Thursday, May 31, 2012

Pilgrim Baptist Church

One afternoon in early 2006, I was driving toward the Loop on South Lake Shore Drive when I saw a huge plume of smoke a few blocks in from the lake. Out of curiosity I turned on the radio to get some information and my heart sank when the headline said a historic church on the South Side was in flames. Immediately I assumed it was the Mount Olivet Baptist Church, a historic African American church on 31st and King Drive. When they reported the story in detail, my heart sank even further when I learned that the church on fire was actually the Pilgrim Baptist Church at 33rd and Indiana, the glorious Adler and Suillivan synagogue building that was converted into a Baptist church in 1921.

Not only was the building architecturally important, but in 1932 the Pilgrim Baptist Church choir was founded by the man who would become known as the father of Gospel Music, Thomas A. Dorsey. It was here that Gospel legends Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland and others cut their teeth and naturally the church became hallowed ground in Gospel circles.

One cruel irony is that the fire was ignited by workers repairing the roof during a restoration project. The fire consumed everything except for the exterior limestone walls. Immediately there were plans afoot to reconstruct the church. Then governor Rod Blagojevich pledged millions in state funds to help the cause, until someone pointed out to him that the Constitution prevented him from doing that.

The congregation of Pilgrim Baptist is small and cannot afford on its own to re-build its landmark church. But it looks like it will rise again, at the very least approaching the way it looked back in the 1930s during its heyday, with the help of many sources including possibly, you.

Go to this site to read about the restoration plans and find out how you can help rebuild a landmark.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Chicago, c. 1980

You know you're getting old when thirty years doesn't seem like such a long time anymore. Two things last week reminded me of Chicago in the late 70s and early 80s. Cleaning my desk at work, I came across a set of slides that I shot in the Loop while I was still in school, around 1978. Then the other day we watched at my son's request, the movie The Blues Brothers which was shot in Chicago and its environs in 1979.

 State Street in 1978 looking not entirely different than it does today as opposed to...
...this view two blocks to the north. None of it survives, least of all the red AMC Gremlin
It's funny how you can look at pictures of the place you live from many years ago and be surprised at how much is still around, then look at other pictures from not so long ago, and be amazed at how much has changed. You're surprised at the things that have changed right under your nose while at the same time you're amazed that the world you inhabit isn't significantly different from the world that existed before you.

That said, a lot has indeed changed in the last thirty years.

When the movie The Blues Brothers was released in June of 1980:
  • The Cold War was very much alive and Apartheid was still the law of the land in South Africa.
  • The words Chernobyl and AIDS meant nothing to most of the world. 
  • Jimmy Carter was the President of the United States and American hostages were being held at the American Embassy in Tehran.
And in Chicago:
  • Jane Byrne was mayor. 
  • Long time Chicago institutions that were still around included Stop & Shop, the Berghoff, Maxwell Street, the original Bozo, and Marshall Fields.
  • Chicago would not have a main branch of its public library for another ten years. 
  • Icons that had not yet made their way to Chicago included The State of Illinois Building (aka the Thompson Center), Oprah Winfrey, The Smurfit/Stone Building and Michael Jordan.
  • Chicago was still the second most populous city in the United States.
Publicity still for the film The Blues Brothers (photographer unknown) 
By most accounts, Chicago, despite the current economic downturn, is in better shape today than it was thirty years ago. Like most comparable cities across the country, it experienced a decrease in population between the 1950s and the 1990s. In 1980 many Chicago neighborhoods were in decline while few were on the upswing. During the decade of the 1980s, Chicago would lose tens of thousands of jobs, mostly related to the steel and automobile industries. It was just a bad time for American cities, and probably the nadir for this one.

Things got so bad in the Loop that they decided to rip apart the thoroughfare that was once the heart of the city, and turn it into a gulp, mall. "It seemed like a good idea at the time..." was the mantra among people who attended the ground breaking ceremony which marked the demise of the State Street Mall in 1996.

As bad as things were in 1980, there were still vestiges of the old city that would soon vanish forever.

