2001 Farewell, Coach
I stood quietly at the side of the bed, a 54 year old child. I looked down at my father, or at least at the body that had been my father. He looked so frail for someone who had always been a “larger than life” sort of presence. Until this moment, I had never experienced being with someone at the exact moment of their death. I thought to myself, “Where did you go?” If you don’t believe in a soul, witnessing death will certainly make you start to wonder, at the very least. I had heard that just before you die, your life passes right before your eyes. I found it strange, and I wasn’t ready for it, but, it was at that moment of my father’s death, that HIS life passed before MY eyes.
1954 Every Boy Plays
I stood outside the apartment building with my father. We lived in a Chicago neighborhood on the North side of the city. Chicago was proud of its park systems. This was the reason that many sections of the city were named after a park located in that same area. We lived in Albany Park and our building was located on the corner of Albany and Argyle. Just across the street was my park.
River Park got its name because the Chicago River divided the park into two. On the side bordered by the West, by Albany, was the first park and across the river, to the East, was the second park bordered by Francisco Avenue. On the East side, was where the field house was located; along with the swimming pool, several baseball diamonds, tennis courts, and a playground.
It was a Sunday, which meant we were on our way to visit one of the many relatives that lived in the area. That’s what families did in 1954. I was seven years old, and most of the time happy to spend Sundays playing with my cousins.
We were waiting for my mother and sister while enjoying the warm spring day. There was activity in the park. In the first park, Sunday morning usually meant a couple of 16-inch softball games had started. Windy City Ball was the game. For anybody not familiar with Windy City Ball, it was a baseball game played with a 16-inch ball called a “clincher”. Fresh out of the bright red box it was packaged in, the clincher was crisp white with stitched seams that formed a “figure 8”; it was as hard as a rock and no one played with a mitt. The team that was fielded was made up of ten players. The tenth guy played a position called “short center” and was positioned in the area right behind second base. The ball was pitched underhand with an arc, which led the rest of the country to think of the game as a “sissy sport”. The players who had broken their fingers from mishandling a line drive in the early innings of a game would disagree.
From my apartment, I could hear the distinct noise the minute the bat made contact with a ball, which was always followed by a band of players yelling. It was a sound that I had awakened to every single Sunday morning of my life.
I was looking into the park and couldn’t help but notice three 12 year old boys crossing the street and walking in our direction. It was my father who noticed that two of the boys were crying. He stopped and asked them what was wrong. In these days, the boys thought nothing of stopping and talking to my dad. This was a time of innocence, when you trusted the people in your neighborhood regardless of if you knew them or not.
The boys shared that they had just received word that they had not been picked to participate in the baseball league run by the Chicago Park District. It was standard procedure that you had to try out; and the fathers of the team would judge you. If you weren’t picked, you didn’t play. My father removed his cigar from his mouth. Back then, the only time you saw my father without a cigar was mealtime and when he went to bed. “What do you mean you can’t play ball?” he asked. The boys repeated what they had just told him.
I did not know it at the time that that chance encounter on that Sunday morning would forever change the face of Little League Baseball in Chicago.
So started the amazing journey of a man whose life would take him in a direction that he could have never foreseen. I am not sure if it was the next day, but it was shortly after that chance encounter with the boys that my father went to see the Park Director at River Park. There were no ramps or wheelchair access entrances to the old field houses. The field houses were the epicenter of each park. At River Park, you climbed the several cement steps to the double doors under the numbers “5100”, pulled open the door, and stepped onto the tile floor. To your right was a small office and the first of two staircases that led up to the meeting rooms on the second floor. To the left, were glass cabinets and display cases. When you reached the halfway point in the building, there were open entryways on either side that led to the largest rooms. To the right was the gymnasium and to the left was the auditorium and washrooms. Just outside of the gym was a cloakroom that doubled as an equipment room where the bats and balls were stored. Against the other wall was a candy machine that had a perpetual “out of order” sign over the coin slot. At the end of the building on your right was a small office for the Athletic Director and on the left, the Park Director’s office.
