Syl Johnson in his garden, August, 2014 (Photo by Paul Natkin)

Syl Johnson in his garden, August, 2014 (Photo by Paul Natkin)

 

 

Syl Johnson digs deep for his soul.

Last month I visited the global rhythm and blues singer at his home, studio and garden on the south side of Chicago.

I’ve known Syl for 30 years and have great memories of his late 1980s days as owner of Solomon’s Fishery, a chain of soul fish restaurants in the Loop, west suburbs and Gary, Ind.

Syl was likely the first African-American chain restaurant owner in downtown Chicago and no one has disproved that statement.

Syl will tell you that when he appears with his big band in two sets starting at 8 p.m. Sept. 12 at The Promontory , 5311 S. Lake Park in Chicago. “I’m not African-American,” he declared in his living room that is adjacent to a kitchen with an autographed picture of Oprah Winfrey. “I am black, a descendant of the slaves.”

Last month Syl was tending to cantaloupe, corn, cucumbers, butternut squash, zucchini squash and watermelon in his garden.

He started his garden four years ago in a vacant lot (50 feet by 125 feet) directly south of his home. He grows year round by deploying a canopy. Syl usually is working in his garden during the morning hours.

“I didn’t want anybody to build on the land next to me,” he said. “So I cut it down with a Bobcat (compact tractor). I get the topsoil, dig a hole, stick a plant in there, about ten inches in diameter and ten inches deep. The topsoil holds the moisture and you don’t have to put in fertilizer.” He keeps his garden healthy by watering with rain water.

Syl is truly growing organic.

He does not sell his produce. He gives away his food, and indeed, handed off cucumbers to me and my photographer  as we arrived at his house. He should be performing at Farm Aid this weekend. “Good God almighty, I grow more than I need,” he said. “I give some to the lady neighbors but the senior citizens don’t want nothing. I give some to my musician friends.”

Syl once catered a lunch at Harpo studios on the near west side of Chicago.

“I think about the business and songs when I am in my garden,” said Syl, who is 78 but looks like he is a healthy 48. “Want a watermelon?”

He suddenly looked down at a scarred cucumber. “Black ass crows pecked them when I was in Japan,” he said. “That’s why I put up the (artificial) owl. He don’t like that. The wind blew down my scarecrow.

Syl was interested in the book on civil rights and soul food that I had just wrapped (due October, 2015 on Chicago Review Press with portraits by Paul Natkin). Syl even wanted to write a song about the topic.

Syl Johnson feelin' the fro.

Syl Johnson feelin’ the fro.

He is no stranger to such fare. In 1969 he recorded the scorching 7 1/2 minute jazz-blues anthem  “Is It Because I’m Black” which peaked at number 11 on the Billboard rhythm and blues charts. The hypnotic arrangements were done at the Chess Studios by the late Donny Hathaway who used a similar motif for his own hit “The Ghetto, Part 1″

In 2013 Syl released the song-story “Carry On for Trayvon,” which he recorded with his daughter Syleena two days after the George Zimmerman acquittal was handed down in the Trayvon Martin trial.

“Let me tell you where soul food came from!,” he said. “The freedom riders. White people were hungry. They went down the street and found good food down at the ‘soul’ place. White folks named it soul food. It was just food. They had good black-eyed peas and neck bones and chitterlings. But soul people didn’t know anything about nutrition. They just cooked.”

Syl cooked up his own fish recipe from the Saturday night fish fries in his native Holly Springs, Miss. There is no starch and little cholesterol in the Johnson family recipe. The fish are basked in celery, garlic, onion and pure vegetable oil, using liberal amounts of whole- wheat flour and meal with “secret” health ingredients.

Syl Johnson uses rain water in his garden. (Paul Natkin photo)

Syl Johnson uses rain water in his garden. (Paul Natkin photo)

 

“Most doctors will tell you the oil from the salmon is the healthiest fish oil in the world,” he said. “Don’t take my word. We don’t cook with white flour, we cook with wheat flour. We don’t cook with corn meal.” Syl once told me he named his chain Solomon’s because he didn’t really want to name it Salmon’s.

Syl was excited about his Hyde Park gig and figured people will have a whale of a time.

“I don’t like playing with small bands anymore,” he said. “I’ll have five horns, four rhythms and three background singers at Hyde Park. This way I can put on a show. My songs are R&B not just blues.”

In the 1970s, when Syl was recording for Hi Records in Memphis, James Brown spun a hit off of Syl’s 1971 dance tune “Annie Got Hot Pants Power.” Foghat covered Syl’s “Back For a Taste of Your Love,” more recently tackled by Jonny Lang and in 1975 Syl had his own hit with a deep blues version of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River.”

His down-to-the groove 1967 tune “Different Strokes” has been sampled by at least 50 artists including the Beastie Boys (“Desperado”), Michael Jackson (“Blood on the Dance Floor”), and Public Enemy (“Fight the Power”).

Expect to hear the new Bob Jones composition “I’m the Roots to the Blues” (now available on iTunes), which Syl sings in falsetto Marvin Gaye “Trouble Man” era tones. He recorded the tune in July, backed with a nine-piece horn section.

Syl’s garden is true to his roots. He lives in the same neighborhood where he landed in 1950 when he came to Chicago on the City of New Orleans train. He was 16. He still hosts an annual summer reunion fish fry with his brother, Chicago blues great Jimmy Johnson. The event takes place at his home, close to his heart.

“Here’s my story,” he said  as he leaned over from his favorite living room chair. “If you pull a tree out of the ground, the limbs, the branches and the roots look the same don’t they? But cut the branches and tree blossoms out and they are beautiful again. Cut the roots?

“ Dead tree.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

L.C. Cooke portrait by Paul Natkin

L.C. Cooke portrait by Paul Natkin

L.C. Cooke sits on a regal chair in the center of the pulpit of Christ Universal Temple church in Calumet Park, just south of Chicago. He is surrounded by an air of satisfaction.

There is light, but there are no shadows.

Cooke, 81, is the brother of  Sam Cooke, gospel icon and member of the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

L.C. Cooke has released his first music in 50 years and he is here to share the good news.

“The Complete SAR Records Recordings” hit the streets a few weeks ago on ABKCO Records, the label of future Beatles manager Allen Klein. Fourteen  tracks were cut between 1960 and 1964 under the  supervision of Sam Cooke. The first ten tracks of the CD were planned for an L.C. Cooke solo album but the project was shelved after Sam  was murdered on Dec. 11, 1964 at the Motel Hacienda in Los Angeles. He was 33.

Until now, L.C.’s music has only been heard in snippets, on the 1994 “SAR Records Story 1959-65)” on ABKCO and with Clay Hammond, Willie Rogers and others on the 1990 P-Vine import “We Remember Sam Cooke.”

The "L.C." in L.C. Cooke sometimes stands for "Loads of Charm."

The “L.C.” in L.C. Cooke sometimes stands for “Loads of Charm.”

L.C. sounds a lot like Sam, except where Sam was a crooner, L.C. sings in more playful tones.

His sense of diction clearly comes from the pulpit and back in the day the purity of L.C.’s vocals were compared to Chicago jazz-soul singer Dinah Washington. Of particular note is the “session chatter” on “Gonna Have a Good Time” from the compilation. Sam tells L.C. to “remember our heritage” by pronouncing “before” and “fore.”

“That’s the only thing Sam ever told me,” L.C. says in a late August conversation at the church.  “I was saying bee-fore, which was the correct pronunciation.  But Sam wanted me to keep it black. “

“The Complete SAR Records Recordings” include Sam’s top of the line session players like drummer Earl Palmer, teenage organist Billy Preston and guitarist Bobby Womack. Sam Cooke wrote or co-wrote 12 of the 17 songs on the album.

A ringer is L.C. Cooke’s composition “Do You Wanna Dance (Yea Man)” recorded in March, 1965 at Universal Recording in Chicago. With an introduction reminiscent of the Isley Brothers “Shout,” L.C. takes call and response gospel to the dance floor. Background singers include two sisters of late Chicago soul singer Major Lance and David Cooke,  L.C.’s last surviving sibling.

If there’s Bob Dylan’s “Basement Tapes” there can be room for L.C. Cooke’s “Heaven Tapes.”

Cooke’s long time wife Marjorie Cook (Cook is the family birth name) is assistant minister of Christ Universal Temple.L.C. and Marjorie’s first date was to see Jackie Wilson at the Regal Theater in Chicago. L.C. is a long time member of the church. His face is as smooth as his inner soul. Over the last couple weeks he has been asking about my mother’s illness and he sends prayers her way. L.C. is a good man.

L.C. Cooke was his own singer before September, 1960 when Sam ushered him into United Recording studios in Hollywood, Ca. In 1959 L.C. was recording for the Checker imprint of Chess Records in Chicago and two of those tracks appear here: the L.C. Cooke compositions “If I Could Only Hear” and “I’m Falling,” a cresting, hand-clapping soul rave.