Times Square in miniature, Randolph Street c. 1977  
There's a shot in the Blues Brothers that follows the title characters as they drive west on Randolph Street. You see what was once the most vibrant street in Chicago, lit up like a little Times Square. There's the old Trailways Bus terminal with its enormous neon and incandescent sign (I wonder what ever happened to it), next door to Davidson's Bakery, a place we often frequented after our visits to Fields across the street. Then there's the old Walgreens that was replaced by, you guessed it, a new Walgreens. On the other side of State Street was a building covered with neon including the unforgettable Magikist (Kiss of Beauty) signs, miniature versions of the ones that graced the expressways until about 20 years ago. Also visible was a scrolling message sign that once displayed news headlines. Beyond that was the great theater district, the Oriental, the United Artists, the Woods, and the Bismark, along with a variety of restaurants, shops and night clubs, and the Greyhound Bus Station to boot, all lit up for one of the last times, if only for the cameras.

I saw The Blues Brothers back when it was first released. My most distinct memories are the amazing performances from musical legends, all but one of them gone: Cab Calloway, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Ray Charles, Pinetop Perkins, Big Walter Horton, and John Lee Hooker, as well as many great session musicians, including the recently departed bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn. Dunn has one of the most memorable lines in the very quotable movie:
We had a band powerful enough to turn goat piss into gasoline.
With the exception of Chaka Kahn who has a cameo appearance as a member of the choir in "Reverend" James Brown's church, few of the musicians in the movie have close ties to Chicago. It hardly matters, those musical bits alone are worth the price of admission. The rest of the movie is an endless string of slapstick;  car chases, a nun armed with a yardstick, and several scenes where a character played by Carrie Fisher tries unsuccessfully to destroy the title characters in comic book fashion by progressively more drastic means that would make Wile E. Coyote proud.

When I saw the film for the first time I was also impressed to see a feature movie shot in Chicago. During the reign of Mayor Richard J. Daley who died in 1976, very few studio movies were shot here as supposedly the mayor was afraid Hollywood would portray his city negatively. That all changed under the Byrne administration which promoted film making in the city with a vengeance. Dan Aykroyd who wrote the screenplay (along with the director John Landis), and who played Elwood Blues, stated many years later that the movie was made to be a tribute to Chicago. It certainly was. Perhaps no major studio movie before or since has shown more of this city, from its rough and tumble rust belt industrial landscape, to its tony suburbs, and everything in between. The only thing missing are the familiar shots of the Michigan Avenue skyline. There is no question that the City of Chicago is one of the stars of the film.

Washington Station  of the State Street Subway showing old signage and retired 6000 series cars
Looking at The Blues Brothers today is like looking into a time machine. In addition to the shot of an unrecognizable Randolph Street, there are also shots under the L on Van Buren Street where Elwood Blues lived in a tiny room in a flop house, that is before it was blown up by Carrie Fisher. Elwood's room was on the same level as the L tracks, and the old 6000 series CTA cars rumbled by one after the other, a few feet from the window, as Elwood's brother "Joliet" Jake, played by John Belushi, tried to get some sleep. "How often does that train go by?" Jake asks. "So often that you won't even notice it."

The Dill Pickle on Van Buren before it was blown up by
 Carrie Fisher, then removed forever to make way for a small park
across from the Harold Washington Library
The storefronts on the street included a real diner called the Dill Pickle Pub (also blown up in the movie), several colorful, if less than "respectable" bars, a pawnshop that I believe was invented for the movie, and what was once the best hardware store in the city, Stebbins, which was across the street and not visible in the film. All that is gone now, replaced by respectability in the form of bland contemporary office buildings, a small park, and the Harold Washington Public Library. But back in 1980, Van Buren Street looked much the same as it had for decades, that is to say, right out of a Berenice Abbot photograph of New York in the thirties. Today, most of that character is lost.

At no single point in Chicago's history has the essence and character of the city been lost more than during the wholesale destruction of Maxwell Street on the near south side. One of Chicago's most storied neighborhoods, Maxwell Street was the historical port of entry for many groups of immigrants, most notably Jews from Eastern Europe in the early 20th Century and later, African Americans from the Mississippi Delta. The open air market that developed throughout the area was a fixture of the city until the late nineties when the entire district was taken over by the University of Illinois at Chicago, who after many years of trying, completely leveled the place, save for a few distinctive facades of commercial buildings on Halsted Street.

Street preacher, Maxwell Street, 1993
Here's a short piece I wrote about Maxwell Street several years ago, and here is a link to a site with photographs I made in 1993, not very long before it would all be gone. As you can see, there's nothing in the piece or the photographs that's at all sentimental about the place. It was not pretty, comfortable, or nice; it could be brutal at times, especially on days other than Sunday when the market was open. You wouldn't want to bring a girl there on your first date. Nor would you want to bring your mother, at least not my mother.

