Sunday, September 13, 2015

September 13, 1990: Let's Play Two In Chicago


September 13, 1990, 25 years ago today: For the last time, games were played at Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park in Chicago on the same day.

I was there. At both of them. I followed the advice of Cubs legend Ernie Banks: "It's a beautiful day for a ballgame, so let's play two!"

No, I'm not originally from Chicago. Not from anywhere near it.

*

Comiskey Park opened on July 1, 1910, and, from 1971 to 1990, was the oldest active stadium in Major League Baseball. The White Sox were opening a new stadium for the 1991 season, originally to also be called Comiskey Park, but later renamed U.S. Cellular Field. I wanted to see the old park before it closed down for good.

This was a park where the home players included Big Ed Walsh, Eddie Collins, Luke Appling, Minnie Miñoso, Luis Aparicio, Nellie Fox, Dick Allen, Harold Baines, and, at that point, a rookie named Frank Thomas. And, of course, the "Eight Men Out," the "Black Sox" who were accused of throwing the 1919 World Series, including Shoeless Joe Jackson.

It had seen opposition from American Leaguers ranging all the way back to Cy Young -- it was, by far, the last remaining park in which he'd pitched -- plus it was where Mickey Mantle had hit his 1st major league home run, and, on its 80th Anniversary, July 1, 1990, the Yankees Andy Hawkins pitched 8 no-hit innings, but because of his own walks and 3 8th-inning errors, he lost 4-0. It had hosted World Series games in 1917, 1918 (the Cubs used it because it was larger than Wrigley), 1919 and 1959, so National League stars who played there included Heinie Zimmerman, George Burns (not the comedian), Jim "Hippo" Vaughn, Edd Roush, and, in the case of 1959, some of the "Boys of Summer" who'd made the trip west from Brooklyn to Los Angeles: Duke Snider, Gil Hodges and Carl Furillo, plus budding stars Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.

I'd never gotten to see Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, the Polo Grounds in Manhattan, Shibe Park/Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia, Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, Griffith Stadium in Washington, Braves Field in Boston, Crosley Field in Cincinnati or Sportsman's Park in St. Louis. This time, I was an adult, and had the chance, and I didn't want to mess it up.

But I had no money and no car. My parents graciously gave me money, and, on Wednesday afternoon, September 12, 1990, I took a bus from East Brunswick to New Brunswick, a train from there to Trenton, and there boarded Amtrak's Broadway Limited (successor to the Pennsylvania Railroad train of the same name but no longer run by Amtrak), through Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, traveling as the players of old did, appropriate to the occasion.

I arrived at Union Station in Chicago 3 hours later than the schedule said I would, and hadn't slept too well on the train. I chose a hotel because of its proximity to both the station and the city's famed elevated railway (which, sadly, doesn't go to Union Station), because I hated taxis. That was a mistake: The hotel was not a good one, and 5 blocks with a suitcase and a backpack is a bad walk. But I had time to shower, change clothes, put on a Cubs cap, buy my Chicago Transit Authority tokens, and take the El up to "The Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field" on the North Side.

*

The poet laureate of Chicago is Carl Sandburg. No relation to later Cubs legend Ryne Sandberg. He wrote this in 1914:

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders

But the poet laureate of the Chicago Cubs is Steve Goodman, author of the song "The City of New Orleans," about a train that ran from Chicago to New Orleans on the old Illinois Central Railroad. In 1981, he wrote "A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request" -- knowing he was one, as he had leukemia, and he died just as the Cubs were about to clinch a Playoff berth in 1984, not knowing the awful way that Playoff run would end:

Do they still play the blues in Chicago
when baseball season rolls around?
When the snow melts away
do the Cubbies still play
in their ivy-covered burial ground?
When I was a boy, they were my pride and joy
but now they only bring fatigue
to the home of the brave
the land of the free
and the doormat of the National League!

How long has it been since the Cubs won a Pennant? Put it this way: When Steve wrote that song, it had been 36 years: 1945. (Steve: "You know the law of averages says anything will happen that can. But the last time the Cubs won a National League Pennant was the year we dropped the bomb on Japan.") And it's been 34 years since, the drought nearly doubled. As for the World Series, they haven't won it since Roosevelt was President. Theodore. When I got to Wrigley, I saw a souvienir stand with a T-shirt showing "1907 World Champions 1908" and the legend: "CHICAGO CUBS: IF IT TAKES FOREVER."

