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As I Was Growing Up

The Sporting Life

by Clarence Pedersen
Baseball I was seven years old when my mother gathered me up along with a couple of sandwiches and a prayer, and we left the near-northwest side of Chicago forever. "Little Norway" this section was appropriately called. It was safe haven for thousands of Norwegian immigrants who dared leave a life they knew for a life they knew not what.

I don't remember how my mother and I got to the Loop station, but we ended up on a bright red monster of a train called "The Chicago, Aurora, and Elgin." This was the "third rail" electric train that sped along at ground level at a glorious and incredible sixty miles per hour, caroming carelessly from side to side and daring the occasional pedestrian or automobile to get in the way. Occasionally one did, after which new speed laws were quickly enacted and quickly forgotten. Sort of like today.

We detrained at 11th Avenue in Maywood. Maywood was at that time very famous for its anonymity; a bland, personality-less cluster of houses and stores about twelve miles west of Chicago. For some still unknown reason it occupied this microcosmic area of the good earth. Nobody seemed to know or care why. Like Chicago today, playing second city to New York, Maywood was the perennial second suburb to Oak Park. Oak Park was the crown jewel of Cook County. Everybody who didn't live in Oak Park wanted to visit it--the home of the wealthy and famous. People like Frank Lloyd Wright and Hemingway. A bustling shopping center on Lake Street to which most Maywoodians paid financial obeisance. When they could afford it. On the other hand, my new hometown, Maywood, was distinguished for its deep sense of apathy. There were times, of course, when we did get excited. This happened mostly when Maywood got its name mentioned in one of the Chicago papers. This happened mostly when we had a political scandal, a murder, or a tornado. Like Chicago today? At any rate, those were the times when we were convinced that people all over Cook County, if not the world, now knew what and where Maywood, Illinois was. Maywood had arrived. Snuggled in between Forest Park, Bellwood, and Melrose Park, it was now a town of significance. Unfortunately, the name of our town appearing in print was as rare as a day when the Des Plaines River was SWIMMABLE. Which is another story.

Although on our train trip my mother and I had only traveled about twelve miles, to my seven-year-old goggle-eyes it seemed like we were now a hundred miles from everything. Practically in a foreign country where nobody spoke Norwegian. We settled down in a large house on 15th Avenue and I spent my growing-up years going to Irving School, pulling up suburban-strength weeds from our large yard, and playing baseball. Back then the game of baseball was, to us kids, synonymous with joy. Absolute freedom! No parents or coaches to guide us or to scold us to change our natural instincts. Just a bunch of uniformless kids out to have--what's that forgotten word--fun. There was no room left in our brains to analyze our skills. No need to. We were on automatic "zone." We were blessed with the innocence of self-forgetfulness that is only available to the young. Or the young at heart.

And so it was that when we raced out of the Irving School classroom, we headed pell-mell for the empty lot at Madison Avenue and 15th to get up a game of "piggy-move-up." Or, we might choose sides by having two "captains" fist a bat to see who had first pick. As an amateur nostalgic, I must conclude with a sigh of remembrance, "Those were the real baseball days."

Yes indeed they were! Four flat rocks for bases. One somewhat splintered bat to be used by all players on both sides. One twelve-inch ball, or, at other times, a genuine league ball wrapped tightly in black electrical tape because the original cover had been batted off. We never had enough money to buy a new ball. Depression times. Thinking back, I guess we must have used that black, battered baseball forever.

And so we'd pitch. And hit. And catch. And fight. I don't recall that we ever had an umpire. If the pitched ball wasn't over the plate, we'd just pitch it again. No walks. Never had innings. Just played on and on until it got dark, or until the kid who owned the ball or bat had to go home. All this was called "fun." I wonder what happened to it.

Way back then, in the late 1920s, Maywood had a couple of parks that I remember. The premier park was creatively named "Maywood Park." It extended from First Avenue to Fifth Avenue. Maywood park was well kept with grass and flower beds. Clean and nauseatingly sterile. Not the stuff for gringy, Huck Finn kinds of kids to play in. Then too, the police station abutted the park, and the police station was filled with many large policemen who, we were sure, spent most of their duty hours watching us kids so's we didn't step on the flowers. Fretting about such obscene laws did not really fit in with our plan of action. So we left Maywood Park to its flowers, fireworks, and parades.

Our favorite park was called Waterworks Park. How about that! Don't you think a name like "Waterworks" is something that every red-blooded kid will automatically fall in love with? No, I don't know why. It just seems to create images of stuff that has nothing to do with Sunday School. Toss it around in your mouth a bit. "Waterworks! Waterworks!" Then spit it out two squares of sidewalk or as far as you can. Some unknown with a flare for the appropriate must have conjured up that neat name. Or--it may have been that, on the boundaries of the park there were actual waterworks, a pumping station.

Whatever the reason, Waterworks Park embraced us kids with its dust and its outfield weeds, its too short right field, and its old rusty and dusty, but sturdy, backstop. It was a park meant for the cream of lower-class society. Which was us kids. Dungareed, grimy gamin scampering hither and yon on a ball field that comprised the entirety of the park. Older guys used to tell us that there was a tennis court beyond the fringes of the outfield, but nobody every believed it. Effete, fingernail-clean tennis players simply did not belong in a park called "Waterworks." They didn't convey the "don't give a damn" attitude that was the hallmark of our adolescence; the "in-your-faceness" that was an automatic belligerent stance long before the NBA existed.

Lots of famous historical things happened at Waterworks Park. Like, I recall one evening a batter let the bat slip out of his hands and it clunked my brother on the bridge of his nose. Lots of blood. But the historical, the amazing part is that nobody sued nobody.

