteir, hounded by local media after her article, granted one interview, to Chicago Marazine. Here it is.

Thomas Dyja whose book The Third Coast actually received some faint praise from Shteir, was interviewed this afternoon on the local Chicago Public Radio station WBEZ. He was less than thrilled about the article implying that Ms. Shteir really didn't understand what he was getting at in his book. He agreed to a point, as I do, that excessive boosterism, especially without any insight, is tiresome at best, harmful at worst. But he added, why on earth should people not be proud of the place in which they live.

Monday, April 15, 2013


Before the March on Washington, before the integration of the University of Mississippi, before the Freedom Ride through the South, and the sit-in at a lunch counter in Greensboro, NC, before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, before Brown v. the Board of Education, and Executive Order 9981 which officially integrated public schools and the armed forces respectively -- before every great moment in the struggle for civil rights in the United States that anyone alive can remember, there was Jackie Robinson.

One does not usually hear Robinson's name spoken in the same breath with the likes of Thurgood Marshall, Medgar Evars, James Meredith, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and scores of other individuals who fought tirelessly and often gave up their freedom and even their lives for the cause of civil rights in this country. After all, Jackie Robinson was only a ballplayer and much of his legacy is wrapped around a game. But back in the day, baseball wasn't different from any other institution in the United States in regards to race, it was simply more public, and the integration of the game brought the issue of racial injustice in this country to the forefront. Because of that, Jackie Robinson's trailblazing career marks the beginning of the modern American civil rights movement.

Jackie Robinson
April 15th, is the anniversary of Robinson's debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 which officially broke the Major Leagues' color barrier. It will be celebrated all over the big leagues as Jackie Robinson Day, the day where every Major League baseball player will wear on his back the number 42, a number that has officially been retired on every big league team, Jackie Robinson's number.

It is right and just that we celebrate Robinson this way. However, lost in all the attention we give to one man, are others who broke into the big leagues at the same time, who suffered exactly the same indignities and hardships, but got none of the accolades.

Most of the credit for integrating baseball has been given to Branch Rickey, the president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey understood the lucrative potential of attracting the untapped reservoir of the African American community to his ballpark and began his pursuit of a black player for his team in 1945. However Bill Veeck, the most innovative of baseball owners, proposed integrating baseball back in 1943. Veeck's proposal was rejected by then Commissioner of Major League Baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

While Bill Veeck was serving in the Marine Corps in the South Pacific during WWII, (where he lost a leg), back home Landis died and was replaced by former Kentucky governor Happy Chandler. Chandler was amenable to the idea of integrating baseball and it was with his support that Rickey succeeded in putting Jackie Robinson in his opening day lineup for the Dodgers on April 15, 1947, making him the first black major leaguer in over fifty years. Once the door was opened, if just by a crack, Bill Veeck who by then owned the Cleveland Indians, like Rickey knew he had to proceed cautiously. Not only would he need a stellar player, but someone who combined intelligence with an even temperament, courage, and enormous strength of character. In other words he needed someone who like Robinson, not only understood the significance of the position he would be thrust into, but also had the intestinal fortitude to withstand the abuse that would inevitably come his way. If that player failed the test, the cause would be set back twenty years.

Larry Doby
Veeck found his man in Larry Doby. Doby spent his childhood in Montclaire, NJ. Growing up there he didn't experience the same kind of up-front bigotry that many of his fellow Negro League players did. That all would change while he served in the Navy during WWII. From basic training on Doby was "stunned and embarrassed" by being segregated from the white inductees, some of whom were friends he played ball with as a kid. It was unfortunately a lesson that would prepare him for his future life in the major leagues.

After the War, the former all-state athlete in multiple sports returned to his position at second base with the Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues where he got Veeck's attention. Unlike Rickey who prepared Jackie Robinson (and the baseball world), for integrated baseball by playing Robinson in the minors for one year, Doby played in a double-header for the Newark Eagles on the Fourth of July of 1947, and the next day found himself in an Indians uniform in Chicago playing against the White Sox.