“We didn’t allow Leonard Chess in the studio,” Cooke says with a firm smile.  “As a matter of fact we put him out. He couldn’t tell me how to sing. Sam told me I should be with his label.” In addition, L.C. would own publishing rights at SAR.

Here is L.C.’s “Put Me Down Easy,” which combines the honey soaked vocals of the Cooke family with my love of Carolina Beach Music. There are two versions of the track on the new CD:

Sam Cooke formed SAR Records in 1959. He was the first African-American artist to own his own record company and publishing. SAR stood for founders Sam Cooke, Alex (as in his manager J.W. Alexander and Roy Crain, Cooke’s road manager and the founder of the Soul Stirrers. Cooke also signed artists like Bobby Womack and bluesman Johnnie Morisette (“The Singing Pimp”) to SAR.

Image 1-2

“Sam wrote the songs for my personality,” Cooke says. ‘Take Me For What I Am.’ (a 1963 jubilee gospel-pop number that leads off the record)  ‘Put Me Down Easy’ (a swing tune cut in 1964)”

The dance track “The Wobble” is a fine companion piece to Sam Cooke’s 1962 hit “Twistin’ the Night Away.” The lush, looping strings and boastful lyrics of “The Lover” create more cheese than you would hear in a Sam Cooke song.

L.C. sang in a higher register than his older brother. He explains, “I had sense enough to know I couldn’t be Sam singing Sam. His wife could not tell me from Sam on the telephone because our voices were so much alike. I came up with my own thing. I sound like Sam, but I don’t sing like Sam.”

L.C. (which does not stand for anything) Cook was born Dec. 14, 1932 in Clarksdale, Ms. His family left Clarksdale when L.C. was two months old. “My mother (Annie Mae) brought all of us on the Greyhound bus,” he says. “My father (Charles Cook, Sr.) left Mississippi with 45 cents and preached his way to Chicago. He preached at mostly white churches. He would tell them the truth and they accepted the truth.”

L.C., his mother and father and seven  siblings settled at 35th St. and Cottage Grove on the south side.

“I have good memories,” he says. “We lived in a four-flat building. Two apartments in the front, two in the back on each floor. You could go from one porch all the way to the other.  Me and Sam were entrepreneurs as kids. Sam got his styling from (the pure, gliding tenor) of William Kenny of the Ink Spots. They sang all those pretty songs and that attracted Sam because he had the voice for it. So I would knock the (apartment) door and someone would come to the door. Sam would start singing. When he got through I would pass the hat. They couldn’t refuse us. I was 7 or 8, Sam was 9 or 10.  Sam had the personality that could charm a bird out of a bush. We made some kind of money. Imagine all the apartment doors we knocked on.”

L.C. Cooke fronting his group the Upsetters circa 1966 in a mid-south club.

L.C. Cooke fronting his group the Upsetters circa 1966 in a mid-south club. L.C. inherited the Upsetters from Sam Cooke.

Not long after settling in Chicago, Charles Cook, Sr. began a regular ministry in Chicago Heights. He drove 30 miles to the south suburb.

“We eventually started a family group called ‘The Singing Children’,” Cooke says. “I sang bass. Sam sung tenor. My sister Hattie sang baritone. My older sister Mary sang lead. Mt brother Charles sang lead. We sang in churches. At one time we were so popular we had our own limousine. My Daddy had a Dodge limousine and a Cadillac limousine.”

The Cook family lived well. As early as 1942 they owned one of the few wind up phonographs in the 3500 block of South Cottage Grove.

Away from the church, Sam and L.C. became part of the loosely formed “Dirty 30′s ” group  that sang along the sidewalks of 35th Street near Doolittle School. “Me and Pervis (Staples of the Staple Singers) sang in the same group,” he says. “He doesn’t live too far from me in Pops (Staples)  house. Lou Rawls. Johnnie Taylor came up with us later. Johnny Carter of the Dells. My group (the Nobleairs) was the first quartet he ever  sang with. After the family group broke up I got my own group and Sam named us the Nobleairs.” The group was singing in the Noble nightclub.  At the time Sam was singing with the Highway Q.C.’s. Rawls replaced Cooke in 1951 when he left the Q.C.’s to join the Soul Stirrers.

Cooke continues, “There was a streetcar line that ended at 35th and Cottage Grove. Everybody had to get off the street car. Ain’t  nothing but a crowd. Me and Sam were savvy enough to stand on the corner and sing when everybody was getting off the street car. Here’s what he told me when I was seven years old. He had 12 wooden popsicle sticks and he would stick them in the ground. And he would sing to these sticks. He said, ‘To me, they’re not sticks. They’re people. I’m grooming myself to sing to an audience.”

Sam Cooke in his Bob Dylan phase.

Sam Cooke in his Bob Dylan phase. Cooke thought he should have written “Blowin’ In the Wind,.” released in 1963. So he wrote the 1964 civil rights anthem “A Change is Gonna’ Come.”

L.C. Cooke has no plans to perform the music live and discounts theories that the songs were lost.

“ABKCO was so busy putting out other  people,” he says.  “That’s all I can tell you.” In recent years ABKCO has released compilation projects of early Rolling Stones and Animals music as well as Herman’s Hermits and stuff from the Cameo-Parkway label (Chubby Checker, Dee Dee Sharp and others.) “Allen Klein offered to give me the music in 1986. But I refused it. I just said, ‘When you put more stuff out send me some money.’ He said, ‘We don’t pay artists first.’ I said, ‘I’m L.C. Cooke and you’re going to pay me first and if you don’t I will come to New York. And if I come to New York you wouldn’t like it.

“That’s how me and Allen Klein got to be tight. He later sent me $20,000.  See how good God is? Ever since then ABKCO has been taking care of me. I get a check every month. They treated me fair. When Allen died (in 2009)  his son started the same thing. I get a new car every three years. One is sitting out there right now. I pay for nothing but gas, oil and to have it cleaned. That’s how good ABKCO is to me. Allen always said if he hadn’t met  Sam (Cooke), he wouldn’t be  where he was. I know that’s how he got the Beatles (in 1969). John Lennon said if he could manage Sam Cooke, he could manage the Beatles.”

 

 

Sophie (left) and Liz on the last day of the Busy Bee (Courtesy of Chester Madej.)

Sophie (left) and Liz on the last day of the Busy Bee (Courtesy of Chester Madej.)

Sophie Madej was always let down when one of her regular Busy Bee customers left the Wicker Park neighborhood. She uplifted spirits while serving pierogis, sour cream spinach soup and potato pancakes between 1956 and 1998 at one of Chicago’s most famous diners.

Mrs. Madej died on Aug. 21 in her northwest side home. She was 86 years old.

The Busy Bee, 1546 N. Damen, was defined by a shoebox shaped diner counter and bright yellow walls you would find in your Grandmother’s kitchen.

Many customers sat on old  stools,  faced each other and sometimes yelled at each other across a service area at breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Urban intimacy  is why the Busy Bee was a honey comb for everyone.

Chicago Mayor Harold Washington loved the Busy Bee’s oxtail stew, activist Abbie Hoffman recommended the budget conscious menu for anti-war protestors and the authentic Chicago vibe made the Busy Bee a photo-op for Hillary Clinton, Sen. Edward Kennedy and Dan Rostenkowski. At one time the Busy Bee sponsored a Damen Avenue bowling team and everyone along the counter read newspapers. That was a long time ago in heart and soul.

The famous Busy Bee counter

The famous Busy Bee counter (Photo by Dan M. Parker)

Mrs. Madej’s early years were directed by cruel winds, which is why she understood the importance of roots.

A native of Poland, Mrs. Madej was moved to Germany in 1943 under the Nazis forced labor laws. She met her husband Henry in 1947 (they divorced in 1985), where they remained until 1951 when Catholic Charities gave the couple $100 to sponsor their trip to America. The young couple came to America with two suitcases and two children. Henry worked on a cattle farm in Virginia for a year before they migrated to Chicago to settle in a larger Polish community. In 1955 Mrs. Madej found work at the Rose Packing House, originally at the Back of the Yards and later in Stickney.

“I worked on the slicing machine,” Mrs. Madej said in several conversations I had with her over the years. “We’d pack Canadian bacon and ham for the supermarkets. There were about 30 women in one room. They paid good, but I couldn’t take the cold anymore.” Mrs. Madej’s doctor told her to quit her job.

At the time Mrs. Madej was living at 18th and Damen in Pilsen. A friend told her that the Busy Bee was for sale. The Busy Bee had already been renamed from the Oak Room, which opened in 1913.

6180187388_48a0efb111_z

Exterior photo by Dan M. Parker

Mrs. Madej did not know how the Busy Bee got its name. She did not know anything about the restaurant business. She sold her house in Pilsen. With that money she bought the entire Busy Bee building in the early 1970s, a deal that included 16 upstairs apartments.

