Monday, March 31, 2014

Boy did we need this one

After the longest winter anyone in these parts can remember, it just so happened that the day of the first outdoor practice of the season came on the first warm day of the year. And what do you know, despite there having been considerable snow on the ground just last week, today is Opening Day in the big leagues, a day that should be a national holiday. And it's supposed to be even warmer than yesterday. 

The baseball gods surely must be smiling upon us.

There is a famous quote from the cultural historian Jacques Barzun regarding baseball and the American soul. You've probably heard it.  Taken out of context as it usually is, it sounds simplistic and trite. Here is the quote, neither simplistic nor trite, in more detail but still far from complete:

Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game - and do it by watching first some high school or small-town teams. The big league games are too fast for the beginner and the newspapers don't help. To read them with profit you have to know a language that comes easy only after philosophy has taught you to judge practice. Here is scholarship that takes effort on the part of the outsider, but it is so bred into the native that it never becomes a dreary round of technicalities. The wonderful purging of the passions that we all experienced in the fall of 51, the despair groaned out over the fate of the Dodgers, from whom the league pennant was snatched at the last minute, give us some idea of what Greek tragedy was like. Baseball is Greek in being national, heroic, and broken up in the rivalries of city-states. How sad that Europe knows nothing like it! Its Olympics generate anger, not unity, and its interstate politics follow no rules that a people can grasp. At least Americans understand baseball, the true realm of clear ideas.*
I've always been a baseball fan but I fell in love with the game in earnest during a ball game at U.S. Cellular Field here in Chicago, sitting in the stands with my wife who was pregnant with our first child. We knew we were going to have a boy and it dawned on me that beautiful August evening in the year 2000 that in a few years, I'd be playing catch with my son. Suddenly the game took on a whole new meaning. No longer was it the casual amusement I once took for granted. It was the game of my country and its people, a precious institution I'd be entrusted to pass on to the next generation.

My son has never read Barzun, but he certainly would understand the connection between baseball and Greek tragedy; he has experienced it himself. Baseball as the late A. Bartlett Giamatti wrote: "is designed to break your heart." My heart has been broken along with my son's on many an occasion.

But not today.

As is my annual tradition, I repeat two truly simplistic and trite axioms, that define what this day is all about:

The slate is wiped clean,


All hope springs eternal.

If you don't buy that, maybe these photos will help:

Undisclosed child on his first opening day, undisclosed date.
Aforementioned child's first at bat.

Opening day at its purest, the future secure,

play ball!

* Excerpt from: God's Country and Mine: A Declaration of Love Spiced with a Few Harsh Words - Jacques Barzun
You can read more from this passage here.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Prudential Building

To the best of my knowledge, the Prudential Building is not on anybody's top ten list of best buildings in Chicago. It might not even make very many top 100 lists either. That's too bad because the building sits on Chicago's most prominent site, just across the street from the vast open expanse of Grant Park. Because of that, the Prudential can be clearly seen for miles. My guess is most people hardly think about it at all as it seems rather insignificant today, dwarfed by neighboring skyscrapers.

When I was a child, it was the tallest building in the city and the most prominent building in the skyline. Going up to the observation deck on the top floor and if lucky, having lunch at the restaurant called The Top of the Rock, was an occasional highlight of my weekly trips to the Loop with my mother. Of all the lost possessions of my childhood including my baseball cards, my greatest regret is the loss of a souvenir model of the Prudential Building made of cast metal. It measured about nine inches high; it's detail was incredible, down to the building's trademark relief sculpture of the Rock of Gibraltar, the symbol of the company that built it. The sculpture carved into the wall of the stubby tower to the east (visible on the lower right of this somewhat out of proportion rendering), is the work of Alfonso Iannelli, a wonderful work of Modernist design.

The Prudential, completed in 1955, was the first major construction project in Chicago since 1934, the age of the great Art Deco skyscrapers. Its simple, no-frills design almost picks up where Art Deco left off. The "steamlined" articulated spandrels, and the facade punctuated by the pattern of light and dark coming through the windows that mimics a computer punch card, championed technology and modern industry back in an era when it was still acceptable to do so. Unlike the timeless quality of "International Style" buildings that were built around the same time, the Prudential speaks to the decade of the fifties more than any other building I can think of in Chicago.

