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Me and Ernie at Billy Williams Hall of Fame Induction, 1987. No dress code.

Me and Ernie at Billy Williams Hall of Fame Induction, 1987. No dress code.

With apologies to The Band…….

I pulled into Wrigleyville, I was feelin’ about half past dead

I just need some place where I can lay my head

“Hey, Mister Rahm, can you tell me where a man might find a bed?”

He just grinned and shook my hand and, “No”, was all he said

Take a load off Ernie

Take a load for free

Take a load off Ernie

And you put the load right on me

(You put the load right on me)

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The Band

I picked up my bat and I went lookin’ for a place to hit

When I saw a goat and a cat walkin’ side by side

And I said, “Hey, goat come on, would you like to go downtown?”

And Billy said, “Well, I gotta go butt my friend can stick around”

And take a load off Ernie 

Take a load for free

Take a load off Ernie

And you put the load right on me

(You put the load right on me)

Go down, Pat Hughes, there ain’t nothin’ that you can say

‘Cause just ol’ Lester and Lester’s  waitin’ on Opening Day

“Well, now Lester my friend, what about young Javy Spree?”

He said, “Do me a favor, son, won’t you stay an’ keep Javy Spree company?”

Take a load off Ernie

Take a load for free

Take a load off Ernie

And you put the load right on me

(You put the load right on me)

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Crazy Maddon followed me and he caught me in the Wrigley fog

He said, “I will fix your club, if you’ll take Cousin Eddie, my RV”

I said, “Wait a minute, Maddon, you know I’m a peaceful man”

He said, “That’s okay, Theo won’t you drive him when you can?”

Take a load off Ernie

Take a load for free

Take a load off Ernie

And you put the load right on me

(You put the load right on me)

Catch an El Train, now, to take me down the line

My, my bat is sinkin’ low and I do believe it’s time

To get back to Mr. Harry Caray , you know he’s the only one

Who sent me here with drinks for everyone

Take a load off Ernie

Take a load for free

Take a load off Ernie

And you put the load right on me

(You put the load right on me)

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CLEVELAND, OH.–It is 347 miles from Chicago to Cleveland, Ohio

And 71 years.

Slow down and enjoy the ride. Don’t let third base coaches Wendell Kim or Tony Muser wave you home.

Are we there yet? Are we there yet?

That’s the call of the Cubs fan.

The autumn drive from Chicago to Cleveland is as humble as Kyle Hendricks. You cross the Calumet River, dart through the green, gold and yellow trees near Michigan City and see where homes are for sale at $499 a month at Arrowhead Lake near Toledo.

The red barns of western Ohio look like tomatoes on plates of wheat bread. Duck Tape World Headquarters are on I-90 outside of Cleveland, sealing the deal that this is no fancy trip. You can see for miles.

Open roads lead to open minds.

You play some good music, preferably Chicago singer-songwriters Steve Goodman, Mike Jordan and bassist-jazz violinist [and National Barn Dance musician] Johnny Frigo, who wrote the 1969 Cubs theme song “Hey, Hey, Holy Mackerel.”

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Me chillin’ in August, 1969 before the collapse.

Take time to look in the rear view mirror. And smile. This journey is an extension of the past.

If you’re like me you may see your parents, Fred and Stephanie bantering from the bleachers, Simon the Usher, Bob Beck, Carmella Hartigan and Mike Royko.

Our first year as Cubs season ticket holders was 1985 and we sat in the shadows of the grandstand near Royko and porn star Seka, a hot tomato who was dating Cubs pitching coach Billy Connors. It was cold down there. Mike Jordan called them good hangover seats. We moved to our current sun drenched seats in the southeast corner of the ballpark where we have a fine beer vendor named North.

Swerve around all the goats that have become road kill. It is 347 miles from Chicago to Cleveland, Ohio (I’ve also driven to Cleveland, Mississippi.)

There have been three dramatic passages in my life: Marriage in 1986, my parents deaths in 2016 and rebirth found in the 2016 World Series. Time moves fast. Remember that Opening Day 2013 lineup card at Wrigley with Cubs David DeJesus in left field, Nate Schierholtz in right and Brent Lillibridge at second base. Edwin Jackson started that home opener and lost 7-4 to the Braves. Thank Edwin Jackson, whose consistently lousy pitched allowed the Cubs to appear in this World Series.

My brother Doug and I grew up at Wrigley and we’ll always remember attending the Cubs Rick and Paul Reuschel game in August, 1975–the only time in Major League history brothers have combined for a shutout. The last time I had a bed sheet banner confiscated from Wrigley was in 1979 when my dear friend Steve Lord and I rolled out a “Fire Franks” message during the reign of Cubs manager/Mike Vail hater Herman Franks. I dated in the right field bleachers during the summer of 1984 and again in Section 242. Like the Cubs, some day I will get it right.

My brother Doug (left) and I, August, 2016

My brother Doug (left) and I, September, 2016.

These memories are what slows us down in the moment. Devotion is the compass on the 347 miles from Chicago to Cleveland.

In recent years Doug and my friend and old season ticket partner Angelo gave me copies of “Baseball as a Road to God” [Gotham Books] by John Sexton, president of New York University. Sexton has a PhD in History of American Religion from Fordham Univesity and teaches about the spiritual life of baseball in NYU courses.

When you fall down over and over you get up over and over. And then you search for what it all means. One of Sexton’s starting points is the word ineffable (popularized by late Eastern philosopher Alan Watts), the things we know through experience rather than study. Sexton writes, “The word signifies the truths known in the soul.”

The Cubs have shaped the soul more than any team in professional baseball. The drive to Cleveland is fueled by compassion, forgiveness, loyalty and hope. 347 miles and 71 years of hope.  Angelo and I were in the bleachers and I were in the bleachers on Aug. 29, 1989 when the Cubs came back from a 9-0 deficit to beat the Houston Astros 10-9 on a Dwight Smith 10th inning pinch hit. Dave Smith was the losing pitcher and of course he went on to become a Cub. Dwight Smith was also a fine singer and he knows soul is a feeling.

Our parents in Sec. 242, Wrigley FIeld

Our parents in Sec. 242, Wrigley Field

Soul is love. Soul is purpose. And soul is curated over time. The length of the baseball season lends itself to a community that is filling in some missing parts. Cubs fans are not alone in their quest for the end of the road. Cleveland hasn’t won a World Series since 1948 when Bill Veeck owned the team.

Our collective memories and thoughts create a joyful kaleidoscope. This World Series is a chippy unifier for two maligned Rust Belt cities.

I got to Saturday’s game early to take in the joy of a beautiful autumn afternoon. I was alone, but only in a physical sense.

I brought along “The Way of Baseball (Finding Stillness at 95 MPH)” by former Dodgers-Blue Jays outfielder Shawn Green. In his chapter “Gratitude” he writes. “When you peel away the layers of the ego and subdue your expectations regarding how the world should be, what’s left?

“Only life itself.”