While all the action was at the front  counter, the Busy Bee also included a more sedate dining room north of the diner area. A favorite dining room tonic was the “Busy Bee Stinger” (brandy, white creme de menthe and a dash of krupnik, a Polish honey liqueur.). The bees began buzzing after a few of these drinks.

In the early years her work day began at 4 a..m. and ran until 10 p.m. Mrs. Madej  rode the Damen Avenue bus north from her home in Pilsen to Wicker Park. After the 1968 Martin Luther King riots, the Wicker Park area took a turn for the worse and her older children started picking Mrs. Madej up at night. During the riots someone threw a brick through the front window of the Busy Bee.

All her children: Elizabeth, Hank, Chester and Robert worked at the Busy Bee. “She worked very hard to make all her customers feel like family,” Chester wrote in a Saturday e-mail. “It was her heart that made it work. We all worked there, the grand kids, because it was all about Sophie. She did a lot for the Wicker Park neighborhood. That took a lot of guts, courage and personal pride to make it happen.”

Few people said, “Let’s go to the Busy Bee.”

More people said, “Let’s go to Sophie’s.”

I moved to Wicker Park in 1981, which is Jurassic Park in hipster years. I left in 1986 for Ukranian Village, and although I lived close to the Busy Bee, Mrs. Madej still would scold me for leaving the neighborhood. I remained a regular devotee of the handmade meat, cheese and potato pierogis which Mrs. Madej said was her mother’s recipe. During the Christmas season the Busy Bee would sell 1,000 pierogi a week. The dough was the power point. Mrs. Madej kneaded the dough, striking the exact balance of flour, eggs and water. This ensured that the dough would enclose the filling and not break open while being boiled.

Hillary Clinton at the Busy Bee (Courtesy of Chet Madej)

Hillary Clinton at the Busy Bee (Courtesy of Chet Madej)

In June, 1998 Mrs. Madej retired at age 70 and closed the Busy Bee .

Sophie was the last of a breed of old school female service industry entrepreneurs in Chicago that included Margie of Margie’s Candies, Phyllis of Phyllis’s Musical Inn and Marie of Marie’s Rip Tide Lounge. Shakespeare District cop William Jaconetti composed the prose for a historic plaque that community members put outside the restaurant, now the Blue Line Tap and Grill.

“Sophie is the pioneer of this neighborhood,” Jaconetti told me over lunch with Mrs. Madej. “They talk about community policing? It starts at a place like this. At tough times she was always here for the police. For every demonstration, for the Rolling Stones concert (at the Double Door across the street), she stayed open so the police would have somewhere to go. This didn’t happen because it was a business. She did something special. She opened the doors to everyone.”

Mrs. Madej had a triple bypass operation six months after selling the Busy Bee. She spent the rest of her life doting on her grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Sophie with Chet Madej's daughter and her grandaughter on the grandaughter's 1st birthday on July 19

Sophie with Chet Madej’s daughter and her grand daughter on the grand daughter’s 1st birthday on July 19.

In 2003 I invited her back to her old place which was rebuilt as the Blue Line Tap. It was her first time in the building since she retired. She cried. “I spent my whole life here,” she said while sitting next to a jukebox stocked with Fatboy Slim and not Lil’ Wally.

I showed Mrs. Madej a copy of the book “The New Polish Cuisine,” written by former Chicago chef Michael J. Baruch. She was intrigued, especially by the angle that many Poles were vegetarians because of the abundance of religious holidays that required fasting.

In a subsequent interview Baruch called the Busy Bee “a very historical restaurant.” He elaborated, “The greatest lesson I learned from the Busy Bee was Polish peasant hospitality serving gourmet fare. Great chefs snuck in there. I was a sous chef at Le Francais, Jovan and Cafe Provencal and I’ve seen a lot of places close. It wasn’t until the Busy Bee closed that I saw people cry.”

The magic was simple at the Busy Bee.

“I often wondered what I got into,” she told me in 1990 over supper at the Bee. “I said, ‘Sophie, what did you do now?’ When I came in at six (a.m.) I used to do the register. Or at night I’d cook. When you’re here this much, people get to know you. Then they see you’re not a snob, but a plain working woman trying to make it….why that’s all it is.”

Besides her children, Mrs. Madej is survived by seven grandchildren and 12 great grandchildren. Funeral mass is 10 a.m. Aug. 25 at St. Monica Church, 5115 N. Mont Clare.  She will be buried at Resurrection Cemetery in Justice.

 

 

Former NBA Commissioner David Stern (L) and Joe Lee (Courtesy of Charles E. Newman)

Former NBA Commissioner David Stern (L) and Joe Lee (Courtesy of Charles E. Newman)

Any passionate Chicago Bulls fan would recognize the forever young looking African-American passing out towels and soaking up blood, sweat and tears  behind the home bench. I saw this gentleman as a fan in the 1970s and he was in the house in 1990 when I covered the Bulls for the Chicago Sun-Times.

In the early 1990s I had a chance to talk to Joe Lee, who was the Bulls equipment man since the franchise’s birth in 1966.

Wanting to sit down with Joe Lee is what made me “different” in the eyes of some observers. Wink-wink.

But I learned about Mr. Lee’s gentle soul and his love for music that went beyond doing post-game laundry with equipment manager Johnny Ligmanowski.

Mr. Lee died on Aug. 4, three days before  his 78th birthday. He had been battling declining  health.

During the 1990s Mr. Lee worked for the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation. He had been a groundskeeper for the Chicago Park District. Mr. Lee was also a part-time mobile disc jockey known as “The Golden Lion” and worked all Bulls home games. “He hurled garbage during the day and comforted Michael Jordan in the evenings,” his cousin Charles E. Newman wrote me on Aug. 12, the day of Mr. Lee’s memorial service.

Music was the great common denominator for Mr. Lee.

Joe Lee 2

In an early 1990s conversation he told me he made a mix tape of Motown and jazz-organ music of Jimmy Smith for Bill Cartwright. Michael Jordan received a contemporary rhythm and blues tape featuring Whitney Houston and Patti LaBelle. He made a rap tape for Scottie Pippen.

A few days before I visited his home, Mr. Lee had spun records at a Bobby “Blue” Bland-Johnnie Taylor concert at the Sabre Room in suburban Hickory Hills. He loved James Brown and the JB’s and included the Godfather of Soul in many of his mix tapes.

Mr. Lee lived on the south side. His basement was jam packed with stereo equipment, blues and jazz records and speakers. An upstairs room was devoted to Bulls memorabilia: a couple of sets of gym shoes that were gifts from Jordan, his championship rings and five handmade cardboard scrapbook posters that traced back to the beginning of the Bulls franchise.

Mr. Lee was a fan, no doubt about it. He showed me snapshots of ex-Bulls Jerry Sloan, Randy Ayres, draft bust Tate Armstrong and even the original Super Fan who ran circles around the Chicago Stadium.

“I know I’m not one of the superstars,” he told me in soft tones. “I may not always know how to express it, but I’ m very thankful. When the Bulls won their 1,000th (franchise) game Scottie Pippen gave me his (game) shoes. He said, ‘They’re yours homeboy’.” Pippen is from Arkansas.

Mr. Lee was born in 1936 in Clarendon, Ark.

He was adopted as an infant to Frank and Viola Lee. His father died when he was four years old. Mr. Lee is survived by his long time companion Lorraine Williams,  a son Darnell, two grandchildren and several cousins.

No modern day figure spent more time involved with professional basketball in Chicago than Mr. Lee.

His hoops career began in the 1962-63 season for the now-defunct Chicago Zephyrs. He actually was a ball boy who retrieved loose basketballs in the stands. “The Zephyrs played at the Chicago Coliseum where there was a heat problem,” he told me. “I had to go downstairs two to three days before game day and fill up the radiators with pails of water to keep the building warm. And the players all had the same shower. I remember how (Walt Bellamy and others) had to yell out who would shower first before the hot water ran out.”

In the summer of 1966 original Bulls owner Dick Klein announced formation of the team. Mr. Lee wrote Klein a letter and became the Bulls’ first hire. Two weeks later Klein hired his head coach, the late great John “Red” Kerr.

100_7952-2

There were no Bulls players at Mr. Lee’s memorial service at the W.W. Holt Funeral Home in Harvey, Ill. Newman reported “four or five” front office members attended and the Bulls organization sent a framed Bulls jersey with “No. 48, Joe Lee,” honoring the years he served the team.

One of Mr. Lee’s favorite songs, the Tamela Mann contemporary gospel ballad “Take Me To The King” was played at the service.

Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau sent roses and the Bulls also sent a floral arrangement of white roses and lilies. “Joe loved roses,” Newman said of a golden lion who could tame the giants.

