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.
I 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.
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.
“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).”
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.”
“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.
“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?
CUBA, Mo.—-Lou Whitney was proud to tell tourists and visiting musicians that the Carter Family lived in a two story Victorian brick house in 1949-50 when they appeared with Red Foley on the radio version of the Ozark Jubilee in Springfield, Mo.
That was Lou; talking about Springfield history before he would talk about himself.
In July we took Lou to the empty lot off of old Route 66 where Mother Maybellle, Anita, Helen and June Carter once lived. Lou stood tall, like a mountain in a meadow. His eyes squinted into the Ozark evening sun. He had his hands tucked in the front pockets of his blue jeans and he looked around the calm landscape. His feet were firmly planted on the ground. As always.
There were no airs about Lou Whitney.
I talked my friend and award winning CBS-TV cameraman Tom Vlodek into driving from Chicago to the Ozarks for the July weekend. Lou’s rock n’ roll band the Morells were reuniting to play a high school reunion in Springfield. We wanted to film the concert and interview band members for a possible prose-documentary that uses the acclaimed Morells/Skeletons as a window into the lost history of Springfield music. I’m glad we made that trip.
Lou died Oct. 7 at his Springfield home from complications of cancer and a fall he took in his home in late September. He was 71 years old. Lou never stopped playing and recording other voices.
He never stopped honoring the power of music.
Dave Alvin, Eric Ambel, the Del Lords, Robbie Fulks, Jonathan Richman, Syd Straw, the Bottle Rockets and Wilco are among those who made the pilgrimage to record with Lou and emplloy the Morells/Skeletons at Lou’s studio in downtown Springfield.
I hear Lou just about every day.
The lineage of his own best known recordings dates back to 1979 when the pop-rock Skeletons were created as a back up band for singer-songwriter Steve Forbert. Lou had been bassist-vocalist for the Symptoms (think Ramones meets rockabilly cat Billy Lee Riley) who had been playing six nights a week in the Pub Mobile bar in Rolla, Mo., halfway between Springfield and St. Louis. Lou would remind you the bar was part of an automobile museum on a plot of land owned by a guy who dated “Elly Mae Clampett” of the Beverly Hillbillies.
The Morells followed around 1981, the Skeletons returned in 1992 when the San Francisco Chronicle named “Waiting” one of the top 10 albums of the year. In May, 2004 the Morells were the band playing behind Bo Diddley at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn. Back and forth, restless hearts. The Skeletons 1991 track “Outta My Way” got major airplay on WXRT-FM in Chicago and porn star Seka used it as a dance number when she appeared at the Admiral Theater in Chicago.
Lou had vaudeville gumption.
He fought hard in his battle against cancer. He was given six months to live in February, 2013. Lou and his beloved wife Kay drove countless eight-hour round trips between Springfield and St. Louis for experimental therapies. He had a cancerous kidney removed on May 21, 2013. Lou bought extra time to be with his family and friends and to continue to work with regional Springfield music in his studio.
In July we spent a Saturday afternoon with Lou. On Sunday we treated him at his favorite cashew chicken joint on the south side of town. Lou was sharing stories and they were good and some were spicy. Lou was an avatar of Springfield music history.
Country Music Hall of Famers Porter Wagoner and Brenda Lee got their starts on the Ozark Jubilee radio and television show. Chet Atkins was a studio guitarist for the Ozark Jubilee. Wayne Carson, who wrote the Box Top hits wrote the Box Top hits “The Letter” and “Soul Deep” in Springfield as well as the smash co-write “Always On My Mind,” recorded by Brenda Lee, Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson. His father Shorty Thompson appeared on the Jubilee radio and television shows. Actor Brad Pitt is from Springfield. Lou always had something new to drop on you. In July he told us the Birdman of Alcatraz, a.k.a. Robert Stroud, died in (a federal prison) in Springfield.
They all left.
Lou was rugged Americana before Americana got gussied up. Next fall’s Americana awards in Nashville needs to find a way to honor Lou. Like thousands of others who encountered Lou, I never grew tired of hearing his stories. Even the same story several times. Lou was the only guy I know who liked to borrow from Lil’ Abner when he talked about his adopted home town: “Springfield is more like it was the last time you were here than it is now.”
