The Boys of Summers’ Past

Brewmasters sepia 2-1 Last week marked the beginning of summer. At long last the season of heat, humidity and sunny summer fun is finally upon us and there always seems to be so much more to do than time allows.  Summer vacations are filled with all kinds of outdoor activities – swimming, camping, festivals and fairs to name a few.  The list can go on, but it wouldn’t be complete without those traditional ‘boys of summer’. Yes, baseball! It’s been almost 10 years since I moved to one of the greatest baseball cities in the country, and yet in all that time I have only managed to go to one Cardinal’s game. 

There was a time when baseball games were a staple of summer activity. I’m originally from the south side of Chicago and I grew up on White Sox baseball –  old Comiskey Park, cheap bleacher seats, an exploding scoreboard and a disdain for all things north side, especially the Cubs. But even as a St. Louis transplant, with a common rivalry and a team that seems to do a lot of winning, I just haven’t been able to enjoy the game the same way I did in my youth. 

Grinders 1(s)It’s easy to get nostalgic for those old times at the ball park, late summer afternoons spent in the bleachers cheering on the South Side Hit Men, chilly spring mornings enduring the wind off the lake high in the upper deck on opening day.  Sadly, the culmination of it all was announced quite loudly one afternoon. What was once the explosion of fireworks proclaiming another homerun for the Sox, was now an explosion foretelling the destruction of a park that held so many fond memories.  

I suppose that’s progress, out with the old and in with the new. While I attended many games at the ‘new Comiskey’ over the years, it was never really the same.  Nowadays it seems as though the expense for enjoying our national past time is likely to put you back an amount comparable to the national debt. When you add up the cost of tickets, parking, beers, hot dogs and a bucket of popcorn at the ballpark you realize you could have vacationed to a tropical island or fed a village full of starving children for about the same cost.

Brewmasters 6(s).jpgAs with many other aspects of our society, professional sports have become over commercialized and corrupted to the point where the casual observer has been priced right out of the market.  So how is the everyday American supposed to get his fix of baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet?  Well, last weekend this fair-weather fan got the rare opportunity to step back into a simpler time before sports were a multibillion dollar mega business. A time when baseball was in its infancy and was played for recreation and exercise.   

Grinders 3(s)Miraculously, the original form of ‘base ball’ as it was played between the days of the Civil War and the turn of the century is still alive and well in fields, parks and green spaces across this great country of ours.  Groups of dedicated Americans don old style uniforms, gather up homemade balls and bats and head out to play the game as it was meant to be played – as a gentlemen’s game.  Respect, sportsmanship and comradery, values that were once the backbone of a great nation, but now seem to be lacking in our everyday interactions with fellow humans.

The rules and regulations have changed quite a bit since its inception.  Originally, it was the pitcher’s job to throw the ball in the most convenient location for the batter, the ball was meant to be hit and fielded.  There were no called balls or strikes, protective equipment like baseball gloves and batting helmets had not come about yet. The ball could be caught on one bounce and the batter still be called out. The lone umpire was the ultimate source of all decisions and held the right to fine players for ‘ungentlemanly’ behavior.  Certainly, as a reenactment this is something that needs to be witnessed and is truly a piece of living history. The players seem to be stepping into alter egos from a bygone era and the crowd can’t help but join in on the fun.

CollageSo how was it that I managed to come across this cultural phenomenon? My son, being very active in his community, wanted to put on a benefit for his local historical society. He wanted to host an event that Brewmasters 22(s)had historical significance but also would be enjoyable for a wide range of patrons. So, he organized a vintage base ball tournament.  He contacted a local team and then pulled together a group of friends and residents to form a new team of their own – the Blue Island Brewmasters.  With uniforms inspired by those seen in an old photograph from the archives of the historical society, the team set out to learn the rules of the game as it was played in 1858 and, of course – practice, practice, practice. 

He located an empty lot along the canal that once housed a gas factory and was now owned by a utilityBrewmasters 7(s).jpg company.  He worked with the city and a local sports field designer to cut the grass, remove overgrown brush and turn this once overlooked space into a regulation base ball diamond worthy of the origins of our national past time.  And so he built it – this old-fashioned field of dreams – but did they come? You bet they did!  They came from near and far, carrying picnic baskets, blankets and folding chairs. Families, friends and local politicians gathered on the freshly mowed grass.  Children played, fans cheered and neighbors shared their latest news as the game unfolded inning by exciting inning. By the end of the day the crowd was caught up in the turn of the century fanfare and mighty Huzzahs! could be heard from both sides. 