Yet it was an integral part of the fabric of the city, and even though a sanitized version of the market still exists just a few blocks to the east, Chicago lost a part of its soul when UIC took over the old neighborhood. John Landis captured part of that spirit in The Blues Brothers in the scene where Blues giants John Lee Hooker, Big Walter Horton and Pinetop Perkins perform Hooker's "Boom Boom" on the street in front of the real Nate's Deli, which in the movie is a joint called simply "Soul Food Diner", and owned by the character played by Aretha Franklin. Of all the scenes in this fantasy movie, this one was the most true to life.

There are of course many recognizable landmarks in the movie that still exist such as the Chicago Skyway and  moveable bridges over the Calumet River on the far southeast side of the city in the neighborhood of Eastside, (visible in the publicity photo above), the South Shore Country Club in the community of the same name, and the former Shoenhofen Brewery in Pilsen by Richard E. Schmidt,  Chicago's most beautiful industrial building. It's to the film makers' credit that they chose to use these often overlooked buildings and structures.

During the climatic car chase at the end of the movie, you get to see much of the skyline and the Loop. It's striking if you know the city today, how many familiar buildings are missing as they hadn't yet been built. Still new buildings in 1980, the Sears Tower, the AON (Standard Oil Building as it was known then), the First National (now Chase) Bank Building and the John Hancock Building stand out as lone giants among buildings less than half their height.

As Jake and Elwood approach their ultimate destination, the County Building, they drive through Daley Plaza right in front of the Picasso. That view is exactly the same as it was thirty years ago. But directly across Dearborn Street to the east, stood an entire square block of buildings (known as Block 37), that was foolishly destroyed in the late eighties to make way for a project that never developed. Two remarkable buildings were lost in that act of vandalism, the 17 story Unity Building built in 1892, and one of the handful of extant buildings in the Loop built just after the Chicago Fire, the McCarthy Block. There were many other notable buildings on that block including an early Louis Sullivan work, The Springer Building, the United Artists and Roosevelt Theaters, and 16 W. Washington, the skyscraper whose ground floor and basement were the home of the above mentioned epicurean delight, Stop & Shop.

The late, great Stop & Shop
Block 37 would stand empty, a vacant lot in the middle of the heart of the city for more than ten years. It didn't go completely unused as in the summertime it was the site of children's arts camps and in the winter, an ice skating rink. Embarrassing to the city as the vacant lot was, the building that ultimately replaced it, a mixed use piece of insignificant junk, is much worse. Here in a nutshell is a timeline of the infamous Block 37 boondoggle, which you will soon find out if you read the link, continues to play out to this day.

Some of the long lost ambience of Block 37. Notice the shopping bag the woman is carrying.
Long time Chicagoans will recognize it as coming from the chain of supermarkets, Hillman's,
which had a store a few feet away, in the basement next door to Stop & Shop.
Barely visible in the movie, just to the north of the County Building, stood the last home of the famous Sherman House Hotel. The hotel, one of Chicago's premier hotels for 100 years, closed its doors for good in the seventies but the building stood vacant until 1983 when it was leveled to make way for the State of Illinois office building, now known as The James R. Thompson Center.

As I mentioned above, much of the Chicago that I knew as a boy was still around in 1980, but it would not be for long. Thinking back to my life back then as a new adult with the whole world opening up before me, sometimes it seems like just yesterday.

The pictures prove otherwise.


Seeing The Blues Brothers for the first time in over thirty years, I figured out what bugged me the most about the film in the first place. Being a stickler for continuity, something that always annoyed me about films made in places I knew was when locations didn't make sense, for instance when a character walks down a particular street, turns a corner, and is in a completely different part of town. Today older and wiser, as well as having since made films and videos on a very small scale, I understand the logic behind such trickery.

