From the monthly archives: "November 2015"

pearls_place

The world keeps spinning.

And since the mid-1960s a group of socially conscious Chicagoans have met for dinner at the city’s soul food restaurants to talk about  politics, food and moving forward against strong winds. Many are gone now:  the restaurants and the members.

The survivors call the group “The Round Table.”

The unofficial leader of the group is Gene Barge, who was a spry 87  years old in November, 2013 when I was early into research on my book “The People’s Place.”  Barge has a remarkable pedigree. He was  arranger, producer and sax player at Chess Records, 2120  S. Michigan from 1964 until 1967, when Chess moved to a bigger space  at 320 E. 21st St. Barge continued with Chess, shaping Little  Milton’s “Grits Ain’t Groceries” album as one of the first hits out  of the new space.

Barge left Chess in 1973 to head the gospel music division at Stax Records in Memphis, Tenn. Director Andy Davis has cast Barge in the  edgy films “Stony Island,” “The Fugitive,” “Above the Law” and others. Barge was also leader of the late 1960s Operation Breadbasket  Band, the pre-Operation PUSH effort formed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Gene Barge (L) at Pearl's Place (Photo by Paul Natkin)

Gene Barge (L) and Rudolph Brown at Pearl’s Place (Photo by Paul Natkin)

“When I got to Chicago (in 1964 from Norfolk, Va.) it was turbulent,”  Barge said over a 2013 Tuesday night Round Table dinner at Pearl’s Place,  39th and Michigan. “Dr. King had been in Chicago in 1963 and ‘64 and  declared Chicago as one of the most racist cities in America. There  was a revolution in society. When I started with the group (in ‘64), most of the guys belonged to the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership  Conference), various community groups. Some guys were dealing  with housing over on the south east side.”

Early members were late Breadbasket saxophonist Ben Branch, who was  with Dr. King when he was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine  Motel in Memphis, late Bobby “Blue” Bland guitarist Wayne Bennett, who  also played in the Breadbasket band, Chicago police officer Howard  Brookins, Sr.  and Chuck Bowen, an administrative aide to Mayor Richard M. Daley.

The discussions were hot and heavy.

“The soul food restaurants were scattered around the south side,” Barge said over a plate of fried catfish. “Army and Lou’s (gone),  Captain’s Table (gone). The civil rights preachers would have a whole  table. Some guys would drink coffee and have a sandwich. Other guys would be in the bar getting high. Entertainers would order cobbler from these restaurants and have them sent to their hotels. Edna’s in Garfield Park (still standing as Ruby’s) and Helen Maybelle’s  restaurant on Stony Island (gone, as is the one on 22nd and Cermak.)

“Helen became Jesse Jackson’s caterer. She would look out for him no  matter what. She would send food to his house, she would send food to  the meetings. Because when he was trying to start Breadbasket this  (Helen’s) was one of the places he would meet. There was no  Breadbasket. We would solve the problems of the day. Every once in awhile others would drop in, Dorothy Tillman, (future Chicago mayor)  Harold Washington went to every soul food restaurant in this city.  Branson’s. Bowman. The west side.”

Helen Maybell Anglin died in 2009 at the age of 80.

She was a coal miner’s daughter from Edgewater, Ala. Her mother Sarah cooked mixed greens, black-eyed peas and string beans for neighboring  construction workers in Alabama. Helen opened her first restaurant on  East 51st Street in Chicago in 1947 with her first husband Hubert Maybell. They called it the H & H Cafe.

When Helen opened the Soul Queen in 1976, she made sure everyone had the regal touch.

All waitresses wore gold paper crowns.

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“I always try to see past what I think I see,” Helen told me in a 1994 conversation at Soul Queen at 9031 S. Stony Island. “I’m not  looking to find something. We’re not born equal, but we’re all  created equal.

“Everybody has soul. It’s just that it doesn’t always  come forth. If it hits you and gets to you, you’re going to respond.”

So “The Round Table” took its hits and bounced around. The group even met  at the now-defunct Wag’s, a diner that was part of a Walgreen’s drug  store on 35th Street east of old Comiskey Park. Rudolph Brown  remembered, “When they did away with Wag’s we had to leave. We went  to Sauer’s and that closed when they put up McCormick Place West.”