Another difference: Veeck bought Doby's contract from Effa Manley, the owner of the Eagles, in marked contrast to Branch Rickey who reasoned that since there was no reserve clause in the Negro Leagues, he had no obligation to compensate in any way the Kansas City Monarchs, Robinson's former team.

Even though he had been in the majors only three months, Jackie Robinson took it upon himself to mentor Doby, teaching him the ropes of coping in a world where both men would be stars on the field, yet treated like dirt everywhere else. Another mentor was Veeck whom Doby viewed as a second father. Where Robinson was forced to play with teammates who did not accept him for his race, Veeck traded the Indians players who refused to shake Doby's hand when he was introduced to them. Other than that, Doby suffered exactly the same indignities as Robinson. Despite being the second African American ballplayer in the majors, it must be remembered that playing in a different league, Doby just like Robinson, was the first player of color to appear in ballparks with fans that had never seen black and white ballplayers together on the same field. Just like Jackie Robinson, Doby was taunted on and off the field by fans and other players, he wasn't able to stay at the same hotels as his teammates, he received death threats. Yet Doby never received the credit nor the adulation that Robinson did, especially later in life.

Doby like Robinson knew his responsibility as a pioneer was to keep quiet despite the indignities. Unlike Robinson who after a few years was allowed to (and did) let loose a bit, Doby continued to keep all his frustrations to himself. As a result many of his teammates considered him aloof and sullen. One can only imagine what must have been going on inside of him.

Larry Doby had a very respectable major league career. In thirteen complete seasons in the majors, he complied a .283 batting average, hit 253 home runs, and 970 RBI. Twice he led the league in home runs and in one year, 1952, he led the league in runs scored, home runs, slugging percentage and yes, also strikeouts. Other notables for Doby: he became the first black player in the majors to win a World Series title as the Indians became world champs in 1948. In 1949, Doby joined Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe (both players also from the Brooklyn Dodgers) as the first African American players chosen to play in a Major League All-Star Game. In 1978 Bill Veeck hired Doby to manage the Chicago White Sox, making him the second black manager to be hired, behind Frank Robinson. Doby was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998.

Home Run Brown
Doby and Robinson were not the only black players who broke into the major leagues in 1947. Hank Thompson and Willard "Home Run" Brown were both signed by the St. Louis Browns that year. Unlike the Dodgers and Indians, two very successful clubs in cities that supported at least tacitly the idea of blacks and whites playing baseball together, the Browns were a terrible team in a city that was shall we say less than progressive on the subject of race. Some of the players on St. Louis's other team, the Cardinals, tried to organize a walkout rather than play against the Dodgers and Jackie Robinson. Thompson and Brown were not signed, in the words of Brown's general manager Bill DeWitt: "because they are Negros, but because we hope they can put more power in a club that has been last in the American League club batting most of the season." Unfortunately neither the city nor the ball club were as colorblind, and neither accepted them. Toward the end of the season, both players spent most of their time on the bench. In a game against Detroit, Brown was sent up to pinch hit. He had sat for so long he didn't even have his own bat to use, so he borrowed one from the team's one slugger, Jeff Heath. Brown swung at a Hal Newhouser pitch and sent it deep into center field of old Sportsmans Park, hitting the fence some 428 feet away. Brown was one of the fastest men in baseball at the time and when the dust settled, he had circled the bases for an inside the park home run. It would be the first home run hit by a black player in the American League. For his efforts, Brown returned to the dugout and was greeted with silence by his teammates, no one even looked his way. Heath picked up his bat that Brown used and smashed it against the wall. Both Brown and Thompson were cut from the Browns at the end of the year.

