From the monthly archives: "March 2014"
White Sox fans Earl and Sharon (Courtesy of Marina Jason)

White Sox fans Earl and Sharon (Courtesy of Marina Jason)


Earl Pionke always had big dreams.

He was a White Sox fan.

The beloved nightclub owner, mentor to countless musicians of the 1960’s Chicago folk boom and ex-boxer died on April 26, 2013 after battling pancreatic cancer.  He was 80.

Earl loved life more than most people and even saw his White Sox win a World Series. In 1993 he left the north side for Pullman, a far south side neighborhood built on the escape of distant train whistles.

He wanted to open a bar in Pullman.

In 1993 Pionke and his long time girl friend Sharon Biggerstaff moved upstairs of the Landmark Inn at the corner of 111th and Langley. The bar and grill were functioning when they arrived and Earl always told me to get ready for his grand opening day.

Just like a Cubs World Series, it never happened.

The Inn closed in September, 1993.

Earl wound up using the bar as a storage space for his stuff from the legendary Earl of Old Town and Somebody Else’s Troubles, which he ran with late Chicago singer-songwriter Steve Goodman and Ed and Fred Holstein.

Earl showed me the bar in a May, 2012 visit and it was filled with more than 3,000 record albums, three jukeboxes, Victrola radios, sealed bottles of booze  and boxes of Playboy magazines he acquired at flea markets.

What a party!

Sharon and Earl’s son Joe (from his first marriage to Anasta) cleaned up the bar and restaurant after Earl’s death.

You can now see the long mahogany and oak Brunswick bar that can serve up to 25 people. A pink neon sign still flickers “Hamburgers.”  Four burgundy leather booths remain from the restaurant.  The ground floor bar and restaurant covers 2,500 feet.


D. Hoekstra photos


The jukebox rescued from Somebody Else’s Troubles has the mid-1980s Zydeco hit “My Toot Toot” by Rockin’ Sidney and Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” A phone booth with a phone remains by the front door.

The historic Pullman bar is now for sale.


And negotiable.

The bar was part of the Lake View Hotel, built in 1880. The three-story building has 13 individual bedrooms on the top floor, a two-bedroom apartment and one bedroom apartment on the second floor and a kitchen adjacent to the main floor restaurant.

“It was the second hotel (to the Florence) in Pullman,” said Mike Shymanski, President of the Historic Pullman Foundation in a weekend conversation.  The Chicago Police Department has an outpost at 727 E. 111th St, east of the hotel. The police station site used to be the shores of Lake Calumet.

“Sports and athletics were a big part of the Pullman community even though people worked 10 hour days,” Shymanski said. “There was a place called ‘Athletic Island’ that had field and aquatic sports as well as boating and fishing. There were baseball fields at the corner of 111th Street.”

Maybe Earl knew that.

The Town of Pullman was constructed between 1880 and 1884. A railroad station was built across the street from the hotel. According to Shymanksi the hotel was to be used for travelers  arriving at the station but the Rock Island Railroad elected not to route passenger trains on those tracks.

The Pullman Company reached its peak in the 1920s, according to the fine 1996 book David Perata “Those Pullman Blues (An Oral History of the African American Railroad Attendant).  Nearly 35 million passengers a year slept on the trains and the company was the largest single U.S. employer of African Americans with over 9,000 porters.

Earl’s dream neighborhood bar was jumping in the 1940s through the 1970s when Pullman-Standard was actively building passenger cars. It was patronized by car builders and residents, according to Shymanski.

Biggerstaff  recalled, “When we came it was the Landmark Inn and it was open. But we never ran it as a bar. I don’t have an explanation why it never happened for us.”


Sharon Biggerstaff in front of the old Landmark Inn, March 28, 2014

Sharon Biggerstaff in front of the old Landmark Inn, March 28, 2014


She picked up an April, 1959 Playboy magazine from a box in the rear of the restaurant. The light of spring filtered in from a large porthole window on the south side of the eatery. “These magazines didn’t come to the house,” she said. “He was kind of sneaky sometimes. I did keep this one. It’s so old the centerfold has her clothes on.

“Earl would say, ‘You hate my stuff.’ I really didn’t. I’d say, ‘I want to see the good stuff underneath all the junk’. But he could tell you to go downstairs, go about ten feet to the left of the filing cabinet……”

I used to tease Earl about who would make the trek to Pullman, listen to music, have a few drinks and drive home. Unless, of course, you reside in Pullman. About 2,000 people live in Pullman, according to Shymanski, who has lived there since 1967.