According to Barge, the Round Table was at its peak in the late 1960s and 1970s at Sauer’s, 321 E. 23rd St. Sauer’s, ironically was a building constructed in 1883 to hold a dancing academy for Chicago’s  hoity-toity, including Marshall Field. About a dozen “Round Table” members met weekly, today the number is half that many. Almost everyone is over 60 years old.

Sauer’s had considerable cultural weight because it was next door to Paul Serrano’s recording studio. The jazz trumpet player-audio engineer recorded politically charged artists like Jerry Butler,  Donnie Hathaway and Oscar Brown, Jr. on East 23rd St. 

Oscar Brown, Jr.

The late, great Oscar Brown, Jr.

Barge said,  “Army and Lou’s took over this place (Pearl’s) and then it was run by the wife of  (Chicago blues guitarist) Jimmy Johnson.”

A visitor looks around the table and listens to the stories from a not-so-distant time. The mind cannot make sense of the things the Round Table veterans have seen, the bitterness they have tasted. How  deep does the soul reach? How does soul really feel?

What is soul food?

Brown put aside his po-boy and answered, “It is the food my grandmother fed me on.  The greens, collards, chitlins from the south,  things that were basically given away because they didn’t think it had nourishment. Barge added. “I’m the oldest guy here. My  grandfather was a butcher in Fayetteville, North Carolina. People ate  to survive in the 1920s and 30s. Black folks were  just a few years  out of slavery. They couldn’t enjoy what was afforded to others. Even the plantation owners ate soul food themselves, the corn and the vegetables what we could get out of the ground, the slaughter of  the  hogs–but we ate what they threw away. We ate the feet of the hogs,  the ears. You understand?

“The expression was, ‘You’d eat everything from the snoot to the root.

Brown said, “We came up with a lot of original things because of   necessity. My (African-American) pastor said that when he was a kid  in Virginia his mother worked for some white folks. They would eat  the greens, but they didn’t want to eat the pot liquor (the term for liquid left in a a pan after boiling greens). So she would take the pot liquor home and they would have cornbread and pot liquor. We knew  pot liquor was more rich in nourishment than greens themselves. 

That’s how she was able to feed her children. That happens throughout the south.”

Pot liquor was even used as a remedy and stored in Mason jars in the back of a refrigerator.

“My grandmother in Georgia had 16 kids, of which nine of them reached 80,” Brown said. “The oldest one now is 100.”

Barge interrupted, “Soul food won’t kill you.”

The Round Table enjoyed a healthy laugh before Brown continued, “It was a form of life. Somebody might have raised a cow.  You got the milk, you got the beef. We’d smoke it. I had corn, beans  and peas. I would trade that off for a piece of that cow. That’s how people survived. Poor blacks and southern whites are the same thing. If only one house had food, they would share with the other two houses. Color didn’t matter.

“Soul food was survival.”

Hilda Whittington was the only woman in the group of six at the Round Table. The 63-year-old Hyde Park attorney said, To me, soul food is  a throwback to the time of slavery. Our ancestors were cooking in the kitchen and given essentially, scraps. No one else ate chitlins, for  example. Our ancestors took them, cleaned them and seasoned the food. When I think of soul food, I think of spices, someone taking food no one wanted and making a delicacy.”

Helen Whittington at Pearl's, November, 2013 (Paul Natkin photo)

Biamani Obadele listens to Hilda Whittington at Pearl’s, November, 2013 (Paul Natkin photo)

She stopped and continued, “Soul food was served at the White House.”

In unison her comrades asked, “What?”

She answered, “Jimmy Carter was the first to bring chitlin’s in the White House. And then the price of chitlins went up! Who knows about  Barack (Obama)? Maybe he goes down to the kitchen at night and asks  for some chitlins.”

You can always learn something at the Round Table.

Long time Chicago soul orchestra leader-saxophone player Willie Henderson (Tyrone Davis, Donny Hathaway, Barbara Acklin) and Round Table member added, “The  menu today is basically the same. We’re all eating cornbread now.  Turnip greens. Butter beans.”