The neighborhood around Wrigley Field was then, and is now, relatively safe, as long as it's not a night game and there's not 35,000 liquored-up Chicagoans roaming the streets. (That's the real reason they didn't want to put lights up: It wasn't the lights themselves that would have disturbed the neighbors, it was the drunks.) With the old, two- and three-story houses and little ships, it reminded me of neighborhoods I knew in New Jersey, in New Brunswick, Newark, even my old home town of Bloomfield. Maybe some parts of Brooklyn or Queens. I felt not only safe, but as if I was in familiar territory, when I was in completely unfamiliar territory.


Getting a ticket was no problem. The Cubs had won the National League Eastern Division (they're now in the Central) the year before, but were now 68-74 and well out of the race, and were playing the Philadelphia Phillies, even worse at 65-78. And school had started again, and this was a Thursday afternoon, September 13. The announced attendance was 15,495.

I had never been to a big-league ballpark outside the New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia axis before -- and the smallest of that axis' stadiums was Shea, 55,000. All 3 stadiums were huge. Wrigley's capacity at the time was around 38,000. It took just a few minutes to walk from the left-field foul pole to the right-field pole. The words "friendly confines" and "intimacy" had so often been used to describe the place, but it was true. Even the upper deck, where I sat down the left-field line, seemed close.

Wrigley was then, and is now, by far the oldest ballpark in the National League. Opened in 1914, it is the last remaining stadium where Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, Rogers Hornsby, Zack Wheat, Chuck Klein, Pie Traynor, Paul Waner, Dizzy Dean, Bill Terry, Mel Ott and Carl Hubbell played.

(Stan Musial, Warren Spahn, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente and some of the old Brooklyn Dodgers did play at Dodger Stadium, which still stands, but Candlestick Park has now been demolished, and the Astrodome sits vacant. Fenway Park in Boston remains the last one to have hosted Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller and Ty Cobb. Mickey Mantle played at Fenway, and at the still-surviving Anaheim Stadium and the Oakland Coliseum.)

Bruce Ruffin started for the Phillies. He had this nasty habit of starting every Phillies game I went to, for years, and here I was in Chicago, 700 miles from Philadelphia, and yet there he was on the mound.

Rick Sutcliffe started for the Cubs. It's easy to forget that Dale Murphy played for anyone but the Atlanta Braves, but he was a Phillie, and he cranked a Sutcliffe curve onto Waveland Avenue. Well, I figured, that's one home run ball that's not coming back. I figured wrong: The kids on Waveland knew it wasn't a Cub homer, and they threw it back into the left-field bleachers. They hit the cutoff man! And a guy in those bleachers threw it back onto the field.

Murphy nearly hit another homer off Sutcliffe, but it was caught at the ivy-covered brick wall by Cub left fielder Doug Dascenzo. Who I would, the next spring, draft in my fantasy league. It took another 2 years of such bad picks for me to realize how stupid fantasy leagues are and quit.


In the middle of the game, I went to the "sidewalk cafe" behind home plate, overlooking the famous Wrigley marquee. I could see a man playing a saxophone on the famous corner of Clark and Addison Streets, and he had a nice bit of change tossed in his case.

In the top of the 7th, the Cubs blew a 5-3 lead, and the Phillies tied it. No matter: It was the 7th inning stretch, and Harry Caray leaned out of the press box to lead Cub fans in singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." Harry was old -- we now know he was 73, although he tended to fudge his age -- and he was known to have a drink now and then. And then, and then, and then. He was leaning so far out of the booth that I thought, at his age and with his tendency to drink, he's going to fall out. He's going to die right there in front of me! He didn't, and broadcast for another 7 years before his wild life finally caught up with him. (This clip shows him leading the fans, but is not from that game.)

Harry always got the words wrong. And I don't mean, "Root, root, root for the Cubbies" rather than "...for the home team." It's, "Take me out with the crowd," not "...to the crowd"; and it's "I don't care if I never get back," not "...ever get back." So what, he was Harry Caray, and everybody had a good time.

Especially the Cub fans. The Cubs' catcher led off the bottom of the 8th with a single. Little did I know just what role that catcher was going to play in my fandom. He name was Joe Girardi. Doug Dascenzo drew a walk, pushing Girardi (who was no faster in 1990 than he was when he huffed and puffed around the bases in the 1996 World Series) to 2nd base. Dwight Smith reached on an error by Phils left fielder Von Hayes to load the bases with nobody out. A typical Cub fan might expect them to blow this, but they didn't: Jerome Walton grounded to 3rd baseman Charlie Hayes (no relation to "Ol' Five For One," but, like Girardi, a 1996 Game 6 hero for the Yankees), and Girardi easily scored.