Courtesy of Charles E. Newman

Courtesy of Charles E. Newman

 

 

 

 

 

globe

CHARLESTON, S.C.–Only by traveling do you discover where you belong.

I have been down that road a couple times this summer, whether it was dancing to Beach Music in the sand of North Myrtle Beach, S.C. or just taking a memory trip under a full moon to the Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City.

But a lasting image of the summer of 2014 is seeing my friend Mike Veeck addressing the Charleston River Dogs fans after “Disco Demolition 2” at Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Park in Charleston, S.C.

Besides Veeck, I would argue I am the only other person who has attended both Disco Demolitions. The July 19 event involved blowing up Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus records in a large hand crafted boom box that was placed at second base after the game. And this was not a double header like the July 12, 1979 smack down at Comiskey Park in Chicago that forced the forfeit of the second game against the Detroit Tigers.

Bs72zMSCEAAOOxO

“Disco Demolition 2: You Better Belieb It” was a sell-out with 6,259 fans filling the house for the Class A affiliate of the New York Yankees. Veeck told me before the game that fans and not the front office had requested a second Disco Demolition. There was a tounge-in-cheek (sorry Miley) sense of anticipation after the game as the River Dogs showed Chicago television news footage of the Comiskey event on the center field video screen. A handful of players from the visiting Augusta Green Jackets watched from the dugout. I was amused by the four Charleston policemen who lined the field in case of a “riot” or something.

DSCN6589

Nothing happened.

But something happened within Veeck’s words.

He sincerely thanked the Charleston fans for understanding his whims and making him feel like he belonged since he arrived in Charleston in 1996.

Besides being promotions director for the White Sox in 1979, Veeck has been involved with minor league teams in Butte, Mt., Fort Myers, Fla., St. Paul, Mn., the minor league version of Miami Miracle (one of the first teams he co-owned with Chicago Cubs fan Bill Murray) and a short lived stint with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays where he marketed a Lawyer Appreciation Night in which attorneys were charged double for admission.

I’ve talked to Veeck on and off over the past 25 years and I know of his challenges in growing up under the shadow of his Baseball Hall of  Famer father Bill Veeck, former White Sox owner.

Veeck’s words of belonging resonated with me. I was driving around the south this summer working on my next book. I had conveniently put Charleston on my agenda to fetch a Bill Veeck “Bobble Leg” doll, which  was the main hook of the July 19 game.  Bill Veeck would have turned 100 on Feb. 9. I also needed to do a follow-up interview in Charleston.

AR-140719647.jpg&maxw=400&q=90

It was my second trip to Charleston this baseball season. The first visit was on May 29 and I was just embarking on a  reaffirmation of fun and spirit after leaving my job of 29 years.

Veeck is something of a guru for me.

I keep a copy of his business book “Fun Is Good (How to Create Joy &  Passion in Your Workplace and Career) ” [With Pete Williams, 2005   Rodale Press] next to my desk–right next his father’s “Veeck as in Wreck.” I live by some of these ideas.

Mike Veeck writes that when you maintain a childlike curiosity you develop a  mental edge. For example, when his father was a consultant for National Bohemian Breweries he was curious why beer didn’t come in square cans.

Bill Veeck, a fine beer drinker, maintained you could get 25 per cent more beer in a milk-carton shaped beer can. He was told the idea wouldn’t work because square cans couldn’t roll down conveyer belts.

But Veeck never stopped being curious.

This is what I was worried about in late May, just a few days before my birthday. Where did I belong? Can you learn fun? I was curious to find answers.

“Absoutely,” Veeck answered. “You can learn fun. You have to have plans. And you have to arrange the plans. The best things I’ve found  are unannounced things. Unannounced time off. And change something in the office every week and see who notices it. You gotta have kids day.  Hang real art that touches people, not something some guy bought because his job is procurement. Hospital workers and education administrators–not teachers–used ‘Fun is Good’  People who get  stretched. Police forces.”

Riley Park is on a peninsula west of downtown Charleston near the banks of the Ashley River. The stadium features a “Shoeless Joe’s Hill” on a berm in the far right field corner. The section honors former Chicago  White Sox “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. “They gotta put him in the Hall of  Fame,” Veeck said as he looked out at the corner. “He’s a South Carolinian. He wasn’t smart enough to be in on the (Black Sox) fix.”

A Cubs fan (left) and a White Sox fan (right). Photo by Libby Veeck

A Cubs fan (left) and a White Sox fan (right). Photo by Libby Veeck

 

Veeck said the Cubs invited him to represent the Veeck family at a 100th Wrigley Field Anniversary event this season. “You know for the  first time I’m worried about my reputation!,” he cracked. As of Aug. 11  there’s been no word of honoring the Veeck family at Wrigley Field,  even though it was Bill Veeck who came up with the idea of planting ivy on the outfield walls. His father William Veeck, Sr. was president of  the Cubs from 1919 until his death in 1933.

Veeck is also worried about the future of baseball.

“Pitch counts are killing the game,” he said in May, before Cubs manager Ricky Renteria went nuclear with his drawn out replay appeals.  “I hate them. But for the first time people from the major leagues are zeroing in on the minor leagues. When you and I first met what used to be  ‘bush’ suddenly is if they can monetize it they love it. They’re moving  men and women up from the minor league front offices into the major leagues. That’s their effort to relate to kids marketing. Look around. You can see how much younger it is here. These kids all flip baseballs  into the stand and sign autographs. If you have 40 Derek Jeters,  baseball is in much better shape. Access, access. You gotta get that ball in the hands of a 7-year-old.

“Then you have a fan for life.”

Besides Charleston, Veeck is involved in ownership with the Hudson Valley Renegades (a Tampa Bay affiliate) and the independent league  River City Rascals near St. Louis, the Normal Corn Belters near  Bloomington, Il. and the St. Paul (Mn.) Saints. “The Replacements are  playing Sept. 13 at our stadium in St. Paul,” he said. “They sold out in 10 minutes.” Remember, it was Veeck who came up with the then-unprecedented idea of the Bob Dylan-Willie Nelson 22-city 2004 minor league baseball stadium tour that he took to Jam Productions in  Chicago.

I did pitch the “World’s Largest Shag Dance” to Veeck for his South Carolina ballpark. He hasn’t got back to me yet.

Here is an example of Shag dancing to Beach Music in the Carolinas:

There were more than 6,000 fans at the May game in Charleston due to a “Thirsty Thursday” dollar beer promotion. “I’m so excited,” Veeck said. “This is the biggest crowd we’ve had since the last week of last year.”

The River Dogs had partnered with Palmetto Brewery in Charleston to serve the limited edition Homefront IPA—a pale ale  brewed with oranges and aged with Louisville Slugger baseball bats! Since I drove to Charleston last month I was able to bring home a couple of remaining six packs I found at a place called Bottles in Mount Pleasant, across the river from Charleston.

Of course I was curious.

Hack Wilson, 1930, my favorite beer drinking Cub.

Hack Wilson, 1930, my favorite beer drinking Cub.

I found out the brewmaster is former Seattle Mariners/Baltimore Orioles pitcher Chris Ray. While he was pitching for Seattle in 2011 he approached Fremont Brewing in Seattle. Ray created a recipe where unused maple bats are added to conditioning tanks as part of the beer’s conditioning process. Ray retired in 2012 and along with his brother now owns and operates the Center of the Universe Brewing in Ashland, Va.

When Homefront IPA hit the streets in May, 100 per cent of proceeds benefited Operation Homefront, which provides emergency financial assistance and other needs to family members of wounded warriors and other service personnel. The effort, called “Hops for Heroes” expected to raise more than $200,000 through 800 limited edition barrels brewed by 11 breweries across America.

Veeck said he is working on another book, “Another Boring Derivative Piece of Crap Business Book.” He smiled at his full stadium and said, “That’s the name of it. It’s stories. People talk about Millennials and especially guys my age (63), talk about them in condesending terms. I’m going to tell you these kids are smarter than I ever thought of being. And fun resonates with them. I was at a seminar at Wichita State last week. People are, ‘Why are you so pro-Millennial?’ I answered, ‘Very simple. They watched their fathers and mothers lose their farms. Have their 401 k depleted. And we were just sorting tickets with two 21 year old interns. One of the young women said, ‘I’m having a blast doing this.’ That’s not the way people usually feel about internships. The guys in my generation should be worshiping at their temples instead of ‘Fun? Why do I want to have fun?’

“Because it is over in a blink of an eye.”

I’ll be dishing  Cubs-White Sox in a gallery talk at 4 p.m. Aug., 15  at the Elmhurst Historical Museum, 120 E. Park Ave. in downtown Elmhurst. The free talk is in conjunction with the museum’s current exhibit, “Sox V.S. Cubs: The Chicago Civil Wars.”  I will try to explain how even though my first major league game was at Old Comiskey Park, I became a Cubs fan.

 

securedownload-3

Get up. Stand up.