One of the establishments lost when Van Buren Street went  respectable.
The Blues Brothers is filled with continuity issues which I now find to be amusing rather than annoying. In some cases the film makers seem to have exploited rather than disguised them. There are way too many worth pointing out, but the real doosey happens during that final car chase. After Jake and Elwood successfully evade what seems to be the entire Illinois State Police and Chicago Police Department put together, they are pursued by a small group of Nazis driving a red Ford Pinto and a station wagon. The chase takes them through the streets of the West Loop and onto the expressway, which is entirely plausible. But there's something strange about the expressway, it doesn't look familiar. It took me a few seconds to figure it out thirty years ago, but seeing the highway directional sign that said "Chicago" gave away without a doubt that they weren't in Chicago anymore. No, the boys didn't turn onto Chicago's famous Spaghetti Bowl interchange as you'd expect, but were for a brief time on the equally convoluted highway interchange just outside of Downtown Milwaukee! I understand why they used that particular stretch of road, there was construction going on up there at the time, featuring a ramp that abruptly ended into thin air. Given the nature of the chase scenes in the film, I'm sure this was too good to be true for the film makers who utilized it by having the Bluesmobile screeching to a halt just in the nick of time before going over the edge. The Nazis, unfortunately for them, were not so lucky and went over the edge.

The film makers could have easily gotten the shot without revealing its location. But they didn't. Clear as day in the background is Milwaukee's tallest building, the First Wisconsin Center (now the U.S. Bank Center).
Pre-mall State Street with the famous Magikist Lips sign
and the State Lake Theater in the background.

Now they could have just been sloppy, figuring no one would notice, or they could have simply not cared. My guess is they did it for comedic effect or as an inside joke. The next shot shows the Pinto in free fall, back in Chicago with the Hancock Building in the background. The car is at least 500 feet in the air, while the expressway ramp they flew off of couldn't have been more than 20 feet off the ground. The car lands cartoon style in the middle of a street creating a gaping hole, can't tell you exactly where but to me it looks more like Milwaukee than Chicago. More than likely however it was shot at the studio in Hollywood.

Oh, one last thing if you see the movie The Blues Brothers. Jake and Elwood's mentor Curtis, played by the great Cab Calloway, is forced to delay the crowd before their big performance, while the boys have to sneak into the theater, evading cops, and the rest of the folks who are after them. He asks the Blues Brothers Band if they know (what else?) Minnie the Moocher. As they break into the opening notes of the song, Cab is magically transformed from his black suit, fedora, and sun glasses, into his trademark white tie and white tails, while the band and the stage are likewise transformed into something that would fit right in with the Cotton Club c.1930. Check out the faces of the band as they back up the Hi-di-ho man. You can tell they are not acting, they're having the time of their lives.

Good times.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Annals of the game...

The 2012 Cardinals celebrate a hard earned victory, photograph by Carmen Sierra Rodriguez
The outlook wasn't good for the Warren Park Cardinals. We had a great season last year when we were a senior team in the Rookie Division. This year we've moved up a division and now are a Freshman team in the Minors. We lost our star pitcher to another, more competitive Chicago Park District Little League, as well as some of our stalwart players who couldn't move up with us because of their age.

On the plus side, we got back a star player from two years ago who has developed into a great pitcher in his own right, and is also a better all around player than last year's model. When he pitches, we are competitive, when he doesn't, well not so much. We also gained some promising 11 year old additions from other teams that didn't advance into the Minors.

My boy's sheer enthusiasm for baseball more than makes up for whatever skills he may be lacking up to this point. He's often the first player to show up at games and practices and is always the last to leave. This is his third season in little league, all of them playing for the Cardinals.  He may not be the best player on the team but he's good enough to have played all the positions, even the most difficult ones, catcher and pitcher. What would become the last game of last season was a playoff match between the Cardinals and the Reds. My boy was the starting pitcher.

Baseball is a game played mostly in the head, no matter how good you are at hitting, fielding, base running and above all pitching, if you can't get it straight upstairs, you're sunk. My son naturally was nervous to start the big game. But he and I worked hard to develop his mechanics and accuracy to the point where he could get the ball over the plate often enough and hard enough to be a fairly respectable pitcher at his level. Of course there's a big difference between pitching a baseball to your dad in the park with no one around, and pitching to a live batter, several spectators, and most importantly your teammates all counting on you, in the biggest game of the season.

Things went pretty smoothly in the big game, that is until his very first pitch, which hit the batter in the foot. It went downhill from there quickly. Pretty soon my son was just tossing the ball to the catcher in the hopes of it somehow finding the strike zone. When it did, which was not often, the batters were able to pounce on it. Mercifully in the Rookie Division, there is a five run limit per inning, which came quickly. Our head coach replaced my son, also mercifully in the next inning and his replacement (the little brother of our current star pitcher), pitched magnificently, shutting out the Reds for the rest of the game.

