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Minor league baseball, Clinton , Ia., June 13, 2017 (D. Hoekstra photo)

Minor league baseball, Clinton , Ia., June 13, 2017 (D. Hoekstra photo)

CLINTON, IA.—America was a different place when I began writing the Glove Compartment 25 years ago. Life is now framed by more jagged edges. People continue to leave big cities for the small and mid-sized cities that define the Midwest League. Where you unlock the doors, you unlock your heart.

When I began traveling in and out of Illinois to explore baseball’s backroads for the Kane County Cougars and the Midwest League, at least the state had a working budget. Just after this Fourth of July, Illinois passed a budget after a two year impasse. The state now only owes $15 billion to doctors, hospitals and other vendors who stayed the course. Who can hold on? And isn’t that part of baseball’s bewitching lure? Holding on to a memory and letting go of a dream.

I have just a few memories of catching weekend stars in the sky summer songs along the Natchez Trace, a pier in Key West, Fla. and on a hot summer night several years ago after leaving a baseball game inCedar Rapids, Ia.. I was driving down a two-lane country road. I pulled over along a random cornfield. I got out of my car and rested on the hood. I looked to the heavens.

At that moment it seemed like all things were possible.

Do you remember that feeling?

So I chose the twin spin of Cedar Rapids and Clinton, Iowa as my column swan song.

In mid-June I saw two games in 33 hours. On a 91-degree afternoon at Cedar Rapids I had my picture taken with the super hyper mascot Mr. Shucks. Back in 1992 mascots like Mr. Met weren’t flipping off fans. The Cedar Rapids Kernels lost to Burlington 1-0 on a swift one-hitter mostly thrown by the Bees’ Erik Manoah.

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An outfield fence promoted “Iowa, Corn, Bourbon–Swisher, Iowa.” Indeed further research revealed that the family owned and operated Cedar Ridge Distillery in Swisher won “Best American Craft Whiskey in Show” at the 2016 New York World Wine Spirits Competition.

After a short rain delay the next evening in Clinton, a resplendent double rainbow emerged over the Mississippi River beyond the center field fence. The I & M rails are along the parking lot near the ballpark entrance. Horns from passing freight trains blared into the humid air. This is how it was, this is how it always will be.

When people ask me where to find the root of Midwest League baseball, I always send them to Clinton. The vibe is from 1959. Fans literally sit next to the field. There’s no bleacher seats or grassy knolls at Clinton. Fans huddle under an evergreen grandstand roof creating a micro-community of Clinton (pop. 26,800).

A fine riverfront supper club called The Candlelight Inn is an easy stroll from the ballpark. Don’t miss the restaurant’s detailed riverboat sketches made by the late Roscoe Misselhorn of Sparta, Ill. And now that I have a camper van I have come to realize that the Riverview Recreational Vehicle Park, 9th Ave. and Riverview Dr. has to be only RV park within short walking distance of a Midwest League stadium and the Mississippi River.

The Clinton LumberKings are the Midwest League’s longest-running franchise, dating back to 1954. The brick and cinder Riverview Stadium was built in 1937 with flourishes of Art Deco.

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I visited Clinton several times during my years of writing this column. One time I took a girl friend and her German Shepherd to see the ballpark the dead of winter. In 2013 Lucas Mann wrote the excellent book “Class A Baseball (in the Middle of Everywhere),” which was based on spending the 2010 season with the LumberKings.

On the evening of June 13, 2017 I only noticed a couple changes from my first visit in 1992. The stadium naming rights now belong to Ashford University. There’s a new sandwich called The Buzz Saw (a tribute to Clinton’s lumber roots) which consists of a burger patty, two chicken strips, pulled pork, two slices of bacon and two onion rings on a pretzel bun ($8). And sadly, there was a security check– for an announced attendance of 817 people.

The LumberKings are an affiliate of the Seattle Mariners. Clinton beat Beloit 6-3 in a game that started 37 minutes late due to the rainstorm. The George Jones country hit “White Lightning” played over the speakers during the delay and that’s something you just don’t hear at Wrigley Field.