Live music is back at the iconic Wild Hare reggae club.

A two-year battle to present concerts at the Wild Hare, 2600 N. Halsted in Chicago, culminated on July 29 when the club announced a series of free shows to begin on Aug. 1.

The popular Chicago reggae band Gizzae will appear with Dub Dis, Fucha and Friends at 9 p.m. Aug. 1. Indika, Gizzae with vocalist Ugoch, a.k.a. “The African Butterfly,” , Drea, Boombostic and friends will perform at 9 p.m. Aug. 2. A bunch of local musicians will jam out with roots reggae music in a Lollapalooza after party on Sunday, Aug. 3.

Expect live music on Thursdays through Sundays, according to partner Asrat Selassie. He co-founded the original Wild Hare in 1985 at its 3530 N. Clark St. location in the shadow of Wrigley Field.

Over the past two years efforts to obtain a PPA (Public Place of Amusement) license had been denied at least three times by the city.  Alderman Michelle Smith (43rd) said her constituents were concerned about traffic and late live music hours—even though the Wild Hare is just a block north from the Kingston Mines blues club (open until 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. Sunday) and B.L.U.E.S.

The Wild Hare had been arguing for the right to have live music since it opened in mid-July, 2012 in a former Notre Dame-themed sports bar.

I bet they weren’t noisy at all.

Nosiree Bob. Marley.

“The city wanted a compromise proposal and our attorney (Thomas R. Raines) advised us we could settle this out of court,” Sellassie said on Tuesday night.

The Wild Hare came up with a compromise and the city accepted it.

The major pivot point was the club’s agreement to end live shows an hour before 2 a.m. closing on all nights but the 3 a.m. Saturday closing. The Wild Hare also is providing free parking validation or voucher for any patron with paid admission for a live concert  at the Home Depot across the street. On other days the lot will offer  $5 discount parking.

The WIld Hare Lounge Room (Courtesy of Wild Hare)

The WIld Hare Lounge Room (Courtesy of Wild Hare)

For the past two years the Wild Hare has been serving Caribbean food and the only music has previously recorded tracks. Don’t miss the authentic pimento wood-smoked jerk with seasoning and pimento imported from Jamaica.

Sellassie said the dragged out court fight cost the Wild Hare “about $100,000.”

Why did the Wild Hare hang in there?

“First, we thought we were right,” he answered. “Second, we had committed to a (5-year) lease. There was no way out of it. We would have lost a lot more if we had just walked out. We didn’t want the Wild Hare to die.”

The Wild Hare is arguably one of the most historic reggae clubs in America.

It is at least important to Chicago’s emerging world culture as a Star Wars museum on prime lakefront property.

Toots and the Maytals, Billy “Caribbean Queen” Ocean and Jimmy Cliff appeared at the Hare. In the late 1990s Lauryn Hill met her future companion Rohan Marley at the Wild Hare after a Fugees concert. Toots and the Maytals headlined the club in 2008.

The club’s first national booking are  The Meditations on Aug. 16. The Meditations laid down background vocals for Bob Marley, Gregory Isaacs and others.

The Wild Hare is a point of entry for tourists and Caribbean immigrants to Chicago.

Selassie was born in Ethiopia and came to the United States as a pre-med student in 1973, attending Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. I met him in 1982 when he was drummer of the Ethiopian reggae band Dallol, which played its first show at the Wild Hare & Singing Armadillo Frog Sanctuary–then a country music bar. Selassie and his bandmates took over operation of the Wild Hare in 1985.

About 3,000 Ethiopians live in Chicago, many of them refugees who fled the Communist regime of  Mengistu Haile Mariam (1974-1991).

In late 2012, the Wild Hare delivered to the city a petition of nearly 1,000 signatures of support from across the country. Musicians such as Stephen Marley, Junior Marvin of the Wailers and Toots Hibbert of Toots and the Maytals came out in  support of the Wild Hare’s quest for live music.

The entire club holds 260 people. The 155-seat concert room is smaller than the original Wild Hare’s capacity of 400 people. In order to accommodate neighborhood concerns, soundproofing measures have been taken to a higher level.  A floating three-layer sound proof ceiling has been installed in the music room. A high stage features double curtains including the original velour Wild Hare stage curtain that baffles sound behind the performers.

L to R: Wild Hare partner Joel McCarthy with Stephen Marley (center) and partner Asrat Sellassie this week before Marley's show at the Double Door

L to R: Wild Hare partner Joel McCarthy with Stephen Marley (center) and partner Asrat Selassie this week before Marley’s show at the Double Door

Besides Selassie, current partnership consists of audio engineer Joel McCarthy, Ruphael Woldermariam, who is Gizzae’s keyboardist and William V. Glastris, Jr., a Chicago private equity investor and former concerts director for the A&O Board at Northwestern University. Glastris said, “We tested the sound system to make sure we were good neighbors. We had the city , the alderman, building department and our neighbors in and showed them the work we had done. We were very well received.”

On Wednesday afternoon Mika Stambaugh, Director of Communications for the city’s Business Affairs and Consumer Protection (BACP) said, “A plan of operation is in place to ensure the concerns of the community continue to be addressed. The City Of Chicago is committed to keeping responsible businesses open and healthy throughout all neighborhoods.”

Glastris said, “We are so excited for the artists, local fans and many visitors who have long come to Chicago to see live reggae. We were very fortunate to have so many supporters in Chicago and all over the reggae world who stuck with us and are very thankful that we were able to work out an agreement with the city that was fair and responsive to the needs of the neighborhood.  We are all about harmony – everyone is truly welcome at The Wild Hare. This was a community  effort.

“This weekend is going to be a feel good event.”

Selassie added, “The support was sustaining. At no time did we ever feel alone.”

Greer Stadium, June 2014

NASHVILLE, Tn.—The guitar shaped electronic scoreboard always struck a chord with me.

It was a sweat-crawling evening in 1993 when I saw my first game at Herschel Greer Stadium, the home of the Class AAA Nashville Sounds. The 53-feet tall, 60-feet wide guitar scoreboard offered an immediate sense of where you were.

Music City. Big dreams.

The big ax in center field would be like having a handgun shaped scoreboard in Chicago. Or a parking meter.

On my first visit to Greer I heard about Conway Twitty being a part owner of the Sounds and that resonated with me. I liked country music then more than the pop stuff I hear on the radio today.

Well, now Conway is dead and Greer ain’t feeling too good either.

After 37 years, Greer is making its last call. A new downtown stadium is being built on the historic site of Sulphur Dell (Athletic Park) where baseball was played between 1870 and 1963.

Greer is the third oldest Class AAA ballpark in America, behind McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, R.I. (1942) and Cheney Stadium in Tacoma, Wash. (1960).

Greer is going out quietly. There is not a lot of fanfare and farewell promotions. I planned a late June Nashville trip to get a commemorative Greer Stadium giveaway. Something went wrong in production and I walked away with a Don Mattingly Sounds tee shirt. He played for the Sounds in 1981.

My favorite minor league baseball scoreboard was not up to par. The temperature section of the scoreboard did not work because old parts are hard to find. At one time a Jack Daniel’s logo adorned the pegheads on the neck of the guitar. Now there are yellow smiley faces.

Die-hard locals talk about the ramshackle condition of the stadium (cap. 10,300) as if it were a crazy uncle. Bleacher seats are weather beaten. The concourses are Greer are moldy and rusty. That’s why I find Greer so beautiful.

Everything doesn’t have to be clean and pretty. The best country music is ragged but right.

Honesty was in the air when I visited Greer and that is a good thing.

22ChaptA-2

 

I met Farrell Owens, the first Sounds general manager (1978-82). His father Leonard was a Church of Christ minister and Owens speaks with the deep and pure rhythms of a preacher. I met Sounds historian Bill Traughber, a thorough man who sends me background stories in the middle of the night. Memories always come alive in the dark. I watched the game with my brother Doug, who lives in Nashville. We kept score.

For when the One Great Scorer comes

To mark against your name,

He writes – not that you won or lost –

But how you played the Game.”—Grantland Rice.

Doug and I discussed the idea of writing this dispatch in the overly poetic style of Tennessee sportswriter Grantland Rice. It was Grantland who tagged Athletic Park with the name Sulphur Dell. Athletic Park was built in an area known as “Sulphur Springs Bottom” because of a natural sulphur spring.

Sulphur Dell (Courtesy of the Nashville Sounds)

Sulphur Dell (Courtesy of the Nashville Sounds)

“The story goes that in 1908 ‘Dell’ made it easier for him to find words to rhyme with,” Traughber said.

And during my June visit a gentle rain came over Greer towards the end of top Brewer prospect Jimmy Nelson’s 5-0 masterpiece over New Orleans.

Evoking the spirit of Grantland, I told my brother the raindrops were honey-soaked tears in my beer at Greer. He did not walk away.