Scott Kempner of the Dictators and the Del-Lords wrote on Facebook, “Lou was a constant guide, friend, inspiration, hero and musical companion. Truly one of a kind, high-end, top shelf human being. I don’t think I could have worked with anyone else than Lou and the Skeletons, the best band in America you might not know…Taking a minute to remember them all at this time and a special salute to Lou, the greatest man I have ever known.”
In 2001 Springfield attorney and former music writer Dale Wiley started the Slewfoot Records label with Lou. They even went full tilt Alan Lomax and ventured into the field to record congregations singing hymns at rural churches around the Ozarks. In late September Wiley created “The Best Facebook Thread Ever” for favorite Lou quotes. Here’s some:
“I’ve been around the world twice and talked to everyone once”—Trent Wilson
“Did I ever tell you how to butcher a hog?”–Cecelia Ellis Havens
“Americana radio’s like Spanish fly and a nymphomaniac: everybody says they exist, but you or I sure as hell ain’t seen one”–Dale Wiley
“Lou Whitney loudly at the restaurant at the Silver Saddle: ‘I’d like some ice cream. They got no ice cream in prison.”–Eric Ambel.
“Cars are the art form of the working class”–Dave Hoekstra
“My bad. One more time,” on about my 10th take he always acts like it is him who messed up, not me…even when we all knew it was really me. And theres the time he said of my southern gospel singing mama, ‘Man, she sang the hell out of that song!”–Robin Bilyeu Rees
“I once had a felafel–I feltawful”–Rick Wood
“Give me a little George of the Jungle on the rack tom”—Trent Wilson.
Lou was reticent about playing bass with his band at the July reunion show. He was weak and he didn’t want the attention. “If I felt better I’d play with them again,” he told me. “It’s an emotional thing. I didn’t want to be ‘That Guy,’ you know the guy you see on the television special, and you go, ‘Oh my God, he hasn’t retired yet.’ I was playing when I was 70 (see my January, 2013 birthday post).
Lou did not want a funeral. “And NO band jam memorial,” his long time friend and drummer Bobby Lloyd Hicks wrote in an Oct. 2 e-mail. Lou did request that his body be donated to science. Transportation costs for a Springfield funeral home to take Lou’s remains to Washington University in St. Louis were $1,200. A “Send Lou to Camp” GoFundMe campaign raised $2,525 in one day. The extra money goes to Lou’s wife and family.
Doing some quick math, Lou figured he had been playing with some core of the Morells-Skeletons (Hicks, keyboardist Joe Terry, guitarist Donnie Thompson) for 46 years.
What did he learn about himself after all that time?
“A lot of it is confidence,” he answered in satisfied tones. “When you set yourself in the middle of those guys you look good. I don’t care who you are. You know that you’re knocking it out of the park. People dance. If you’re good enough to have that day in and out you can put up with a crappy day easy. A band is like a family. Even if we didn’t see each other for two or three years, we could just pick up and go.
“That’s comforting to me.”
Lou Whitney III was born in 1943 and raised in Phoenix, Az. Singing cowboy Gene Autry was in the Army Air Corps at Luke Field in Phoenix and visited the hospital where Lou was born. “Gene Autry got my attention,” he quipped in July.
Lou was the grandson of Louis B. Whitney, the former mayor of Phoenix and unsuccessful candidate for Congress on the Democratic ticket. His son Harold Lou Whitney was a successful Phoenix attorney.
In a tender Oct. 2 Facebook tribute, New York singer-songwriter Mary McBride wrote, “Lou was a tried and true Democrat, one of the best, who infused common sense and utter hilarity into every argument and who could actually separate the good Republicans from the bad. A skill many of us sitting out in the political left field have still not developed. I know Lou will always somehow be watching the polls and trying to steer the vote to the right side of the aisle. I know he will always editing gratuitious lines from songs that think too much of themselves. And I hope he feels great satisfaction in knowing he made an enormous impact on so many people. I am just one of them. How lucky we all are.”
