Chicago’s Moonlight Graham

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I wrote this story some time ago, and it was published on the website ChicagoSideSports.com. An archived version of the site exists, but does not include this piece, so I’m adding it here. Happy Memorial Day to all.

Anyone who has seen the movie Field of Dreams knows the story of Archibald “Moonlight” Graham. He played just one inning as a major leaguer, never came to bat, and retired from baseball to become a doctor in the small town of Chisholm, Minnesota. It’s all completely true, and writer W.P. Kinsella turned the story of Graham’s brief career into literary gold, and Hollywood followed suit by creating the character that Burt Lancaster so memorably played on the screen. We can all picture Lancaster as he walks off the field and asks “Win one for me one day, will you boys?” But there was a baseball career that eclipsed even Graham’s in terms of nothingness, and it belongs to Chicagoan Alexander Thomson Burr.

Burr was born in Chicago in 1893, and he attended prep school and college on the east coast. He was included on the roster of the New York Yankees at the beginning of the 1914 season. The Yankees were managed by Frank Chance, who had been a part of the famed “Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance” infield that the Cubs had fielded in the prior decade. Chance’s managerial moves in a game on April 21, 1914 left him with no choice but to put Burr into the outfield for the ninth inning. There was one small problem with this maneuver: Burr was actually a pitcher, not an outfielder. Like Moonlight Graham, Burr played a single half-inning in the outfield, where nothing was hit his way. And like Moonlight Graham, Burr never came up to bat, and never again played in another major league game. But unlike Moonlight Graham, Burr played a position that he was not supposed to be at. But better to play out of position than to never make it at all.

Alexander Burr’s life after baseball was also much different from Moonlight Graham’s. Burr initially returned to school, but signed up for the U.S. Air Service when fighting broke out in Europe. The Air Service was created in May of 1918, and the use of airplanes in combat was still a new idea at that time. The dangers of using airplanes came into full view on October 12, 1918 when Burr collided in mid-air with another pilot over a lake at Cazaux, France. Four and a half years after his half-inning in the big league sun, Burr died at the age of 24.

Thanks to all who sacrificed for this country.

Farewell, Harris

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When I played youth baseball in the Khoury League many years ago, there was one kid on my team I really hated. And hate isn’t a feeling I come by very easily, either. But I had my reasons, and they came flooding back to me this evening. The best thing about writing a blog is having some outlet for the thoughts and stories that swirl around inside my head, so here goes with this one:

Harris is my last name, but I never thought of referring to anyone by using their last name. Tom Jones would have been Tom to me, not Jones. But this teammate of mine delighted in calling me “Harris.” Even though he had the same first name that I did, he never once referred to me by my first name. I found it strange and more than a bit disrespectful, and if I was a different sort of kid I would have let him know about it. But I was a tall, awkward kid who wasn’t prone to violence, so I let it go. There were other things worth getting upset about, I suppose.

The way that “Harris” was pronounced made it even worse. It was a drawn-out nasally sneer, like “Haaaaaris,” and it was irritating enough to hear it in the first place. But to then realize that not only was I being mocked, but so were my parents, my siblings, and essentially my entire family, it made it really hard to hold that inside. So I internalized it, instead.

As far back as I can remember, I think of myself as “Harris” whenever I’m trying to get something across to myself. “We need to get this project done, Harris, before it’s due next week.” Things like that. As much as I didn’t like it when someone else called me Harris, I have routinely allowed myself to do it. It’s a coping mechanism, you might say.

Over the past few weeks, as I discovered that an actor named Harris Wittels had a recurring role on the show “Parks and Recreation,” I thought about how cool that was. Somebody was actually given Harris as their first name, and everyone who came into contact with him called him that, and not in an insulting manner. Even better, the character he played on the show was also named Harris. It’s annoying that Tony Danza always played characters named Tony on screen, but when Harris Wittels became Harris onscreen, it was nothing short of awesome, at least for me.

When I learned today that Harris died at the age of 30 from a drug overdose, I was shocked and a little bit saddened. I know that “Parks and Recreation” is finishing up its run soon, but Harris Wittels still had lots of time to do other things. Maybe he would have gone and been Harris again somewhere else, or perhaps written other books to go along with Humblebrag. The entertainment industry was his oyster, and now he’ll be mentioned in the same breath as Chris Farley and Freddie Prinze. It’s a shame, really.

I’m now at an age where whenever somebody dies–whether I knew them or not–the first thing I want to know is how old they were. Somebody who dies at 52, like Jerome Kersey just did, reminds me that the end can come at a relatively young age. Although I have zero in common with Jerome Kersey, he got to walk the earth for 52 years, so hopefully I’ll get at least that much time myself.

But 30 is another story altogether. Harris Wittels found that drugs were to his liking, and his success afforded him both the money and the opportunity to indulge this habit. I never had either of these things when I was 30, and looking at what happened to him, I’m glad of it. Something is going to get me one day, but it won’t be drugs, I hope.

So from a Harris who lives a life of anonymity, to a Harris who appeared to have the world by the tail, thanks for wearing the name like a badge of honor. I wish you had allowed yourself more time to do it.

Nobody on the road, Nobody on the beach

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It’s been more than two weeks since I wrote anything to put in this space. That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped writing, though. In fact, I wrote a trio of pieces relating to the recent death of Ernie Banks, and sent them off to websites that are willing to share my thoughts with their readers. I appreciate having places to go with the thoughts that enter into my brain from time to time.

The title for this post is the first line of Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer.” It’s a song I’ve always liked, because it tries to come to grips with changes in life. The summer’s over, but he’s still interested in whatever girl the song was written about. Dogged determination counts for something, doesn’t it?