Pearl’s Place desserts are baked daily. 

They include red velvet, carrot and German Chocolate cake as well as banana pudding, peach cobbler and sweet potato pie.

Biamani Obadele had the most diverse take on soul food on this particular Round Table gathering. At age 41, he was the youngest  person at the dinner. I didn’t come to the table eating soul food,”  he said over a plate of fried chicken and spinach. “Not that I’m against soul food. I come here for the political discourse and  community conversation. The food is a plus. What’s happening today is  a new generation has become more health conscious.

“Traditional soul  food restaurants are changing. You see more variety, fish, tilapia. Turkey products. My grandmother, god bless her soul, would cook ham  hocks and beans. We started convincing her to use smoked turkey.”

Barge reminded his peers that many observers put African-Americans “all in one boat.”

He elaborated, “It is not true because we are all culturally different. The islands on the coasts of the Carolinas, they call African-American geeches (or “Gullah,” Sea Island Creole; descendants  of African slaves). They eat a lot of rice. African-Americans who come from South Louisiana are very mixed blooded; Spanish, French and  their version of soul food is entirely different. They eat more sea  food. Inward, away from the ocean, people lean more towards animals,  the hogs. They go hunting and eat other animals, squirrels.”

Brown nodded his head. He has eaten squirrels. Of course he said they  taste like chicken.

And chicken wings are soul food, too.

“When I first came to Chicago there were no wing joints on the north side,” Barge declared. “White people never ate chicken wings. Wings,  chitlin’s and ribs became universal. Soul food is a blend of  cultures. Chicago is the end result of all these cultures coming  together.”

Whittington grew up in Opelousas, La. “There was boudin,” she said. “And there was blood sausage. I know a lot of soul food came from the  black kitchen. But the Germans make a blood sausage almost the same  as we made with boudin. You have all kinds of food that came out of  one little pig. Very little is said about how we grew up. I grew up where my neighbors weren’t all black. Some were white. We lived  together. This was before the 1960s.”

Barge said, “In the ‘70s the south was more integrated than the north. I’m just being honest.”

Brown said, “The movement north was for economics. There were more  job opportunities.”

Barge continued, “Boston, Chicago: segregated. Supposed to be free, but segregated. In the south we had white folks across the street. We  were segregated, not by sections of town (as in the north) but by the  system.”

Whittington chipped in, “Even the churches were segregated.” Brown smiled and added, “Still is. Eleven o’ clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.”

Disturbed-Church1

Obadele retorted, “I know the stories my family told me and they are  nothing like this.”

Barge said, “Don’t get me wrong, now. We suffered from severe  racism. But the point was that we lived closer to white folks.”

Obadele put down his fork and said, “This city is still segregated. We’ve never had this kind of conversation. I’m only going by the stories  I’ve heard from my grandparents and great grandparents. Black women were domestics, but it was really difficult for the black male.”

The Great Migration of the 1940s brought black workers from Georgia,  Louisiana and Mississippi among other southern states to Chicago. Young men found work in the Union Stockyards, between 47th St. and Pershing Avenue. Brown recalled, “My grandmother would take us to the stockyards and get a hog head. There was Armour and Swift. You’d buy the whole head, yeah! Armour would  throw the chitlins in a barrel. People could come and get the chitlins for free because they saw no  commercial use for them. They saw all the black people coming go get  them and Armour became the first to come out with commercial chitlins, they were in buckets.”

The migration fed the Chicago blues and jazz scene, it fed the restaurant scene. “Soul food can be anywhere,” Barge said. “It depends on the quality of the cooking. I’m in Paris in 1982 and I’m  asking Mick Jagger, ‘Where’s a good place to eat?’ And he mentions a soul food restaurant. On his first visit to Chicago in 1963 (to record with the Rolling Stones at Chess) he had gone to soul food  restaurants in (Chess songwriter-bandleader) Willie Dixon’s neighborhood on Lake Park. And sure enough, an American went to Paris and cooked in a soul food restaurant.  He used to order the greens from America every week.”