Then there were the two times after I had unfortunately grown up somewhat, and I was umpiring. I stood behind the plate directly in the path of two very fast pitches. Both times the batter swung and missed. Both times the catcher missed. Both times the zinging ball found its mark in the most delicate part of my anatomy. Agony! Trying desperately not to reach down to comfort the hurting part as I writhed back and forth on the ground. Sympathy? Come on! Just, "Hurry up and stop that writhing so we can play ball." And, "What did you call those pitches? Balls or strikes?"

O the joy of it!

It was at Waterworks Park where the truly spiritual side of baseball manifested itself. Hot Sunday afternoons they would gather there. Hundreds of exuberant, vociferous, jolly black folks with a sprinkling of appreciative whites, all cheerfully tolerated by the blacks. All crowding around both foul lines and behind the backstop, jockeying for position, dodging foul balls, always returning the ones they caught, never, ever interfering with the game. The game was played in diehard fashion by semipro athletes. The entire spectacle a rare phenomenon indeed. For everybody was at complete ease, uninhibited, full of the moment. In other words, everybody--black, white, young, old, male, female--had, so to speak, a ball. (An aside: It seems that when day-to-day life is perpetually difficult, Sunday, the day of rest, releases a veritable orgy of pure happiness. Why is this?)

The black folks who came to see people of their race compete, cheered loud enough to bring down the sky. We whites, more reserved, mostly clapped and appreciated. Unless they were like me. I was there with an ice cream container on my back selling nickel ice cream bars. This was gold-mine territory to a guy with ice cream. There were moments when I had to chase my customers away 'cause I couldn't get enough time to watch the game. Made no difference. I always managed to sell my twelve dozen bars, pocket my pay, sit on my empty container, and be content with life. Yes indeed. Those days, those hot, sunny Sunday afternoons, were days of fulfillment for all beings. At a park, called magically, Waterworks.

Fall was football time of course and Maywood had two teams. One was the Dodgers, the creatively named again, the Maywood A.C.s. The Dodgers were the football White Sox of Maywood. The stepchild. Struggling for identity. Struggling more for fans. Usually struggling for wins. They played at 19th Avenue alongside of the Aurora and Elgin tracks. For most of us, the Maywood A.C.s, who played their games on an open prairie at First and Washington, were the favorite team. These were Sunday afternoon games played at a time when few people knew anything about the Chicago Bears or George Halas. And cared less. Those were the days when a thousand or two Maywood citizens would stand along the sidelines for a couple of hours to cheer our local heroes and jeer the team from an adjacent suburb. Not much passing in football in those days. Just center the ball directly to the quarterback who would feed it to a halfback or a fullback who would run with complete zeal and fearlessness dead ahead or around end until he was smashed to the, at the time, frozen turf. As far as I can remember, nobody ever seemed to get hurt.

During the half, a couple of uniformed players would work the crowd with a collection plate. Nickels, dimes, quarters, an occasional dollar, were tossed into the plate. The money went to buy uniforms and an occasional football. Football at its purest. Played for enjoyment. Nothing else wanted. Nothing else needed.

I recall one fall evening under the lights at the Proviso High School field, the Maywood A.C.s played host to the Chicago Cardinals in an exhibition game. You read me right--the same Cardinals who are now working (not playing so much) in Phoenix, Arizona. That was one night all of Maywood puffed out its collective chest in civic pride. Even though it was only an exhibition game, many in the stand had a firm conviction that we could beat these arrogant red-shirted behemoths. Not to be. The final score was in the neighborhood of 39 to 3. Still, our heroes had their moments. Flashing in and out, our 139-pound halfback scampered for big yardage time and time again. O yes! The stadium was rocking that night.

So it went as I was growing up. Not all fun and games of course 'cause they made me go to school. I started out in Irving School at 16th Avenue where the principal never ever slapped or smashed any of us. He was a shaker. Not the religious kind of Shaker, but a shoulder shaker. He was really good at it. When Mr. Bristor shook you, you made noise. Everything loose jingled. Still, the entire class seemed to enjoy it except for the shakee.

We played marbles at recess. Draw a large ring in the dirt, place an agate in the center of this ring, shoot a marble from behind the ring line and try to knock the agate out of the ring. If you did it, you kept it. If you didn't, you put one of your very own marbles into the ring for somebody else to shoot at. This was not an easy thing to do. That was MY marble somebody was trying to get from me!

Of course, even though we lived in this foreign country, we still had to do many of the same things Chicago kids did. Like shovel coal into the furnace and empty the ashes. Stuff like that. Shovel snow. But snow-time was almost as good as summertime as we shuffled through six inches of fluffy flakes to make huge circles in empty lots. Then we bisected the circle with other pathways and chased each other round and round. Sound like nothin' much? You gotta try it. Then there were snowball fights. Do they do that anymore? Or do parents think it's too dangerous? We also made igloos that we could crawl into and have great secret meetings with rituals and stuff.

Sometimes, mostly in the fall, we'd burn leaves at the curb with a bunch of potatoes or marshmallows roasting in the middle. Do they do that anymore?

We swore too. That was neat. Because it was outlawed by adults. We knew so many large, exciting, robust, non-nauseating swear words!

Well, that's sort of the way it went as I was growing up and after my family moved to Maywood. Evenings may have brought a quart of hand-packed Cunningham's ice cream to be eaten on our screened-in front porch while we listened to Joe Louis fight Schmelling. All these good moments. Although it's different now, a few things never seem to change. How well I recall my father and I listening to Hal Totten broadcast a Cubs game. How well I recall my father and I commiserating with each other: "Gosh, jus' think, they haven't won a World Series in thirty years!"

As I said, a few things never change.



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Copyright © 1996 by Clarence Pedersen. All rights reserved.