Redemption time came in bottom of the last inning with our team down by only one run, and the heart of the order coming to bat, my boy leading off. Unfortunately, he feebly grounded out to the pitcher. The following two batters also grounded out, one of them in spectacular fashion having been robbed by the first baseman. That was how our season ended.

There is a famous line from a popular movie called A League of Their Own. If you recall, it goes something like this:
There's no crying in baseball!
But it's not true. The late A. Bartlett Giamatti who among other even more impressive things, was once the commissioner of Major League Baseball, wrote this about the game:
It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone."
The chill rains of fall came for us by mid-July last year, and there were tears.

But kids are resilient and all was forgotten by everyone, well almost everyone. At our first practice this year, our head coach took me aside and said: "Does that bad performance in the final game last year still upset your son?"

"Not in the least," I told him truthfully.

This year we're facing much tougher competition and in the higher division we have new aspects of the game to deal with, namely leadoffs and base stealing. At our level that means a batter who reaches first base will almost certainly reach third after the next two pitches. In some ways it's much more fun to have low expectations for your team because the good things are great and you're never disappointed by the bad.

Our first game was against the champions of our division last year, who also moved up to the minors. Behind our fire-balling star pitcher, we eked out a victory which was helped along by the game being called early because of rain.

The second game would be a rematch against the Reds who are now in Cubs clothing. My boy was the starter. A little shaky at first, he got some help from his fielders in the first inning and got out of the inning allowing two runs. The second inning was a different story. He managed to get the first two batters out and it looked like smooth sailing. The third batter fought him tough, fouling off a bunch of pitches, and eventually walked. After that, one batter after another reached base, either by virtue of a walk, an error, or another new aspect of the game for us, the dropped third strike. That one is especially cruel for a pitcher whose strike out is erased if the catcher can't hold on to the ball. The catcher then has to spring up, find the ball, and throw out the batter at first in order to record an out, not an easy task at this level. Soon my son was back to carefully tossing the ball instead of pitching. In our division, the maximum number of runs is now six, a number that was eventually reached in that inning, all coming after two outs.

Then came the rain and that game was postponed for a later date.

The next two games were against a new team in the division, the Pioneers, an all girl team. I joked to people that this was a lose/lose proposition for our boys. If they lost, they'd have lost to a team of girls. Sexist as that may sound, if you've been an eleven year old boy at some point in your life, you understand. If on the other hand they won, they'd have beaten a team of girls. Big deal.

As soon as I saw the Pioneers, I knew I was wrong, it would be a big deal to beat them. They took the field with poise and confidence, during warmup the players fielded, threw and caught the ball with the ease of seasoned athletes. In short, unlike our rag-tag squad, they looked like ballplayers. Not only that, half of them were bigger than me, they were 12 and 13 year olds but looked like they could be in high school. Their coaches also had a very calm, professional demeanor about themselves, making the Cardinal coaches especially me, look like greenhorns.

The game went as could be expected. Their first few batters pounded the ball, stole bases at will on every pitch, and the team took a decisive lead from which they never looked back. Their fielders made all the plays they needed, while our fielding was a comedy of errors. To add insult to injury, between plays, their runners took advantage of every lapse of concentration from our infielders who were unaccustomed to such brazen base running.

In other words, they gave us a clinic. I told our guys before the next game to watch the Pioneers closely, and learn from them.

Game two against the Pioneers was two days later and our number one pitcher got the start. Anyone who doubts that pitching is at least 90 percent of baseball, has never been to a little league game. I warmed up our pitcher before each inning as our catcher that game, my son, put on his gear.  Frankly I was a little scared for my own safety, this kid throws hard. I estimate his fastball's speed flirts with 70 mph. The girls were no match for him, he allowed only one or two legitimate hits. Only with the help of some errors and dropped third strikes from my son, were the Pioneers able to score three runs in five innings. I had a sneaking suspicion that was confirmed by our coach's score card, that every Pioneer out was by strikeout. That's a better percentage than Kerry Wood's record setting 20 strikeout performance against the Houston Astros in 1998.

Unfortunately, our pitcher reached his pitch limit of 85 pitches after the fifth inning, meaning that the coach would have to bring in a reliever, my son...

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Are you an environmentalist?