Obadele asked, “Was he black?”

Barge answered, “Yeah, but the guy who owned the restaurant was white.”

Whittigton continued to take it all in. When there was a brief opening she looked around The Round Table and said to anyone who was listening, “Wherever you find blacks talking about looking for better solutions, you will find soul food.”

 

Allen-Toussaint
Allen Toussaint’s elegance and humility informed the beauty of all his music. Look no further than his recent cover of the late Jesse Winchester’s “I Wave Bye Bye” available on “Quiet About It,” from Jimmy Buffett’s Mailboat Records label.
I refrain from posting archived stories, but this one is almost 10  years to the day of his passing. From the Sun-Times.
Sail on Allen.
Nov. 20, 2005—
Allen Toussaint has taken New Orleans music all over the world.

He wrote New Orleans R&B classics such as Ernie K. Doe’s “Mother-in-Law,” LeeDorsey’s “Working in a Coal Mine” and “Southern Nights,” popularized by Glen Campbell. His “Whipped Cream” was recorded by Herb Alpert and became the theme for “The Dating Game.” There are many others, and you’ve heard more of them than you might realize.

 Born and reared in New Orleans, Toussaint, now 67, started playing piano at 7. His
father, Clarence M. Toussaint, was a railroad mechanic and a weekend trumpet
player. His mother, Naomi Neville, was a homemaker; Toussaint later would use
her name as a songwriting pseudonym (Otis Redding’s “Pain in My Heart”).
The songwrirter-producer-vocalist never left for Los Angeles or New York. Toussaint sacrificed business for the heartbeat of his hometown.
For years, Toussaint has lived in the shadow of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage
fairgrounds. This is like Ernie Banks living across the street from Wrigley Field. But
his house was gutted by Hurricane Katrina at the end of August.

“All my stuff downstairs is destroyed,” Toussaint said last week from his temporary digs in New York City. “My Steinway piano. Equipment. My filing cabinets–with loads of handwritten music — is gone as well. It’s a disaster zone. But I’ve resolved it’s the rearview mirror. I’ll move back in the same neighborhood, but I will no longer depend on my lower level. I’m optimistic about the future. The city will be better.”

During the storm, Toussaint held out until the last minute, which for him, was Aug. 31, two days after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Early reports had Toussaint missing and/or an evacuee in the Louisiana Superdome. He did leave his house and checked into the Astor Hotel on Canal Street.

 “By that time the water was seven feet high,” he said. “There was no hope. I was able to get on a charter school bus that night and get a ride to the Baton Rouge airport. I was safe at all times. The next morning I boarded a plane to New York.”

The move has not slowed him down. In the weeks since Toussaint relocated to New York, he’s become acquainted with Elvis Costello. Last week, they began recording an album together. Costello is following the lead of Paul McCartney, the late Robert Palmer and Paul Simon, all of whom have collaborated with Toussaint.  Toussaint is also the centerpiece of “I Believe to My Soul” (Rhino/ Starbucks Hear Music, Work Song), the Joe Henry-produced project that also features Mavis Staples, Ann Peebles, Irma Thomas and Billy Preston. The album is a fund-raiser for Hurricane Katrina victims.

Toussaint plays piano throughout “I Believe to My Soul,” which was recorded in a week at Hollywood’s historic Capitol B studios, and contributes four new compositions to the project.
 “Joe gave me a call, but I had never heard of him,” Toussaint said. “I said yes
because of the way he described what he wanted to do. He’s also working with me
on the Elvis Costello project.”
Toussaint’s spiritual ballad “We Are One” closes the record. “It was a piece that I
had written to do at the end of New Orleans Jazz Fest a couple of years ago. I
never planned to record it, but for some reason it came up this time,” he said.

On “I Believe,” Toussaint even revisits the disco beat in “Mi Amour,” while his fellow Crescent City songbird Irma Thomas offers one of the most powerful pure soul tracks by wrapping her voice around Tom Jans’ “Loving Arms.”