Midwest League baseball offered me respite from life’s storms over the past 25 years.

In 2015 when my parents were in double home hospice in Naperville, I sometimes took a break and drove to Geneva just to catch a few innings of baseball and gather my thoughts. It meant a lot to me for members of the Cougars community to ask how things were going. I will never forget the sincerity that has blossomed in Kane County.

Although I spent more than 30 years working for the Chicago Sun-Times and the Suburban Sun-Times and freelanced for Playboy magazine, I always got a major charge out of a stranger coming up to me at a non- baseball place like FitzGerald’s in Berwyn to talk about something they read in the Glove Compartment. Now, that was destination reading.

I often would bring home the Cougars game day program for my Dad to peruse. He was an avid reader right up until the last week of his life when he died at age 94. Dad’s passion for curiosity was only matched by Cougars season ticket holders Dale and LuAnn Klein, whom I profiled in 2004.

Dale and LuAnn have followed my column for all 25 years—and this is also their last year with the Cougars.

Dale & LuAnn in Cooperstown, NY

By the time you read this, Dale and LuAnn will have relocated from Carpentersville to Crossville, Tn. Since 1986 they have visited 334 minor league baseball parks (including independent leagues) and a May visit to the new ballpark in Atlanta marked their 51st major league stadium.

Dale and LuAnn always took time to e-mail me a note about one of my columns. Earlier this season I wrote a tribute to the late Midwest League president George Spelius. Dale wrote in part, “Great article on George…we knew him and Nancy (George’s wife) well and visited him several times at his office. We even attended his retirement party a couple years ago….” Minor league baseball is a fertile landscape for creating such easy connections.

I caught up with Dale and LuAnn on 7/11/17, the day they said goodbye to their home of 42 years. They had driven seven hours from Carpentersville in their dark blue Dodge Caravan mini-van. It was their 11th straight version of the Dodge Caravan. Dale and LuAnn had stopped in Paducah, Ky. for the night.

“You may remember I am from Milwaukee,” Dale said with pride in his voice. “So now I have seen the Braves play in four home stadiums (the new SunTrust, Turner Field, Fulton-County Stadium and County Stadium in Milwaukee.)

Friends of the Kleins once had a rental unit in Crossville which is how they became familiar with the area near Knoxville. “We work for a non-profit Christian organization,” he said. “We never thought we could afford to move any place. We are going to make more than $20,000 in selling our little house in Illinois and buying one there. We’re getting out of the snow and cold.  The taxes in Tennessee don’t come near to what we paid in Illinois and even gas is cheaper. The main thing is we could sell a house, buy a house and have it paid off. I’m 71 years old. We’re not looking for a mortgage.”

Dale and Lu Ann have been married 37 years. Their e-mail address even begins with dalelu. They are as tight as Whitaker and Trammell.

So in early summer, Dale and LuAnn packed up their 35 handmade baseball scrapbooks, organized by league. They sold most of their Pepsi-Cola memorabalia but kept their collection of more than 300 souvenir plastic ballpark cups. “We packed up our bobbleheads,” Dale said. “We don’t buy bobbleheads. Only what we get at as a giveaway. We only have 40 of those. Over the years we have five or six Ozzie bobbleheads, Ozzie in a Marlins uniform, Ozzie in a Cubs uniform, the rebranded Ozzie. A lot of us didn’t care for the new look Ozzie.

“But you can just blame that on not liking change.”

My Blue Bird camper van at minor league park, St. Paul, Mn. May, 2017

My Blue Bird camper van at minor league park, St. Paul, Mn. May, 2017

Dale and LuAnn’s final Cougars game as Illinois residents was on July 3. As a surprise the Cougars offered thank you and bon voyage on the scoreboard. Dale and LuAnn attended the Cougars inaugural game in 1991. That team featured future Cubs closer Joe Borowski. Dale and LuAnn became season ticket holders on Row T in Section 106 in 2009. “Before Kane County came we had already been to every park in the Midwest League,” Dale said. “The Waterloo Diamonds, Springfield Cardinals, Madison Muskies.”