That’s how it is now for me. I’m on the road to Cleveland and I can see a little clearer. I saved my hand crafted Dominican Republic cigar from the Cooperstown Cigar Company for Saturday’s post game events. I have one more cigar for this trip. On the way home I may roll down the window and smoke it. For no reason. For now life is a celebration and that’s how the Chicago Cubs play America’s game.

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.

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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.

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“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?

Davenport, Iowa, June 29,  2015 (Dave Hoekstra photos)

Davenport, Iowa, June 29, 2015 (Dave Hoekstra photos)

DAVENPORT, Ia.—Sometimes you reset the odometer.

I buried my parents in  April and late May and in early June my 2005 Pontiac Sunfire stopped running at the toll booth on a trip from Naperville to Chicago, a journey I had been making weekly over the last 18 months. Finis. The car was as loyal as an old mare and left only after it had done its job. I’ve spent 30 years writing road stories of small towns and gentle intentions and never had to call a tow truck.

I needed a lift.

When it came time to drive to the Quad Cities for my Midwest League baseball column I deployed my parents 2006 Hyuandi Sonata. You learn a new car, you learn a new way of life. I had used the four-door Sonata for all of my parents doctors appointments. My Pontiac only had two doors and a back seat full of half read Sunday New York Times.

The measured cadence of baseball lends itself well to being in the moment. Keep your eye on the ball. Embrace every blade of green grass of a Midwest League field because soon it will be winter for all of us. But on the drive out to the great Mississippi River I could not deflect recent moments, especially on my mother’s final visits to the Naperville Cemetery.

I would remove her black Drive wheelchair from the trunk of the Sonata. The caregiver and I helped my mom out of the passenger side of the car and into the wheel chair. I would wheel mom over the grass to my father’s grave. My parents are buried around stories much sadder than theirs.  Mom  got as quiet as a broken radio. Sometimes I looked away. She never wanted to stay long but she always wanted to arrive. Mom and Dad were married 65 years.

Rivers have a timeless nature which is why I wanted to see the Quad Cities River Bandits after all that I had been through. Rivers are always going somewhere and I feel a greater sense of history in Mississippi River towns than I do when I am along the ocean in Key West and Myrtle Beach -although Coney Island is an exception.

I drove alone to Davenport, at least in a physical sense. I brought along a river mix CD I made in 2012:  “Kern River” by the great Merle Haggard, “River Bends” by Tim  O’Regan,” “Get Down River” by the Bottle Rockets, and “Moon River” by Andy Williams, a song my parents liked.

River Scene on the Mississippi Davenport, IA

River Scene on the Mississippi Davenport, IA

The first thing I did when I got to downtown Davenport was visit the Quad Cities Visitor’s Center, housed in the former Union Station, 102 S. Harrison St. The center features souvenir books, locally made food and drink, postcards and bike rentals that are perfect for the riverfront.

I found the River Music Experience (RME) museum and performing arts center thriving at 129 N. Main St. in downtown Davenport. The two-floor RME is in the former Von Maur department store in the  Redstone building, erected in 1872. I first visited RME right after it opened in 2004 and it continues to amaze me Davenport can feature such a fine music museum while Chicago cannot get its act together to honor its important music heritage. In fact, RME is expanding to honor coronetist-composer, Bix Beiderbecke, born in 1903 in  Davenport. (Sun Ra sideman Pat Patrick was from East Moline, Ill.)

RME presents an all-ages and free “Live @ 5” series on the museum courtyard; Hal Reed & Mississippi Journey play today, followed by Fickle Filly and the Haymakers on Aug. 7, Wicked Liz & the Belly Swirls on Aug, 14 and the Ellis Kell Band on Aug, 21 (Kell is also a long-time museum staffer.)

I walked along the Mississippi River.

I had been to the former John  O’ Donnell Stadium several times but I had never found the time to  carry my thoughts along the river and Le Claire Park. I made discoveries. I saw a plaque that commemorated Aug. 22, 1963 when the  Catholic Interracial Council and other area organizations held Iowa’s  largest civil rights rally at the 400-acre park. Nearly 2,000 marchers listened to speakers like John Howard Griffin, author of “Black Like Me,” who spoke in the park’s since-refurbished band shell.

The march was a warm-up to the August 28, 1963 March on Washington (D.C.) which drew more than 250,000 people to hear Dr. Martin Luther King and others.IMG_0954

Finally, everyone can enjoy a nice picnic in the park and walk to what is now  called Modern Woodmen Park. The fraternal financial services company  scored naming rights in a 20-year deal worth $4.5 million. The 84- year-old “Modern Woody” often makes national news for getting flooded  out. Home plate is 400 feet from “The Big Muddy.”

The stadium was doing fine in June. A removable flood wall was created in June 2013 with a removable bridge that provides pedestrian access from the floodwater to the stadium. It is one of the three longest installations of its type in North America and the wall can be installed by six people in less than 24 hours.

June was the wettest month in Illinois history with 8.9 inches of rain, a fact not lost on my blue mood. I sat through an 86-minute rain delay before the game was suspended after four innings  with Quad Cities (Astros) leading Beloit (Oakland)  1-0 (Quad Cities  won 2-1 the next day.)

Earlier this year Modern Woodmen Park was voted “Best of the Ballparks” in Class A baseball by fans and readers of Ballpark Digest, which conducted a bracketed online voting competition of all Class A venues.

Modern Woodmen is the oldest stadium used continuously by a current minor league baseball team for more than 50 years. Davenport’s baseball history is one of the most storied in America, going back to 1879 when Davenport was a member of The Northwestern League that included Rockford, Ill. Dubuque, Ia. and Omaha, Ne. Northwestern is acknowledged as the first league west of the Mississippi River.

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My brother recently gave me the 2013 John Sexton book “Baseball as a Road to God (Seeing Beyond the Game)” which cites a 1956 poem John Updike wrote for the New Yorker while sitting in the Yankee Stadium bleachers:  “Distance brings proportion…From here the populated tiers as much as players seem part of the show…..”

Sexton wrote how Updike saw unity in time and place within the framework of baseball.

I last visited the riverside park in 2004 when the team was known as the “Swing of the Quad Cities,” which always sounded like some kind of private kinky club. The improvements are impressive and memorable.

In May, 2014 a new 110-foot tall $1 million Ferris wheel was erected beyond  the left field fence. The wheel was shut down during lightning and thunder, but it is easy to see that you can see views of the Mississippi River and the humble Davenport skyline. Why didn’t Tom Ricketts think of this as part of his left field renovation? The Cubs have been spinning wheels for generations. There is a $5 charge to ride the wheel.

A children’s amusement area is being built in the right field corner, bringing a bit of the wonderful Brooklyn Cyclones-by Coney Island experience to Iowa.

The latest addition for this season is a tiny cornfield in the left field corner beyond the bullpen. Bumper cars will be added in the right field corner before the season is over.

It is clear that River Bandits owner Dave Heller is all ears for just about anything. He realizes the shortened attention spans of today’s younger baseball audience.

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This is Iowa baseball.