In the 1950s and early 1960s the bar and restaurant was the site of Stanley Jay’s, a live polka club that served the Eastern European population of the far south side. The last incarnation of The Landmark Inn coincided with the landmark status of the Pullman district.

“The bar could have done business,” Biggerstaff said. “The police station is not very far away. This place is so big that Earl’s idea was I could have four folk music shows a year or something like that, not trying to get people to come out this far every weekend.

“We never executed that and I’m kind of glad we didn’t. I don’t think I would have had as much fun with him if we were running a bar. We ran Earl’s Pub together on Lincoln Avenue.  We were older here. It is hard to run a bar. I actually used to tell him, ‘Don’t give me this building.’ I didn’t mind living in it, but it is a lot to handle.”

Stuff I saw in the old Landmark Inn kitchen.

Stuff I saw in the old Landmark Inn kitchen.


A few people have recently looked at this old hotel and bar.

One group was interested in using the space as an artist gallery. Biggerstaff said prospective buyers are overwhelmed by the size and the amount of work needed to fix up the place.  Permissive zoning has lapsed and good luck on getting a liquor license in the City of Chicago.

Biggerstaff 53, met Earl when she was a 21-year-old server at the Fox Trap, the future Somebody Else’s Troubles Lincoln Avenue bar that was operated by Joe Pionke,  “I knew Earl close to 30 years,” she said. Her voice trailed away in the empty bar. “I wish there were 30 more,” she said.

It was Earl’s idea to relocate to Pullman.

“He didn’t want to live on Lincoln Avenue anymore,” Biggerstaff said. “All our tenants were collegiates.  He did want to have a bar and that’s what brought him here. But I don’t know who told him to come here. This is so far away. We had a drink in here. He said, ‘I’m going to buy that building and we’re going to live there.’

“I’m like, what?”

The bar and hotel are just a half mile west of I-94 and a straight shot north to U.S. Cellular Field, where I often found Earl in the upper deck eating his homemade sandwiches.


The Landmark Inn kitchen has been closed for 20 years, although it looks like someone just stepped out for a break.


“I would drive to the ballpark and we’d park at Schaller’s Pump for free,”  Biggerstaff explained. “And we’d walk to the ballpark. We did that many times. In the past 20 years we missed two opening days, actually up until he got diagnosed. The last opening day we went to was April 13, 2012. I have the ticket stub upstairs.” Jake Peavy beat the Detroit Tigers 5-2.

Earl’s brother Raymond taught him how to keep score at a baseball game. They used reclaimed wallpaper samples as scorecards. “He got started on the Cubs, actually,” Biggerstaff said. “Earl knew all the players on the 1945 (National League champion) Cubs.  But when I met him he was all White Sox. He would go to Cubs and Sox games with Steve (Goodman), it’s not like he wouldn’t go to Wrigley Field.”

Earl was excited about getting into U.S. Cellular Field on opening day. Earl and Sharon really didn’t care where they sat. “We’d stay in our seats for two innings and go down to the bullpen bar,” she said with a laugh.

Biggerstaff drank vodka and Earl would drink anything but scotch and tequila. He liked gin martinis. “They knew us in the bullpen bar,” she said. “I don’t know if they knew he was the Earl of Old Town, but they knew he was the crazy guy with the beard that gave them gold dollars.”

Actually, Earl looked like he played first base for the House of David.

“He handed those gold dollars out to everyone,” Biggerstaff said with a smile in concert with a memory. “Busboys. Waitresses. And if he really liked you he would give you a whole roll, which was $25. Regulars would tell us, ‘I still have those gold dollars.’ They saved them.” Of course.

Dreams are meant to be remembered,  loved and shared.












D. Hoekstra portraits

D. Hoekstra portraits


Crabby Kim’s is a warm and shabby sports bar near the corner of North Western and Waveland avenues in Chicago.

It is the kind of place where the jukebox is muted when basketball games are on. Old Style Tall Boys are $3.

Owner Kim Kirchoff grew up in the neighborhood; he graduated from Bell School in 1964. The sorta Hemingway look alike admits to being crabby. But he hires happy female bartenders who wear skimpy bikinis. This place gives me goose bumps.

And it gives the women goose bumps.

I’ve driven by Crabby Kim’s thousands of times but have never been in the bar. Did it have something to do with Kim-Jong-un? He loves basketball.

A couple months ago I decided to stop in.

I wanted to see how the bikini bartenders were getting through the tough winter.