What will Dale and LuAnn miss about Kane County and the Midwest League?

“We’re going to miss the people,” he answered in a heartbeat. “We have friends on the staff and in the stands. We will miss Clinton, Iowa because we love biking there. We get a hotel and bike on both sides of the river. We met you there at that real hot all-star game (June, 2009). We go to the Clinton banquet every year. We’ve been to the sawmill museum there. But there’s a lot of season ticket holders and a lot of people do this. Don’t make it sound bigger than it is.

“We’re not the only ones.”

But that is exactly what I will miss about the Cougars and Midwest League baseball.

It is a special place where the only ones are everyone.

 

Mark Hamburger (Courtesy of the St. Paul Saints)

Mark Hamburger (Courtesy of the St. Paul Saints)

ST. PAUL, MN.—It was opening night of another renegade season for the St. Paul Saints. The Saints were celebrating their 25th anniversary as a franchise in baseball’s independent leagues, a place where there is still a flicker of light between nearly closed doors.

On May 18 a sell out crowd of 8,294 filled CHS Field in downtown St.Paul in 52- degree weather. Fans were motivated in part by a Mary Tyler Moore tam giveaway. Moore, who died in January, played a Twin Cities based television  news reporter the hit television series “Mary Tyler Moore.” The  show’s theme song promised she was “gonna make it after all.”

The Saints beat the Gary SouthShore Rail Cats 5-2 on a masterful pitching performance by Mark John Hamburger. The blond long-haired 30-year-old right hander struck out eight, walked none and did not give up an earned run in 8 1/3 innings. After the game I picked up my blue tam, wandered about the park and said goodbye to the fun-loving Mike Veeck, who owns the Saints along with Marv Goldklang and “Team Psychologist” and actor Bill Murray.

My camper van was parked behind the center field fence. The game had been over for 45 minutes. I looked through the flicker of light between the nearly closed  center field fence.

About a dozen fans were still in the ballpark. And Hamburger was standing along the first base line signing autographs. For every last fan. This wasn’t a media grab. There were no cameras and no sportswriters around. This was the home team’s starting pitcher.

This was something special.

Mark Hamburger, all in a day's work (Dave Hoekstra image)

Mark Hamburger, all in a day’s work, after winning the home opener 2017.  (Dave Hoekstra image)

“I just look at it as a deeper thing,” Hamburger said in a thoughtful late June conversation when I returned to CHS Field. “I’m really that last kid. If that last kid gets a signature signed…… Most guys will sign five and ‘See ya,’ but if you’re that last kid and someone waits for you it has to be a good feeling for him.

“When it comes down to it, what is my job title? I’m an entertainer. I even question it sometimes when I’m pitching. I get so into it that I get mad. But that’s my ego trying to show people I can do something, when in actuality if I lose that game the fans still appreciate my vigor and how hard I’m trying.”

Hamburger has been trying and trying.

In 2012 he made it to the major leagues with the Texas Rangers. He owns a 1-0 major league record with six strikeouts in eight innings. A native of St. Paul, he has had two tryouts with his hometown Minnesota Twins. Two years ago he auditioned for the Chicago Cubs.His agent has been Billy Martin, Jr.–the son of the late Twins-New York Yankees manager. (Martin recently became a coach with the American Association’s Grand Prairie Air Hogs and can no longer represent players.) Hamburger drives a 1989 Oldsmobile station wagon around the Twin Cities.

Hamburger also failed two drug tests because of his affinity for marijuana. The Houston Astros released him in February, 2013 after he flunked his second test. He received a 50-game suspension. Hamburger
spent 30 days at Hazelden (in Minnesota). He is now as clean as Laura Petrie.

“It made me take a step away from my life,” he said. “Reorganize. Spend time alone. Self reflection is huge for me.  I chose to go to Hazelden. I still had insurance through major league baseball so for $40,000 treatment I paid a $200 deductible. My insurance for big league baseball ended two days after I got out of treatment. It was a big blessing.