The head of the firm responsible for the design of the Prudential Building had a long and distinguished career spanning several generations of Chicago architecture. Charles Foster Murphy got his start working in Daniel Burnham's firm and its successor Graham Anderson Probst & White in the twenties. He worked on several major commissions in those years including the Merchandise Mart, Union Station and the old Post Office Building. One common thread of those three projects is they all involved the development of property above the "air rights" of railways. Murphy's experience with this legally and technically complicated issue, was an important factor for the choice of his new firm, Naess and Murphy to design the Prudential, which was to be the first of many developments above the highly sought after property of the Illinois Central Railroad along the lakefront.

Here is a photograph of the site of the Prudential Building made by Jack Delano about a decade before the building's construction:

Just about everything in the photograph with the exception of the buildings at the extreme right and the Pabst Blue Ribbon sign on the left exists today, including the railroad tracks, now under the Prudential Building. On this earlier post, you can find another Delano photograph looking toward the sign.

Two other Loop buildings by Naess and Murphy very much reflected the style of the Prudential, the Executive House Hotel on East Wacker Drive, and directly across the river, the old Sun Times Building. The hotel was re-clad about twenty years ago and the Sun Times Building was demolished to make way for Trump Tower. Only the Prudential Building, now referred to as One Prudential Plaza remains in its original form, more or less, with the exception of the great sign at the top which is now in its third iteration. The vast expanse of windows on the south elevation of the Prudential has doubled as a message board throughout the years, a trend that has been picked up recently by neighboring buildings. For years at Christmas and Easter-time, at dusk, members of the housekeeping staff would selectively draw shades and leave on lights to create the image of an enormous cross on the building's facade. That highly charged symbolism hasn't been seen for a long time now but you'll still see messages produced in the same manner every now and then rooting on local sports teams of in support of a particular cause. 

The inspiration truth be told, for this post is that the building has recently undergone a cleaning of the facade. For the past several months on the way to work I walked in plain view of the building and watched the slow progress of the workers as the painstaking process of cleaning the building in vertical columns took place. After months of work, they finished and the result can be seen in the photograph below.  

My old friend the Prudential Building gleams once again; it's amazing but in just the right light, the fifty nine year old building looks as good as new.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Sign of the times...

...on the front door of a local branch of the public library.

The gun crowd must be appalled; after all what would a law abiding, concealed gun carrying visitor do when a criminal librarian (who obviously would not obey the sign) goes on a rampage?

I honestly never thought I'd live to see this.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Dream Team

BOSTON , March 19, 1936- Coming off his team's worst season ever and on the verge of bankruptcy, Emil Fuchs, the owner of the Boston Braves has come up with a brilliant plan to save his team. With nothing to lose, Fuchs has had a change of heart and asked Babe Ruth, who retired in mid-season last year after an un-productive three months, to re-join and manage the team. Ruth who has long expressed an interest in managing, gladly accepted the offer under the condition that he would have complete control over player personnel. Fuchs has obliged.

Babe Ruth
Ruth's first move sent shock waves through the major leagues as he single-handedly erased forty years of organized baseball tradition by breaking up the team and signing several Negro players to join the club. The starting nine of the new look Braves includes some of the luminaries of black baseball: first baseman Oscar Charleston, second baseman Sam Bankhead, third baseman Judy Johnson, outfielders Jimmy Crutchfield and Cool Papa Bell, and a battery consisting of catcher Josh Gibson and the incomparable pitcher, Satchel Paige. Joining Paige on the mound will be Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe, and lefty Leroy Matlock.

As bench-minder, Babe Ruth plans to insert himself into the lineup on occasion as pinch hitter.

NEW YORK CITY, October 8, 1936- At Yankee Stadium today the unthinkable took place as the Boston Braves, a team who last year posted the third worst record in baseball history, took the World Series from the mighty New York Yankees, winning the Fall Classic in a decisive game seven. Led by the greatest Yank of all, rookie manager Babe Ruth, the Braves with their new cast of characters, mostly players from the Negro Leagues, took everything the Yankees were able to dish out and then some as they frustrated the Bronx Bombers almost every step along the way.

