It’s a frigid weekend in March, and I’ve taken my kids to play in the park – Comiskey Park.
On the infield grass, where Nellie Fox used to scoop up grounders, Sarah is running and bouncing and jumping, the cold wind twisting her curly hair this way and that. She’s not quite three. On her feet, she wears boots of dainty pink plastic because of all the mud.
David, who is five, is racing like a gazelle near the pitcher’s mound where Ted Lyons, Billy Pierce and LaMarr Hoyt used to twist, turn and send the baseball hurtling to the plate. He’s laughing out loud with the joy of movement. Held tight in his hand is a golf ball he’s found somewhere on the field.
Neither child has much of a sense of what this place is, or what this moment in time represents.
Baseball was last played on this field five months ago and will never be played here again. After eighty-one years as the home of the Chicago White Sox, Comiskey Park is about to be demolished. Across 35th Street, a new, fancier park is set to open in less than a month for the 1991 season. The new stadium looks like a studly model from GQ magazine; the old one, a retired laborer from the city’s Department of Streets and San.
My friend John Williams and his son Sean, who is a few years older than David, are over in the third base dugout. John stands on the dugout steps, gazing out across the field, looking for all the world like Al Lopez during those heady pennant-winning days of 1959.
A Chicago South Sider born and bred, John knows the meaning of this place.
Looking out to left field, he can see the spot where, during the second game of 1959 World Series, Al Smith went back to the wall chasing a high fly off the bat of Charlie Neal. As Smith looked up to watch the ball go into the stands, a fan, reaching for the homer, knocked over his beer – down into Smith’s face.
I’d go out to that spot right now, but, after the end of last season, the entire outfield was denuded, its grass stripped off and donated to a park in Chicago. Now it is a vast sea of mud.
The infield is even worse. The top layer of dirt was scooped up and trucked over to the new stadium, leaving the area gouged and puddle-filled.
I may be forty-one, but, if the infield dirt were still here, smooth and inviting, I don’t think I could help but run the bases and slide into second.
Looking at the mess, I feel a twang of regret at this lost opportunity.
I’m here because I wrote a story for the Chicago Tribune about the coming demolition of the park. I don’t work for the sports pages. I’m the paper’s urban affairs writer and have been covering the construction of the new park. It seemed important to me to chronicle as well the death of this important landmark where so many Chicagoans shared so much together.
So, about a week ago, I went to the park to meet with Irving Kolko, the president of Speedway Wrecking Co., the firm that will level Comiskey for $1,237,000 plus salvage.
Standing on the mound, Kolko talked initially about the park as “a concrete and steel doughnut” – just another demolition job for him. “Steel is steel. A truss is a truss,” he said.
But then he looked around and seemed to see the ghosts of Sox players past – Moose Skowron at first base, a young Minnie Minoso loping across the outfield, Luke Appling turning a double play at second with Jackie Hayes, Richie Zisk taking a mighty swing at the plate, and Luis Aparicio stealing bases.
“It is something,” he said, “when you wreck a ballpark where your dad took you as a kid. When you stand here and look around, don’t you get a sense of history? It will be with a sense of history when we drop the ball on it.”
Kolko’s father, who founded the wrecking company, began taking him to Sox games in the late 1930s. “We thought this ballpark would be here forever,” Kolko said.
For his company, erasing Comiskey from the face of the earth is a complex proceeding due to the forty-six steel trusses, each seventy feet long, that support the concrete upper deck and carry some of the weight of the roof, and due to the brick walls along Shields Avenue and 35th Street which also support the upper deck.
So, section by section, Kolko’s workers are planning to remove a portion of the roof. Then, a wrecking ball will knock down the corresponding portion of the upper deck. Then, the supporting truss will be cut and the corresponding part of the outer brick wall razed. Then, the lower deck will be broken up.
Work, Kolko said, will start in the southeast corner with the removal of a concrete stairway. The plan is to move westward along 35th Street, and then on around the rest of the park.
When it is done, Comiskey will no longer exist.
After the interview, Kolko asked me if I’d like to come back with my kids for a more leisurely visit to Comiskey. Of course, I said yes.
So here I am, soaking up the experience. And feeling a bit guilty.
Well, more than a bit guilty.
Hundreds of thousands of other people have a better right than I do to be standing here at the Comiskey Park mound. They’ve suffered through dark White Sox times, and basked together in the glow of the team’s glory years. They’ve lived and died with the Pale Hose.
Me? Fact is, I’m not really a White Sox fan.
Sure, as a nine-year-old in 1959, I thrilled, like the rest of Chicago, to the exploits of Go-Go Sox who won the pennant with speed, fielding, pitching and virtually no hitting. (The team ranked dead last in the eight-team American League with a measly ninety-seven home runs.)
But, except for that one season when I was caught up in the citywide mania for the Sox, my favorite team has always been … the New York Yankees.
This is the point which, when it arises in casual conversations, prompts the other person to look at me wide-eyed as if I’d just admitted to leprosy. The immediate question, of course, is: Are you from New York?
Well, no. I was born and raised in Chicago and have lived my whole life here, I’ll say, and then explain:
My father, a Chicago policeman, was not much of a baseball fan. But, in the early fall of 1957, during an afternoon gathering in our family’s apartment, someone turned on the television to watch that year’s World Series between the Milwaukee Braves and the New York Yankees.