The bandying about of labels has always made me cringe, in my Facebook profile, under political affiliation, I put down: "Contrarian." But there are a few labels I do not have a problem adding to my list of credentials. For example, I always considered myself an environmentalist inasmuch as I believe (as I mentioned a few posts back), that the protection of the environment not only makes common sense, but is also a moral obligation. In other words, I believe we have no right to sit back and watch as one species after another becomes extinct, if we can do something about it. And I believe that the preservation of the environment merits its own consideration, regardless of whether or not it directly benefits humanity.

Given all that, one would think an article titled provocatively: "Don't Call Me an Environmentalist" would fly in the face of my core beliefs on the subject. It does not, it is in fact one of the most insightful pieces I've read on the subject in a long time. Its author, Lisa Curtis, a self described young, liberal idealist, who works for a solar energy company, has distanced herself from the old ideals of the environmental movement that lived and died with the notion that the best way to help the earth was by changing legislation that would regulate all the evils that contribute to the degradation of the earth's environment. She also decries the idea that the needs of Planet Earth can somehow be separated from the needs of human beings.

Here's her money quote:

In the 21st century, with 7 billion people to clothe, feed, and shelter, there’s little environment left that we haven’t altered. We’re changing the natural world and we will continue to do so. When the tradeoff is between survival and preserving the pristine, survival will always prevail.

This is a very controversial stance to take among environmentalists, especially those who see people as the problem rather than the solution. The most strident of these "Green" activists believe that the earth would have been better off had the species Homo sapiens never existed.

Perhaps they're right, but "better off" in this case is a value judgment, sprinkled with a little fairy dust, making the struggles of maintaining a pristine environment (that is, untouched by human hands), have little more substance than a Disney movie.

Subtracting human beings from the equation of nature is preposterous, we are just as much a part of nature as the Whooping Crane or the Southern Corroboree Frog, regardless of the fact that our impact, not to mention our numbers, are much different.

Curtis says, in not so many words, that it's easy and convenient for those of us who live in a cocoon of relative prosperity, to demand laws mandating change on environmental policy, when those changes have little adverse effect on our own livelihoods. She once worked for the Peace Corps in Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, and witnessed first hand the daily struggle for survival among the people. She found that practical solutions to everyday problems could be found even in such desperate conditions that would benefit both the environment and the people. In her words:

The women in my village loved getting more efficient cook stoves, not because they saved trees but because they saved hours spent collecting wood.

Curtis argues that the new environmentalism should put the practical and economic benefits of Green technologies into the forefront, and I agree.

You can see from the comment section of her blog post which was later published by Grist, that Curtis set off a firestorm of criticism, most of it directed at her lack of understanding the true motives and directions of the environmental movement of the sixties and seventies. They say she doesn't realize that sustainability was as much a part of that movement as the rhetorical flourishes. Fair enough, anybody remember the Whole Earth Catalog? The environmental movement set into motion the world wide concern for Planet Earth, and its health and its future. It deserves nothing but the highest praise. But we can't keep living in the slogans and the rhetoric of the past if our concern is to make our planet healthier place to live.

Given the current ideological standoff both in government and in the body politic, no one on the pro-environment side is going to get very far with the augment that we need to take care of the environment simply for its own sake, even if it is the right thing to do. This is especially true in difficult economic times. It's like a religious person trying to convince nonbeliever by quoting the Bible; that is to say, speaking a language that the other side either doesn't understand or accept. In that respect the Greenies may as well be speaking ancient Hittite.  

Lisa Curtis is right, if we truly care about our planet, we need to get everyone on board.

Friday, May 11, 2012

What you talkin' about Willis?

All of us here in the Windy City had a scare as One World Trade Center rose to ever dizzying heights in Lower Manhattan, approaching the height of our beloved Sears, ahem, Willis Tower, still America's tallest building. The S.O.M. behemoth lost its title as the world's tallest building years ago and now ranks around 350. OK that's an exaggeration.  It's number ten, depending on whether you count each Petronas Tower in Malaysia as an individual building or not.

Anyway, One World Trade was to have a spire, actually an antenna dressed up as a spire, the top of which would have put the tip of the building at 1776 feet, (where have I heard that number before?), 326 feet taller than the Chicago building. But according to a "news flash" in today's Red Eye, the paper I read on the L tucked behind a copy of Playboy so people can't see me reading it, maintenance issues have caused the builders to re-access the design, and the structure atop the building may turn out to be merely an antenna after all. While spires count toward the height of a building, antennas apparently don't, meaning that Chicago's claim to being the home of the tallest building in the States is safe for the time being.