The old Bambino whose qualifications to be manager were once discounted in the baseball world, seemed to let the team manage itself as his players played old school, opportunistic ball, slap-hitting, bunting and running at will on the unsuspecting New York pitchers and infield. Indicative of the style of play that won the championship, the winning run came in the top of the seventh in game seven as the Braves' Cool Papa Bell, showing little signs of slowing down at 33, advanced from first to third on a Sam Bankhead bunt, then later scored the game's only run on a Lefty Gomez wild pitch. Satchel Paige, while giving up early hits to Bill Dickey, Lou Gehrig, George Selkirk, (Ruth's replacement in the outfield), and youngster Joe DiMaggio, shut down the Bronx Bombers in order in the final three innings, preserving a brilliant four hit shut out; final score, Braves 1, Yankees 0.

But it wasn't all running and pitching that won Boston the championship, these Braves have power to back up their speed on the base paths. Josh Gibson who at only 25, has already been compared to his famous manager on a number of occasions, hit a remarkable six home runs in the series. Veteran Oscar Charleston, who many believe is the real brains behind the team, hit four dingers and drove in twelve runs in the series. Even Bell, not usually known for his power, hit two round trippers, and recorded seven RBI.

For many, the highlight of the series came late in game six when Babe Ruth put himself in to pinch-hit. With nobody on base, the Yankees had the game well in hand leading by six runs when Ruth came up to bat against his former teammate Johnny Broaca. The bespectacled right-hander (perhaps out of compassion), floated a curve ball over the plate and as in days of old, the Sultan of Swat parked the ball into the upper deck of the right field stands. Not a soul was seated nor a dry eye in the house as the greatest ballplayer ever circled the bases of the house they say he built, perhaps for the last time.

But it was the future not the past that reigned supreme this year as Satchel Paige stole the show. He won all three of his starts, allowing only four runs, frustrating the Yankee hitters with his control of a fastball that has few if any peers in the game. While most of these Yanks including DiMaggio have faced Paige before in exhibition games, the high-kicking "Satchelfoot" seemed to save his best for this series. Showing typical confidence in his stuff, Paige brought to his game a new found seriousness, a sense of purpose born out of the desire to prove that he and his teammates indeed deserved to stand exactly where they were standing, on top of the world.


That account of the 1936 baseball season is of course, fiction. It was inspired by a recent New York Times article about Julia Ruth Stevens, the daughter of Babe Ruth. In the article, Mrs. Stevens claims that her father, who expressed a strong desire to manage a ball club, was overlooked not because of his lack of qualifications, but because he intended to hire black ballplayers.

Except for his well documented respect for some African American ballplayers, Mrs.Stevens's memories fly in the face of just about everything that has been written about Babe Ruth. The popular image of him is of a carousing, carefree, but lovable lout. The general impression was that he was not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer; great as he was as a player, no one in the game took the idea of him managing a ball club seriously.

In the article, Mrs. Stevens claims that while her dad was quite the rake in the early days, he had settled down by the time his playing days were over, and was in fact, quite an intelligent, caring human being. One could discount Mrs. Stevens's remarks as a 97 year old’s sweet remembrances of her long departed old man; but maybe, just maybe, there might be something to it.

In 1936, the Babe's full year of retirement, hiring blacks to play ball was not a threat that would have gone unnoticed. Baseball famously had excluded African Americans as participants in the game since the 1890s, and that ban, which was not officially spelled out on paper, was as binding as a straight jacket. In 1936 that jacket was pulled as tight as ever and no one, not even someone with the clout of Babe Ruth could loosen it.