“I would be in my room at night time and it was, ‘Why are you mad at this?’ ‘Why are you mad at that?’ I had to go through it. No one had to ask me that question. I was going through my life until I realized I couldn’t hold on to the anger anymore. I couldn’t hang on to the need of money. The need of being in the majors. Or, ‘Why did that person wrong me?’ It all welled up. I said, ‘I don’t know who I’m giving this to, but I’m done.’ I let it go. And the next 25 days I just floated. I had gotten rid of the past. People get depressed because they hold on to something. If they can find out how to release that…..”

Hamburger stopped and turned around to look at the Northern sun shining through the office window.

He gathered his thoughts and continued, “It was like a physical purging. I started crying. I don’t see tears as a person being sad. Whatever it is, it is coming out. It came to the surface. I had to make a decision with what it was.”

Mark John Hamburger, feeling free

Mark John Hamburger, feeling free

Hamburger debuted in St. Paul in 2013. He went 6-8 with a 3.26 ERA,striking out 120 batters in 149 innings. He returned to organized ball in 2014, moving up the ladder from New Britian (Class AA) to Rochester, the Twins’ Class AAA affiliate where he was 4-4 with a 3.79 ERA. Hamburger went 4-2 with a 3.31 ERA for Rochester in 2015.

He returned to St. Paul in 2016 and has been lights out. Hamburger was 12-6 with a 3.29 ERA for last year’s Saints and won the American Association All-Star game. This season he is 8-1 with a 2.88 ERA.

His left non-pitching arm has a long diamond shaped tattoo with details that include family members and close friends. The artwork was done by his friend Milo Alfring at Black Sage Studio in Evergreen, Colo. where Hamburger makes annual off season visits.

“The diamond has a thousand facets,” he said while looking at his arm. “Each facet is covered with dirt and tar. It is the job of the soul to clean each one until they shine brilliantly just like the colors of the rainbow. That is my life goal. Not to achieve money, house, car, retirement.” He stopped to collect his thoughts. Hamburger wanted to make every word count. He continued, “I will stay the same no matter what I am given or no matter what I lose. I wake up every morning and I have something I can work on. At the end of the day I polish a little bit more.

“My ability to deal with you,” and he looked me straight in the eyes unlike many interview subjects. “I can’t be good to people if I don’t know what’s going on with myself. So every day I’m trying to work out my interior so that no matter what happens in my exterior, who knows what can happen? You whole life can change in one second.

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A strong arm.

“The only way I can deal with that is by working on myself.”

Mary Tyler Moore wasn’t the only Twin Cities related icon to pass over in 2017. Robert Pirsig, the Minneapolis-born author of the 1974 spiritual best seller “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” died in April at the age of 88. In “Zen,” he wrote, “The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”

Hamburger is also a devotee of yoga, something he has been doing since 2009. “I definitely went into yoga deeper after getting sober,” he said. “But yoga has always been there for me as my workout besides lifting weights. It is kind of like my church. Some days it would be a way to get rid of something. Some days it would be ‘I’m here enjoying my friend next to me’. I’m pretty loose with what happens the day of my start. I don’t like to have any set things. Because if you have set things and one falls through…..”

For example, Hamburger is no longer overly set on returning to the major leagues.

“So much goes into it,” he explained. “I’d love to play at the highest level. Would I like to be able to play in big stadiums and be able set a life for myself money wise? I would. But now that I’ve come across personal happiness the need for external happiness doesn’t matter as much as my inner soul. I would love to go to the majors but if it didn’t feel right with where I was at in my life, I would say no.”

In a phone conversation Saints manager George Tsamis said, “Mark could be pitching at AAA right now. He’s throwing 90, 92 miles. He wants to be starter. He always wants to pitch the whole game He will pitching in our all-star game in a few weeks (July 25 in Ottawa, Ontario) in front of all those scouts.”

It has been reported that Hamburger turned down one major league deal as a relief pitcher. He does want to remain a starter. He is a huge fan of Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige and brings Paige’s baseball card to the ball park on the day he pitches. He used to carry an original Paige baseball card in his wallet.

