Baseball was a big part of growing up in Chicago during the 70's.
It is the backdrop of my earliest memory. My dad took me to my first White Sox game when I was only about 2 or 3 years old. I remember being able to walk, but not quickly, and Dad scooping me up to carry me -- he didn't want to miss the first pitch. When he was a boy, he lived close to Comiskey and would spend summer days hanging around the park. If a kid retrieved a foul ball or home run that left the park, he could present it at the gate and gain free admission for the rest of the game.
I pretty much had to be pushed into actually playing baseball because I was so shy. I remember Dad sitting with me on a park bench the first day of practice. All the other kids were already out on the field, but I was terrified. He finally talked me into going out there. I was terrible at first and it took me about half the season to progress from disaster to liability. They stuck me in right field where I was prone to daydreaming. Our coach was really good at hitting fly balls to the outfield during practice; one plunked me on the noggin as I was watching a motorcycle drive by. For the rest of the season all the coaches kept yelling "look alive Tommy!" They didn't need to -- one fly ball to the head was all I needed.
Over the next couple of seasons I progressed, and baseball became my number one obsession. My best friend Tony and I spent our summers playing "Fast Pitch" as we called it on the South Side. I've since found out people in other areas called it "Strike Out," "Off the Wall" or something similar. Someone would spray paint a rectangle on the wall which represented the strike zone. One bat, one rubber ball and two people and you could play. If the batter didn't hit it, the ball would just bounce right back to you.
We played at a school two blocks from home. The wall we used for the batter's box was on the side of the building. Where you would stand to pitch was a small parking lot, kind of "sunken" below street level, with about a 3 foot high concrete wall. Then there was a short stretch of grass, raised above the parking lot, before the fence to the adjacent tennis courts. If you hit the ball within the parking lot, it was a single, and it would usually bounce back to you. If the ball landed on the short stretch of grass before the fence, it was a double. Hit the fence and you had a triple. Over the fence into the tennis courts was a home run, and you felt like you were in the majors. That's how I learned to pitch and hit.
Summer vacation meant fast pitch in the morning, watching a bit of the Cubs after lunch, back out to play more baseball and then the White Sox after dinner. It was heaven.
Back then, Jack Brickhouse was the Cubs announcer. I must admit it bothers me that nowadays everyone associates Harry Caray with the Cubs. People forget that when he came to Chicago he started with the White Sox, and in my opinion he and Jimmy Piersall were the greatest announcers of my lifetime.
Even if the Sox were getting killed, you dare not turn off the game. Piersall's sanity was always in question, and you never knew what he might say. They once showed a group of players' wives watching the game, and I'm pretty sure Piersall said they looked like sluts. Harry Caray was feeling no pain by the late innings. I clearly remember a Sox pitcher getting shelled late and giving up a lead. They cut to a commercial, but Harry forgot to turn off his microphone. He started ranting, and you could hear an engineer literally diving across the control board to kill the sound just before his expletives hit the airwaves.
The tradition of Harry singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" started in Comiskey, not Wrigley. The colorful owner Bill Veeck, a born promoter, was the first one to encourage Harry to sing it with a microphone, and the crowd to sing along.
Whenever I went to Comiskey, no matter where I was in the park, I'd be sure to be directly under the booth for the seventh inning stretch. Once, Harry was singing with beer in hand, swaying to the music, and spilled some on me.
I was truly honored.
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