Before my final game at Greer I met Owens and Traughber in the grandstands behind home plate.

Owens looked out at the stadium and said, “It’s changed some but the guts are the same. We didn’t have suites.”

Owens pointed to a cluster of faded blue seats behind the first base dugout. “We got those seats from the (Fulton-County Stadium) outfield from the Atlanta Braves,” he said.  “We were not a new stadium when we were new. We didn’t have electricity 30 minutes before the game. But people came, drank their beer and ate their hot dogs. We won. Everyone was happy.” Nashville beat Savannah 12-4, even though Sounds relief pitcher Larry Rothschild gave up three runes in one-third of an inning.

Greer Full Cowbell 511 (2)-2

 

Herschel Greer (1906-1976) was a successful Nashville financier and huge baseball fan. He served as the first president of the Vols, Inc. which kept professional baseball alive in Nashville.

The Vols (Volunteers) were the name of the team that played in Nashville between 1901 and 1963 and included alumni like Kiki Cuyler and future Cincinnati Reds Jim Maloney and Jim O’Toole. Greer Stadium was built for $780,000 in seven months on the site of four church league softball fields.

 

Larry Schmittou was the original owner of the Sounds. He operated the team from its 1978 beginning until 1996 when he retired from minor league baseball. “It was the mid-1990s (1993) when he wanted to do that scoreboard,” Owens said. “At the beginning Larry and I thought we were going to sell enough season tickets and we couldn’t. We decided to form a partnership.”

The major investors included country stars Twitty, Larry Gatiln, Cal Smith, Jerry “Amos Moses” Reed and Richard Sterban (bass singer of the Oak Ridge Boys). This is why they are called the Sounds.

“(Bill Anderson, Dottie West drummer) Snuffy Miller liked the idea,” Owens said. “He talked to Conway about it. Conway loved baseball. Conway said he’d get Cal Smith, the country bumpkin. Know him? Conway took 20 per cent. Conway would call wanting to know what the score was. I don’t know where he was calling from.” Miller retired from the music business and became a bus driver for the Sounds.

Owens said, “Richard Sterban started coming to every game. He kept wanting me to sell my seven and a half per cent. So I sold him two and a half. He was in until this new regime (East Coast real estate developer Frank Ward bought the Sounds after the 2009 season.) A couple years ago the Sounds had a Richard Sterban bobble head night. “National Anthem” guests have included country stars Lorrie Morgan and Boots Randolph.

Sounds fan Barbara Mandrell and Farrell Owens. (Courtesy of Nashville Sounds)

Sounds fan Barbara Mandrell and Farrell Owens. (Courtesy of Nashville Sounds)

 

“Roy Acuff just loved coming here,” Owens continued. . I remember seeing Emmylou Harris and NRBQ’S Joey Spampinato  (who was married to the late Skeeter Davis) sitting behind the Sounds dugout during one visit. “Emmylou is here a lot,” Owens said.

“Barbara Mandrell was here all the time. She’s a sweetheart. Loretta Lynn. Charley Pride (former Negro League player) was here, not as much as the others. We don’t think anything about it. But Jimmy Bragan (late Southern League president) and his brother Bobby would get star struck if they saw country stars in the stands. When we got ready to bring pro ball back to Nashville that really helped us. They would say, ‘Do you know Roy Acuff? We didn’t but after the first pitch we got to know him. It was a place to be seen. Hopefully when we get the new stadium it will get back like that.”

Some beloved ghosts will be left behind at Greer.

Joe “Black Cat” Riley was the colorful type of fan who stands out in the intimacy of ramshackle minor league ballparks. “He went back to Sulphur Dell, selling programs, whatever,” Owens said. “He had some intellectual disabilities. A loveable guy. He thought he could put the black cat on you. When George Steinbrenner came here in 1980 (as a Yankees affiliate) they became instant friends.” Riley told Steinbrenner he always wanted to be a Yankees bat boy. For the next few years Steinbrenner brought Riley to spring training in Florida to serve as the team’s bat boy, wearing the classic pinstripes.

Orioles manager Buck Showalter was the Sounds 1980 opening day DH when they were a Yankees affiliate. Showalter was more reserved than he is today and shyly told Owens he was interested in dating a “Soundette” cheerleader named Angela.

They have now been married 31 years.

The new Sulphur Dell stadium will be called First Tennessee Park. It is scheduled to be completed by opening day, 2015. First Tennessee Park is just north of downtown and along the Sulphur Dell banks of the Cumberland River. Ironically, Nashville is a member of the Pacific Coast League.

Sulphur Dell’s right field fence was only 262 feet from home plate and the base of the fence was just 25 feet above the infield. Pitchers called the place “Suffer Hell.” In 1954 future Chicago Cub Bob Lennon hit 64 home runs for the Nashville Vols, establishing a Southern Association record. Lennon, who was left-handed, smacked 42 of his taters at Sulphur Dell.

Farrell Owens, June 2014 (D. Hoekstra photo)

Farrell Owens, June 2014 (D. Hoekstra photo)

Owens, 70, grew up going to games at the Dell. “I thought every field was 262 to right and had a dump in right field,” he said. The sulphur spring beyond right field was stinky but that didn’t prevent residents from filling up buckets of spring water for medicinal purposes. Hee-Haw!

“We heard stories that when Babe Ruth came here they wouldn’t let him play right field.,” Owens said. “They moved him to left. My Dad would hold summer time revivals to get us through school, buy our clothes I guess. The revivals would start at the same time the ball game did. But when church was over, we’d go to Sulphur Dell. Because you could always get in by the seventh inning stretch. It was free. I remember hearing Jim Maloney throwing the ball. You could hear the pop in the catcher’s mitt on the radio.”

Archaeologists are monitoring the building of the new ball park.

Earlier this year Native American pottery, ceramics and animal bones were discovered while unearthing the site. No human remains have been found. First Tennessee Park is not the first baseball stadium to be built on an ancient burial ground. Many reports say Wrigley Field is “an ivy-covered burial ground,” as late Chicago songwriter Steve Goodman put it in “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request.”

No one is sure what will happen to the dying guitar scoreboard at Greer. It was estimated to cost nearly $1 million to move and restore it to the new stadium. But a new, 4,200- high definition scoreboard will be featured at First Tennessee Park. It will be one of the largest scoreboards in minor league baseball.

“That is an  absolute must,” Toronto pitcher and Nashville native R.A. Dickey said in the Nashville Tennessean. “I might have boycotted all future games if they changed it. I grew up with that scoreboard. So many great memories.” Shredders unite. As Grantland Rice might write, it’s a new highway to Dell.

 

 

 

sc0003ccdd

Jim Brosnan pitched for the Chicago Cubs, the Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals. He was a fearless craftsman. He once struck out Willie Mays three times in one game. Between 1956 and 1963 Mr. Brosnan compiled a lifetime ERA of 3.54. He was also a splendid writer.

In the summer of 2004 I took Mr.  Brosnan to a Cubs game at Wrigley Field. Chicago-based publisher Ivan R. Dee had just reissued Mr.Brosnan’s groundbreaking 1959 diary “The Long Season” and 1962’s “The Pennant Race.” These honest accounts of the game and the business of baseball would become the template for best sellers like Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four” and Bill Veeck’s “Veeck as in Wreck.”

Writing is not the best way to make money.

I told him if he played baseball today he would be a multi-millionaire.

“Quitting didn’t bother me,” he said. “I was a writer. I was going to be a writer.”

Conviction is  the first step to being a writer. Incongruity is the second step. Humility isn’t bad either. Mr. Brosnan touched all those bases with dignity and eloquence.

Mr. Brosnan died June 28 of complications from a stroke in Park Ridge, according to the July 4 New York Times.com.  He was 84. His passing has been ignored by Chicago media.

Mr. Brosnan quietly kept notes on a pad while sitting in the bullpen during a game. He never showed his manuscripts to anybody. Not even his roommates. Besides writing books, Mr. Brosnan wrote book reviews for the New York Times and the Chicago Daily News. For 25 years he was the baseball writer for Boy’s Life magazine. In the spring of 1968 he wrote articles for the Chicago Tribune magazine like “Moe Drabowsky Leads the League in Supernonproductive Outs,” and the eternally hopeful “Bonehead Baseball is Out, Out, Out at Wrigley Field.”

On road trips Mr Brosnan would pack books by Dostoevsky (not Drabowsky) and John Updike. He also carried a blue-gray 1960s portable Olivetti typewriter.

The typewriter broke in early 2004 when it fell off a shelf. He did not own a computer. He did not have e-Mail. Mr. Brosnan said he stopped writing after his typewriter went down. I wish I had made the effort to stay in touch with him.

Jim Brosnan (Associated Press photo)

Jim Brosnan (Associated Press photo)

Mr. Brosnan liked to zig when the others zagged. He was friends with S.I. Hayakawa, who was teaching at the University of Chicago in the mid-1950s. Hayakawa, who died in 1992, moved to San Francisco in 1955 and was later elected to the U.S. Senate from California.