 

The game ended with a victory for the rookie Brewmasters.  There was some good-hearted ribbing, team captains gave speeches of thanks and handshakes were shared all around.  The event wound down with a potluck feast on the lawn of the historical society hosted by the home team, complete with homemade dishes and an amazing spread of desserts.  It was the perfect finish to the perfect day and plans were already being made for next years game.

Brewmasters 35(s)As Americans, there’s something about a good ball game that will always tug at our heartstrings. But it’s more than just “the game”, it’s about a day spent enjoying each others company on a sunny summer afternoon, cheering local heroes on to victory. Baseball has been a part of our culture for over 150 years. Yet in the beginning it wasn’t about money, fortune or fame.  It was played for community, fellowship and fun but most of all it was played simply for the love of the game. 

Huzzah!  Gentlemen, Huzzah!

Brewmasters 16(s)1858 base ball

Eden Gone Awry

pullman collage

A Journey through time in the Historic Pullman District

Once upon a time there was a perfect little community. A place where fathers earned an honest wage for a hard day’s work, children came home after school not to an empty house, but to a loving mother. Yards, parks and green spaces were all clean, safe and well maintained. Homes were equipped with modern conveniences and all the amenities were within reach – library, church, shopping and theater – just a short walk from home. In all, the very embodiment of the American dream.

Pulman 16(s)

This was the vision of George Pullman – his model industrial town.  Anchoring it all would be the bread and butter of the community as a whole, his factory – The Pullman Palace Car Company.

In his vision, Pullman conceptualized that happy workers would be hard workers. By putting the comfort and convenience of his workers and their families at the forefront, he hoped to avoid the labor strikes and uprisings that were becoming the theme of the day in the latter half of the 19th century.

In 1884 his vision became a reality.  An award winning community recognized and accredited for its cleanliness and beauty at a time when cities were overcrowded and living conditions were unsanitary.  From the outside looking in this was truly a success, but things are not always as they appear. Amidst the immaculate facilities, sunshine and fresh country air, in 1894 Pullman’s loyal workforce went on strike.

Pullman 5-2(s)Despite all of its accolades and awards, Pullman could not keep his dream intact.  Behind the scenes he was hardly the benefactor he appeared to be. The town was in reality just another business investment. It turned a profit just as the factory did.  What he didn’t seem to realize was that you can’t manufacture a community the way you can construct a train car.  Communities are not made of brick and mortar alone, they are made of people and people cannot be forced into place like rivets, bolts and gears.

church collage(s)To keep appearances up, he enforced his own ideas of the perfect utopian society.  From books in the library to plays in the theater; speeches, newspapers and public events, everything had to meet with his approval. Houses were randomly inspected for cleanliness and evictions could occur with little notice. There was only one church to attend. A single hotel housed one bar, but libations were offered to visitors only.

When the depression of 1893 hit, Pullman had to cut back on production. So in turn, he cut the worker’s wages but rents remained unchanged, leaving families with little left over for other necessities.  Appeals to reduce the rent were met with deaf ears.  With a common cause to rally around, and a new found sense of camaraderie, the residents banded together in rebellion to incite what would become a nationwide railroad strike and lead to the end of Pullman’s oppressive reign and the creation of Labor Day as a national holiday.

Soon after his death in 1897, the supreme court ordered the non-industrial property to be sold, the land was annexed to Chicago and Pullman`s utopia followed in his wake.

Last June, my son and I paid a visit to the historic Pullman District. We strolled the tree lined streets and photographed the buildings in different stages of inhabitance. Many properties were meticulously maintained, while some were in the process of restoration and still others had been ravaged by the effects of time and were now beyond salvage. As Pulman 21(s)we explored the remaining community and learned its history, we also had the opportunity to chat with some residents. We found what was most prevalent, despite the diversity that had transformed the area, was an overwhelming sense of community and pride.

I learned that in 1960 plans were made to demolish the neighborhood and replace it with an industrial park. Once again the residents banded together, this time to preserve their homes and the history they represented. Thanks to their efforts, the district is now a National Landmark. The restoration and renovation continues as the area is slowly returned to its once award winning grandeur.

Pulman 18(s0

For me, the take away from this photo adventure was that Pullman’s vision contained a fatal flaw – we all need a sense of belonging, a sense of place and a true sense of community which transcends our physical needs. Whether we choose to seek our personal utopia in the city, the suburbs or the windswept plains, in the end it’s our free will that determines what Eden means to us. It’s the perseverance of our human spirit that motivates us to join together to make that dream come true and create our own “happily ever after”.

Pulman 20(s)