I remember going into the living room, and, in my mind’s eye, I can still see the black and white images on the screen. I was seven years old, nearly eight, and, as I watched the pitcher wind up and throw, the batter swing, the fielder run down the ball – something clicked in my brain.
In a single moment of insight, I understood baseball. Every little thing I’d ever heard about the game suddenly came into focus. I knew what it meant to get an out, what a single was, who the third baseman was. I don’t claim to have grasped all the complexities, such as the infield fly rule and the passed ball. But, for the first time in my life, baseball made sense to me.
And, for whatever reason, I fell in love with the game. And with the Yankees.
Looking back, I might as easily have fallen for the Braves. They, in fact, won the Series that year. But, in the mysteries of the human heart, it was the Yankees who captured my love.
This affection was further solidified when, from somewhere, I got a baseball cap that made me feel as if I were part of the Yankees. It was only after wearing the cap for six months that, upon looking more closely at baseball cards, I realized to my chagrin that it wasn’t a Yankees hat. It was a New York Giants hat.
By then, however, I was hooked.
Still, even as a Yankees fan, it feels good to be here for this final good-bye to Comiskey.
It was here that I saw my first Big League game. Actually, the rains came in the third or fourth inning before it became an official game. But there was enough time for my brother David and I to see the Detroit Tigers in their drab gray and notice how bland they seemed in contrast to the blindingly bright white home uniforms of the Sox.
There was time enough for us to see the night-surrounded stadium lit up like daylight and watch the clouds of cigar and cigarette smoke waft out of the grandstands and over the field – to soak it all in. This was an alternate existence to everyday life with its own smells, tastes and sights. I don’t think my brother or I had ever been in a crowd that big, even though, if memory serves, the game wasn’t anything close to a sell-out.
And it was enough for us to be with our father who rarely had time for entertainments, like a ball game.
I can’t think that our Dad took us to White Sox games more than three or four times. Never up north to Wrigley Field although we went there with school and Scout groups. We were growing up on the West Side in the Austin neighborhood, right along Madison Street, the city’s north-side dividing line.
When we’d go to Comiskey, Dad would park for free on or near 35th Street about a mile west of the park. Then, we’d walk in and out.
One night after a game, when I was nine or ten and my brother a year younger, we were heading west to our car when Dad saw a man he knew, drunk, falling-down drunk, near a hot-dog stand.
David and I didn’t know the man, and we were scared at the reality of an adult so out of control. Dad steadied the man, and I figured that was all that needed to be done. Instead, our father led the man to our car and drove him home. Then, drove us home.
That’s probably my most precious memory of my father. And Comiskey Park was part of it.
I took my own son David to Comiskey when he was about three. As we walked in the gate, one of the workers reached out and handed David a ball. This wasn’t one of those giveaway nights. This had been a foul ball that the worker had gotten earlier, or maybe one he’d gotten that night during batting practice.
David, whose first word was a solemnly intoned “ball,” liked the gift, maybe a bit too much. If it had been me, I would have carefully stuck the ball in my pocket to retain as a souvenir of our visit to the park that night. Not David. He was only three, after all. He wanted to throw it – on the cement and down the grandstand stairs. He eventually just plain lost it. Ah, well.
What I remember most about that night was that David had zero interest in watching the game. He had no grasp of baseball, and our seats were too far from the action for him to think that those guys in white and gray, so far from our inexpensive seats, high behind home plate, were any more real than on a television screen.
And it was late. And he was fussy. So, taking this small energetic guy, filled with curiosity, by his tiny but surprisingly strong hand, I began walking with him under the grandstand. He’d stop and look at this and that – a garbage can, a piece of cardboard, a painted drainpipe. We walked under the first base side grandstand, and under the outfield seats and bleachers, and under the third base side grandstand until we were near our seats again.
We went all the way around at least once. Maybe we went another half circuit. And then it was time to go home.
That was another treasured moment. We were at a baseball game that night, but, much more, my son and I were sharing a unique moment, together in our little two-person world. And Comiskey was the setting.
I think of these things as I stand out here at the mound on this frigid morning in March.
Comiskey’s bricks and girders, its spaces and sightlines, its railings and light standards seem infused with my father and my son and my brother. And my own love for baseball.
I am standing where Lou Gehrig, my baseball idol, once stood, saying a few words to a Yankee pitcher. Sixty feet away is where Jimmie Fox stepped into the batter’s box many a time – and Frank Robinson and Ted Williams and Rod Carew and Cal Ripken.
This dowdy structure is filled not just with White Sox memories but, even more, with baseball memories. And with just plain memories.
This place has been where couples have dated and families have celebrated. Where wide-eyed Cub Scouts watched Camilo Carreon, in all his catcher’s gear, dive three rows into the stands for a foul ball. Where complete strangers exchanged fevered speculation on when Zeke Bonura would break out of his slump. Where tens of thousands of people, together, as one, shared moments of great joy – and great despair.
That’s the thing about memories, though. When this structure is erased from the face of the earth, those memories will remain.
And, standing here at the mound, I know that this moment, too, will be a memory I will cherish.
It’s not the bricks and steel that are important. It’s the people.
And they remain alive in my heart.