Dan Bankhead
The first black pitcher in the Major Leagues was Dan Bankhead who became Jackie Robinson's teammate on the Dodgers. His debut was on August 26, 1947 where he hit a home run in his first at bat. It would however be his only big league home run, for as great a pitcher as he was in the Negro Leagues, he had less success in the majors. No one is entirely sure why but it has been speculated that having grown up in the deep south, he was terrified at the prospect of hitting a white batter with a pitch and the consequences it would bring upon himself and others. As anyone who knows baseball can tell you, it's impossible to be an effective pitcher while fearing to pitch inside to a batter. Years later, Bankhead's son recalled his father telling him that he once had a no-hitter going deep into the game. He then intentionally tossed up a lollipop to the batter who obliged him with a base hit. "It wasn't time yet for a black man to throw a no-hitter" he told his son. Like Home Run Brown, Dan Bankhead's Major League career was short lived.

The old Negro Leagues began to fold shortly after 1947. Still it took a long time for the Majors to fully integrate. In the fifties, for black players who were not of superstar caliber like Willie Mays, Ernie Banks or Henry Aaron, options were drying up. The Yankees would not sign a black player until Elston Howard joined the team in 1955. The Phillies and the Tigers would wait a couple more years. It would take twelve full years after Jackie Robinson played his first game in Brooklyn before every team in the Major Leagues signed their first African American player. That happened when the immortal Pumpsie Green joined the Red Sox in 1959. Talk about a slow train coming.

In regards to Larry Doby, the sports writer Scoop Jackson said the following about the tradition of  every big league ballplayer wearing Jackie Robinson's number 42 jersey on the anniversary of his breaking into the big leagues:
Second place finishers in America are suckers. And so are those who make the story of history less simple than it needs to be. This happens sometimes in America. Those who don't come first or don't do things a certain way get lost. They disappear. 
In an age of historical amnesia where fewer and fewer of us consider history important, an era where many ballplayers, including African American ones barely know about Jackie Robinson, what he did for the game and what he did for them, fewer still know the names Larry Doby, Home Run Brown, Dan Bankhead and countless others.

That's a damned shame.

Friday, April 12, 2013


Like the proverbial train wreck, yet another internet top ten list has gotten my attention. This one is called "10 Terribly Overrated Travel Destinations (And Where to Travel Instead)" and found on the HuffPost Travel Blog. Top ten lists like this one are meant to provoke and this one is no exception. The thing that surprised me about this list was how spot on some of the observations are:

The writer of the piece, David Ladsel, describes overrated Asheville, NC as a
physically and emotionally fragmented mountain town full of people who seem really annoyed by everything -- including your presence here.
My feelings exactly.

On the overrated state of Colorado he says this:
Denver is a weirdly bland, Midwestern snore, with an air quality problem.
Again I can't argue with him there. My lasting impression of Denver was that people in the Mile High City seem to live for the weekend when they can get the hell out of town and escape to the mountains, which according to Ladsel, aren't all that great either. He says Utah's mountains are better, less kerfuffle. I wouldn't know about that.

Here's what he has to say about Austin:
...a city whose entire purpose for breathing is to not be like everything else around it. When you're trying to set yourself apart from a place as large and as bold as Texas, you have to work really, really hard... Sprawling Austin is one of those unfortunate places that seems really smashing on paper. And then one ruins things by going.
Now I don't know Austin so it wouldn't be fair for me to judge. However a city I imagine would be very much like Austin is another college town which also happens to be a state capital, Madison, Wisconsin. In the numerous trips to our neighboring state to the north, we've often stopped in "Mad City" and for the life of me I can't ever recall not being disappointed there. I can't put my finger on exactly why but the idea of the place is so much better than the experience of it. I recently spoke with a family member who lives there and it was he who said that Madison is the most overrated city in the country. I'm afraid I have to agree with him, since I've never been to Austin, the number one overrated place on David Ledsel's list. He recommends visiting Houston instead of Austin while I would wholeheartedly recommend Milwaukee over Madison.

I've never been to the Caribbean of which he says:
Too many of the islands are depressingly violent, pathetically corrupt and / or hopelessly dysfunctional.
Or Vancouver:
there really isn't much below the surface -- nothing unique anyway.
I may not have been there but did get that impression of the city from the coverage of the Winter Olympics a few years ago.