That turned out to be the winning run. Cubs 6, Phillies 5. Playing for the Cubs that day were Hall-of-Famers Sandberg and Andre Dawson, plus now Girardi, ESPN pundit Sutcliffe, and Mark Grace -- who had recently been filmed hitting a home run off Bert Blyleven to win the Cubs the World Series in the (very fictional) film Taking Care of Business. Paul Assenmacher did not live up to his name, and was the winning pitcher.

Playing for the Phillies, in addition to Murphy, Ruffin and the Hayeses, were the beginnings of their 1993 "Macho Row" Pennant winners: Darren Daulton, John Kruk, Dave Hollins, and Lenny Dykstra. Along with Dykstra, there was another 1986 Met on the Phils, and he turned out to be the losing pitcher: Roger McDowell. (Oh, spit!)

I stayed long enough to see the white flag with the blue W raised on the pole above the old hand-operated scoreboard, easily visible to the fans passing on the El.

*

I had enough time to get back downtown, shower and change again, stick a 1959-style White Sox cap on my head, and get on the El to 35th & Shields, to the South Side. As Jim Croce taught us, it's the baddest part of town. (Actually, the West Side may have an even bigger crime problem. And, as the song "The Night Chicago Died" got wrong, there is no East Side. That would be Lake Michigan.)

Sure enough, there were nasty-looking housing projects nearby. But Comiskey was separated from them by the railroad on one side, and by Interstate 94, the Dan Ryan Expressway, and the El line going down its middle, on the other. (Ryan was a Chicago politician who died just before the Expressway opened in 1961, giving them a reason to name it after him.)

The rougher neighborhood dovetailed with a rougher history. The White Sox hadn't won a Pennant since 1959 or a World Series since 1917. Indeed, they'd won just the 1959 Pennant since 1919, when 8 of their players "threw" the World Series. There were close calls in 1964, 1967, 1972 and 1977, and an AL West title in 1983, but 2 postseason appearances in 71 years by the time I arrived was pretty bad.

The poet laureate of the White Sox isn't Carl Sandburg, or even Steve Goodman. It's Jean Shepherd. Growing up in nearby Hammond, Indiana, Shep, the man who wrote the story and narrated the film A Christmas Story, enjoyed the absurdity of life. You'd think the Cubs, even before Steve Bartman (or Sammy Sosa, for that matter), would have appealed to him. But no: Maybe it was because his father was a White Sox fan, or because Comiskey was 10 miles closer to home than Wrigley, but he was a White Sox fan:

I love Comiskey Park. I love the White Sox...

If I was a colonel in some horrible war, and I needed volunteers for a suicide mission to take an enemy pillbox, I’d call out, ‘Any of you White Sox fans? Follow me!’ And those White Sox fans would follow me, and we’d take that pillbox!

Because White Sox fans are special. Fifty years without a Pennant? A hundred years? Doesn't matter. We're loyal.

So loyal that, when the Sox stayed close to the Oakland Athletics most of the season in the AL West race, attendance went up, and the diehards knew that these were bandwagoners (or "gloryhunters," as they'd be called in English soccer), and a banner went up reading "YUPPIE SCUM GO BACK TO WRIGLEY."

Sox fans hate the Cubs, their fans, and their ballpark much more so than Cubs fans hate their counterparts. To a White Sox fan, a Cub fan is an effete intellectual like George Will, or a potsmoking layabout who should be working instead of sitting in the bleachers, dulling his marijuana high with beer. To a Cub fan, a White Sox fan is a longhaired burnout, the kind that trashed the field on Disco Demolition Night in 1979.

I got off the train, and walked down the overpass from the station over the Expressway, and saw the 2 Comiskeys side by side. The old one was familiar, as I'd seen it on TV many times. The new one, the one now known as U.S. Cellular Field? The back bleacher wall hadn't been built yet, so I could see inside the main structure. The seats wrapped around the poles, and the seats were blue. It looked like Yankee Stadium to me! I loved it!



Many Sox fans did not. The old park had its problems, but had lots of character, whereas the new was was derided as antiseptic, without atmosphere, a "mallpark." Cosmetic changes, including redoing the bleachers, painted the seats green like the old Comiskey, taking out the top couple of rows of seats, and putting a small shading roof up there, have helped. (So has winning the 2005 World Series, the 1st for either Chicago team in 88 years to that point.)