“When I get five or six innings out of my kids I feel like I’ve really accomplished something,” Heller said from Connecticut where he was tending to his ill father. “If we’re in someone else’s park and they’re tired, we can leave. But when it’s Quad Cities and I’m in charge, leaving is not an alternative. Part of it is understanding first hand the struggles parents have to carve out affordable family friendly entertainment for themselves and their families. We wanted to do things that hadn’t been done before in minor league baseball to provide enough other attractions to keep them there for nine innings.”

Heller is a life long Democratic political media consultant. He attended Yale University where he completed his Master’s thesis and taught an undergraduate seminar on 20th Century American Politics.

“I’ve worked for 25 different members of congress,” said Heller, a native of Cleveland, Ohio. “I’m working on a number of campaigns include Congressman Alan Grayson who is running for the U.S. Senate in Florida. I still love politics. But I joke that I’ve spent my entire life selling something nobody wants to buy and now I get a chance to sell something people really enjoy—baseball.” And sometimes, something people really need.

 

 

 

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SCOTTSDALE, Az.—The Coach House is the oldest tavern in Scottsdale.

It is as old as the Go-Go White Sox.

The easy going road house is celebrating its 56th anniversary in April. The Coach House is tucked away at 7011 E. Indian School Rd. on the outskirts of the trendy Old Town district filled with art galleries, high end cafes and the new Hula’s Modern Tiki restaurant.

[Old Town is also the home of the Rusty Spur, a cowboy joint that opened around 1951, making it the oldest “saloon” in Scottsdale–just covering all bases.]

When you get out of the desert sun and sit in a quiet corner of the indoor bar at the Coach House, light is shed on the  benevolent soul of late owner and founder Bob Brower.

A faded black and white picture of members of the Boston Red Sox hang on a wooden wall. Pictured are Felix Mantilla, Dennis Bennett and Lenny Green, taking a break from spring training. Everyone but Mantilla is smiling.

Mantilla was Puerto Rican shortstop and  roommate of Hank Aaron when they played for the 1953 Jacksonville Braves, one of the first two integrated teams in the southern United States. Green was a left handed hitting African-American outfielder from Detroit, Mi. The late Bennett was a white starting pitcher who played for the ill-fated 1964 Phillies.

The photo was taken in 1965.

Integration was not common around Scottsdale.

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In 1959 the Red Sox became the first team to train in Scottsdale and just the fourth major league team to hold spring training in Arizona. The Cubs moved to Mesa in 1952, the New York Giants came to Phoenix in 1958. As early as 1945 Bill Veeck brought his Cleveland Indians to Tucson because he thought there was more racial tolerance in Arizona than in Florida.

By 1966 the Red Sox would relocate Spring Training to Florida.

“Baseball was a proving ground for civil rights in general,” Cactus League historian-journalist Charles Vascellaro said last week. “When black ballplayers joined white players it didn’t take long to win these guys over and to be treated as equals among their peers. That is what you see in looking at the Coach House picture. The (now-shuttered) Buckhorn Baths in Mesa (a favorite of Ernie Banks and Billy Williams) was also a fully integrated establishment at the time.

“In Florida, a lot of spring training facilities were segregated. The year (1957) Hank Aaron won the MVP award with the Milwaukee Braves he was not allowed to stay with the team in (Bradenton) Florida.”

Bob and Mary Brower were from Cleveland, Ohio where they ran the Silver Inn bar on the east side of the city. The Browers befriended former Cleveland Indian Roger Maris. The home run king broke in with the Tribe in 1957 before he was traded to Kansas City.

“My parents and Roger Maris had the same amount of kids (four boys and two girls),” their daughter Irene recalled last month after a Giants spring training game. “That’s how the kinship started. My dad was an Indians fan, but he loved all baseball. He had one radio downstairs and one radio upstairs and he would run up and down the stairs to hear the different scores. My Dad had such a relaxed atmosphere at the bar it reminded spring training players of home.”

Irene manages and operates the Coach House, which holds a cozy 175 people inside and out. Her father died in 1991, her mother Mary passed away in 2005.

The Coach House is open from 6 a.m. until 2 a..m, 365 days a year.

Irene is unsure how the Coach House got its name, but a couple of old timers told me the tavern is on the site of a former stagecoach house.

Bob Brower and Ernie Banks  (Courtesy of Irene Brower)

Bob Brower and Ernie Banks (Courtesy of Irene Brower)

Bob Brower had asthma which is why the family relocated to Arizona.

“I was born in Ohio in 1957, but my parents traveled across the United States when I was one year old,” Irene said. “Growing up, my Dad would open, my Mom  would bartend  in the afternoon. All six kids cleaned on Sundays and helped with special events. I remember sweeping –outside on the sidewalk. I asked my Dad, ‘Why do you want me to sweep the sidewalk?’ He said, ‘People notice activity, anything to lead people here.’ There were a lot of dirt lots around here back then. A few businesses.

“When the Red Sox were here, they didn’t make a lot of money. My dad took them home, fed them lunch and took them under his wings. They would come to our house and play ball with my older brothers. (Cubs-White Sox-A’s announcer) Harry Caray came here. Ernie Banks. His kids went to Loloma (grammar) School.”

Between 1967 and 1969 the Cubs stayed at the now-renovated Hotel Valley Ho, an Art Deco treasure that is within walking distance of the Coach House. Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood got married at the Ho.

No word if they adjourned to the Coach House.

Modern day ball players do not come to the Coach House. “(Giants pitcher) Matt Cain comes in once in a while,” Irene said. “But today with social media everybody tries to slip under the radar.”

A fire slipped through the grand old Coach House in 1982. “It went more from a white building to the western facade you see today,” Irene said.  “We still have the same Coach House tavern sign. The inside of the bar is exactly the same footprint. We extended the patio in the 1980s. People love being outside.”

Coach House 1962 (Courtesy of Irene Brower)

Coach House 1962. Bob and Mary Brower in the white. (Courtesy of Irene Brower)

In 1998 the City of Scottsdale named the Coach House an official landmark and in 2001 the city honored the Coach House as one of the city’s founding businesses. Irene explained, “In the 1990s the City of Scottsdale wanted to widen the road. They took businesses that had been here for years and gave them a few bucks to go away. We were destined to be gone, but hundreds of patrons of the Coach House went to city hall and said, ‘Not the Coach House.’ We won a huge battle and we became a landmark for Scottsdale.”

Coach House Tavern-2

The Coach House is one of the most affordable watering holes in Scottsdale. There’s always $2 PBRs and $3 draught beer. A free barbecue is held every Sunday afternoon on the outdoor patio. The Coach House is also known for the thousands of Christmas lights, garland and 50 candy canes that adorn the bar starting in late November. The tavern is always rated as a top 10 destination in Arizona for holiday decorations. Irene figured the bar spends $1,500 a month to keep the lights illuminated.

Bob Brower was born on Christmas Eve. “Every inch of the inside is filled with a light, ornament or decoration,” his daughter said. “It literally is like being inside a Christmas tree. My dad was the original networker. Everybody came into this place. He knew city council people,  government workers, business owners. If someone came in and needed work, he’d say, ‘I know so and so, he was just in here.’ At Our Lady of Perpetual Help church if someone new came to town, the pastor would send them our way. It wasn’t just a bar. It was really a home to a lot of people.”  Bob Brower and former St. Louis Cardinals catcher and television announcer Joe Garagiola, Sr. were ushers together at Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

Irene Brower

Irene Brower (D. Hoekstra photo)

So was the Coach House an inevitable path for Irene?