How about Berlin?
The best reason for Americans to bother with pricey Europe these days is to roll around in the continent's colorful past. Berlin is too modern, too sterile, too expensive and too unsure of itself to merit much of your time or money.
Well that's true up to a point; Berlin is a difficult city, it's especially difficult to love. The city Ladsel recommends to visit instead is Prague, a very easy city to love with its picturesque vistas, serpentine passageways, and charm up the wazoo. Yet lovely as it is, Prague is a bit of a museum piece overrun with tourists, while Berlin is a real live city with a proud and devastating history which it makes no attempt to conceal. Contrary to what Ladsel says, the past is all around you in Berlin, it's just not the picture postcard variety of Prague's. The two cities could not be more different and one is certainly not more worth visiting than the other. Here's my take on Berlin from a few years ago.

Ledsel makes some fairly incomprehensible remarks about San Francisco which to me says that he has some kind of bug up his behind about the City by the Bay. As familiarity breeds contempt, his comments make him seem incapable of judging the place objectively.

Which brings up the best which I saved for last. I'll just let you read the whole entry for yourself on his seventh most overrated travel destination, Chicago:
Spend a little time in the Windy City and you'll come to know a people obsessed with the answer to a question nobody else has ever asked: "Is Chicago a world class city?" As a former local, I can help. The answer is no. Chicago is a handsome, reasonably entertaining provincial capital. This used to be enough for Chicagoans, but then it wasn't, leading to a period of time, beginning around the turn of the new century, during which all manner of foolishness -- from baffling things built by celebrity architects to a slew of obnoxious restaurants -- was unleashed upon the city. Suddenly, everything was pretty much the same, except now it was way more expensive. Yes, the city has some iconic cultural institutions and that beautiful lakefront. But look too far past the glittering Potemkin village at Chicago's center and you'll find yourself near or at the bottom of a sad pile of poor to average.
As a "former local", Lesdal has a take on the city your average tourist would not. Now you might expect that I, a lifelong resident and devoted lover and supporter of this town would be appalled by Ledsel's comments about my home town. On the contrary. I'm not appalled because he is right about many of his observations. We Chicagoans are indeed obsessed with the pointless concept of being a "world class city." World class prices do not a world class city make. No truly world class city needs to declare itself one. Our world class braggadocio and world class inferiority complex may in fact be our biggest flaws, or perhaps our greatest charm, depending on your point of view.

As for the "foolishness" quotient, well since the turn of the last century, my wife and I started having babies so I can't speak for the obnoxious restaurants. However I'd say we don't have nearly as many "baffling things built by celebrity architects" as Lesdal thinks. I for one would take our one truly baffling piece of "starchitecture", Frank Gehry's Millennium Park Bandshell, over Santiago Calatrava's über-baffling Milwaukee Art Museum any day.

David Ladsel's coup de gras comes next:
Instead...Go to Detroit. It's more honest. Also, there's a great art museum, a proper public market, some of the country's best architecture, the music scene is fun, the food scene is better than it has been in ages and the beer is better and much cheaper. Everything's cheaper. Also: Detroiters are friendly -- Chicagoans are just polite. There's a big difference.
Now you gotta admire the chutzpah of a travel writer today recommending his readers go to Detroit instead of Chicago. Frankly, even though it comes at the expense of my own city, I'm thrilled he singled out Motown. Still I'm not convinced; reading that passage makes me think either the author...
  • is simply a contrarian looking to evoke an angry response (which he did) or,
  • he has an ulterior motive like the Vikings of old who named a fertile island above the Arctic Circle Iceland, while naming a frozen tundra Greenland or,
  • he really means it.
I hope the latter is true because the city of Detroit to put it mildly, has seen better days, and could use someone sincerely blowing its horn. Everything he said about the Motor City vis a vis Chicago is true, well, except the part about Detroiters being friendly while Chicagoans are merely polite, I mean come on.