“In 1958 I was with the Reds and we were in San Francisco,” Mr. Brosnan told me as we watched Cubs pitcher Mark Prior (Mr. Brosnan complained about Prior bugging the plate umpire for missing pitches.)  “He [Hayakawa] calls me on the telephone and says we’re going to see [jazz great] Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines. He was a big baseball fan, too. I gave him a baseball cap.”

This, of course, is before ball players were addicted to Game Boys.

Mr. Brosnan’s book collection included all of Ogden Nash’s poetry books and the entire 17-volume edition of Mark Twain’s writings, which he inherited from his wife’s family.

In 1958 Mr. Brosnan wrote a diary piece about his season with the Cardinals. He sent the story to a new magazine called Sports Illustrated. An editor at Harper & Row saw the article and asked the pitcher if he could expand his text. “Win or lose, it didn’t make any difference to him,” Mr. Brosnan said. A good editor is about latitude.

And with that, the seeds of “The Long Season” were planted.

The baseball community did not like the book. Cardinals broadcaster Joe Garagiola called Mr. Brosnan a “cooky beatnik.” Mr. Brosnan’s St. Louis manager Solly Hemus offered this blurb: “You think Brosnan’s writing was funny? Wait until you see him pitch.’ Future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson  nicknamed Mr. Brosnan “The Professor,” due in part to his Coke-bottle glasses.

In “The Long Season” Mr. Brosnan wrote about scheming with fellow pitcher and future Cub Ernie Broligio on how they would soft toss to each other so they could get some base hits. Mr. Brosnan was called into Commissioner Ford Frick’s office for that passage. Frick wanted to ban “The Long Season.”

Writers loved “The Long Season.” Iconic New York columnist Red Smith wrote, “A cocky book, caustic and candid, and in  way courageous…he doesn’t hesitate to name names and employ ridicule like a stiletto.”

Mr. Brosnan was born on the west side of Cincinnati. His Irish father John was a lathe operator at the Cincinnati Milling Machine Co. His German mother Elizabeth was a piano teacher and nurse. Between the ages of 10 and 15 Mr. Brosnan divided his time between ball fields and the library. “I read whatever my mother told me to read,” he told me. “Until I got a hold of Joseph Altsheler’s early 1900s novels. Nowadays, I can’t find him in the Morton Grove, Evanston or Niles library. From him, I learned how to distinguish the good words from the bad words. I learned about voice.”

Mr. Brosnan learned how to develop his conversational, yet direct style. He liked James Thurber. The only baseball-related momento Mr. Brosnan kept in his house was a Thurber sketch of a baseball catcher that he hung in his bathroom. Thurber had invited Mr. Brosnan to be a guest on his Sunday talk show in New York City.

Mr. Brosnan learned new word by playing crossword puzzles.

He liked one sentence paragraphs.

Mr. Brosnan saw the writing in the wall in 1963 when the Reds shipped him to the White Sox for the weirdly named pitcher Dom Zanni. “When I arrived at the airport, [Sox general manager] Ed Short met me and said, “You can’t write here either. Period.  I was hoping for a little better welcome than that. I responded with a four-letter word that begins with ‘F.’Hey, by that time I had sold two pieces, one to Atlantic Monthly and the other to Sport magazine.”

In March, 1964 the American Civil Liberties Union intervened and accused the White Sox of violating Mr. Brosnan’s rights. Short offered  Mr. Brosnan another contract in the spring of 1964 that included a drop in salary and a formal ban on writing without approval of management.

Mr. Brosnan retired from baseball.

20589a

Mr. Bronsan and I stayed for the entire game on a sunny summer afternoon. The old 6’4″ pitcher had trouble standing up for the seventh-inning stretch. He grabbed a box seat for support. He had endured two knee replacement operations. I brought Mr. Brosnan’s “Pennant Race” to the game.  I leaned over and read Mr. Brosnan one of my favorite passages:

To get to [Cincinnati’s] Crosley Field, I usually take a bus through the old, crumbling streets of the Bottoms. Blacks stand on the corners watching their homes fall down. The insecurity of being in the second division of the National League–in the cellar-leaves me. For 25 cents, the bus ride gives me enough humility to get me through any baseball game, or season.”

Mr. Brosnan fidgeted in his seat. He looked away and then looked at me.

“That was one of the best writing days I ever had,” he said of that passage. “I finished that about 5 in the morning. Writing it over and over, trying to get in everything I felt, but also to stick it in somewhere. We were going to play a lot of games.”

Mr. Brosnan saw things in life that others missed.

His measured sense of perception is what made him a gifted pitcher and a precious writer.

Mr. Brosnan’s wife of  62 years– Ann Pitcher–true–died last year. They lived together for 58 years in the same house in Morton Grove. He is survived by children Jamie, Tim and Kimberlee, a brother Michael and four grandchildren.

A memorial visitation will be at  Simkins Funeral Home, 6251 Dempster St. Morton Grove, Sunday, July 20th from 1 p.m. until  4 p.m. memorial service.  In lieu of flowers, donations to Paralyzed Veterans of America 801 18th St. NW Washington, D.C. 20006.

 

The World's Largest Drive-In Loew's M & R Loew's Double Drive-In. Opened in 1950 and closed in the mid- 90s. It was at 2800 W. Columbus near Marquette Park  in Chicago. The drive-in had three screens and  could accommodate 1,800 cars. (Photo by Jim Indreika, Courtesy of Theater Historical Society of America)

The World’s Largest Drive-In 
M & R Loew’s Double Drive-In. Opened in 1950 and closed in the mid- 90s. It was at 2800 W. Columbus near Marquette Park in Chicago. The drive-in had three screens and could accommodate 1,800 cars. (Photo by Jim Indreika, Courtesy of Theater Historical Society of America)

One good thing about Jimmy Buffett’s “Drive-Ins Nationwide” concert is how much easier it will be to get in and out of the parking lot than at Alpine Valley, Wis. or the First Midwest Bank Ampitheatre in Tinley Park, Ill.

Buffett and his Coral Reefer Band appear at 8:45  p.m. (CST) June 19 at the Coyote Drive-In at Panther Island in Fort Worth, Tx. The concert will be broadcast live to 87 drive-ins across America. It is also a test run for the new Margaritaville TV  station Buffett launched a couple of weeks ago. He may plug the station tonight on television with Jimmy Fallon.

No music act has ever synched up a concert with drive-ins.

Not even the Cars.

The closest Buffett concert venue to Chicago is the beautiful 49er Drive-In, 675 N. Calumet in Valparaiso, Ind. The ‘49er was built in 1956 and has nearly 600 parking spots.

Beginning at 4 p.m. June 19, those 21 and older can enjoy food, drinks and the live Island 49 band play from 5 p.m.-7:30 p.m. at the ’49er.  Tickets are $18 each and can be purchased by visiting Live at the Drive-In.

I’m for anything that brings attention to the plight of the American drive-in. And with so many people talking at concerts these days, here’s a concert where you can gab loudly in the privacy of your own car.

In his 1973  hit “Grapefruit/Juicy Fruit” Buffett sings: “Grapefruit, a bathin’ suit, chew a little juicy fruit/ Wash away the night. Drive in, you guzzle gin, commit a little mortal sin/ It’s good for the soul.”

That song was inspired by the Islander Drive-In on Stock Island, adjacent to Key West, Fla. The Islander opened in 1953 and closed in 1984.

Jimmy Buffett during his drive-in days.

Jimmy Buffett during his drive-in days.

According to his live album “You Had To Be There,” Buffett took a date to see the 1972 Rip Torn movie “Payday” (about a country singer who tours around the country in a Cadillac that amplifies his tendency for extreme behavior), where they mixed up cheap Gilbey’s Gin with Welch’s Grape Juice to create Purple Passions, and then “had a good go at it.”

Music on the film was provided by Ian and Sylvia Tyson as well as late Key West/Chicago resident Shel Silverstein.

The drive-in theater debuted in 1933 when tinkering chemist Richard Hollingshead erected a 30-by-40-foot screen behind his shop in Camden, N.J. The Chicago area’s first drive-theater was built in 1941 in Morton Grove.

By the late 1950s more than 4,000 drive-in movies were part of America’s landscape.

Today there are less than 350 drive-in movie theaters.

The drive-in theater took on television, VCR’s and DVD’s, but the death knell came as movie distributors transitioned  from 35 mm to digital film. Many operators cannot afford the conversion which can cost between $80,000 and $100,000.

Proceeds from the Buffett concert will be used to help drive-in theaters make the change.

I have a place in my heart for the Theater Historical Society of America in Elmhurst, Ill.