“I graduated from the University of San Diego with a degree in sociology,” she answered. “About eight years ago my brother (Jim) called and said he needed some help.  And I’ve been here since.

“I feel it is destiny. My dad and I were very close. He wanted me to have my education and a few other things, but it is an honor to be part of something that my mom and dad started.”

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SCOTTSDALE, Az.—De Jon Watson is in his first year as Senior Vice-President of Baseball Operations for the Arizona Diamondbacks. He oversees the franchise’s professional, amateur and international scouting and player development functions including the hiring of minor league managers and staff.

It has been a bow-wow-wow-yippi-yo-yippi-yay ride for Watson, 48.

His father is the rhythm and blues guitar hero Johnny “Guitar” Watson, whose “bow-wow” poetry was borrowed by George Clinton and rapper Snoop Dog.

In 1996 Watson had a fatal heart attack after taking the stage in Yokohama, Japan. He was only 61.

Watson was a major influence on Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Sly Stone. Hard core music fans know this, but his son is working to help his father gain entrance into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

On an early March morning in his office at the D-Backs Salt River Fields spring training facilty, Watson has a lot more to do than field questions about his father being the father of rap with his 1980 hit “Telephone Bill.” Or, how Steve Miller covered and referenced the 1961 Watson hit “Gangster of Love.”

But Watson is a patient man.

Before landing in Arizona, his baseball journey took him to Los Angeles (The Dodgers Vice-President of Player Development), Cleveland (Director of Professional Scouting, 2004-06), Cincinnatii (Reds Director of Scouting during the Marge Schott era  1998-2000) and even the Midwest League, where in 1987 he was a first baseman (and teammate of former Cubs-Sox pitcher Greg Hibbard) on the Appleton Foxes.

“This is fun,” Watson says with a warm smile. “Working with Tony (La Russa, the D-Backs new Chief Baseball Officer) and Stew (Dave Stewart, the former A’s pitcher and new GM) and the dynamic of relationship we are growing and building here.” And some of the new building blocks are at Kane County, the D-Backs new affiliate.

De Jon Watson, a baseball lifer.

De Jon Watson, a baseball lifer.

 

Watson knows the Midwest League. He recalls, “My prior club we were in Midland, Michigan (the Great Lakes Loons Dodgers affiliate) so I know the competition. I don’t consider it a ‘Low A’ league. ‘A’ ball is ‘A’ ball. The pitching is very competitive and a little more mature than first year players are used to seeing.

“I remember the Midwest League. I just saw Greg Vaughn (former Brewers first baseman) in Tucson. The year I was there he hit .305 and drove in like 120 runs (105 with 33 HR) for Beloit. Chip Hale (new D-Backs manager) was in the league when I was in that league. He played for Kenosha. When I worked for the Marlins (as a scout), we opened Kane County so I know how well they draw. (Former Seattle Mariner-Detroit Tiger) Rod Allen who was the (Cougars) hitting coach (‘94 and ‘95). He’s my cousin and he’s now doing radio for the Tigers. I can’t wait to get back to Kane County and see how it has changed over the years.”

The D-Backs have as many Chicago connections as a cactus has needles: former White Sox GM Roland Hemond is a special assistant to the President & CEO, former Cub Joe Carter is Stewart’s new assistant, former Cub Mark Grace is assistant hitting coach, former Cub Mike Harkey is pitching coach, former Cubs manager (1974-76) is senior advisor for Pacific Rim Operations and even former Bulls GM Jerry Krause has surfaced as a part-time scout.

Watson was destined for baseball even though his Los Angeles home was filled with music. Watson played drums as a boy and his father wrote the instrumental “De Jon’s Delight” for his son. “Music was my dad’s passion,” he says. “I wanted to find my own path. Sports was my avenue to search and pursue.

“Not many people know who my Dad was and I usually don’t say much about him. But as a kid I loved instrumentals. I always wanted him to do a jazz album but he would never do a jazz album. (Jazz guitarist) George Benson came by the house. Marvin Gaye was a close family friend. Natalie Cole bought me my first guitar. Barry White was our neighbor. I played Pop Warner football and Pony League baseball with his son (Kevin White). Don Buford, Jr was on our team. He’s now an orthopedic surgeon (in Dallas). After he quit baseball he went back to med school.” Buford, Jr.’s number was retired by the Daytona Cubs and he is the brother of former Cubs outfielder Damon Buford.

Watson listens to his father’s music “often.” He draws from a personal  catalog of more than 750 songs. “I Want to Ta-Ta (You Baby)’ is one of my favorites,” he says. “‘Superman Lover’ is a true classic. There’s some ballads I like, ‘Love Jones.’ He was under the radar for sure. Me, my sister and brother are working on getting him in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame.”

A scout’s anthem would be Watson’s gritty “I Got Eyes,” recorded in 1953 in Los Angeles with session players like Harold Grant on guitar and T-Bone Walker drummer Robert “Snake” Sims. Watson was a musical pathfinder and also served up memorable album covers like when he was saluting in front of a jeep on “Funk Beyond The Call of Duty” and being pushed on a tricycle by three women in 1979’s “What The Hell Is This,” which included the comical pop-funk track “I Don’t Want To Be President.”

WATSON_ JOHNNY GUITAR _A Real Mother For Ya_

 

The musician taught his son to dream big.

Watson, 6’4,” 190 pounds, played baseball at Santa Monica High School and at West Los Angeles Community College. He was a third round draft pick by the Kansas City Royals and played minor league ball for five seasons. He retired in 1989 and returned to school when he got a call to work in MLB’s RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities).

“That’s how I got back into baseball,” he said. “Gary Hughes (the Marlins first scouting director in 1991) gave me my first job as a scout in the inner city of Los Angeles. That was during the (1992 Rodney King) riots, as a matter of fact. Some scouts were scared to go in the inner city. I said, ‘Come with me, we’ll  be all right.’ You see guys getting chased through the parks but that’s just part of it.”

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Watson is featured in the 2012 documentary “Harvard Park” with Darryl Strawberry, Eric Davis and Frank Thomas. Between 1982 and 1994 the park was an urban training ground for baseball prospects and minor leaguers. The documentary debuted on BET.

“If you were playing professional baseball we all met at Harvard Park (in South Central L.A.),” Watson explains. ‘You’d hit in the order of where you were playing at that particular time, big leagues or Triple Guys would throw to each other. This was the grass roots of teaching. Shane Mack was there. Barry Larkin would come out, Kenny Williams. I was fortunate enough to go to scout school with Kenny.

“These guys would share their experiences. It helped us mature and grow to understand there were other young African-Americans going through the same struggles of trying to reach their goals. That’s where I got my passion for this. They kept pushing me to keep pushing forward. I still talk to Eric Davis three times a month. He played for Tony (La Russa) and I knew they had a relationship. I told him I was interviewing so I called him and got some background information.”

LaRussa heard many good things about Watson.