I do however take great exception to his last thought about Chicago where he states that the part of the city outside of downtown is "near or at the bottom of a sad pile of poor to average". Clever and pithy as that sentence reads, it's nothing more than the author spouting off a well worn cliché. It was put forth perhaps most famously by A.J. Liebling in his scathing evaluation of this city written in 1952 called: Chicago: The Second City. In a book comprised of a series of essays from The New Yorker, Liebling called Chicago:
  • a theatre backdrop with a city painted on it... 
  • a boundless agglutination of streetsdramshops, and low buildings without urban character...
  • Radio City ...set down in the middle of a vast Canarsie...
..and a lot of other unflattering things. Liebling, guilty of exhibiting his own brand of New York provincialism, nonetheless was dead on with some of his observations of Chicago in the early fifties, some of which hold true today. As someone who spends 50 percent of his waking life in the glittering part of the city and the other 50 in the sad pile, I consider myself something of an expert on the subject. Not a day goes by when I don't discover something new and exciting, mystifying or terrifying about this city, both parts of it. Beyond the steel, glass and stone towers of Chicago's center you'll find the lifeblood of this city, both the good and the bad. It's all there to discover for anyone willing to take the time. Of course it's just the every day lives of nearly three million souls that go on around that sad pile of poor to average outside of the Potemkin village. How dull and mundane that must be compared to a place where you can hear some fun music and can get a cheap beer.

The wholesale dismissal of the city that lies beyond the sound of the bells of Holy Name Cathedral, or the pell-mell dissing any city for that matter, displays a great deal of journalistic and intellectual sloth, even for someone just writing an internet top ten list. 

And yet, who doesn't enjoy getting one's digs in every once in a while? If you can't take a punch, then stay out of the fight as I always say.

It's the Chicago way.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Oh Happy Day

Finally a little touch of spring is in the air after a winter that held its grip on the city longer than usual. I still have not seen my first crocus popping its head from the ground, usually one of the first signs of the season. I've seen robins, but they looked a little uncomfortable in the sub 40F temperatures.

For me it matters little what the calendar says, or what moment the vernal equinox takes place, or what the temperature may be. For me, today is the official first day of spring, It's Opening Day.

The wonderful thing about the game of baseball is that it transcends time and space. So much attention is given to the big leagues, especially on Opening Day, it's easy to forget that baseball is alive every time anyone anywhere picks up a bat and a ball. It comes alive in all the permutations of the game. Baseball is alive in the fields of the Dominican Republic where barefoot kids substitute sticks and rocks for bats and balls. It's alive in the streets of New York, where a broom handle makes a sufficient bat, and here in Chicago, where a game called pinners features a "batter" throwing a rubber ball against the front steps of his house while the fielding team comprised of one or two friends, tries to catch the ball on the fly for an out.

Baseball comes alive anytime you pour over the box scores of the previous day's games, or sift through the stats of your favorite players. Today as we begin a new season, baseball is all about the future; the question of the day is how will my team do, could this be the year? More poignantly, in a few weeks, the future will really come alive as the Little Leaguers take the field.

But perhaps more than any other game, baseball is about the past. If baseball has ever meant anything  in your life, pick up a brand new baseball glove and take a good whiff. See if the smell of the new leather doesn't bring you back some cherished moment of your life. The very nature of the game allows itself to be de-constructed down to every pitch, only to be re-constructed at a later time. Reading a good account of a game from the past can make it come alive as if you were there. A simple word or phrase for any baseball fan, can evoke a play which defined a game, which defined an entire season or team. The mere mention of "Merkle's Boner", or "Homer in the Glaomin'", or simply "the Catch", brings to mind famous or infamous moments (depending on your point of view), of a game that took place long before we, or our parents, or even our grandparents were born. Yet those fleeting moments of so long ago still matter, and they can be still discussed and debated long after the cows have come home.