I grew up in the long shadow of the Skylark Drive-In on the border of Aurora and Naperville, Ill. The Skylark opened in 1962 as the wonderfully-named Tee & See because it was adjacent to a golf course.

As the Skylark in the mid-1970s I remember watching mainstream porn while drinking Sloe Gin Fizz’s in Row 5. Ironically, I would see half of the varsity golf team in Row 5. The Skylark closed in 1987.

What happened to the Skylark happened to many drive-in theaters. The land value became too much to support the theater. Unbeknownst to me, in May of 1988  my father wandered around the weedy parking lot to take pictures (the dates are marked on the back of the photos) and to salvage a couple of drive-in car speakers.

That is the curator in his soul.

Those Skylark car speakers are now in the Theater Historical Society of America museum. The museum also has drive-in signage, drive-in movie blueprints and digital copies of intermission drive-in reels.

“Drive-ins are getting even closer to extinction,” Richard Fosbrink, Theatre Historical Society Executive Director told me on Monday. “The studios are stopping all print releases very soon. If people have not converted to digital now, they won’t be able to. Converting to digital was a cost saving measure for the film studios. It is much easier for them to ship a plastic box with a digital hard drive than an actual film print. And then there’s the decaying issue with film. When drive-ins closed at the end of last season many have not reopened in the last six weeks.”

Last year Honda launched Project Drive-In, which awarded nine digital projectors to vintage drive-ins based on over 2 million votes. Drive-in lovers Maroon 5 contributed an autographed license plate as part of the fund raising drive.

Visit Project Drive-In to see the interactive map of drive-ins across the country.

To make a real event out of the Buffett concert, fans can also trek to the Midway Drive-In in Dixon, Ill. or the Field of Scenes in Freedom, Wis. And should you miss the Buffett show, America’s greatest rock n’ roll band NRBQ with Chicagoans Scott Ligon and  Casey McDonough will be at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn  at 9 p.m. June 21.

No one has recorded a better drive-in song than NRBQ’s 1983 pop hit “Rain at the Drive-In.”

Find your partner on South Oakley Street. That’s my pal Jack D’Amico on vocals (Photos by Lou Bilotti)

Like a locket that hangs close to your heart, the Oakley Festa Pasta Vino Italian Festival  is timeless.

And it swings, too!

Taste of Oakley, as it is more commonly known, is my favorite summer Chicago neighborhood festival. It takes place Father’s Day weekend along the overlooked enclave of Oakley Avenue and 24th Street and incorporates superb family run restaurants like Bruna’s Ristorante, 2424 S. Oakley and La Fontanella, 2414 S. Oakley, a favorite of the late great Chicago Sun-Times food critic Pat Bruno.

There is zero hipster factor at Taste of Oakley. People are wearing black, sure, but it is all in their hair. The tradeoff is families enjoying Italian Ice and ravioli on humble city stoops. Bookings include Frank Sinatra impersonator Jack D’Amico, who appears with a trio in a salute to Tony Bennett (7 p.m. June 13) and festival organizer Ron Onesti hosting a tribute to the late crooner Jerry Vale with Johnny Maggio and Jack Miucccio and Vale video clips (7:45 p.m. June 13 on the main stage.) Vale was the first singer to have a song inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame with his 1963 recording of  “The Star-Spangled Banner” that was played at Yankee Stadium.

At the trendiest Chicago festivals you will hear the Beastie Boys.

Expect lots of Jersey Boys at Taste of Oakley.

The long standing storefront restaurants and twinkling Italian lights of the Oakley neighborhood remind me of Arthur Avenue in the Little Italy section of the Bronx, N.Y.

It reminds Onesti of something much deeper.

Onesti grew up on Taylor Street, about 14 blocks north of Oakley.

His late father Alberto was a World War II veteran and a custom tailor at his father’s tailor shop, 1020 S. Western at Taylor. Onesti, 52, began his life in the same building where his father was born. His mother Gabriella is from Florence and Alberto was from Salerno near Naples, Italy. Alberto met Gabriella in Florence during World War II.

Ron Onesti

Ron Onesti

“My wife is from the Oakley neighborhood,” Onetsi said in a recent phone interview. “When I was in high school I came across that neighborhood…..

“Hello father…”

Onesti was talking while donating food to the Our Lady of Mt. Caramel Church in Melrose Park and Father Feccia of the Italian Cultural Center walked by.

Onesti stopped to spread the good word and continued, “In high school I took about 9 girls from Oakley Street to proms and dances. I happened upon those restaurants. About 10 years after that the neighborhood was going down and they wanted to establish a festival. I had been doing Italian festivals since I was 17 years old at Navy Pier and other places. The people on Oakley asked me to help them. And now this is the 24th year.”

The neighborhood is called “The Heart of Italy in the Heart of Chicago” and Bruna’s is the oldest restaurant on the strip. Bruna Cani opened the restaurant in 1933 and still features original oil-painted murals.

This weekend stop by the La Fontanella booth where owner-chef Franco Gamberale will be cheerfully dishing out arancini (rice balls), stuffed arthichokes, beef and grilled sausages.

Somehow I don’t see Grant Achatz doing this on a Saturday night in Chicago.

“The festival brings new blood to the area,” Gamberale said on Wednesday afternoon. “Otherwise people have no idea where we are at. It’s like a little island. Most of the old timers have moved out or died out. How are we going to replace them? At one time you couldn’t walk down the sidewalks of this neighborhood, but that was before the corporate honchos like Mia Franchesa and Rosebud. We don’t use steam tables. We don’t use deep fryers. We still cook the old fashioned way, everything fresh. We don’t have a frozen truck delivering anything here.”

Gamberale and his wife-chef Maria have owned La Fontanella for 28 years. The restaurant opened in 1971.

l

Onesti said,  “It is a rare situation of the locals maintaining their ground. The (half-dozen) restaurants hanging around have a lot to do with it hanging in there. For the most part everybody who owns those restaurants lives there.”

About 20,000 people attend the three-day festival, which always concludes on Father’s Day with a special mass. (Suggested donation is $7)

“I try real hard to avoid the hipster thing,” Onesti said. “I didn’t create the feel of that neighborhood. That feel is there. I’m very specific on the vendors who come in. It’s all Italian style, but it is real good stuff–if you like that stuff.

“Being Italian-American in Chicago, the word ‘neighborhood’ is almost as close to the word ‘church’ Growing up, within walking distance of our block there was the butcher shop, the candy store, the pharmacy. Dante Peluso was the guy who owned Peruso’s Hardware Store. Bobby Botelli was ‘Bobby the Grocery Store.’ Cam’s was the restaurant on the corner, the guys from Superior Bakery at Western and Taylor. It’s always been about neighborhoods, unlocked doors and no T.V. People were out. People shared.”

OakleyBlockParty-4330_zps7a8ee0b7(1)

These days the President of Onesti Entertainment is best known as the owner of the beautiful 900-seat Arcada Theatre in west suburban St. Charles. The Arcada is to Cialis what metal was to the Congress (in Chicago).

The 1926 St. Charles Vaudeville house features upcoming headliners like Devo (June 21), the great Johnny Rivers (Aug. 30) and ex-Runaway Lita Ford (Sept. 12).

No idea is a bad idea for Onesti.

He is forming a volunteer “Rock n’ Roll Board of Directors” that will offer ideas on how to book the Arcada. There will be a board for the musical decades of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s that will meet monthly.

“I’ll have an open bar for the meetings,” Onesti told me. “I’ll give them something to eat from the Italian side of me.”

So I could be on the 1960s board and ask Onesti to book the remaining members of the Troggs–even though lead singer Reg Presley is dead.

The_Troggs_trogglodynamite

“Absoultely,” Onesti answered. “It is all a function of what they would want to charge. Or I  might have Eric Burdon call in on the speaker phone. I had Creed Bratton at the Arcada. People said, ‘Oh, he’s that crusty old man on (the NBC-TV hit series) ‘The Office.’ I didn’t realize it, he was a friggin founding member of the Grass Roots (he played on the band’s first four albums) . I looked into it and brought him in. He came acoustically and I did it cabaret style. He did some songs, storytelling, we did a Q & A about the Grass Roots and ‘The Office.’ It was friggin’ marvelous.

“I’m trying to foster a culture that loves this music. The guy who has $10,000 worth of Armani suits but comes to my show in a Who tee-shirt.

And its been working. People bring their concerns or questions about the music to me all the time. It happened so much I decided to organize it. It doesn’t cost anything, I’m not selling them anything. It gives people a forum outside of a bar situation to talk about their love of music of a particular era. If you’re a ‘60s guy, you’re a friggin’ 60s guy. You dress like it. You got some funky hair going and a big old bushy moustache. I love the classics. The people I’ve had at the Arcada like Jerry Lewis, Mickey Rooney, Englebert. I have Ed McMahon on tape going, “Heeeeere’s Ronnny!’ I mean, who has that stuff?”

Wild thing.