In a separate interview while looking for game tickets for his friend Bobby Knight, the Baseball Hall of Famer says, “It’s a new experience for me being in the front office. So I contacted people I knew over the years for recommendations and De Jon was guys recommended quite a few times. It was the first time I had been around him. I can see why he got all those recommendations. He’s smart. He has an extensive background from scouting director to player hard work. He’s energetic and he has personality. We want to make sure nobody beats us in hard work.”

Watson’s work ethic pushed him forward.

Just the day before our conversation Diamondbacks GM Stewart tells U.S.A. Today, “Baseball is the greatest game there is, but baseball has had a tough time dealing with minority issues. And it probably still does.”

The game has to reach out to minorities at a seed level. Watson says, “Today you have kids who are cookie cutter. They just play basketball. They just play baseball.  Basketball, AAU, they’re taking our kids at 13 where they should be playing Pony and Colt league. We need to market the product. Major league baseball is opening up academies in different places. We’ll provide education and opportunity for work and be able to enhance your talent pool. Right now there hasn’t been a ton of ways for us to enhance the talent pool.”

Johnny "Guitar" Watson in 1987.

Johnny “Guitar” Watson in 1987.

 

La Russa was also attracted to Watson’s resume’ because of his work in Latin America, particularly in Venezuela with the Dodgers. Kane County fans may see Cuban right hander Yoan Lopez this year. Lopez, 22, starred in Cuba’s 18U national league in 2011 with a 1.74 ERA and 88 strikeouts in 78 innings. He signed with the D-Backs for $8.25 million. He told Baseball America that Arizona was his favorite major league team while growing up in Cuba. Lopez is 6’3” and weighs 190 pounds.

“He has a really clean arm and it works exceptionally well,” Watson says. “He’s up to 97. His first outing this spring he was 92, 93, but he was throwing strikes. He got hit a little and fiddled around a bit, but that’s okay. He was by far one of the more advanced pitchers in the international pool. It creates more depth and the more depth you gives you a better chance to sustain success. Mike Bell, our farm director does a tremendous job of putting together strong rosters. We had five teams in the playoffs last year so I look forward to us having another competitive ballclub in Kane County.”

 

 

 

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What a posse taking in a Havana ballgame: (Che’ Guevera (1928-1967) with beret); to his left is Raul Castro, to Che’s right is baseball player and revolutionary hero Camilo Cienfuegos (1932-1959), Fidel Castro is to the right of Cienfuegos. I bought this picture a few years ago at an antique store in Little Havana outside of Miami.

Joe Cambria charmed an island that is used to bewitching moments.

Once the owner of the largest laundry in Maryland, Cambria scouted Cuba for the Washington Senators/Minnesota Twins from 1934 to 1962. He is known for tooling around pre-Castro Cuba with a loaded cigar and his chauffer, a retired highway patrolman who drove a big fat Lincoln.

Cambria was in the business of importing dreams. He held court with a female correspondent from Minnesota who followed him in search of something that reminded her of home.

Cambria lived at the American Club in Havana. He leased a restaurant and tavern, the Bar Triple A, over the right field fence of the Estadio Lationoamericano ballpark (opened October, 1946) in downtown Havana. There was always music as there always is in Cuba. He loved the beat of the rumba which Congolese slaves had taken to Cuba so long ago.

Cambria connected with the resilient spirit of the Cuban people, who gave him the nickname “Papacito” (“Papa”) Joe. They even named a “Papacito Joe” cigar after Cambria. His face was round and jolly, just like something the natives would see on welcoming Yankee currency.

The effervescent Cambria signed more than 400 Cuban ballplayers in 25 years.

He scouted Fidel Castro. His Cuban major league alumni includes Camilo Pascual, Tony Oliva, Preston Gomez, Pedro Ramos, Zolio Versalles, Julio Becquer, Sandy Consuegra and Willy Miranda. Cambria also discovered the first Venezuelan major leaguer, Alex Carrasquel, whom he saw pitching in Havana in 1938. Cambria signed Venezuelan outfielder Vic Davallillo and his older brother Yo-Yo, as well as American players Early Wynn, Mickey Vernon and Eddie Yost.

Papa Joe unearthed Joe Krakauskas, surely professional baseball’s only Canadian-Lithuanian. A southpaw, Krakaukas topped out with an 11-17 record for the 1939 Senators, with 110 Ks (and 114 walks) in 217 innings. He plucked Allen “Bullet Bob” Benson from the House of David barnstorming team and Benson made his 1934 major league debut with the Senators. His career lasted two games.

Papa Joe was dispatched to Cuba because of the tightwad mentality of the Griffith family who owned the Senators and the Twins. When Camilo Pascual arrived in the major leagues with the 1954 Senators he discovered his pitching coach was ex-White Sox pitcher Joe Haynes—the brother-in-law of future senator owner Calvin Griffith.

That’s cutting corners.

During a 1991 interview in his Florida condo Griffith said Cambria scouted Fidel Castro, a somewhat effective left handed sidearm pitcher, who at the age of 18 was proclaimed as “Cuba’s outstanding athlete.” Castro once swam more than seven miles in the ocean to escape an assassination attempt. He may even still be alive today, at the age of 88.

Fidel Castro (right) and Camilo Cienfuegos in 1959 when they played for Barbudos ("The Bearded Ones.") A spirited leader of the revolution, Cienfuegos became canonized in Cuban culture later in 1959 after his Cessna 310 airplane disappeared over the ocean. He died at the age of 27.

Fidel Castro (right) and Camilo Cienfuegos in 1959 when they played for Barbudos (“The Bearded Ones.”) A spirited leader of the revolution, Cienfuegos became canonized in Cuban culture in 1959 after his Cessna 310 airplane disappeared over the ocean. He died at the age of 27.

Cambria first saw Castro pitch when Castro was a teenager in the center of Havana and he followed his career until Castro enrolled at the the University of Havana, where politics took precedent over sports. “Joe got in good with Castro,” said Griffith, who kept an autographed baseball from Castro in a trophy case next to an autographed baseball from fellow chairman Frank Sinatra. “Papa Joe told him, ‘Your fastball isn’t fast enough.’ But he still pitched in college. A sidearmer? I don’t know what the hell he was. But Joe Cambria and Fidel Castro got to be buddies. About the only Cuban he missed was Minnie Minoso.”

“Baseball was in Joe’s blood. He lived on olive oil and garlic. Every time you cooked, you had to have olive oil and garlic for him. He was a one-man show. You don’t get to be called ‘Papa Joe’ unless you are a good citizen. He did everything in the world for the Cubans. He literally was their Papa. He gave them things they never had before. Whatever he had in his pocket. Money, clothes.”

Who was Papa Joe?

      *                    *           *                    *

Joseph Carl Cambria was born in Messina, Italy on The Fifth of July, 1890.

His family came to America when he was eight months old and he was reared in Boston. Cambria was an outfielder for Newport in the Rhode Island State League and barnstormed with St. Louis Browns pitcher Urban Shocker. Cambria retired after breaking a leg in 1916.