I knew I should root for the Cubs, since they were the home team, even though I was familiar with the Phillies and liked them. I had no such issue with the nightcap of this unusual doubleheader: The White Sox were playing the Boston Red Sox. As a Yankee Fan, rooting for the White Sox over the Red ones was easy.

The Red Sox were 80-64, and leading the American League East. The White Sox were 81-62, and still had an outside shot at winning the AL West. (They are now in the AL Central. Unfortunately for them, there was neither a Central Division nor a Wild Card at the time.) So I thought getting a ticket would be harder. (No ordering online in those days, and, fearful that a last-minute problem would put the kibosh on my trip, I didn't want to order by phone.) Nevertheless, I got a ticket, in the upper deck along the right-field line.

Attendance: 27,648, almost double that of the Cub game earlier. This was odd, because, even in such times when the Sox are clearly the better team than the Cubs, the massive promotion the Cubs get through "superstation" WGN and the constant extolling of the virtues of Wrigley means that the Cubs always get better attendance. Even in the title year of 2005 and the next season, when there should have been positive fallout, the Sox trailed the Cubs in attendance, and have every single season since the Cubs' renaissance year of 1984.

The neighborhood is a factor, every bit as much as the quality of play and the disparity of the ballparks. On my way out, I saw the same saxophone player from Wrigley. Despite the much larger crowd, he made a lot less money at Comiskey.

And Comiskey itself, unlike Wrigley, showed its age. Originally, the exterior was unpainted brick. When Bill Veeck bought the team for the 2nd time in 1975, he ordered the place fixed up, and this included painting the exterior white. You could have driven a chisel 4 inches deep into that brick, and hit nothing but paint. Inside, wires along the roof were painted over. The support poles, thankfully, appeared every bit as solid as those at Wrigley, but I know better: They weren't. Unlike the Wrigley family, with their chewing gum fortune, and the Tribune Company, the media barons who bought the team from the Wrigleys in 1981, the Comiskeys, Veeck who first bought the team in 1959, the Allyn brothers he sold them to in 1961 when he thought he was misdiagnosed as dying, and then Veeck again, the Sox' owners never had enough money to keep the ballpark up to code.

When Veeck sold the team for the last time in 1980, to the men who still own the team, Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn (a.k.a. the Reinhorn Twins), they said the place was falling apart, and that if they didn't get a new ballpark approved by 1988, they would have to move, as they feared the stands would collapse. Governor Jim Thompson of Illinois, a White Sox fan, used a political trick to get it approved, and was invited to throw out the first ball at the new stadium in 1991.

While I was disappointed by the food options at Wrigley Field, Comiskey Park had the best food of any ballpark ever. Indeed, no matter how much the team stinks, the park smelled wonderful. So many hot dogs, sausages, pretzels, peanuts. So much popcorn, pizza, beer. It smelled like the Middlesex County Fair, only not as much dust and the concourses, however ill-maintained, didn't let in rain.

Still, while I wasn't concerned with the condition of the stadium, some of those corridors were dark, and steps twisted in odd places. And that upper-deck seat might have been an original from 1910. It was a bit cramped. But the poles did not block my view of Comiskey's most famous feature, the fireworks-shooting "exploding scoreboard," the one put up for the 1983 All-Star Game, to replace the one Veeck put up in 1960.


Playing for the White Sox that day were Hall-of-Famers Thomas and Carlton Fisk (against his former team), shortstop Ozzie Guillen (giving no indication of the insane but World Series-winning manager he would one day become), the aforementioned Sammy Sosa (yes, he was a South Sider before he was a North Sider), former Yankee Dan Pasqua, and future Yankee and Met Robin Ventura, now the White Sox manager.

Playing for the Red Sox were a couple of holdovers from the 1986 Pennant winners who had choked away the World Series to the Mets: Mike Greenwell and yet another man who would figure in the Yankees' 1996 World Series win, future Hall-of-Famer Wade Boggs. Tom Brunansky was there from the 1987 World Champion Minnesota Twins, All-Star Ellis Burks was the lineup, and All-Star and future Yankee coach and Kansas City Royals manager Tony Pena also played.

This game was much less dramatic than the Cubs-Phillies opener of my "doubleheader." The White Sox led 4-1 after 3 innings, but Boston closed to 4-3 in the top of the 4th. In the bottom of the 4th, Ventura led off with a single, Guillen added another, and then came the one thing I most wanted to see: A home run, to set off the scoreboard. It lit up, and shot off its fireworks, and I got the all important picture with my Kodak Instamatic X-45.