The summer feels out of reach for me and this blog, too. I used to sit at the computer every night, looking for new ideas to put into this medium that I hope will be around after this Boy of Summer has gone.

The posts will likely still come to me sporadically, and when I have the inclination I’ll put them down here. But it won’t be with the frequency or the intensity that it was even just a few months ago. Life will still go on, as it always has.

A bleachers retrospective

Hearing that the Cubs started tearing down the Wrigley Field bleachers today felt like the end of something for me. From the first time I sat in the bleachers back in 1987, to the last time I did so back in 2005, they were always a place where I felt good. Granted, a fair amount of this was alcohol-induced, but not all of it was. It was the place to be, if you wanted to have the full-on Wrigley experience. And I certainly did that, for the better part of my adult life.

I went there in the 1980s with the college girl who later became my wife. I celebrated opening day there at least a couple of times, and saw both Ryne Sandberg and Andre Dawson receive their Wrigley sendoffs there. I went there with my brother, and friends of all varieties, and even went by myself on a few occasions. I took my two young daughters the last time I was there, even though it never was a very kid-friendly place. Simply put, it was my home away from home, and the place I wanted to be whenever I had the chance to go. And now it’s gone.

Whatever comes along to take its place, it can’t be what it once was to me. And that’s probably all for the best, since everything changes and evolves over time.

Here are a few pictures of or from the bleachers:

Dad is a Cardinals fan, so of course I had to become a Cubs fan, instead

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Springsteen's Wrigley shows were amazing. Hope he comes back soon

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Thanks for the memories!

Here’s to Baseball and Sand Castles

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My kids don’t know from Peanuts, the comic strip that was a big part of my life as I was growing up. They’ve seen the Charlie Brown holiday specials and can name Snoopy, Woodstock, Lucy and all the others, and that’s something, I suppose. But when I was their age, back in the 1970s and 1980s, each day brought a new strip in the local newspaper. I took it for granted back then but things change, just as they always have.

Newspapers aren’t what they used to be, and new Peanuts strips haven’t been published since early 2000, when Charles Schultz retired and passed away at essentially the same time. And into that void my own children have grown up.I feel like they’ve missed out on something, in a way.

To honor the 64th anniversary of the first Peanuts strip in 1950, I’m presenting some of my favorites, which introduced Franklin on a beach encounter with Charlie Brown in July of 1968. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April of that year led to a suggestion that perhaps an African American character could be introduced to the strip. Like much of America in the year of my birth, the comic strips were segregated, too, which is to say that white cartoonists didn’t draw African American characters. And so far as I know, there were no African American cartoonists at the time.

Schultz initially resisted the idea, saying that he didn’t want to be seen as patronizing. But the proponent of the idea–a school teacher in Los Angeles named Harriet Glickman–persisted, and Schultz eventually added Franklin to the strip.

It may have looked and felt strange for a previously all-white comic strip to introduce a new African American character in the summer of 1968. But by the time I began reading Peanuts in the early to mid-1970s, it seemed–at least to me–that Franklin had been there all along. And we can count that as progress, right? That’s what it seems like to me.

A century with the Cubs (some of them, anyway)

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Back in the early days of this season, I was asked by WrigleyvilleNation to write something about a Cubs players for each decade from the 1910s to the present. Since I enjoy writing and telling stories, especially about baseball and the Cubs, I started off with a piece about a long-forgotten pitcher named Claude Hendrix. The rest of the pieces are as follows:

1920s: Gabby Hartnett

1930s: Kiki Cuyler

1940s: Emil Verban

1950s: Chuck Tanner

1960s: Lou Brock

1970s: Bruce Sutter

1980s: Gary Matthews

1990s: Gary Gaetti

2000s: Mark Prior

I don’t think I ever linked to any of these stories here before, so here’s a century worth of Cubs, from All-Stars and Hall of Famers to guys who had more esoteric careers.

They all played the game–and played it for my team–so there’s some thread that binds them all together. And none of them ever won a World Series, either, at least not with the Cubs. And that’s what really binds us fans together right now.

A lifetime of following the Cubs

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I recently had an opportunity to take in a beautiful view of the Chicago skyline, Lake Michigan, and Wrigley Field at the same time. I enjoyed them all, but the one shot that I wanted to have with me in it was the Wrigley Field vista. That speaks volumes as to who I am, really.

I started following the Cubs by watching their games on WGN, Channel 9 in Chicago. The first time I tuned in was late in the 1975 season, when I was seven years old. And now, almost forty years later, I realize that it has been a large part of my identity over the years and decades. There aren’t too many things in life that are more deeply-seated than my attachment to the Cubs.

And they’ve disappointed me in so many ways over the years. Losing is the most obvious way, which forces me to watch while baseball’s other teams taste success instead. And even when they win, it’s just a prelude to more losing in the end.

After so many years and so many disappointments, I am, quite frankly, embittered. I have no faith in the rebuilding process that has been going on since 2012. I don’t think it will pay off with the championship that I and other Cubs fans are craving, at least not in my lifetime. And if it happens after I’m gone, what’s the point?

I don’t have any terminal diseases that I know off, and it’s not like I’m expecting to die anytime soon. That’s not the motivation for writing this. It’s just that every season should be treated as though it will be the last because for many fans, that’s exactly what it is.

A Cubs fan just like me will probably die over the next week. I won’t know who it is, but they’ll be a victim of this process of a still unknown duration. The younger men than I am who run this team can afford to take the long view of the process. The rest of us–who just want to see it once before we pass from this earth–don’t have that luxury.