After serving in the military in World War I, Cambria relocated to Baltimore and opened the Bugle Laundry. By 1928 it was the largest laundry in Maryland.  The laundry supplied jackets and towels to Baltimore business houses.

The Bugle Laundry also sponsored a semipro team and played under temporary lights on a diamond Cambria named “Bugle Field.” Calvin Griffith was a reserve member of the team. His uncle Clark G. Griffith owned the Washington Senators. When Clark died in 1955, Calvin inherited the Senators. He moved the team to Minneapolis in 1960.

Clark Griffith had paid close attention to Cuban pitcher Dolf Luque, a major influence on future Senator and Twin Camilo Pascual. Luque helped Pascual master his wicked curveball. At age 42, Luque joined the New York Giants in 1932 and helped them to the  National League Pennant. Luque pitched four scoreless innings in the 1932 World Series.

After that performance, Clark Griffith got the idea to dispatch Cambria to Cuba.

“By that time Joe ran several ball clubs himself,” Calvin Griffith said. “Hagerstown (Blue Ridge). Albany (International League). Salisbury

(Eastern Shore), Greenville (Sally), Youngstown (Middle Atlantic, where Cambria also was a manager).” In 1933 Cambria also owned the Baltimore Black Sox of the fledgling Negro National League. He took players off salaries and operated on a percentage basis to remain fiscally solvent during the Depression.

Papa Joe and his Senators

Papa Joe and his Senators. Camilo Pascual is the fourth player from the left.

“He has been called a sharpshooter and fly-by-night operator,” Frank O’Neil wrote in the Jan. 18, 1945 edition of The Sporting News. “He has been indicted as a man who could squirm out of an eel trap, and discredited as a hazadorus risk to any league in which he might obtain a franchise.”

But by mining Cuban talent, Cambria was setting the stage for the integration of baseball in America. Until Cambria’s arrival, the only

Cubans in the major leagues were Adolfo Luque and Miguel Gonzalez.

People don’t realize the Cuban prelude to integration.

*                                                        *

Jackie Robinson broke through major league baseball’s color line in 1947. But, between 1911 and 1947, about a dozen guys in the major leagues had played in the Negro Leagues. They were Hispanic. They were black enough to perform in the Negro Leagues and white enough to play in the Major  Leagues.

John “Little Napoleon” McGraw would do anything to win. He was always looking for the edge when he managed the New York Giants between 1901-1932. [Bill Veeck’s midget at bat was inspired by a little person named Eddie Morrow that McGraw kept in the club house as a “good luck charm.”] McGraw knew there were players of color in Cuba. He had no racial agenda. He just wanted to win.

The 1933 Albany Senators were one of the first teams Joe Cambria stocked with Cubans. A setting for the moody baseball novel “Ironweed,” Albany had the smallest population of any city in the International League. It was a no-win proposition, but Cambria used money from his Baltimore laundry to finance the operation.

Cambria took over the International League franchise from the Chicago Cubs. In 1933 the Cubs optioned Stan Hack to Albany to play third base. Hack was a colorful Senator. “Something about playing with the men of Cambria made him do strange things, especially like climbing the light tower in left field,”  Joe Buchiccio wrote in the Nov. 1968 edition of “The Evangelist.” Despite being Cambria-ized, Hack still made the league’s all-star team that year.

Cambria thought outside the box.

His 1934 Senators featured outfielder Fred Sington, a former Alabama football star who led the league in RBIs (147) as well as Cuban imports who could neither read or write in English. Cambria gave them identification tags to wear around their neck in the event they became lost. The team’s future Cuban major leaguers included MIke Guerrera, Tommy DeLa Cruz, Bobby Estallela and Reggie Otero, who went on to coach for the Cincinnati Reds.

In 1935 Cambria signed Alabama Pitts to a contract, which forever made Papa Joe part of Albany sports lore. Pitts was a 25-year-old ex-convict with a honest-to-goodness baseball reputation. He had just been released from Sing Sing Prison in Ossing, N.Y., where he was doing time for armed robbery. Cambria instructed his general manager Johnny Evers to pay Pitts $200 a month. The acquisition was overruled in the courts and also by Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. But Cambria and the Senators won out.

In June, 1935 more than 7,000 fans came to see Pitts baseball debut.

The field was flooded with water from an all-night rain. Cambria burned gasoline on the field to get it into playing condition. Pitts went

2-for-5, but finished the year hitting .233 in 116 at bats and striking out 24 times. He missed many games due to injuries. According to the Aug. 29, 1935 issue of the Sporting News, Pitts went down with blood poisoning which resulted when he “spiked himself and paid little attention….until his foot swelled.”

Pitts was done. He was released at the beginning of the 1936 season. Pitts died in 1941 from knife wounds incurred in a roadhouse fight after he had played in a game with the semi pro Valdese (North Carolina) mill team.

Cambria already had enough.

The 1935 Senators were dreadful, finishing in last place with a 49-104 record. They weren’t much better in 1936, finishing last again with a 56-98 record, despite having the league’s leading hitter in Smead Jolley (.373), who had flamed out with the Chicago White Sox. After the 1936 season Cambria sold the Senators to the New York Giants for $75,000. The Giants moved the club to Jersey City, where they finished  last again with a 50-100 mark.

*                                                            *

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Papa Joe hits “The Sporting News” Jan. 18, 1945

Helen loved to visit Joe at the American Club. She was a young feature writer for United Press International and had met Papa Joe down the road at the Tropicana nightclub. The American Club was a safe haven. The hearty food reminded her of the restaurant her parents ran back home in Minneapolis. She was supposed to work in that place, too. She grew up behind the counter and quickly came to understand the regiment of the working class. She heard the complaints. She saw the creases that ran across the faces of old men like threads in a quilt.

And she hated snow.

Joe took great delight in the American Club’s spaghetti and the spicy nature of the Cuban seasoning. He would talk about the discovery of another mediocre Cuban ballplayer that he could fly under the radar  back to Washington, D.C. Helen would talk about the latest Saturday Evening Post that had landed at the club. There were stories about Wyoming and poems about broken music boxes.

Helen and Joe adored the artwork of Cuban Andres Garcia Benitez that adorned the covers of Bohemia and Carteles magazines. Garcia Benitez preceded the popular Vargas in the pages of Playboy magazine. Garcia Benitez also produced images of Cuban team pinup girls wearing colorful team jerseys.

The Cienfuegos Baseball Club on the cover of Carteles, Nov. 1952 (Art by Andres Garcia Benitez)

The Cienfuegos Baseball Club on the cover of Carteles, Nov. 1952

Helen had a calming effect on Joe’s restless nature. Joe never married and he had no children. “My kids are on the fields of Cuba and Venezuela,” he would say. Joe was no longer a young man when Helen met him in 1944. They were an odd couple who were friends more than companions. Helen was tall and lithe and her Scandanivan complexion did not like the tropical sun. Joe was short and squat and he loved Panama hats that on occasion shaded his blue eyes. Their direct nature was their connective thread, their mojo that made them friends. Helen was straight-ahead in a practical Midwestern sense. Joe confronted everyone with his Catholic-Italian brotherhood. He would wrap his arm around the shoulder of a young ballplayer and sell him a dream. He did this thousands of times across the entire island of Cuba. Helen wondered what it was that drew him to the game of baseball like a match to a cigar.