That office had a glass window facing the outer hall along with a door with a glass window. It was surprisingly small. Against the wall on the left was a desk and a leather couch which consumed the entire space. As soon as you entered the office, you were up against the front of the desk. This setting did not invite casual visitors. Instead, it was a “state your business and move on” type of arrangement. When you looked down at the desk, there was a bronze nameplate with “Emmanuel Schwartz” engraved in large letters.
Emmanuel “Manny” Schwartz was the authority and the first and last word in his domain. In 1954, like all of the other municipal jobs in Chicago, a Park Director was part of Mayor Daley’s patronage machine. You held your job because of what you did for the Democratic Machine or because you knew someone that had the ear of the powerbrokers who ran the city. Manny ran a good park. The facilities were spotless. There was constant activity on the second floor for senior events and other organizations that used the park as their meeting place. In the warm months, there was an olympic size swimming pool directly beside the rear of the field house. In the spring and summer, the boy’s baseball league was in full swing. I don’t think Manny ever took his job for granted. I don’t ever remember him sitting too long at his desk. He was typically checking all around to make sure people were doing their jobs, jumping up to quiet kids that were shouting in the hall, or directing people who were looking for their group. Things were under control and sailing smoothly, up until the moment he found my father standing at his desk.
I’m still not quite sure of the trigger that “set off” my dad; maybe seeing the boys cry, maybe his love for the game of baseball, maybe the perceived injustice of the decision making process. I suspect it was all three.
I do imagine that when he introduced himself to Manny he came off as a disgruntled parent talking about how he thought it was crazy to turn boys away from the park. Manny explained that this was the way it was done in every park in the city. My father countered that this did not make it right.
To Manny’s credit, when he found out that the man occupying the doorway to his office did not have a son who was old enough to play, he didn’t dismiss him.
Instead, he listened patiently while my father explained why he thought that a public park should open up the program to every boy who showed enough interest to try out.
There were a lot of aspects of playing baseball that would benefit a child: the sport itself, learning about teamwork, socialization, competition, learning good sportsmanship, etc. As compelling as Manny may have thought my father’s argument was, his bottom line was that this is the way it was done. “What am I supposed to do?” was basically his final word regarding the issue.
It occurred to my father that he would not win this argument with words. It would take something more dramatic. Perhaps a demonstration that would be irrefutable and make the “powers that be” in the park district administration to take notice. It was then that he issued a challenge to Manny. “Give me a list of the boys who were rejected. Give me bats, balls, and shin guards. Give me a chest protector, a catcher’s mask, and the summer to work with the rejects. At the end of the year, my boys will play a game against a team made up of your hand picked all stars.
“If we lose, you’ll never hear a peep out of me again. If we win, you will go to the Chicago Superintendent of Parks with me and plead the case for making park district baseball programs available for every boy that wants to play.”
It will never be known whether Manny liked the idea, or just saw agreeing as his best bet to get this lunatic out of his office, but the challenge was accepted. Manny and my dad shook on it. Manny promised that a list of boys and their home phone numbers would be provided to my father along with baseball equipment and bases the following week. My father walked out of the field house chomping on his cigar, ready to battle. He had a lot of phone calls to make to the list of boys, his team to be. They would be his “Rinky Dinks”; he chose this name for the group of rejects who eagerly accepted the chance to play.
That summer consisted of my father coming home for a quick dinner after putting in a full day’s work, and then driving to the field house to pick up the equipment bag and meet his boys at the baseball field in the first park across from our apartment. I do not remember the exact schedule, but it was at least two evenings a week along with Sunday’s during the day. The boys were enthusiastic and eager to learn, but not very talented. He had to start with the simple basics:
- Field a ground ball by getting in front of it
- Block the ball with your body so that if you don’t field it cleanly, you can still block it and pick it up and continue to make the play
- Catch the ball before doing anything else- whether playing the field or simply throwing
- If you are thinking too much about the throw before you have control, you will blow it
- Anticipation/ Think ahead
- Know the game situation
- If a ground ball comes to you, where are you throwing?
- If it’s a pop up, where are you looking after the catch?
- How many outs?
- Where are the base runners?