“I heard I can’t get out lefties,” he said. “I’ve been winning a lot of games which means I’ve been getting out more lefties than I don’t. I disagree with a lot of thing people say, like ‘We see him as a reliever.’ Well, you’ve never given me the opportunity to start with a big league baseball. Starting with a big league baseball as opposed to Triple AAA baseball is completely different. The movement of an AAA baseball or our baseball versus the big leagues is tremendous. Could I be successful as a big league starter? Maybe. I guess I’ll never know unless the right person sees me.”

Mark Hamburger big league baseball card.

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Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige (1906-1982) liked to say, “Ain’t no man can avoid being born average, but there ain’t no man got to be common.”

“Satchel Paige is everything I want to be, except he left contracts all the time, which back then I can imagine,” Hamburger said. “He was one of the best pitchers of all time. His quotes, his life style, the fact he pitched two, three games a week. There was no pitch count back then. Are you kidding me? I’m not a fan of pitch counts. The most I’ve thrown this year is 130 something. Pretty light load.”

Attention TheoJed: sign this guy now.

Hamburger continued, “I’m not a fan of limiting people. Limiting yourself is the worst thing you can do.” Last year Hamburger broke the American Association record for complete games in a season (7) and led the league in innings pitched (158 2/3 innings).

He does not see any doors being closed.

*              *                *                          *                         *                          *                             *                                *                  *

Mark John Hamburger was right on time for our pre-game conversation. He had been on the field dancing with the Saints’ pink and white mascot Mudonna T. Pig for a video tribute to a St. Paul television weatherman. (The Saints’ live ball pig is named “Alternative Fats”). Kids love Hamburger because he is always up for anything. He has fun.

Hamburger is known as “The Mayor of St. Paul.”  His father Steve is a graphic designer and printer who took over his own father’s business. Hamburger’s mother Cheryl is an interior designer and stay at home mom. He has an older brother Paul and sister Michelle. The Saints pitcher lives with his parents.

Mark Hamburger in Paradise (L), with apologies to J. Buffett.

Mark Hamburger (L) in Paradise, with apologies to J. Buffett. Check out the no-fun guys on the bench.

“I don’t have my own home,” Hamburger said. “I was born in Shoreview, about 15 minutes from here. I’ve lived in the same house since I was born. The fact that I returned and I’m playing here isn’t random. For me, this (the Saints) is the real reason of  baseball. I can’t say that for other people. And where you come from calls you.”

Hamburger knows home is where the heart is. He owns two camper vans.

* In 2014 he bought a 13-foot 1967 FAN (Franklin A. Newcomer) manufactured in Wakarusa, Ind. For the past two off seasons he has been restoring the vintage trailer with his brother. FAN was in operation between 1957 and 1980. Hamburger purchased the tin-can trailer in the Catskill Mountains. “Just going to get it was the most wonderful time,” he said. “The small towns of upstate New York are amazing. I’m not going to polish it. I like the rustic outside. But we will be doing a lot of mods on the outside, a roof rack and custom canopies. I’m guesstimating it will be done by September.” The FAN van will become his home.

* In Australia he has a Ford Transit Van, a cousin of the one that I drive. Mine is blue with a silver canopy, his is white with a purple canopy. Hamburger’s ride has solar panels, a 160 liter water tank and outdoor shower. “Stove top but no fridge,” he said. “The fridge pulled too much from the solar. They have some pretty nice coolers that stay cold for a couple days. The solar panels are amazing. Being able to live without having to plug in is great.”

Hamburger guesses his Australian van is about 17 feet long. “I actually sleep diagonally,” said Hamburger, who is 6’4.” He added, “There’s so many other ways to sleep. I have a hammock. I have a tent. Once I get back to Australia I will reconstruct it a bit. I actually want to get a tent that goes off the back so when you open the double doors  I can have a tent and my own little foyer.”

Karma worked in Hamburger’s favor. He finished the winter league with a 1.90 ERA, the the lowest in the ABL (Australian Baseball League). He pitched the Melbourne Aces to their first ever grand final series where they lost to the Brisbane Bandits, the reigning ABL champions.