Sometimes he wondered where the time went.

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On Jan. 7, 1945 Papa Joe was presented with a gold watch by Cuban ballplayers who had reached the major leagues between games of a winter league double header at La Tropical Stadium in Havana. Cuban baseball writers gave Cambria a bronze plaque. More than 15,000 fans paid tribute to Cambria.

Tomas de la Cruz of the Cincinnati Reds—who earlier in the week had pitched a no-hitter for Almendares—made the player’s presentation with Papa Joe looking on. Speeches were given by Rogelio Valdes Jorge, president of Cuba’s professional league and Merito Acosta, who was a star for Louisville in the American Association. Helen was in the stands and began to understand the bridges Joe was building.

Riding high with the Cuban people, in 1946 Cambria founded the Havana Cubans of the Florida International League. It was the same year the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson and moved spring training to Havana to escape the segregation of the United States.

The Cubans played their maiden season at the La Tropical Stadium. Bobby Maduro bought the team in 1954, renamed it the Sugar Kings  and relocated it to El Gran Estadio del Cerro (a.k.a. Gran Stadium) in Havana. The Cubans delivered future major leaguers like former Cubs manager Preston Gomez and pitcher Camilo Pascual.

Pascual became Cambria’s best friend. Cambria was best man at Pascual’s 1958 wedding in Havana. Cambria discovered Pascual when he was a 16-year-old third baseman on Club Ferroviario (named after a Cuban railroad) in Havana. “He watched every game from a distance,” Pascual told me over a 2002 breakfast at the Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana, outside of downtown Miami. “He would sit in the stands, down the third base line. He wore white shirts with Panama hats. He told me I was going to be a pitcher. He knew.”

He saw the national pride of the Cuban athlete.

Papa Joe in his white hat during his early days in Cuba

Papa Joe in his white hat during his early days in Cuba

Clark Griffith was a minority Havana Cubans owner which created the pipeline to the Senators. Conrado Marrero and Sandy Conseuegra all played for the Cubans between 1946 and 1950 when they won four consecutive Florida International League titles. The Class C league also had teams in Miami, Miami Beach, Tampa, West Palm Beach and rural Key West.

During the regular season Fidel Castro attended Sugar Kings games at Gran Stadium. Not long after assuming power he pledged to underwrite the Sugar Kings debts. During the Cuban Winter Leagues, Castro followed the Alamendares Club of Havana, whose heritage dated back to 1879. The Almendares mascot was a scorpion and the team motto was “He who defeats Almendares dies.”

Hall of Famer Monte Irvin played for Alemandares between 1947 and 1949. He batted against Castro, who pitched batting practice. “He would work out with us,” Irvin once told me. “He had a fair amount of speed, but his control wasn’t what it should have been. Marrero once said, ‘If we had known he wanted to become a dictator, we would have made an umpire out of  him.”

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In the late 1940s Helen received an assignment from U.P.I. to write about the cigar factories in Pinar Del Rio. The fertile tobacco growing region was about two hours from Havana. She had no way to get to Pinar Del Rio. She asked Joe to accompany her. Joe liked cigars and Benny More’. The Cuban songwriter got his start in these factories, composing songs like “Sete Cayo’ El Tobacco.”

And Joe had a driver.

“There was a boy from Pennsylvania named Alex Kvasnak,” the driver told Helen as they waited for Joe to emerge from the American Club. “Joe called him ‘Squash-Neck.’ Not a bad hitter. Squash Neck had quite a reputation around his home town and word got out to the Red Sox that Joe was sniffing around. The kid’s father was a barber. He couldn’t make up his mind between Joe and the Senators and the Red Sox.” “Splitting hairs,” Helen said, adjusting her wide brimmed hat.

“So you know what Joe does?,” the driver said while looking at Helen in the rear view mirror. “He had a brand new barber’s chair delivered to his father’s shop. And Squash Neck signed with the Senators.”

Helen looked out at the American Club and wondered. Was Joe an operator? Or did he explore every possibility in life? Did his open spirit contrast her shadowed nature?

Joe rolled out of the American Club like a red carpet in Hollywood. He had the whole bit going on: Panama hat,  light white shirt with a pocketful of cigars and a satchel with a bottle of Havana Rum sticking out from the top. He seemed excited about the day trip, but there was no way Helen could tell for sure. He was a scout. He knew about the music around the factories such as the percussive punto pinareno that was indigenous to Pinar Del Rio. Maybe he would find a baseball game along the way. This day trip was where Helen learned that Joe never liked to see the sun set.

The five-mile Malecon that connects Papa Joe's Old Havana with  New Havana

The five-mile Malecon that connects Papa Joe’s Old Havana with New Havana

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Former Washington Senator/Minnesota Twin Julio Becquer was scouted by Cambria and kept in touch with Papa Joe his entire life. “Joe always knew what we were doing,” Becquer said in a mid-1990s conversation in his Minneapolis home. “We didn’t call him on the phone or things like that, but especially when we went to Cuba he would help us with accommodations. He would always inform the major league clubs what we were doing in Cuba.”

When Cuban ballplayers arrived in the United States, Cambria would take them to Spanish restaurants. After signing Carrasquel, the first Venezulean in the big leagues, Cambria gave him dozens of rumba records to keep him from being homesick.

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Becquer played for Havana in the Florida International League (1953, 54), San Diego in the Pacific Coast League (1955), the Senators (‘55, ‘57 and ‘58) and Louisville in the American Association (1956). “There were so many Cuban players in triple AAA in 1956 it was unbelievable, nearly 100,” Becquer said. “ Philadelphia had Tony Gonzales, Cookie Rojas, Ruben Amaro, Tony Taylor. And that’s only a few. You go to Cincinnati and there was Leo Cardenas, Tony Perez.

“We always had a group and we stayed together. Cubans ate together, we slept together, we played together. We got along well. I knew there was racism. In Louisville I was called everything. I never acknowledged it, but we didn’t forget. I was trying to avoid confrontation. I came to the United States to play ball. But we protected each other.

“If you had to deal with one, you had to deal with the rest of us.”

“And you cannot win. The only way you can win is if you eliminate all of us.”

Becquer met his wife Edith in 1951 in Havana. She was studying to get her Pharmacy degree from the University of Havana. They got married in 1961, the year Castro cut off Cuba and ended professional sports. “After Cuba closed off, that was it for Joe,”  Becquer said. In firm tones Edith added,  “Papa Joe is the reason I am in this country.”

Joe Cambria died in 1962 in a Minneapolis hospital. Cuban balll players across America shed a tear for their papa. Joe had long lost touch with Helen, who relocated to New York before the 1959 revolution. She also had raised a family.

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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

 

Akron Rock n' Roll Bobble Head giveaways.

Akron Rock n’ Roll Bobble Head giveaways.

 

EASTLAKE, Ohio—With no surrender and lots of Mountain Dew I drove to Columbus, Ohio in mid-April to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. This marked my 30th Springsteen concert dating back to Sept. 6, 1978 at the Uptown Theater in Chicago ($7.50 ticket.) All those ticket stubs are bookmarks in my life.