I met Rachel (she does not want to reveal her last name). The 33-year-old bartender wore a thin purple and red bikini, accented by leg warmers and low cut Chuck Taylors.  I couldn’t make it to Key West this winter.

So this was my Key Western Avenue.

She said the weather hasn’t bothered her. “I’m a Chicagoan, I’m used to it,” she said. And the six female bartenders do have hoodies when it gets extremely cold.

Paul the Manager just celebrated his 12th anniversary at Crabby Kim’s next month. He didn’t want his last name to be used either. “I don’t dig being in the newspaper, man,” said Paul, 35. We here at Dave’s Word Press  try to reveal as much as we can.

“The women bartenders and the weather?,” he asked. “They complain in the summer when its hot outside and we have the air conditioning on. It’s too cold. They complain in the winter when it gets below 50 and we crank the heat to 100 degrees. And if they tell you anything different, they are liars. I’ve worked with 40 different girls. They all complain. But they deal with it.”

Pretty soon they won’t have much to complain about.

Crabby Kim’s is for sale.

The Crabby Kim

The Crabby Kim

Kirchoff has been dealing with health issues and by summer Crabby Kim’s may be a Mexican restaurant.

Crabby Kim’s began as a bar in a 1962 joint called The Cameo Lounge. Kirchoff opened Crabby Kim’s in 1989 in the two-story brick building.

“We were at a Crabby Bill’s Crab Shack in Florida,” said Kirchoff, who attended the Florida Air Academy (in Melbourne). “We thought that would be a good name.”

Crabby Kim’s is known for its burgers ($4 with fries) made on an open hood range behind the bar. “We used to have a little space heater behind the bar,” Paul said. “Customers would ask, ‘How come the girl never moves from that spot?’ Well, because there’s a space heater you don’t see. But during the interview and hiring process they are made aware that it could be cold. You’re hired to wear a bikini and that’s what we deal with.”

Crabby Kim’s is different from your neighborhood Hooter’s because Kirchoff does not allow children in the bar. The south wall is blessed with a wall of fame of past bartenders.

Rachel knew what she was getting into, so to speak

“I was just looking for a job at the time,” said Rachel, who has worked at Crabby Kim’s for 10 years. “When I got behind the bar it was a little strange.  It’s like your first time on stage in front of people. Everyone is watching every move you make. I was a little nervous. I didn’t expect to be here this long.”

Rachel is studying to be a radiologist. Paul said, “This has always been a place where you can make a sustainable amount of money, pay your bills and get a degree.” Rachel has worked at other bars but can’t say for sure if she get better tips because she is in a bathing suit. “When the economy was better, the tips were better,” she said.

Despite an urban beach motif, don’t expect lots of tropical drinks at Crabby Kim’s. “We don’t do too many umbrellas and Margaritas,” Rachel said. “We’re more of a neighborhood beer and shot place.”


Rachel of Crabby Kim’s.

Around 10:30 on a Saturday night there were about a dozen people in the bar, four of them women. Two couples had just come in from bowling across the street at The Waveland Bowl.

“There’s never women in there,” Paul said. “We used to get a lot of business from the bowling alley when they were open 24 hours.”

I was watching highlights on ESPN until a customer asked Rachel to find motocross competition on cable. I went to the bathroom and saw a rusty condom machine that looked like it hadn’t been used since when “Surfer Girl” was a hit. But props go to the cool 9-inch table side color television sets along the south end of the bar. Each television has its own non-HD table box. “They’ve been there since I started,” Paul said. “We used to have those four and in the corner we had a 25-inch boob tube.”

He said that, not me.

Crabby Kim’s, 3655 N. Western [(773) 704-8156] is open from 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Monday through Sunday, until 3 a.m. Saturday.  There is no website.



30th-anniv-4-1-12 117

Jim Stoecker and his antique cash register
(Courtesy of Alex’s Washington Gardens)


During this endless winter, Jim Stoecker had to get away from the quaint Italian restaurant he runs in north suburban Highwood. In late January  Stoecker drove to New Orleans, hopped on a cruise ship and went to Mexico for five days. He ate pizza on the ship. Every day. It wasn’t good pizza but it maintained his streak that never seems to end.

Stoecker claims to have eaten pizza for 2,450 days in a row.

He is the Lou Gehrig of garlic.

“I don’t get tired of eating pizza,” Stoecker said  during a conversation over four 12-inch pizza pies at his Alex’s Washington Gardens in Highwood.

“I get tired of there not being good pizza.”