“The main sponsor for the Aces asked me if I was coming back next year,” Hamburger explained. “I said I’d love to. He said, ‘We know you’re only making $200 a weekend and we’d like to help you out.’ I said, ‘It doesn’t matter. I just love this place so much.”

The Aces knew Hamburger was restoring a van in Minnesota. They asked him if he saw any wheel dreams he liked around Melbourne. And he had.

“They called me up on my birthday (Feb. 3),” he continued. “He said, ‘Do you want to go to Sydney?’ I said, ‘For what?’ He said, ‘You know that trailer you sent me the picture of? I talked to the guy who owns it and I’d like to buy it for you.’ Hamburger first said he couldn’t accept the transit van.

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A gift from Australia.

“I didn’t want to owe him anything and I didn’t want to put logos on it,” he said. “This was going to be my home and not some team project.” The team insisted he take the transit van as a gift. Hamburger broke down in more ways than one. “I was so humbled,” he said. “On my birthday? Of turning 30?  A true blessing. I don’t have a home. And this guy, on my 30th birthday purchases me my first home. My last three weeks in Australia were bliss. I lived up and down the beaches. I had my stove. Cooking eggs. Fruit. And going to the ballpark and playing baseball.”

Hamburger has also played winter ball in Mexico, Puerto Rico and a teetering Venezuela.

“I was in Venezuela twice and the last time was 2016,” he said. “Right when I left they grounded planes. The bolivar’ went out so you couldn’t spend bolivar’ anymore. It was interesting to see things escalate a lot, but it also made me thankful to live here. I loved Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela. The baseball was great the money was great but I couldn’t connect with people. I’m fluent but you can’t get to the depth of someone. You have to be engulfed in the culture for years to learn someone’s heart in another language.

“Australia is the only other place that had winter baseball. A couple years ago I thought it could be my second home. And when I went there all this occurred. They bought me that Transit and apparently this was my second home.”

How did Hamburger get into van life?

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“My sister told me about these gentlemen who wrote a book on minimalism,” he said. “With her life, a car payment, her apartment and she was living off of $18,000. I looked at my spending. I had so many clothes, so many different things. Once I purged those things I felt so great. I guess that’s how my life has been the last couple of years. Instead of buying stuff to feel better it’s letting go. Having the practice of letting things go in my life, it just kept happening more and more.

“Solitude is big for me. I think I’m an empathetic person so recharging by myself is something I need.”

He has an eye for the unique when on the road in the American Association, a league that takes the Saints through Gary, Ind., Lincoln, Neb., Wichita, Ks., Sioux City, Ia. and even Kansas City, Mo. “When I get into town I find a co-op, a good grocery store,” he said. “Take my meal money and get all the food I need for the three days I’m there. Sometimes I find a yoga studio. I always cruise around town to find flea markets. You can find gold in the Goodwills in some of those small cities we go to.”

“I do go solo a lot. After ten years of doing this, you usually have a roommate or go solo. I like going out with the guys but I spend ten hours a day with people. So when I wake up I like to be on my own for the first few hours.”

His 50-year-old manager Tsamis observed, “Mark is always happy and he gets the job done when he’s out there. He rides his skateboard, longboard, whatever you call it, everywhere. He flies on that thing. I haven’t seen that before. I’m not a big rules guy. You want them to show up on time, play hard and care about winning. The long hair is not a big deal. If would have asked me that question, 10, 15 years ago, I would have been against the long hair. It doesn’t matter.”

In professional  ball Hamburger’s journey has taken him through Clinton, Ia., Frisco, Tx. and Tucson, Az. But one of his best memories is embedded around the oil fields of Bakersfield, Ca., the land of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. In 2010 he compiled a stingy 1.77 ERA with 18 saves for the Bakersfield Blaze, but the meaning of his time with the Rangers affiliate goes beyond the numbers. “We had a game canceled because a huge dust storm blew the entire parking lot onto the field,” he said. “We couldn’t see our left fielder. I played the two best frisbee golf courses of my life just outside of Bakersfield. And I saved a dog. That is is the biggest moment in my baseball career.”

