(Now if this ain’t serendipity... I’ve been spinning this essay ‘round my brain for a couple of weeks or more, but while floating the web lookin’ for good images as illustrations for the piece, I discover that today, January 31st, is Ernie Bank’s 77th birthday. Now I’m a fan as you’ll soon see, but not so idiotically fanatical as to have actually known this date before the fact. But knowing it now, this collection of memories begs to be written today.)
Way back in 1969, we lived in downtown Chicago. I was a mere 6 and a half that summer. Dad was attending the Unitarian Theological Seminary. Mom was a mom to four of us. We lived in a brick townhouse on South Kimbark Avenue in a racially diverse neighborhood not far from the University of Chicago. My best friends were a Jewish kid named Charles who lived in the townhouse next to ours; Tony, the son of our black babysitter Lula, and was a year older than us; and Charlotte, my first love, the blonde daughter of first generation Swedish immigrants who lived in another townhouse around the corner next to the park with the playground jungle gym, who's mother once served us pancakes for lunch.
I discovered baseball the summer before ‘69. 1968 was a tumultuous year, especially in Chicago. Much of the maelstrom passed well over the head of this first grader at the U of Chicago Lab School. (I’m assuming the Lab School is where they trained new teachers and/or experimented with new methods of schoolin’ youngsters.) I do remember our family riding our bikes down to the shores of Lake Michigan to see the gathering of National Guard tanks and troops, though I don’t recall whether that was after the Bobby Kennedy assassination, the Martin Luther King assassination, or the riots at the Democratic Convention. Whatever the occasion, seeing green army men and tanks in my neighborhood was pretty cool.
But at six and a half, only baseball and my friends really mattered. The Chicago Cubs were my first team, a team who’s starting line-up I can still recite today. I spent hours cross-legged in front of a black and white television (you know, the kind where you actually had to get up to change the channel or adjust the volume) watching my team win every game.
Charles and I both started our baseball card collections during the summer of ’68. On Saturday mornings, after we’d each received our weekly allowance, we’d walk down to the local drug store in the tiny strip mall just past the playground. (Gotta wonder whether I’d allow my 6 year old to walk down an inner city Chicago street without adult chaperones today. We haven’t let ‘em walk alone to the Arcata Plaza yet!) We’d carefully finger our way through the stack of waxed packs inside a thin cardboard box at the checkout counter trying to identify the best cards by touch, before selecting the fore-ordained pack of Topps baseball cards that would be ours. Ten cards and a stick of pink bubblegum for a dime. (10 cards for a dime! There ain’t no value like the baseball collectibles world anymore.)
As soon as we exited the front door, the wax paper was ripped away and tossed into the trash can at the corner of the storefront, and we rustled through the small stack of cardboard pictures searching for our favorite Cubs or other players we recognized. Charles, Tony and I held elaborate card trading sessions on the cement front steps of the townhouse.
Some of the older kids in the neighborhood showed us how to flip cards against the step. We quickly abandoned this game when we learned you lost your card when your flip landed short of the other guy’s flip. And it’s no fun to lose the cards you just paid a whole ten cents for. (I still have that stack of cards from 1968 and 1969, held apart in a special box, separate from the several thousand other baseball cards in a chest in the back of the closet.)
On May 13, 1969, I went to my first game at Wrigley Field. Mom had somehow gotten her hands on a couple of tickets. She arranged to pick me up early from school (since this was two decades before there were lights at Wrigley). I remember handing the early dismissal note to my teacher that morning, then watching the clock on the wall, counting the eternal minutes until 12:15 when I could abandon my classmates with a grin and leave penmanship and spelling lessons to go see a Cubs game!
12:15 finally arrived. The young blonde teacher motioned to me quietly while the rest of the class worked on their papers. I walked down the empty hall, unescorted, pushed open the large wooden school doors, and stepped out on to the granite stairway. True to form, my mother wasn’t there. She was then, and still is, at least 15 minutes slower than everyone else in getting anywhere. But soon enough, I saw her coming down the street in our white, wood-paneled Ford station wagon and away we went.
As if for the sole benefit of this six year old at his first-ever baseball game, the Cubs provided a certifiable rout: 19 to nothing over the hapless expansion San Diego Padres. I have the still fresh memory of sitting on the third base line, probably 20 or 30 rows up, underneath the overhanging roof. The light green grass and dark green ivy walls were brilliant, lit by the spring sun and viewed from the cool, dark shade of the grandstand. All day long there were Cubs on base, balls from our white pin-striped good guys spinning past the gray and brown suited opponents into the outfield grass, blue-capped runners rounding third – right in front of me! – on their way home again and again.
And leading the way, the man who became my baseball hero (to this day), Ernie Banks. Mr Cub, closing in the end of his Hall of Fame career though I didn’t know or care about his past at that point, hit three home runs and knocked in seven RBIs just for me that sunny afternoon. I was on the edge of my seat for every one of his at bats, waiting for the Cubs star to shine, and shine he did, for me, at my first ball game. A few years ago, I read a book on those 1969 Cubs, and damned if Ernie, who never made it to the World Series, didn’t recall that very game as one of his favorites too.
History, of course, shows that Ernie Banks and the Cubs’ 1969 magic lasted only ‘til early September. A near total and unexplainable collapse combined with the Amazin’ Mets run up from the cellar of the National League’s Eastern division, led to one of baseball’s most storied season endings. I don’t recall my feelings during that crashing, crushing end of the season. Perhaps the trauma wiped the tears from my memory. Or maybe it was 2nd grade, or the vision of Charlotte on a jungle gym, that took its place in those neural corners of my brain. I can tell you though, that that season embedded a deep hatred of those damned Mets that’s going on 40 years now. That those same Mets pinned a stunning 1986 World Series loss on my now favorite Boston Red Sox – where we moved in ‘72 – doesn’t help their cause.
Happy Birthday, Ernie Banks. In a single afternoon, you created a lifelong love of the world’s greatest game, a passion handed down to my little girls, who’ve never been to Wrigley, but who know to respect an experience at Fenway Park as if they’re in the Notre Dame Cathedral (with hollering, flat Cokes, and red licorice ropes permissible). I wore your number 14 on every little league jersey I had as a kid, and it’s on my fat guys, beer league softball jersey even now.
And I recite Ernie Banks’ catch phrase at near every girls softball game I coach: “It’s a great day for a ballgame. Let’s Play Two!” Even on a day such as this, maybe especially on a drenched day like this, give me a ball, a bat, a glove and a couple of old friends, I’d be out there lookin’ to play two.