 Toussaint cut his chops under the spell of Huey “Piano” Smith. At 17, Toussaint
was recruited to replace Smith in the late Earl King’s band for a show in Pritchard,
Ala. Smith went on to have hits such as “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” and  “High Blood Pressure,” but in 1970, he banked the proceeds of a Coca-
Cola commercial and became a Jehovah’s Witness. Smith, 71, is now a preacher in
Baton Rouge. Rumors of a comeback appearance always float around before Jazz Fest, but nothing has ever materialized.
“He’s consistent,” Toussaint said. “He never looked back. He had a magical touch on the piano. When he was on Earl King’s 1955 hit ‘Those Lonely, Lonely Nights,’ he played fills on the piano that sounded like he was in a a saloon. His writing? Sheer genius.  If he stayed in the business, he would have come up with more magic. It flowed out of him.”

Toussaint has embraced all kinds of music throughout his life. The Gilbert O’Sullivan 1972 hit ballad “Alone, Again (Naturally)” is one of his all-time favorite compositions.

“When I first heard it, I loved the melody and the way he told the story,” Toussaint told me. “It was touching. The bridge went up to a nice level and came back to sit in a very good place. I liked that.  I know there was much more where that came from, but I don’t thik we heard many more things from him.”

Toussaint admitted he wrote the upbeat instrumentals “Whipped Cream” and its
predecesor, “Java” (a 1964 hit for Al Hirt), while trying to be humorous. “Al Hirt
came out with ‘Java’ while I was in the military,” said Toussaint, who was stationed in Ft. Hood, Texas.
“On weekends I played in a small band off-base. The other members knew I wrote that, and they thought that was outrageous. They associated me with R&B and K-Doe’s 1961 hit “Mother-in-Law.’ So  I wrote songs like ‘Java’ for that band to play, kind of like, ‘Well, take that.’ And ‘Whipped Cream’ was one of those songs.”
 Just before Toussaint was discharged, Joe Banashak at New Orleans’ Minit
Records took the band into the studio to record the Latin-tinged instrumentals.

(Toussaint had played on almost all the Minit hits before joining the Army in 1963.)

Toussaint later branched out to write the horn arrangements for the Band’s “Rock of Ages” album, and in 1983, he worked with New York percussionist Kip Hanrahan’s free-form group Conjure on “Music for the Texts of Ishmael Reed.”

“When I write, I don’t usually hear a plot without a melody,” Toussaint said. “I might hear two people talking and that will inspire a story. But a little melody always comes with that. Always.”

Rookies Overhead

Wisconsin Wiffle Ball Field (Photo courtesy of Steve Schmitt)

MAZOMANIE, WIS.—Every kid who grew up playing Wiffle Ball  understands how the game shapes your imagination. You can create a field anywhere. For me and my brother it was a Cul-de-sac in suburban  Chicago. For others the game was played under the blue heavens of a soybean farm.

You can play the game by yourself. The plastic ball is light and can easily be tossed in the air with one hand while swinging a plastic bat with the other hand. Flying solo it is difficult to swing and miss ( “a whiff”), which is how the game got its name. The batter narrates the action with the scat like voice of his or her favorite baseball announcer.

thI still have a Rick Sutcliffe- endorsed Wiffle Ball and there’s eight perforations in the plastic ball, about the size of a baseball. The box says, “It’s Easy to Throw Curves with Wiffle Ball.” And it is spelled “Wiffle,” not “Whiffle.”

Wiffle ball is about escape and improvisation.

It is the jazz of the toy world.

Many years ago on a long night at the Old Town Ale House in Chicago,  jazz bassist John Bany told me, “Jazz is the idea of human freedom  applied to the laws that govern music.” That is a metaphor for Wiffle Ball.

Nov. 5 is Election Day.

On line voting concludes for the National Toy Hall of Fame, located at The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y. Wiffle Ball is one  of 12 finalists competing for induction, including Super Soaker,  Twister, the American Girl doll and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles–really?  Wiffle Ball is something we all can take a swing at.