The homer was hit by left fielder Iván Calderón, who would make the All-Star team the next year, making him pretty much the only decent hitter for my "Rotisserie League" team that season, and, yes, I drafted him based on this one game, so you can see why I didn't do well in that league.). He would play for the White Sox in both the last game at Comiskey Park 17 days later and the last game at Cleveland Municipal Stadium 3 years later. Sadly, he would be murdered in a bar fight in his native Puerto Rico in 2003, aged only 41.

Calderón's homer made it 7-3, and it would be 8-3 Sox at the 7th inning stretch. Organist Nancy Faust played "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" -- in fact, before Caray broadcast for the Cubs (but after he first made his name with the Cubs' arch-rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals), he broadcast for the White Sox, and, hearing Nancy play the song, had his microphone piped into the public-address system, and he first led White Sox fans in singing the song.

Nancy was not the first organist to play songs whose titles were somehow connected to a player -- Gladys Goodding did that for the Brooklyn Dodgers as far back as the 1940s, such as "Back Home Again In Indiana" for Gil Hodges and "California, Here I Come," with no irony, for the Los Angeles-born Duke Snider -- but she was the first to play songs puns on a player's name.

And while Gladys, and later the Yankees' Eddie Layton, the Mets' Jane Jarvis, and the Red Sox' John Kiley would play "standards," Nancy was, debuting in 1970, the 1st ballpark organist to play rock and roll songs in the major leagues. Best known is the 1969 Steam song "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye," which she would play for a pitcher taken out of the game (with the fans singing along), and then, at the game's conclusion, if the White Sox won (ditto, and with the scoreboard again lighting up and shooting off fireworks).

Thomas, not yet nicknamed "The Big Hurt," added an RBI single in the 8th, and it was 9-3 Chicago. But Boston mounted a rally, with Burks and Greenwell hitting home runs. (The scoreboard did not light up or shoot off fireworks.) The Pale Hose got the last out, and it ended White Sox 9, Red Sox 6.

(In case you're wondering: That same night, the Yankees were in Detroit, and beat the Tigers 7-3 at Tiger Stadium, which replaced Comiskey as MLB's oldest active park. Mike Witt went the distance, rookie sensation but future sophomore burnout Kevin Maas hit a home run, and only Jim Leyritz played in this game and on the 1996 World Series team. The Mets beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 6-3 at Shea, despite the young, skinny Barry Bonds going 4-for-4 with 2 RBIs. Darryl Strawberry and Darryl Boston hit home runs, and Dwight Gooden outpitched Doug Drabek.)

*

Despite the South Side's reputation for crime, I got back to my hotel all right, and faced no criminal activity during my brief stay in Chicago. Despite the reputation that came from their overreaction to the demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic Convention, only 22 years earlier at that point, I had no problem with the Chicago police.

All in all, I had a great time in Chicago. I didn't want to leave, and I couldn't wait to go again. I was back home on September 15, and got to go again in 1999, this time using it as my home base to see the final seasons of Tiger Stadium and Milwaukee County Stadium. (No one knew it at the time, but a construction accident pushed back the opening of Miller Park until 2001.) And I got to Wrigley again, for an ESPN Sunday night game against the Cardinals. (Big difference: There was a lot of drinking and a lot of animosity. Yeah, it was the drinking that made the team not want to put lights up, but it was the potential loss of TV revenue that finally forced them to do it in 1988.)

My 2nd trip to Chicago wasn't as much fun as my 1st -- I had hotel issues the 1st night, and had to switch for the 2nd -- but that was mainly due to the 1st trip being an adventure into parts unknown. The 2nd time, more or less, I knew what I was doing (the hotel being an exception). I was also 9 years older, and knew not to overreact to things. I also had an extra day, and a bit more money, and it was my own this time.

It's been 25 years -- to the minute -- that I was sitting in a stadium built in 1910 and watching a baseball game. Although I wanted both of these legendary losers to win, and, incredibly, both did, ultimately, it didn't matter whether they won or lost. It was that trip that proved to me that I could watch a baseball game, without really having to care who won. It was that trip that made me realize that I loved baseball first, and the Yankees second. Not every Yankee Fan is like that: Some are only fans of the team, not of the game.

Baseball is the greatest game in the world, and what Philip K. Wrigley called The Friendly Confines on the North Side, and what Bill Veeck called The World's Largest Saloon on the South Side, proved it to me, a quarter of a century ago today.

I didn't really know what I was doing. But I loved doing it. And I got back without getting hurt.

I loved that trip.

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