It would take eleven more years before Jackie Robinson became the first African American ball player in the major leagues in the twentieth century. In the intervening years, several events took place to make that possible:
  • World War II: African Americans in the armed forces fought valiantly to help establish democracy in Europe and the Pacific only to come home to a country where they were treated as second class individuals. That irony was not lost on many Americans, both black and white. 
  • The death of the Commissioner : Perhaps no man has ever been so aptly named as Judge Kenesaw Mountain (as in, he who will not be moved) Landis. Baseball Commissioner Landis's rule was law and that law extended to the so called "gentlemen's agreement" banning black players from the game. Any time the issue of the color line was brought before him, Landis would explicitly deny that there was any ban in place, then move on to the next issue, thereby tabling all propositions to integrate the game. When he died in 1944, his replacement Happy Chandler expressed his support of integrating the game. 
  • Joe Nuxhall and Pete Gray: Despite the fact that baseball lost many of its best players to the war effort, in 1942, President Roosevelt wrote the Green Light Letter, commanding that baseball go on in any way it could for the morale of the nation. The game went on with teams that were made up largely of men who were not eligible for military service. Joe Nuxhall was a 15 year old left handed pitcher who the Cincinnati Reds briefly put in their lineup, and Pete Gray was a one armed-outfielder who played one season for the St. Louis Browns. The fact that baseball owners would gleefully accept children and players missing limbs, but still not blacks, was truly a bitter pill to swallow. 
  • Politics: Government officials in Boston and New York City put pressure on their cities' teams to enact equal opportunity hiring programs, extending to players.The big league teams in those cities conducted tryouts for black players in 1945 with no results; they turned out to be shams, show trials at best. 
  • $$$: Despite all the changes mentioned above, the one issue that ultimately moved baseball to integrate was money. Attendance at Negro League games was booming by the mid-forties, especially at the East/West All Star game held annually at Comiskey Park in Chicago. That game alone drew over 50,000 every year. Owners couldn't help but notice.
The Houdini baseball needed to free itself from the straight-jacket of segregation turned out to be Branch Rickey. Egalitarianism may have played a role in his efforts to bring a black player to the Brooklyn Dodgers but Rickey, the team's president and general manager made no bones about the money that could be made with the potential of the black community's dollars spent at the ballpark. Rickey stopped at nothing to achieve his goal. The most important piece to the puzzle was to find the right player to break the barrier. He understood that any mistake could set the cause back ten years. Unlike others who publicly expressed their desire to integrate the game, Rickey kept quiet until the last possible moment. To that end, in order to alleviate suspicions while scouting black players for his team, Rickey announced plans to create a new, (and bogus) Negro League. Once Rickey found his man, he took pains to lecture the black community on how to behave in the stands when Jackie Robinson took the field. For their part, the black fans who attended Dodger games in every National League park in 1947, understood what was at stake and took those words to heart.

A brilliant account of the atmosphere at one of those ballparks, written by Mike Royko on the day Jackie Robinson died, can be found here (found among other articles by the great columnist).

I wrote a piece last year that bemoaned the fact that while Jackie Robinson is deservedly a national hero and icon, the people who immediately followed him into the big leagues are all but forgotten. Larry Doby, Hank Thompson, Willard Brown, and Dan Bankhead (Sam's brother) all played in the major leagues in 1947 but none of them are household names. The same can be said for the black ballplayers who preceded Robinson. The scenario at the top of this post was made up, but the teams were not. The players listed as members of the Boston Braves were actually members of a real team at the time. Some called it the greatest (non all-star) team ever assembled, others called it the best team money could buy. The Pittsburgh Crawfords were put together by a Steel City entrepreneur who worked on both sides of the law named Gus Greenlee. Taking advantage of the Great Depression, a power vacuum in the Negro Leagues, and the lack of any rules preventing him from doing so, Greenlee was able to rob other teams of their best players. He knew what he was doing; five of the Crawfords' starters are in the Baseball Hall of Fame, which is saying something as it is exponentially more difficult for a Negro League player to be honored by that institution than a major league player from the same era. Of those players, only Satchel Paige would ever play in the big leagues where at 42 he became the oldest "rookie" in baseball history.

