I first became aware of the game of baseball when I was a small toddler, somewhere at age 5 or under, back in the 1950s. Early on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, I noticed that something was changing the daily routine of our household, back when we still lived at 2435 S. 61st Ave., in Cicero.
My Uncle Leonard and some other guys he invited over would suddenly swarm into the living room of our brick bungalow. Then someone would switch on the old dark wood Traveler television set that we got for the bargain price of $200.
The screen would light up in glorious black-and-white, and some man’s excited voice started talking about what they were going to see. Next came somebody singing a song about a “Star Spanked Banana,” and the men sat down with their potato chips, pretzels and drinks.
I remember a lot of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer being drunk out of brown glass bottles. The old kind with caps you couldn’t twist off, but had to use a metal can opener to wrench the metal cap off. In case anybody got tired of beer, we also had a big, wooden “liquor cabinet,” with slots on the sides of the doors to hold glasses, and, inside on shelves, a selection of strange smelling liquids in bottles that did not look like the beer kind. Somebody always seemed to be asking for a “highball” drink, and I’d watch it being concocted.
Then the Cubs ball game started up, and I’d watch it for awhile, and take in the men’s easy camaraderie and occasional excitement. If I was lucky, I’d get some of the snacks and maybe a drink of some Jewel store-bought Yummy soda, with the two smiling children pictured on the label.
But at that age, I was easily bored. I could eat only so many pretzels and potato chips, and drink only so much soda pop. The game on the television seemed to be all about these men throwing a ball, or hitting a ball, or running around.
All sugared up from the pop, I wouldn’t have minded going outside and throwing around a ball with the big men in our living room, but they were too absorbed in drinking and watching the game. By the time the game was over, it was almost suppertime, and the sugar had worn off, so the moment was lost.
Our family moved to Brookfield when I was 5-and-a-half, but my uncle stayed behind, and so did the weekend ballgames on the television. The liquor cabinet stayed behind, too. On the playground at St. Barbara’s School, there wasn’t much room for assembling a decent set of bases and an outfield, so we boys just threw around baseballs and bouncing balls. A bat would have been confiscated on sight.
Once away from school, that was another thing entirely. On Morton Avenue, we played in the street, at any time of day. Brookfield streets weren’t as chock full of cars as they are today. Back then men, mostly, would go to work, driving their cars parked on the street overnight, and, by nine in the morning, the street would be deserted, or almost completely so. So it was time to yell, “Batter Up!” and get a game going.
Mothers would take this all in stride, shouting out to us their usual cheery warnings to “watch out for cars” and “don’t break any windows!” Some kids sat on the curb or on the grass, shouting fair or foul words at the ball players. And the hours of our day slowly melted away.
One summer evening, my sister Kathy was pitching a plastic ball to me, as I swung this plastic bat at it in our backyard. The ball was not a Wiffle “full of holes” type, just a white plastic one as big as a regular baseball. The bat was hard plastic, and after too much play, I could easily bend it in half. All in all, the perfect equipment for playing in a confined backyard.
But my dad didn’t think so. He came out, saw I was hitting towards the house and the windows, and immediately had me and my sister change places, so I would be hitting out towards the empty alley, with the garage on the left.
Once that was done, he decided he wanted a turn at bat, too. I handed it to him, and took over at Kathy’s pitching position. He swung the bat a few times to get the feel, and called out that he was ready. And what he did next became the stuff of family legend.
I flung the ball, and he connected on that first pitch. The plastic ball screamed way from him, and”CRASH!”smashed through one of the glass panes of the garage window. I hurried over to see the damage, and began laughing hysterically. So did my sister.
My dad came over to look, and then he started laughing with us, too. Then my mom came out of the house, took one look, and started laughing. The irony overcame us all. My dad had wanted to stop us from breaking a window, but he ended up breaking one himself.
Well, we didn’t play any more ball that evening. How could any of us top that experience? It was funny enough just to take a look in the window, and see the white ball calmly lying on the inner window shelf, between the broken glass and the window shade.
My dad quietly removed the ball, gave it back to me and taped a piece of cardboard over the hole. But I couldn’t help thinking that he would’ve made a lot more fuss if I’d been the one who’d broken the window.
Like all Cubs fans, I clicked my heels for joy in 1969 when it looked for sure like that was going to be The Year. Then, like all fans did at the end, I cursed the Mets for stealing our happy ending.
My brother Paul was born in 1970, and by age 6 was wearing a small Cubs uniform for Halloween, handmade by my mother, always a most talented seamstress. By then, he and my other brothers, Tim and John, were trading baseball cards and drooling over the stats of the Cubs.
In 1984, we all pulled for the Cubs to make that The Year, but again our hopes were dashed upon the rocks of cursed reality. Also this year, me and Paul went to the LaGrange Theater to see the baseball movie, “The Natural,” starring Robert Redford.
We were blown away by it. I had seen other baseball movies, such as “Angels in the Outfield,” “Pride of the Yankees” (the Lou Gehrig story) and “It Happens Every Spring.” But “The Natural” so impressed us that we discussed it for a long time after, even years afterward. Thanks to the alertness of my brother John, me and Paul even got “Roy Hobbs” baseball cards that were used in the movie.
After a few years at Riverside-Brookfield High School, Paul joined the school baseball team, proudly wearing the number 40. Sometimes on the sidewalk, out front of our house, he’d get in a little pitching practice with me. We’d warm up at first, and then smoke the balls back and forth for awhile. improving both our ball speeds and pitching stances.
In 1989, the movie “Field of Dreams” came out, and in September of 1991, John and I went to Dyersville, Iowa, to throw a ball around on the legendary ballfield from the movie. I still have my ear of corn, my dirt sample from left field, my photos and my memories.
And when you get right down to it, that is what baseball has been for all of us, hasn’t it? A set of memories, sometimes wonderful, sometimes not. But always, a real part of every baseball fan’s life.