Spring training for baseball fans

March 24, 2015

General

Podlasek’s was where as just a boy I first was accused of being brainwashed into being a Cubs fan.

On the way home from, well, just about anywhere, dad would stop in at the neighborhood tavern at 47th and Kedvale on Chicago’s southwest side — White Sox territory. Since I was invariably wearing my Cubs cap, I was invariably verbally harrassed and ridiculed by the suds-sipping gentlemen on the bar stools.

I call the teasers gentlemen because they’d regularly buy dad a Pilsner and a root beer “for Eddie’s kid.”

When my father was in his formative years in the 1930s the Cubs had winning teams, which is why he was a Cubs fans.

A Nice Little Place on the North SideThanks to dad, if graditude is in fact appropriate, I’ve been a fan of the Chicago National Leauge Baseball Club literally since birth, a lifer as my Cubs fan brother-in-law Mike says, his words leaning toward meaning fated to a life sentence.

Naturally then I loved George Will’s “A Nice Little Place on the North Side,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist’s history of Wrigley Field and my Cubs, published last year upon the 100th anniversary of the ballpark at Clark and Addison. Any fan of the national pastime — not just Cubs fans — will be be entertained by all the baseball lore Will has dug up.

The 194 pages are actually a history of the nation, the world and life itself captured anecdotal style, because Will works into his book connections that Ernie Banks’ “friendly confines” have had with war, politics, organized crime, racism, love, McDonald’s, beer, and of course, chewing gum.

The famous, oft-told baseball stories are all there and superbly rendered in detail: Babe Ruth’s alleged “called shot” home run in the 1932 World Series; Gabby Hartnett’s “homer in the gloamin’ ” in 1938; the disastrous Lou Brock-for-Ernie Broglio trade; the Bartman foul ball episode in the 2003 playoffs; and the full, expletives-adjusted text of manager Lee Elia’s tirade against booing fans.

The obvious characters are all there, too: owner William Wrigley, his reluctant successor son P.K., Hack Wilson, Leo Durocher, Banks (of beloved memory!), Harry Caray and the infamous “College of Coaches,” plus personalities readers may not have known have a Wrigley Field connection, including Al Capone, Jack Ruby, Ray Kroc and Jim Thorpe.

The stories Will shares and enhances so well with his own research and that of previous Cubs historians understandably couldn’t possibly include everything in Wrigley’s hundred-year history, yet a few classics seemed to be missing, including:

walt moryn• Walt “Moose” Moryn’s catch of a sinking line drive to end the game and save Don Cardwell’s no-hitter in 1960.

• The tragic off-season plane-crash death in 1964 of Kenny Hubbs, the Cubs’ errorless game record-setting, Gold Glove-winning, rookie of the year second baseman.

• Carl Sandburg making the book but not Ryne Sandberg, who in 1984 hit a game-tying home run off legendary closer Bruce Sutter in the ninth inning, then a game-winning two-run homer off Sutter in the 10th, on the nationally televised “Game of the Week.”

Props, however, go to Will for giving the appropriate credit to each and every one of the sources of the tales he shares. And for writing a truly satisfying book that even has a few religious notes.

New Yorker essayist William Zinsser is quoted comparing baseball fans to “parishioners,” who every half-inning pause “to meditate on what they have just seen,” and the author himself finds that fans cheering “a kind of prayer in a secular setting that somehow helps their teams’ successes.”

It would have been easy for Will to take the “lovable losers” theme too far, but “A Nice Little Place on the North Side” avoids what could easily have turned cloying.

Instead Will puts a professorial spin on being a Cubs fan, terming it “a lifelong tutorial on delayed gratification” and Wrigley Field “the most pleasant of purgatories.”

There’s baseball trivia on these pages enough for a game-full of between-innings challenges, and any fan who picks up the book now can consider it their own spring training.

Opening day, after all, isn’t that far away.

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About Bob Zyskowski

Bob is the Client Products Manager for the Communications Office of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. A 42-year veteran of the Catholic Press, he is the former Associate Publisher of The Catholic Spirit. You can follow him on twitter or email him at zyskowskir@archspm.org.

View all posts by Bob Zyskowski