To drum up support for the Wiffle Ball I recently drove from Chicago to Rookies  Sports Bar & Grill on U.S. Highway 14 in Mazomanie, about 25 miles south of Madison. Owner Steve Schmitt built a huge Wiffle Ball field behind the bar and people can play 365 days a year, weather  permitting. The field is 105 feet to right field and 85 feet to left field.

I asked Schmitt to talk about Wiffle Ball on my WGN-AM Nocturnal Journal show.

Schmitt is also owner of the Madison Mallards baseball team in the collegiate Northwoods League and the Shoe Box, the Midwest’s largest shoe store just up Highway 14.  His inventory is  750,000 pairs of shoes including the beloved Hush Puppies I can’t find in Chicago.

Schmitt has the go going.

He opened Rookies in 1998 when the Governor’s Bar was put up for sale at the corner of Highways 14 and 78.  Schmitt built the field at the  same time as he opened the bar. He owns the rolling farm land that  is the southern backdrop for the field.

An enclosed dining area overlooks the field where customers eat pulled pork pizzas and grass fed burgers with organic ground beef from Black Earth. The cedar ceiling is plastered with baseball cards and posters.

Steve Schmitt and his field of.....(I won't say it) Dave Hoekstra photo.

Steve Schmitt and his field of….(I won’t say it) 

Rookies features more than 6,000 baseball cards, seen throughout the complex  including the men’s bathroom.

Downstairs, the entrance to the field includes  an original turnstile from Comiskey Park in Chicago.

“I wanted a safe family place for kids to come,” Schmitt said during  a rainy afternoon tour of the Shoe Box, Rookies and the Wiffle Ball  field. “And be able to hit the ball over the wall where it wouldn’t  land in the highway.

“I wanted guys or gals be able to come out here  at the spur of the moment and have a ball. It’s  the only artificial infield Wiffle Ball field in America. We light it  up at night like a Christmas tree so you can play all night long.  We’d play in the snow if people want to. People have had birthday and  bachlorette parties here.”

Rookies deploys a plastic 12-inch ball, larger than the 9-inch traditional size most kids grew up with. “That’s a perfect size because it doesn’t carry over too often,” he said. 

It’s always the notes you don’t play.

Schmitt, 68, grew up playing Wiffle Ball in neighboring Black Earth. His parents Bill and Janet Schmitt ran a shoe store in downtown Black Earth (pop. 1,400) where they sold guns, lures, night crawlers and sporting goods on the side. Schmitt bought out his parents in  1974 and specialized only in selling and repairing shoes.

IMG_2014

You’re in baseball heaven.

“Growing up we did our sandlot thing six against five,” he said. “We had a little Wiffle Ball stadium in a field. Then, in 1960, the back of our house we found the porch and dimensions were a  perfect fit for a ground rule double, the home run. My buddy and I would play.

“He was a big Milwaukee Braves fan.  I was a Cardinals fan  and was (St. Louis announcer) Harry Caray of course. I’d lead off  with (Julian) Javier, (Curt) Flood, Joe Cunningham. I’d mock Bill White’s stance. I was fascinated. I was up  29-26 games that year, but my buddy beat me 32 to 30 games. We played  a full nine innings, foul balls and everything, day and night. Those  games probably lasted two hours at least. Off the porch was a ground  double.

“It was the best years of my lifetime.”

This was before Game Boys.

During the baseball season every team that visits the Madison Mallards of the Northwoods League also visits the Wiffle Ball field  at Rookies. Schmitt explained, “We’re obligated to feed them  pre- game and post- game, put them up in a hotel and do their laundry. A  lot of those guys come out here and burn themselves out.”

Schmitt smiled like a Wisconsin fox. He continued, “It’s the  ego thing like they gotta hit the Wiffle Ball out. It throws their  timing off for the Mallards game that night. We say, ‘Go out there  and have fun and swing for the fences!’ The ball doesn’t travel out of here too many times unless the wind is coming from the north. It’s  also in a hole (flood plain).”

Rookies Wiffle Ball Field

Wiffle Ball history also exists at Bethel College Park in Mishawaka, Ind. where a Wiffle Ball field was built in 1980 complete with six- foot high home run fences. In August, 1980 the First Annual World  Wiffle Ball Championships debuted in Mishawaka, where they remained  until moving to Skokie, Ill. in 2013.