Likewise, the players of the past matter even today; memories of their glory days can be conjured up simply by their colorful nicknames...
  • The Flying Dutchman (Honus Wagner)
  • The Georgia Peach (Ty Cobb)
  • The Big Train (Walter Johnson)
  • Shoeless Joe (Joe Jackson)
  • The Sultan of Swat (Babe Ruth)
  • The Yankee Clipper (Joe DiMaggio)
  • The Splendid Splinter (Ted Williams)
  • Hammerin' Hank (Hank Aaron)
  • Charlie Hustle (Pete Rose)
  • The Wizard of Oz (Ozzie Smith)
  • Mr. October (Reggie Jackson)
  • The Big Hurt (Frank Thomas)
or by their notable comments:
  • Hit 'em where they ain't (Wee Willie Keeler)
  • Say Hey (Willie Mays)
  • It ain't over 'till it's over (Yogi Berra)
  • Let's play two (Ernie Banks)
All those great Major League players of the past with two notable exceptions, are or will soon be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., the sanctum sanctorum of the game. Great players to be sure, but not all were necessarily exemplary human beings. To put it charitably, let's just say the Hall of Fame is made up of a colorful mix of characters. Bill Veeck once said this about the members of the Hall:
Wake up the echoes at the Hall of Fame and you will find that baseball's immortals were a rowdy and raucous group of men who would climb down off their plaques and go rampaging through Cooperstown, taking spoils .... Deplore it if you will, but Grover Cleveland Alexander drunk was a better pitcher than Grover Cleveland Alexander sober.
Just as the game exists on many levels and in many places, not just on the hallowed playing fields of the Major Leagues, ballplayers come in all shapes and sizes, genders, and physical ability, or lack thereof. From four year old tee-ballers to ninety plus year olds playing in wheelchairs, everybody who gets into a batters box or steps onto a pitchers mound somewhere, can claim for him or herself the esteemed title of ballplayer.

It's a fact that some of the greatest ballplayers of all time did not have one single appearance in a Major League game.

In my mind perhaps the greatest man (if not the greatest ballplayer), to ever play the game at its highest level was Buck O'Neil. His ten seasons in professional baseball as a player were, like many of his contemporaries, interrupted by his military service in World War II.  Buck was a decent hitter, lifetime .288 average, (three seasons over .300), and was also an excellent first baseman. After his playing days he became a manager, then a major league coach and scout. Buck O'Neil's stats didn't keep him out of the big leagues as a player. What kept him out was in his words: "my beautiful suntan." O'Neil you see played back in the days when people of his race were not permitted to play in the Major Leagues.

After he retired from baseball, Buck O'Neil became a tireless spokesman and living symbol of the Negro Leagues, the separate and equal (in terms of talent only, not equal in anything else) cousin of the majors. He traveled over the country dispelling myths that the Negro Leagues were made up of poor, illiterate, rabble-rousing misfits and clowns who barnstormed around the country in beat up old jalopies and busses.

Here he is in 2006 addressing the induction ceremony of seventeen Negro League players into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown:

There are a couple of truly remarkable things about that speech. First of all, he was 94 years old at the time and had only a few months to live. Yet he spent the last days of his life doing exactly what he did for years, proclaiming his message of the pure joy of the game, and of love and forgiveness, to anyone willing to listen.

But by far the most remarkable thing about his speech is that when the baseball writers convened to select players for induction into the Hall of Fame that year, Buck O'Neil himself was up for consideration. He was rejected. His numbers as a player they said, just didn't add up. Despite his bitter disappoint after the snub, he wholeheartedly agreed to address the crowd to honor his fellow members of the Negro Leagues, his message being more important to him than self-aggrandizement.

The Hall of Fame did honor Mr. O'Neil with a life-size statue and by naming a lifetime achievement award after him in 2008, two years after his death.

But he still has yet to be inducted as a member.

Somehow I don't think Buck O'Neil would want us to feel bad about that. I can imagine him saying two things:

First he'd say that life is simply too short to harbor bitterness.

And the second thing he'd say, especially today is this:

Let's go out and play some ball!