How the 1936 Crawfords would have fared against the Yankees (who in 1936 were on the verge of yet another dynasty era), is anybody's guess. The comparison between black baseball and the major leagues is a difficult task because Negro League statistics are notoriously unreliable and even when stats were complete, competition was erratic. All the black teams barnstormed extensively each season and some of those games were against teams comprised of major leaguers. More often than not, the black teams won. Some point out that's not a fair comparison because the black players had more to prove than the whites. I'm not so sure I buy that argument. Like all professional athletes, the white players were competitors at the pinnacle of their profession; they hardly would have allowed themselves to be beaten, especially those players who couldn't stand the humiliation of losing to blacks. Ty Cobb who was often on the losing end of those games eventually refused to play against blacks for exactly that reason. So many big league teams lost to black teams in the twenties that Judge Landis barred major league teams from participating in games against black teams. (He did not prevent big leaguers from playing on non-sanctioned teams however).

Perhaps a more reasonable standard of judgement are the testimonies of countless baseball people, including some major league stars who like Babe Ruth, claimed the best black players were as good as the best white players and deserved to be in the majors. Another reasonable standard was the performance of the first black players who made it into the big leagues. Jackie Robinson won the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 1947, despite the fact that he was by most accounts, not the best player in the Negro Leagues when he became the chosen one. In the decade after Robinson was signed by the Dodgers, a trickle of black players made it into the big leagues, yet some of the most recognizable names of that era, Roy Campanella, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, and of course, Jackie Robinson, were black players. In the fifties, Sam Jethroe, Joe Black, Jim Gilliam, Frank Robinson, and Willie McCovey, won Rookie of the Year honors. Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks (two years in a row) all won the MVP award. Brooklyn pitcher Don Newcombe won both awards as well as the being the first winner of the Cy Young Award. According to the Win Shares system of evaluating ballplayers devised by Bill James, approximately twenty percent of the best players in the National League in the early fifties were black players, a percentage far in excess of their numbers in the league.

Given that, it's not much of a leap to realize that a good number of the best players playing the game before Jackie Robinson, were indeed Negro League players. Banning a high percentage of the best players available, the major leagues before 1947 did not truly represent the best baseball of the era. It's tantalizing to imagine what if his daughter is right, and Babe Ruth had been chosen to be the manager of a major league team, AND been allowed to include black players.

One thing's for sure: it would have been a hell of a team.

The 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords
Top Row: L-R: Olan Taylor (1B), Judy Johnson (2B), Leroy Matlock (P), ?, Josh Gibson (C), Hood Witter (trainer).
Middle Row: L-R: 'Cool Papa' Bell (CF), Sam Bankhead (SS), Oscar Charleston (1B), Clarence 'Spoony' Palm (C), Jimmie Crutchfield (OF), Ernest 'Spoon' Carter (P), William Perkins (C/OF).
Bottom Row: L-R: Timothy Bond (SS/3B), Howard, Bertrum Hunter (P), Sam Streeter (P), Harry 'Tin Can' Kincannon (P), Duro Davis (P).

If only...

Friday, March 14, 2014

A Winter's Tale

It was the 9th of March and after an unusually cold and snowy winter even for Chicago, the weather finally broke and the temperature soared into the 50s. Folks were walking about town jacket-less, well some of them anyway, and there was a positive vibe coming from most people who thought maybe, just maybe, spring might be right around the corner. Except for the people that is who read the weather report and knew that yet another winter storm was on its way. The weatherman predicted eight to twelve inches of new snow that would re-blanket the ground that was just beginning to reawaken after a long winter's nap.

We awoke the next morning to find that the meteorologists had overestimated the precipitation by about six inches. What did happen was the skies opened up while the temperature was still above freezing. As the mercury dropped, the moisture on the limbs of trees froze and the snow that replaced the rain stuck to the branches and twigs, gently delineating them against the gray morning sky. 

It was a thing of beauty, not missed by friends who captured the scene with their smartphones and posted the pictures over social media.

By the time I grabbed an actual camera and headed out to take my own pictures in Millennium Park across the street, the sun came out and as luck would have it the trees remained covered with their flattering adornment. 

Despite everyone's weariness of the season, even the most ardent summer lover couldn't help but marvel at the scene. 

Today two days later, it was back up to fifty and most of that snow is already gone. Soon enough, the place will look like this:

But not quite yet, it's supposed to snow again tomorrow.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Sign of the times...

The good news: this gentleman found some part time work.

State Street, Chicago, February, 2014

The bad news: everything else.