What a relief.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Mr. Cub

In assessing my work on this blog after three years, I realized that my posts in appreciation of specific individuals were mostly posthumous. I resolved to change that. In this post, the subject at 80 years of age, is still very much alive and well.

I asked my 11 year old son the other day who was his biggest baseball hero. He thought about it for a couple of seconds and said: "Ryan Theriot?" The question mark was his not mine. Now my son's baseball experience is much more participatory than mine was at his age, he plays a lot more than he watches. Yet he is very much aware of big league players throughout the Majors, way more than I am, and frankly his answer surprised me. Not that Ryan Theriot is a bad ballplayer. He was a decent shortstop and second baseman for the Cubs for six seasons before being traded in 2010 to the Dodgers. He spent 2011 with the Cardinals and this year he's playing for the Giants. While he's a lifetime .281 hitter, not bad for a middle infielder, most of his stats place him solidly in the realm of an average major leaguer. Frankly that's not a bad place to be considering the fact that he is after all, in the Big Show, and his annual salary is well above three million dollars. Still those kind of stats usually do not make a ballplayer a hero in the eyes of most children.

It could be something about Theriot's easygoing Cajun demeanor that appeals to my boy, or the fact that he can relate to the ballplayer's relatively modest size and stature. But I suspect Ryan Theriot became my son's hero when he drove in the winning run in the rain delayed, extra inning game that was to be my son's first visit to Wrigley Field, the day he fell in love with baseball.

I bring this all up because the other day, Ernie Banks was interviewed on a local radio talk show. Not that Banks had entirely left my mind but hearing his voice, still strong, optimistic and jubilant after all these years, brought back a rush of memories from my childhood.

Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub, was my greatest baseball hero. His only competition for greatest hero of all was Stan Mikita, the great centerman for the Black Hawks. All in all I'd say between the two, it was about a tie. Beside his great skills, Mikita's appeal for me rested on the fact that like my father, he came from Czechoslovakia.

Unlike Mikita, I came to Ernie Banks entirely on my own. Like my son's choice of hero, it was probably as much Banks' personality and demeanor that appealed to me as his on field performance. Ever the optimist, Banks would gleefully predict in verse the Cubs' chances at the beginning of each season:
  • The Cubs are due in '62
  • The Cubs will come alive in '65
  • Wrigley Field will be heaven in '67
  • The Cubs will be great in '68
  • The Cubs will shine in '69
Only the last prediction would come true, for a while that is, until the team imploded in September in nearly historic proportions. As far as I can recall, that was the first year when I really followed baseball seriously, paying attention to the box scores and standings daily, until the collapse when it became too painful to watch the Cubs' 9 1/2 game lead in mid-August evaporate to the ultimate World Series Champions that year and the still despised New York Mets. As I mentioned in this space before, it was a tough lesson for a 10 year old.

As for Ernie Banks, outwardly he seemed unfazed, his prediction in spring training the following year was this:

The Cubs will glow in 7-0.

They did that for a while, but ended up finishing second, five games behind the Pirates in the weak Eastern Division of the National League. For Ernie Banks, time was taking its toll. Realizing that he would likely wrap up his long and distinguished playing career without ever winning anything must have been a bitter pill to swallow. But he never let on. That season, on May 12th to be exact, Ernie Banks hit his 500th home run. He went on to hit 12 more home runs, then hung up the spikes for good at the end of the 1971 season. 

Ernie Banks was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1977.

Ever since he left the team, even though he moved away from Chicago, Ernie Banks has remained unquestionably devoted to the Cubs, just as he was during his playing years. I read a story about a recent conversation between Banks and a lifelong baseball fan as related by a third person. He described Banks ebulliently describing the joys and wonders of Cubdom to the man, completely winning him over. Someone said to the observer: "but that guy's a lifelong Yankee fan." The observer of the conversation said: "Well he's a Cub fan now."

Ernie Banks coined the term; "The Friendly Confines" to describe Wrigley Field, a term that lives on today. His number 14 was retired by the team in 1982 and a flag bearing his name and number flies over the left field foul pole, near the spot where so many of his home runs landed. Recently a statue of him was unveiled and currently stands on Clark Street, just outside the main entrance to the Friendly Confines. He's immortalized standing in his familiar batting stance, anyone who ever saw Ernie play can instantly recognize that statute from blocks away.

