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.
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.
As 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.
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.
So 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 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 utility 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.
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!