About two years ago Stoecker sent an e-mail to his customers explaining his unique slice of life. “I realized I had owned this place 775 days and I had pizza 1,774 times,” he said. “ I try pizza wherever I go. Even if I’m driving around Chicagoland and I see a place that says ‘Slices’ and I’ve never been there, I’ll pull in. I know how to make almost every kind of pizza. Even before I bought this place I was collecting pizza cook books. I’m like a pizza anthropologist.”

Every March Stoecker attends the pizza convention in Las Vegas, sponsored by Pizza Today magazine. “The pizza industry is like $40 billion,” he says.

Stoecker, 56, is 6’1” and weighs about 235 pounds.

He looks like actor and fellow man of action Chuck Norris.

On his New Orleans trip Stoecker stopped in his home town of Peoria to have a thin crust pizza at Agatucci’s.

“It was the pizza I grew up with,” he said. “Their pizza morphs between Chicago thin crust and St. Louis thin crust. St. Louis uses a (white) provel cheese blend. Chicago uses mozzarella with parmesan. I took Agatucci’s pizza with me for the drive. On the way back I came through Champaign and went to Papa Del’s, my favorite thick crust place.”

When pressed like cheese to a pan, Stoecker admitted he has missed one day in the streak. That’s okay.

It was on the January trip home from New Orleans.

“I drove from New Orleans to Champaign with a muffuletta sandwich from Central Grocery on the seat next to me,” he said. “So on that day I probably didn’t have pizza.”

Alex's pizza and the Stoecker's dog Mandy in their home kitchen.

Alex’s pizza and the Stoecker’s dog Mandy in their home kitchen.

Stoceker has chosen from 62,044,840,173,323,943,936,000,000 combinations. “I’ve checked this this with two math majors who said we calcuated it right,” he explained. “Here we have 25 toppings and two crusts. And we’ll put anything else on it if you ask. So 25 toppings factorial is that number, it is like 62 quintillion.”

Stoecker stared at his 12-inch Italian beef, hot giardiniera , green olives, garlic, onions and mushroom pizza. It is sort of like a muffuletta.

He smiled.

“This isn’t my pizza,” he said. “This is a Scornavaccao family pizza. I haven’t changed it. I added ingredients like Italian beef. This recipe was invented in 1944. Pizzeria Uno (in Chicago) started in 1943. Pizza was a fad.”

Tony and Ellen Scornavacco, the parents of Alex.

Tony and Ellen Scornavacco, the parents of Alex.

Alex’s Washington Gardens’ began in 1932 when Angelina Scornavaccao sold sandwiches and beverages out of her yard to people who got off the train. “There was an inter urban line that ran along the North Shore,” Stoecker says. “The stop was at Washington and Railroad (now Green Bay Road). Her yard eventually became known as a beer garden, thus ‘Washington Gardens.’ Her sons Tony and Armando built that into a restaurant called Scornavaccao’s Washington Gardens.”

Grandson Alex split away in 1982. He opened his 85-seat restaurant in the current location, which is a 1920s bank building. Stoecker’s basement office is in the former vault.

Stoecker is former CEO of Lufthansa Technik North America Holding Company, Inc., an independent provider of maintenance and repair services for civil aircraft.

He saved the family restaurant.

“My wife and I were customers,” he said. “We’d come her for date nights. We’d split a pizza because I’m a pizza guy. I retired from corporate life about 10 years ago and was looking for a small hands on business. Alex wanted to retire. There was no next generation of the Scornavaccao family stepping up. He was going to let the lease run out and shut it down. I was like, ‘Cannot let that happen to my favorite thin crust pizza’.”

Date night at Alex's with Jim and Michele often features pizza.

Date night at Alex’s with Jim and Michele often features pizza.


Stoecker took over the restaurant on May 1, 2007. He didn’t have a deep background in the restaurant business.

“In college (Illinois State), I made pizzas and was a bartender,” he said. “The great thing about this place is that we open at 5 o’ clock seven days a week and we close at 9 Sunday through Thursday and 10 Friday and Saturday.”

The restaurant has about 75 items on the menu and everything is made from scratch. Stoecker’s wife Michele created a breezy gluten free pizza crust with cauliflower. She is a fitness instructor. The rich cheese is purveyed from a small dairy co-op in far northwest Wisconsin.

Stoecker stopped and suddenly pointed at the crust of his pizza. He was a a happy man.