It would be remiss of me to fail to point out that Ernie Banks is not only a great person, inspiring teammate, and stellar promoter of his team, but he was unquestionably a great ballplayer, perhaps one of baseball's most overlooked stars. In his prime in the late fifties, an era where his competition included Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, and Henry Aaron, as well as several other baseball immortals, he was named National League MVP two years in a row. In addition to his 512 career home runs, (21st on the all time list, just behind Ted Williams and tied with Eddie Matthews), Banks was an 11 time All-Star, he had two seasons where he scored over 100 runs, eight seasons where he drove in over 100 runs, and five seasons where he hit over 40 home runs. He even won one gold glove award at shortstop, the toughest fielding position in the game. In case you're interested, here are his stats.

Still, like his longtime teammate, the late Ron Santo, Ernie Banks means so much to so many in ways that go well beyond the playing field. Because of my son's sheer joy and enthusiasm for the game, I've nicknamed him; "let's play two", after Banks' most famous quote. 

It would be hard to find a big league ballplayer today with that kind of enthusiasm. We hear more about agents and contracts than we hear about the love of the game. On kids' day at a White Sox game a few years ago, my son and I were standing by the visitors' dugout where we made friends with some Baltimore Oriole fans, a father and his children, who were following their team around the country. One of the kids was wearing a jersey with the name and number of the Orioles' star second baseman. The father told me that player's was the only autograph his son didn't have in his collection. The second baseman soon walked by only a few feet away from us, and as the kids begged him to come over and sign their caps, jerseys or whatever, he just kept walking, without so much as an acknowledgment of his faithful fans. My biggest thrill in the game that day was to see that particular player boot a routine ground ball. 

This reminds me of another of Ernie Banks' famous quotes. He once said: "It's important for ballplayers to sign autographs for kids because you never know, one day that kid could become your boss." Great as he was, Ernie Banks never made the same kind of money as that second baseman. He never even came close to what the journeyman Ryan Theriot makes. The last year I could get info on, the year it almost happened for the Cubs, in 1969 Ernie Banks made $85,000. When he broke into the big leagues in 1953, he was the first black player to play for the Cubs. I don't know this for a fact but I can only assume he suffered the same indignation that many of his contemporaries did as trailblazers in their game of choice. For better or worse, once again Ernie Banks never let on. 

It dawned on me the other day while listening to Ernie on the radio why I briefly lost interest in baseball around 1971, only to return as a fan of a different team a few years later. No it wasn't as I thought, because I was so bitterly disappointed by the 1969 and 1970 seasons. It was because Ernie Banks no longer played with the Cubs. When I think of Ernie Banks I think mostly of that image above, which was the very likeness of him included in my souvenir pack of black and white photos of my heros, Kessinger, Beckert, Williams, Santo, Hundley, Jenkins, and most of all, Ernie Banks. Somewhere I still have the portrait I painted of him based on that photo. When I think of him, I think of the lovely summer afternoons of my childhood spent at the half empty old ballpark, filled mostly with kids watching adults playing a kids game. The oldest adult of all those players turned out to be the biggest kid of them all.

Once he was gone, something was lost. Baseball for me became an adult game and I became a fan of a team where the fans were mostly rowdy adults, whose players smoked cigarettes in the dugout, and whose beer guzzling TV play by play man was funny, irreverent, and cynical. I became that way too. That's the time I lost my childhood for good. Eventually that play by play man would move to the north side and the age of innocence was officially lost for the Cubs as well. There was no turning back after they put lights up in the joint and started to play games at night. Sadly, Ernie Banks with his childlike enthusiasm, his eternal optimism, and his unquestioned loyalty to the Cubs, is an anachronism in the old ballpark now almost always filled to capacity, usually with beer guzzling, profanity spewing louts, too young to remember him, and too old to be children. In a complete reversal, seeing the White Sox play at U.S. Cellular Field is now a much more family friendly experience than seeing the Cubs play at the once Friendly Confines. 

Yes I became a White Sox fan after Ernie Banks left the Cubs. It's a story that the consummate Cub, Mr. Banks would hate to hear. That's why he was my biggest hero. 

It turns out as I realized the other day, he still is.