Pitching down under, 2017

Pitching down under, 2017

One of his teammates found a malnourished boxer-mastiff mix behind the team batting cage. “He was under a year old and 80 pounds,” Hamburger said.

“Broken femur. I put the water to him and he didn’t move at all. He just looked at me. After about ten minutes he lifted up his head started getting water. I realized I could pet him. I picked him up and brought him to my place.” Hamburger and his teammates named the dog Blaze in reference to their ball club.

“The next six days we were at home and I brought him in front of the fans,” Hamburger recalled. “I said, ‘Hey guys, this is our dog, we found him but they’re going to kill him if we can’t save his life.’ The fans raised $750 and anonymous donor paid for whatever they didn’t cover because it was on the news. So we got him femur surgery and found him a permanent family. He was the most beautiful dog I have seen. He never made a noise. I wish I could have taken him. He must be 160 pounds right now.”

Hamburger has met a litter of characters throughout his baseball career, but the first player that comes to his mind is St. Louis Cardinals reserve first baseman Jose’ Martinez whose journey began with the Chicago White Sox before stopping in independent league ports like Rockford, Ill. Martinez played 887 minor league games with 11 different minor league teams.

Hamburger and Martinez were teammates in Venezuela. “I basically say what he said every day,” Hamburger said. “He’d laugh–ha, ha, ha–and I’d go, ‘How ya doin’ Jose?’ And he’d go, ‘Outstanding looking! I’d go ‘Outstanding looking?

Outstanding looking man with a van.

Outstanding looking man with a van.

“And (former Rangers teammate) Josh Hamilton. My second outing was in Fenway (Park). I ran past him in the outfield. He spit and accidentally hit me in the leg. I turned around and he wiped it off. It was like, ‘I’m in Fenway and Josh Hamilton spit on me! This is the best day of my life’.”

Hamburger played some high school baseball at Mounds View High School in Adren Hills, Mn. During his senior year he was noticed by a Twins scout who came to see another pitcher. “I was pitching 86 or 87 at the end of the game,” Hamburger said. “I had more strikeouts. Less pitches. He came over and asked me what my GPA was. I told him and he said, ‘Maybe you should go to school.’ He was right.” Hamburger enrolled at Mesabi Range Community College where he went 11-0 with a 0.65 ERA. “He saw me after college at an open tryout for the Twins at the Metrodome,” Hamburger said. “In two years my velocity went from 87 to 92, 93.” The Twins signed Hamburger in 2007.

His pitching repertoire now includes the somewhat underhanded “submarine splitoon” and the “slurvy slurve.”

Hamburger laughed and explained, “You got the eephus pitch. That’s kind of my slurvy slurve. I’ll try to make my body look like it is going as hard as it can and then at the last second slow down, release it and try to throw a 55 mile an hour curve. I actually struck out one of my good friends the other day, Reggie Abercrombie (former Houston Astro and Florida Marlin) on a 64 mile an hour slurvy slurve. And he laughed.”

Most important, Hamburger is having fun.

“I asked our GM (Derek Sharrer) if during the fifth inning sometime when I’m pitching if I could run in the stands and grab a kid’s cheeseburger,” he said with a warm smile. “Take a bite of it and give him a hat? I’ve learned that the more I’m here, the freer I become.

And I feel better being free than being rich.”

 

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)

the_band_3

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.”

*                                                          *                                                                        *                                                        *

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.

22ChaptA-2

 

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

For when the One Great Scorer comes

To mark against your name,

He writes – not that you won or lost –

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

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

Sulphur Dell (Courtesy of the Nashville Sounds)

Sulphur Dell (Courtesy of the Nashville Sounds)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greer Full Cowbell 511 (2)-2

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Some beloved ghosts will be left behind at Greer.

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

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

They have now been married 31 years.

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

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

Farrell Owens, June 2014 (D. Hoekstra photo)

Farrell Owens, June 2014 (D. Hoekstra photo)

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

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

Archaeologists are monitoring the building of the new ball park.

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

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

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