“See the little brown specks?,” he asked. “Most places put corn meal on the pizza paddle. The Scornavaccos used Italian bread crumbs. What we don’t use in our bread baskets we dry out and grind. We put the bread on the bottom where it sits on the stone and roasts up into the crust. It gives it a nutty character. The other is thing is it is drier than corn meal so it makes the crust crispier. Being a pizza anthropologist I had never seen that before.”

Of course this was before Stoecker had the world by his fingertips.










When the spirit has been dragging like a comb in the hair of Gene Simmons, you find out who your true friends are.

And I’ve been fortunate.

Really fortunate.

This updated website has all kinds of stuff. There’s categories of travel dispatches, baseball stories, things on food-ways and immediate, unfiltered musings on life passages. I’ll also be keeping my eye on breaking Chicago cultural news, issues  that are near to me like why the city ignores its musical heritage.

I wanted to share this rather blunt link with my friend and collaborator Paul Natkin of Photo Reserve, Inc., who had the misfortune to be with me in a road trip from Chicago to St. Louis on the day I left the Sun-Times.


You see I had been at the Sun-Times for 29 years, plus another 3 1/2 years at the Suburban Sun-Times under the helm of the late Lon Grahnke. He was a tough editor, but he did not suffer from myopia.

We all could be ourselves. Isn’t that what you want in any job?

I grew up in a Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News family.

As the newspaper editor at Naperville Central High School, I tried to learn from  the great writers from these papers: Bill Newman–how great a stylist was he?— the balls of Mike Royko, the poetry of John Schulian, Ray Sons, a consummate gentleman,  and many others.

Working at the Sun-Times was a dream come true.


If I had the skills of a good baseball player, filing stories from 401 N. Wabash  would have been the same thing as playing at Wrigley Field.

I remember the magical night of writing my first deadline story in the summer of 1984 (I was on a part-time thing) in the Features Department.

Glenna Syse had just come marching in from a theater review. Roger Ebert was walking around talking to reporters as a warm-up exercise before writing. I think deadlines in this pre-computer age were later than they are now!

I had read Don McLeese in the Reader and his Sun-Times rock criticism had the rare blend of clarity and no-snob-factor that I came to appreciate.  I looked out a window at the Chicago River.

It was not green.

It was gold.

So thanks to everyone for your kind  messages, Facebook posts and most of all for reading my stuff all these years. I have to work on self-promotion and will try to minimize that noise. But I sincerely hope to repay you with measured words, adventures and incongruous looks at this amazing  life.

I will also keep an eye out for a good editor.




D. Hoekstra photo

D. Hoekstra photo


The National Blues Museum is virtually completed in terms of design and slated to open mid-2015.

The downer for Chicago blues fans is that the $14 million museum will be in downtown St. Louis.

Members of the Chicago music community have talked about a Chicago blues museum almost since Muddy Waters plugged in.

In the summer of 2012 there were rumblings of  “The Blues Experience,” a blues museum-nightclub with classrooms to be built in the former Block 37 shopping center on State Street. Last fall it was reported that “Blues Experience” developers Bill Selonick and Sona Wang moved from downtown in favor of being folded into  Navy Pier redevelopment plans. The first phase of the $150 million pier redevelopment is slated be finished by mid-2015.

Nothing has happened. A Navy Pier spokesman had no comment. Selonick and Wang did not return repeated calls, although sources say an extravagant interactive Navy Pier blues experience is in the works.

Lots is happening in St. Louis.

The $14 million National Blues Museum will be a 23,000 square-foot educational and cultural facility that anchors developer Amos Harris’ $142 million Mercantile Exchange downtown district.

“It will be in a very cool building originally built as a department store,” Harris told me last month. “One part was built in 1906, the other was in 1915. We converted it into an (212 room) Embassy Suites Hotel and upstairs apartments. We will begin construction on the museum at the end of June or early July.”

Although the museum portion of the building is empty, the ground floor has a wine bar and Harris is planning to add a a barbecue restaurant in conjunction with the blues museum. The building a block west of the America’s Center convention center and one block south of the Edward Jones Dome, the home of the NFL’s St. Louis Rams.

The National Blues Museum would be a blow to tourism plans of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, unless Chicago comes up with a bigger and better blues museum. Emanuel’s goal is to attract 50 million visitors annually to the city by 2020.

But Chicago has no major musical tourism destinations besides a zillilon summer festivals.

“Why is the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland?,” Harris asked. “They decided to do it. Why is the Arch in St. Louis? We did it.”



Michelle T. Boone, commissioner for the City of Chicago Dept. of Cultural Affairs and Special Events said, “Congratulations to St. Louis. While the blues is part of Chicago’s DNA, there’s lots of places around the country and the world that have a connection to blues. The more museums we have toward blues, the better blues music will be. We don’t have just one art museum in the country.”

Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer added, “In Chicago we tear down our historical places. I was asked by a writer from a guitar magazine to take him around to all the locations of all the blues clubs I hung out at in the ‘70s. They were all vacant lots, except for the Theresa’s building (4801 S. Indiana). There aren’t historical markers. There aren’t plaques, other than 2120 (S. Michigan, Chess Records studio; there is also a marker at the Muddy Waters House, 4339 S. Lake).

“I would love a dedicated blues location in Chicago, but most music museums don’t make money,” Igulauer said. “Supposedly they bring in new exhibits because people go once and don’t come back. I’d love to see something historic as well as a performance situation and maybe a teaching situation so it wouldn’t just be ‘Here’s what used to be’.” Boone added, “We have places where people can go. We’ve got a city populated with clubs and one of the oldest blues festivals in the country. We live it every day.”

What the St. Louis project has that Chicago lacks is major financial support.

In December, the museum received $6 million from Pinnacle Entertainment, Inc. and Lumiere Place Casino in downtown St. Louis. The National Blues Museum website also cites support from St. Louis native John Goodman who posted a You Tube video in support of the museum, Derek Trucks and Chicago blues great Buddy Guy of all people.

Museum co-founder Mike Kociela of the event production team Entertainment St. Louis said, “We asked Buddy for an endorsement at a gig. We’re honored to have his support. He’s not actively involved but he’s in in favor of the musem happening.”

In terms of presentation Harris points to the successful City Museum in downtown St. Louis.

The City Museum is an interactive kids playground in the former Interational Shoe building. The playground features lots of repurposed architectural and industrial objects–and a statue of St. George from Saint George’s Catholic Church in Chicago.

“The culutre of rock spews out artifacts, where the culture of blues doesn’t spew out so many artifacts,” Harris said. “As we’ve been developing this people call with donations. That’s a chunk of it. The City Museum is completely different, but it is the same highly interactive idea that we’re trying to drive towards. In the case of the blues museum we’re leveraging technology to make it highly interactive, where the City Museum they have wild stuff that the kids climb all over. The National Blues Museum won’t be artifact driven. Hopefully one of the experience threads of the museum is as you move through the gallery areas you can create your own blues riff and leave it on a digital graffiti board. We’re hoping we can encourage young folks to pick up blues as a genre’.” Bob Santelli, formerly of the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame and Experience Music Project in Seattle has advised the National Blues Museum.

“This could be transformative for downtown St. Louis,” said Harris, a downtown St. Louis resident. “We could put a stake in the ground around music in St. Louis in a way we haven’t done. St. Louis has lots of roots in blues and jazz and we are in some sense a music town, but we don’t market it that way at all.”






COMSTOCK PARK, Mich.—It is a month before opening day for the West Michigan Whitecaps of the Class A Midwest League. The drive out of Chicago is part of a search for a new beginning. The Greg Brown CD plays “Never So Far.” A large billboard on the right side of U.S. Route 31 reads “Never In Doubt.”

The sign is in reference to the April 8 Whitecaps opening day.

Nearly half of the team’s 20-year-old ballpark was destroyed in a Jan. 3 fire. Investigators said that a trash container placed next to a space heater in a suite caused the fire. Multiple suites were destroyed and part of the Fifth Third Ballpark roof collapsed. The home clubhouse, right field concession stands and bathrooms were lost. The fire was contained at the first base side of home plate. No one was injured.

The fire caught the imagination of America’s baseball community. When a ballpark goes up in smoke, so do memories and moments. The only major baseball stadium fire I know of is the all-wood Russwood Park in Memphis, Tn. (1896-1960, Elvis played there in 1956] that burned to the ground after an Easter Sunday 1960 exhibition game between the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians.

“There may be nothing as immediate and shocking as seeing a ballpark engulfed in flames,:” Whitecaps CEO/Managing Partner Lew Chamberlain tells me in mid-March. “A ballpark is a symbolic place for a community. Our community feels, and rightly so, that everybody has a little piece of this place. That’s why it becomes a bigger deal than a tool and die shop burning down. It does catch national attention.”


The blaze was extinguished by fire departments from five neighboring communities, including Grand Rapids, about seven miles south of the ballpark.  The fire was out in a half hour, according to Mickey Graham, Whitecaps Director of Marketing and Media Relations. He watched the fire from center field. Chamberlain was in Chicago and immediately drove to the scene.