The main tool for learning was a “fungo” bat. It was long and thin and my father wielded it like a surgeon. Put the team in the field. Call the play. Hit a grounder to the shortstop and while they’re busy making that play, hit another ball to an outfielder in an opposite field. My participation was to stand next to my father and field the balls thrown in and then toss them to him. I can see him holding the bat with his right hand, catching my toss with his left, tossing it up, and WHACK! He was a machine, placing balls exactly where he needed them to be in order to get the desired result for the play he was calling. He never quit. He had forearms like Popeye and when he hit a fly ball to the outfield, it took, what seemed like forever, for the ball to come down. He perfected the “tongue exposure” before Michael Jordan was a twinkle in his father’s eye. He was never Mr. Patience at home but showed great forbearance when it came to teaching the game that he loved. The boys in the field could feel it. He hammered on the defensive part of the game. This, of course, is not the sexy part of baseball.
Everyone wants to hit. “When do we get to bat?” they yelled. “When you learn how to field your position,” he responded.
Help came from some of the fathers and when there was no help, the boys who showed promise worked with their teammates. Pitching and batting came next:
- Learning how to stand in when you’re afraid you’re going to get hit by the pitch.
- Staying back on the ball, timing the swing, and stepping in towards the ball.
There is a language to hitting that my father taught without giving it thought. “Keep your eye on the ball! Stop swinging for the fences! When you over swing, your form falls apart. Any old kind of hit will do. That ball had eyes!” It is said that the most difficult thing to do in sports is to hit a round ball with a round bat coming at you at a speed that requires instantaneous response. These boys were determined to prove their mastery of this challenge.
Slowly, things took shape. It became apparent who the natural hitters were, who could play what position, and who could consistently put the ball over the plate with a little “pizazz”. The mantras of “Let’s hustle out there!” and “Stay alive!” was most of the continuing chatter that began with my father but soon enough, were mimicked by his boys. I learned they meant “pay attention”. Also, often heard was “Let’s talk it up out there, I can’t hear you!” and “Let’s Hustle!” Always hustle.
It was hard work but it was fun. The boys could see the progress in their individual performances and with that, came self confidence. It was clear that my father was teaching so much more than just baseball. Teamwork and sportsmanship. Success and failure. Cheering for a teammate when he was doing something good and encouraging a teammate when he was screwing up.
Inter-squad play allowed for the experience of game situations. The boys became a unit as the summer came to a close. My father promoted a closeness that meant more than being together on the field. In the continuing spirit of “you can’t know what you like unless you’ve tried it”, my dad would have the boys over on a Friday night and teach them poker. If it wasn’t a practicing day but we ran into a group of players at the park, we would get into a circle and play “hot potato”. The object of the game was to keep the ball moving. First, sending the ball around in a circle clockwise until someone yelled, “Reverse!”, and then the ball moved counter clockwise. At some signal, you could throw to anyone in the circle just as long as you kept it moving. If you dropped a ball that you should’ve caught, you were out. The same rules applied if you made a bad throw. When you were “out”, you left the circle. The smaller the circle, the faster the ball moved. Fun, laughter, and sharpening the sport’s skill was the recipe of every day.
His boys were ready. It was time for the big game. In my father’s eyes, they had already won no matter the outcome. However, that did not mean this game was any less important than it was the day it was proposed to Manny. No matter what lessons he had taught his boys, my father did not intend to lose.
The game was played on a Saturday afternoon in the second park on a field that had a baseball backstop with fences down the line for each of the teams. The importance of the game was not hyped, although the coaches that had rejected the boys that they were about to play knew that it would be an embarrassment if their all stars were defeated.
Although I can’t remember play by play details, I know that when the last out of the 6th inning was called and the dust had settled, my dad’s team won. The rejects had proven their place on the field, but more importantly my father had won the bet.
It didn’t take long for Manny to keep his side of the agreement. An appointment was made with the Chicago Park Superintendent who listened to the story of the “bet” and the outcome. A decision was made- River Park would become the pilot program and if it was successful, it would be implemented throughout Chicago. From that point on, every boy who wanted to play was allowed to play.
My dad formed the River Park Athletic Association, presided as President for the next seven years, and adopted the motto, “Every boy plays”.
This great story continues as it has impacted thousands of boys, and now girls, and is still the way baseball programs work in Chicago to this day. We even have the newspaper articles to prove it!
Fred Sherman is a Chicago native. A lawyer by trade, his life is his family, kids and baseball.