Singer-songwriter-producer Ben Vaughn made it big scoring music for film and television in projects like “That ’70s Show,” “3rd Rock from the Sun” and “Psycho Beach Party.” On his Facebook page Vaughn said it it wasn’t for Lou, he wouldn’t have a career in the music business. “He was the first guy to deem my songs worthy of public consumption,” Vaughn wrote. “In 1982 the Morells recorded a tune of mine for their album ‘Shake & Push’. Without knowing it, I had touched the hem of the garment. Everything changed for me after that. I had no idea how much respect he commanded in the music world.” The Morells amped up Vaughn’s “The Man Who Has Everything” and the Skeletons later did double keyboard justice to Vaughn’s “I Did Your Wig.”
Lou III left Phoenix by the time he was 16 to live with relatives in the mountains near Bristol, Tn. He was already following the path of the Carter Family. Lou obtained a degree in real estate at Eastern Tennessee University. “It’s a language, actually,” he said in our 2013 conversation. He started playing in tuxedo drenched show bands that were popular in the soul-driven Beach Music scene of the Carolinas, Georgia and Eastern Tennessee. Lou was also a sideman with Arthur Conley of “Sweet Soul Music” fame.
“The World War II and Korea party guys came home with G.I. benefits,” Lou explained in July. “They went to school at the University of South Carolina. Partying every night. And going out to see these bands. Shag dancing got real big. If you wanted to play a fraternity party at the University of Alabama, you better know some Bill Deal and The Rhondells. Music trends didn’t happen all over the United States. You could go to Denver and never hear of Chairmen of the Board or the Tams. It didn’t get played. But down south it did.”
One of the Skeletons most endearing covers was the Swinging Medallions 1966 Beach Music classic “Double Shot (Of My Baby’s Love).”
In 1970 Lou moved to Springfield to sell mail order real estate to folks in Illinois and Wisconsin who were dreaming of the wide open spaces of the Ozarks. “It was a dying art,” he said in July. “In fact I saw my first fax machine in a real estate office in Springfield. But I really came here to play in bands.”
More than once Lou told me that he and his “Wrecking Crew” Morells-Skeletons musicians were defenders of the song. That’s why songwriters loved working with Lou and it is why his bands did such pure justice with the hundreds of cover songs they did over the years. With Lou on my mind I read Ken Sharp’s Sept. 27 Q & A with former Rolling Stones manager and XM-Sirius host Andrew Loog Oldham in the Sept. 27 issue of Goldmine magazine. “The world is so noisy,” Oldham said. “Music has been wounded by Steve Jobs’ technology; greed and ego is fighting for survival. The main role of the artist is to serve the song, as opposed to him or herself. That is difficult to understand in a world where all technology supports the dangerous charade. Give me John Prine any day over what Simon Cowell barfs up. What’s the result? You’ve got Adele, who is great at receiving awards, but could no more put a set together than a politician could tell the truth.”
Lou was like a good editor. He was an advocate for his talent. He never got in the way. He maintained a dignified work ethic. Here’s Lou setting the table in 1991 on L.A. hipster’s “Art Fein’s Poker Party.”
In July Lou reflected, “We played together in this tight realistic, no nonsense combo. Playing a bass part all the way through a song, the guitar rhythm and the drum pattern and singing the song. Playing the solos as they existed and getting the breaks rights. We drifted into that. We became popular. Roscoe (Eric Ambel) used to say, ‘When you play a Ramones song it sounds so perfect.’ Well, we couldn’t help it. We’re the best band in the world and we opened for this and we opened for that? I don’t know.
“We’re the band next door. Four guys you would never believe were in a band. We set up and play and if we’re having a good day you go, ‘Yow!’ Even we’re going ‘Yow!’ That’s a good thing. Being in a band is a job like anything else. We practice our songs, learn them and we get better on the job.”
Lou never stopped learning, teaching and sharing. During the rest of my visits to Springfield, I will tell tourists and visiting musicians about the benevolent magic of Lou Whitney. His humble glory roars across America.
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