On June 17 the Whitecaps host the 50th Midwest League All-Star Game.

The first goal was to make Fifth Third Ballpark functional by the opening day game against the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. The second goal is to make everything in tip-top shape by the all-star game.  “It’s an opportunity to show off your ballpark,” Chamberlain says. “I wanted everyone in this community and in baseball to be amazed at what we were able to accomplish.  We’re very proud of this community and we’re going to do a lot of fun things revolving around our ‘Beer City U.S.A.’ designation, our shore line and everything this region has to offer.” The all-star game logo is a beer label that appears as a mug filled with gold beer and white froth. The Grand Rapids area is a hot spot for the craft beer movement.

Fifth Third features offerings from Founders Brewing and Mitten Brewing (both in Grand Rapids), Perrin Brewery in Comstock Park, New Holland Brewing  Company (New Holland), Bell’s from Kalamazoo and Mt. Pleasant Brewing in Mt. Pleasant.

You can bet the Whitecaps will be toasting to Midwest moxie.

“I listened to (Whitecaps president) Scott Lane being interviewed the other day,” Chamberlain says. “He talked how difficult it was to see a place where you spend so much of your time and energy burn to the ground. But he said how quickly his thoughts turned to, ‘What do we do now to get it back?’ That is true of all of us. Yeah, you take a minute to reflect on what an unfortunate circumstance it was, but almost immediately your mind starts working on how we are going to make it better and get it done in three months. In a way that helps you get over your grief.

“There never was a doubt.”

I could phone it in and compose a story by looking at pictures on social media. But by going to the ballpark I see the scope of the damage. I feel it. With the March 11 backdrop of a snowcapped field, scores of workers are toiling up to 12 hours a day rebuilding the clubhouse, video room and suites. Even a few hundred smoke damaged seats along the first base line are in need of being replaced. It still appears to be a daunting task.



Chamberlain, 62, was born and raised in Grand Rapids. (Chamberlain and his Whitecaps co-owner Denny Baxter were also part of the Cougars ownership group in 1991-92.). “We got involved in baseball in the mid-1980s with the idea of bringing minor league baseball to our hometown,” he says. “Little did we know we’d become involved with Kane County along the way.” In 1993 Chamberlain and Baxter purchased and moved the Midwest League’s Madison, Wis. franchise to West Michigan.

Chamberlain has gathered some baseball memorabilia in his journey and much of it was lost due to water and smoke damage in his office. “There’s a lot worse things than losing pictures of Gerry Ford at the ballpark or autographed Ernie Harwell books,” he says. “Nobody was hurt. We’re going to play baseball. What we do every day at the ballpark to me is more important than any piece of memorabilia. I’ve always been an experiential guy. My love of baseball has everything to do with the experiences I share watching baseball. I can’t tell you who hit what for the 1968 Tigers. But I can remember being there with my Dad and my brother. The sharing of baseball is most important to me.”

Photos courtesy of West Michigan Whitecaps

Photos courtesy of West Michigan Whitecaps

He did manage to save his most precious item, a papier-machae “Magic 8 Ball” type container made by his son Joe when he was 12 years old. The container came into play in 1997 when West Michigan switched its affiliation from Oakland to Detroit. “I had a lot of respect for Oakland,” Chamberlain says. “Especially in terms of their ideas of community service and getting the ballplayers involved in the community. At the end of the 1996 PDC (Player Development Contract) we won the Midwest League championship with the Oakland affiliation. Joe just wrote the answers out on little cards. It tells  you what to do. It was hilarious. I’ll pull a few out.”

And Chamberlain read:

“Let Scott Lane decide.”

“Whatever is best.”

“Call Bill Clinton.”

The container was rescued in early January, albeit wet. He says, “It had to re-papier-machae itself.”

Chamberlain was educated as an attorney and had a grandfather and uncles who were attorneys. “The family heritage nonwithstanding, I didn’t like the practice of law that much, “ he admits. “After a few years I became involved in the family business (Grand Rapids Steel & Supply), which we sold in the mid-1980s. That’s when I turned my attention to baseball.”

Was there any lessons Chamberlain learned in the business world that were applicable to the tragic fire?

“Denny and I spent eight years trying to get baseball off the ground in Grand Rapids,” he answers. “Which means getting a stadium built, financed and the whole nine yards. I learned perseverance. That is the key. We had any number of deals we thought we had put together for baseball in West Michigan and they all went by the boards. But we never gave up because we thought it was a good idea. And fortunately, it turned out to be a good idea.”