The Holiday Inn in downtown Columbus was filled with Springsteen fans who were knocking around the region for his “High Hopes” tour. They had been to Virginia Beach, Va., they were heading to Nashville, Tn. for his next show.

I was surprised how many people were traveling before summer vacation. Maybe they were all out of work like me. Some fans were as middle aged as a slab of warped vinyl. Others were in their late 20s and early 30s. They carried coolers and bags of chips into the elevators. They shared stories in the lobby and at the small hotel bar.

The road is a thread.

Whether you are following a musician or a baseball team, travel is a colorful fabric of commitment, open minds and good spirits. Who was it that said “Life is sustained by movement, not by foundation?” I had to look it up.

It was French poet-aviator Antoine de Saint-Expuery.

My plan was to wake up the morning after the concert and catch three baseball games in one day.

I wanted to see the new wacky named Akron RubberDucks (Cleveland) host the Trenton Thunder (New York Yankees) in a noon Eastern League double-header in downtown Akron, just 126 miles from downtown Columbus. The Columbus Clippers were on the road.

The next move was to go to Eastlake, Ohio for a 6 p.m. double-header between the Midwest League’s Lake County Captains (Cleveland) and the Peoria Chiefs (St. Louis). I watched three games in roughly eight hours. I did not stay for the second game in Eastlake. I am not the hard working The Boss of Minor League Baseball.

Maybe it is because I was a kid –ages 3 to 12–when I lived in Columbus–but life still seems more gentle and fresh in Central Ohio than in my native Chicago.

Before the Springsteen concert in downtown Columbus I stopped at the new Grass Skirt Tiki Room, 105 N. Grant Ave., also downtown. The Grass Skirt is a humble but pretty hole in the wall bar and restaurant that pays homage to the since-razed Kahiki in Columbus, one of the greatest Polynesian restaurants in America. Here is my Kahiki Supper Club  link. A friendly customer gave me her plastic Grass Skirt membership card for another couple drinks but I had to get to the show.

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The Grass Skirt is adjacent to The Hills Market, a fine locally owned one stop grocery store which also features a coffee lounge, local magazines and a wide assortment of local beer. For my morning drive on a pothole free I-71 to Akron I stocked up on the market’s coffee, vitamin water and a bagel.

Springsteen’s “Stand On It” played out of my car radio as I headed north into the concentrated land of Chief Wahoo. If you are a fan of the Tribe you could play out a marathon baseball day, just as my friends in Baltimore did. The Columbus Clippers, Akron and Lake County are all Indians affiliates and easy drives from Cleveland.

The crowd was sparse as I arrived at Canal Park stadium in Akron.

In this overly politically correct era the noon game was promoted as a “Businessperson” special. The previous night’s game had been canceled due to rain and snow so the “Businessperson” special became the first game of a double-header for the Chief Native-American affiliate. It was a sunny 33 degree day. I hand -counted about 100 fans through the first three innings of the game.

I saw a few familiar faces on the field.

Trenton’s center fielder was Mason Williams, the 22-year-old grandson of former White Sox center fielder Walt “No Neck” Williams. Someone should do a Walt Williams bobble head. I had seen Mason Williams play a few months ago for the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League.

Mason batted leadoff for Trenton and went two for three in the first game with a fly swatter bat approach similar to that of Ichirio. Williams has a good pedigree. He is also the son of former New England Patriots wide receiver Derwin Williams.

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I got a kick out of the new 23-seat “Tiki Terrace” in the far right field corner of Canal Park–even though the terrace was playing hip-hop music.

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But the best motivational tool to return to Akron this summer are awesome rock n’ roll bobble head promotions that honor the rich musical heritage of Akron:

* Devo, May 24, Reading Fighting Phils

* Joe Walsh, June 14 with the Portland Sea Dogs

* Chrissie Hynde (no hot dogs or hamburgers please), June 28 with the Harrisburg Senators

* The Black Keys (and a Black Keys fireworks show), July 5 with the Bowie Baysox.

Where’s Akron’s pure pop singer Rachel Sweet, who in 1978 had a hit record by reworking Carla Thomas’s “B-A-B-Y” ?

 

 

The Rubber Ducks have many other nutty promotions: There’s a June 13 Springsteen fireworks show combined with a salute to soccer moms, and Moustache Monday “When In Rome” Ron Burgundy Night on July 21.

The temperature had jumped to 40 degrees by the time I landed in Eastlake, just 50 miles north of Akron.

Of course I arrived in timely fashion because I burned rubber ducks.

The Lake County Captains are still playing up the nautical theme that I enjoyed on my last visit in 2011. The west side of Eastlake is actually on Lake Erie.

My old friend Jay the Bartender from the Matchbox used to talk about baseball road trips with women. A game is only a couple of hours (now over three hours in the major leagues). so there’s ample time to explore other things. With more than 30 species of sandpipers and other wading birds along the Lake Erie shoreline, Eastlake’s Lake County is a huge draw for birding enthusiasts. Must-see stops include the 20,000 red-breasted merganser birds at Headlands Beach State Park in the Cleveland section of Lake County. The park’s trademark is its mile-long natural sand beach, the largest in the state.

Headlands Beach State Park

Headlands Beach State Park

 

Classic Park opened in April 2003, when Lake County was a member of the South Atlantic League of all places. (Lake County joined the Midwest League in 2010). The men’s bathrooms at Classic Park are called the “Poop Deck” and the Castaways Bar down the left field line looked like an inviting port of call, although it was closed on my visit due to the cold weather.

Another  sparse crowd helped define the sea of empty blue seats. At the 6 p.m. start for the first game I counted about 150 people in the stands.

The most exciting player I saw was Peoria’s fleet center fielder C.J. McElroy. The fleet, left-handed hitter is Billy Hamilton without the hype. McElroy, who turned 21 on May 29, is the son of former Cubs reliever Chuck McElroy. He laid down a couple of beautiful bunts in the first game, manufacturing one drag bunt into a catcher’s throwing error and then a stolen base. McElroy is ranked 24th in the top 30 St. Louis Cardinal prospects for 2014. And the former 5’10” prep wide reciever was signed by Ralph Garr, Jr.

Baseball is so bunched up in this stretch of Ohio, fans could even parlay visit to the Cleveland Indians’ Progressive Field and the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame with a Captains game. Downtown Cleveland is just 18 miles northeast of Eastlake.

Many minor league teams have Jimmy Buffett nights but I imagine it plays well in Eastlake: Aug. 22 is “Margaritaville Night” with Buffett themed fireworks and a post-game concert by Happymon. The Ohio-based Buffett-Beach tribute band performs on a stage that looks like a boat and their drummer is named James Taylor. And thrill seekers may want to catch the June 7 “Hungarian Heritage Night” with a Hungarian Disco fireworks theme at Classic Field.

Wonder if that includes the Springsteen smash “Hungarian Heart?”

View from home plate, Akron, April 16, 2014

View from home plate, Akron, April 16, 2014