But the magical reach of radio across the central Wisconsin farm fields is what made Schmitt a Cardinals fan.

“I was walking around  Black Earth on a late evening,” recalled Schmitt, who was wearing Red Wing work shoes. “I had been listening to  Lou Boudreau and Vince Lloyd (out of WGN-AM in Chicago), Earl  Gillespie (another “Holy Cow” announcer at WTMJ in Milwaukee). All of a sudden KMOX in St. Louis raises their wattage at a certain time and  Harry Caray almost jumps out of the broadcast booth. Who the hell is this guy? So I send a letter to the St. Louis Cardinals in St. Louis,  Missouri. No address. No zip code. ‘I’m Steve Schmitt, nine years  old, I’m a Cardinals fan.’ They send me back four by sixes of Wilmer  ‘Vinegar Bend ‘Mizell, Al Dark, Bill Virdon, Stan Musial. I was hooked. 

“I’ve never said anything bad about that organization since.”

Besides Wiffle Ball, Schmitt has been involved in minor league baseball in Madison since 1994. The Springfield (Illinois) Cardinals of the Midwest League relocated to Madison where they became the Hatters. “I wanted to see baseball in Madison,” Schmitt said as he drove a  green Land Rover affixed with the Madison Mallards logo. “I wasn’t sure at first. The franchise fee was $125,000. I thought I’d try it. Now its a million bucks. My theory is if you don’t try it, you’ll  never know if it works.

“In 2000 I was involved with seven, eight  other guys who brought a professional hockey team to Madison. They  were the Madison Kodiaks. It was owned by the county so they took all the profit. We got out of it but I learned so much through the other owners. We could never come to a decision, we never did anything but I had a great time.”

Steve Schmitt and his own bobblehead giveaway.

Steve Schmitt and his own bobblehead giveaway.

“So I brought in the baseball team: first five games, 174 people then  250 people. The last game of the year it was 2,000. It jumped to  4,000. Now we average 6,285 people. We have a good front office. We  treat it like a state fair. You come in the front gate and it’s a family thing. There better be something for you to do every 20 seats.”

In 1996 the Hatters became the Black Wolf of the  independent Northern League. Jimmy Buffett was a part owner of the team during its inaugural season.  When the Hatters left in 2000 for  Lincoln, Neb. Schmitt struck a deal with the Northwoods League. The wood-bat league runs from June to late August.

Former major leaguers such as Ferguson Jenkins, Vida Blue and Rollie Fingers  have played in charity alumni games at Warner Park in Madison. Late greats like Robin Roberts and Andy Pafko visited the Shoe Box.

Jazz pianist Ben Sidran is from Madison. I bet he likes Wiffle Ball. In 1997 my pals The Skeletons closed out their fine “Nothing to Lose” CD with the love ballad “Whiffle Ball.” (“Anyplace..someplace..”)

Schmitt made many of his baseball connections through the late New York Yankees -Los Angeles Angels pitcher Ryne Duren, who was from Cazenovia, Wis.

1961+Topps+Ryne+Duren

“Ryne was a buddy of mine,” he said. “I was with him when he died in hospice in Florida. They called me down. He’d take me to the BAT (Baseball Assistance Team) dinners at the Marriott Marquis in New York. There was a ballplayer at every table. Then he’d have Pat Maris (Roger’s wife) call me. There’s no end to it. I just saw Maury Wills, what a good guy. Ron Kittle just bought a couple pairs of shows. He was on his way to Minnesota to see  (Hall of Fame pitcher) Bert Blyleven and then on to Sturgis (South Dakota).”

“The day (Packers receiver) Robert Brooks decided to get out of football, he went AWOL. Nobody knew where he was. He suddenly walked  in the Shoe Box. Someone asked him, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ He said, ‘My family, my life… I  had to go somewhere. I was in the  parking lot of Lambeau Field (about 160 miles north of the Shoe Box) and just went for a ride. By the time I got to the Shoe Box I decided to retire. We love all these guys.”

What’s not to love about Wiffle Ball?