Baxter and Chamberlain financed their stadium and they own the ballpark. Ownership reinvests in the park annually, which they wouldn’t be able to do if it was in the public sector.

It took seven figures to rebuild Fifth Third Ballpark (cap. 9,684). The majority of costs were covered by insurance. “All the numbers aren’t in,” Chamberlain says. “But you can safely say that the cost of this repair is going to equal or exceeds the cost of the entire construction in 1994.  Even a situation like this provides opportunities. We had been going through a strategic visioning process with the ballpark  because it has been part of our DNA and we will continue to reinvest there.” Expect the ballpark to be better than ever.

That’s how dreams roll with these Whitecaps.



John Prine (center) and band, Jim Shea photo courtesy of Oh Boy Records

March 16, 2014–

The circle of travel helps you find the center.

And this is where John Prine was on Friday night, standing in front of an adoring hometown audience at center stage of the Symphony Center.

Prine, 67, is back on the road after December surgery for operable lung cancer. He loves the road. He met his wife Fiona Whelan in Dublin, Ireland. He gets restless in recording studios and in a November statement he said,  “There’s nothing I hate more than cancelling shows.”

Prine stands tall and strong like the old trees he sings about in his remarkable “Hello In There,” which was so eloquently covered on Friday.  He represents a faded sense of a multi-generational Chicago community.

They are falling away like leaves from aspen: Earl Pionke of the Earl of Old Town, Cowboy Jack Clement, Richard Harding, Roger Ebert, Minnette Goodman, the mother of Steve Goodman—and as my friend and former Prine drummer Angelo Varias pointed out Friday-can you believe this fall will mark 30 years since Steve Goodman died?

Prine typically dedicates “Souvenirs” to Steve Goodman, on Friday it went out to his late brother Doug, a Chicago policeman. He dedicated “Angel From Montgomery” to his peer songwriter and Old Town School of Folk Music teacher Eddie Holstein, who was working the aisles with a Broadway smile. These voices, near and far are Prine’s center.

The Symphony Center gig—which Prine still calls Orchestra Hall—was just his third outing since his surgery. His voice picked up steam as the 110-minute  show rolled along.

Only once did he seem to call an audible, after chugging through “Iron Ore Betty” he mumbled how his lung needed a ballad. He dialed  it down to the regal version of “Angel From Montgomery,” followed by the loopy “Fish and Whistle,” accented by his gritty, son-of-a-tool & die maker/union leader’s vocals.

Prine was in typical good nature.

Wearing a black suit, black pants and starched white shirt he looked as happy as a Sun City undertaker. After “Angel From Montgomery” a lone female voice called out, “I love you John.”

Prine smiled and cracked, “I can’t see you but I love you too. And that hasn’t been the first time.”

Prine has settled into a groove with his long time sidemen Jason Wilbur (multi-guitarist, harmonica) and acoustic-electric bassist Dave Jacques. They delivered understated ambiance to “Humidity Built The Snowman,” a ballad Prine rarely covers  from 1995’s “Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings,” and Wilbur’s mournful harmonica accented the fact that the themes of “6 O’Clock News” are even more timely today than they were when Prine wrote it in 1971.


Wilbur’s extended slide guitar on “Storm Windows”  gave the song some moxie it did not have on the recorded version and by the trio was full tilt by the time Prine closed his set with the power anthem “Lake Marie.”

Prine called out his opening act Iris DeMent for an encore of their goofy “hit” “In Spite of Ourselves,” a 1999 album of duets which was his first release after beating throat cancer (unrelated to his recent cancer.)

In her opening set DeMent remarked how Tammy Wynette was her favorite female country singer before launching into “Making My Way Back Home,” which she wrote after reading a Wynette biography.

Again, the gift is the center, the essence.

Jim Rooney is the beloved right-hand man of the late Cowboy Jack Clement who produced Townes Van Zandt and “In Spite of Ourselves.” On March 14 Rooney released a new memoir “In It For the Long Run (A Musical Odyssey)” [University of Illinois Press, $24.95] of which Prine gave the blurb: “Wonderful fellow with an interesting life equals great story.”

Rooney writes about the Prine-DeMent sessions and how they came to understand the classic 1960s country hits were less than three minutes long.  Prine makes every word count.  “They said what they had to say and get out,” Rooney writes. “It was definitely before Jerry Jeff, John Hartford and Kris Kristofferson changed the songwriting rules. Hearing John and Iris together just made me smile.”

End of story.

John Prine has to sing, just as I have to write.

No matter where life takes you.