Here’s to Baseball and Sand Castles


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.

Feelin’ Weasley

I recently got back from a few days at Universal Studios in Orlando. The main attraction at Universal is the Harry Potter section of the Islands of Adventure park. The park opened at 9 AM when we were there, but since we were staying on the property, we were able to get in an hour early. Nearly all of the people who availed themselves of this option made a beeline for the Potter section of the park. And with good reason, since it does a very credible job of bringing J.K. Rowling’s work to life. The people who put this together really did it right.

I bring this up as a background for something that occurred to me today. I’ve read the Harry Potter books, and seen maybe half of the movies, so I’m generally aware of the characters and their stories. One of the primary characters, Harry’s friend Ron Weasley, came to my mind as I was putting up some pictures of old Chicago Cubs players at work today.

Rowling’s world of Hogwarts and Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley and all the rest works so well because it was invented out of thin air. Like Baum’s OZ, and Tolkien’s middle-earth, it draws you in and makes you want to believe it exists, even when you know that it doesn’t. A world of muggles, or munchkins, or hobbits seems much more interesting than the world that we actually inhabit, and so reading these books is a way–the only way, really–of spending some time there.

A major element of Harry Potter’s world is the invented game of Quidditch. Harry’s friend Ron is a big fan of the worst Quidditch team of all, the Chudley Cannons. They’re a terrible team that never wins anything, but Ron Weasley supports them, anyway. It’s a bit like Charlie Brown and his favorite baseball player, the inept (yet fictional) Joe Shlabotnik. Players like Shlabotnik, and teams like the Cannons, somehow have a following in the worlds they inhabit, even though they’ve given their fans nothing to get very excited about. And so it is with the Chicago Cubs and their long-suffering, yet still very real, fans.

I thought about this as I was putting up three pictures of Cubs players from the 1977 team at my desk at work today. The three were Jerry Morales, George Mitterwald, and Gene Clines. The 1977 Cubs were in first place halfway through the season, and they led me a younger and more naive version of myself to believe that great things would happen that year. But they fell apart in August and September, and finished far out of the running in their division.

Had this late-season collapse been a sign of things to come in the decades ahead, I might have switched my team allegiances back to the St. Louis Cardinals, who are much the preferred team in the town where I grew up. But the bond had been forged, despite (or maybe even because of?) the team’s losing ways. Unlike the Cardinals, I could watch the Cubs’ games on TV, and I liked hearing the way that Jack Brickhouse called a game on WGN. He talked about Waveland Avenue and Sheffield Avenue as places that, like Hogwarts, I wanted to believe actually existed.

It would be a decade before I went to these places myself, and confirmed their existence on the North side of Chicago. But in the meantime, the Cubs became my version of the Chudley Cannons. They lost all the time, and that’s never an easy thing to cope with, but when you love a team, and the game that they play, their losses somehow strengthen that bond, rather than dissolving it.

Should anything ever happen to chase the ghosts of Jerry Morales and all of the other Cubs from the past away, well, that will be a fine day, indeed. May I live long enough to see it. I sometimes think that Ron Weasley’s Cannons will win a championship before my Cubs will. And if you were to tell me the Cannons don’t really exist, my reply is that’s exactly my point.

Apparently I’m from the olden days

The other night, my younger daughter and I were having dinner together. I told her that Halloween was a week away, and at this time of year, when I was her age, one of the big happenings was the annual airing of “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” It was a big deal when it was on, I explained to her, because if you missed it you were out of luck until the next year.

She look bewildered as I explained that in a world without VCRs or DVRs, and without on Demand or the internet, there was just one time when you got to see Charlie Brown get rocks in his trick-or-treat bag, or Linus convince Sally to wait in the pumpkin patch all night, or see Snoopy pretend to be the World War I flying ace. I really did look forward to it, and watching it on TV helped to confirm–if any confirmation was necessary–that it was almost time for tricks or treats.

My daughter then informed me that she had never seen it before, and I know a parenting moment when I see one. I dug out our old copy of it on videotape (since the $2.99 cable fee for watching it on Demand seemed too high) and we went to the old VCR and put it in. I think she enjoyed it, and I know I did, because Halloween just seems to be the unofficial start of the holiday season for me. Thanksgiving comes pretty quickly, and then Christmas, and just two months later it’s New year’s eve.

My daughter told that she’s glad she didn’t grow up in the olden days like I did. I got a laugh when I heard that, because I’m sure I said something similar to my parents at some point in my youth. Anything new that come along, like electricity or color TV or wireless cellphones or whatever else you can think of, makes life impossible for children to imagine without it. It made teaching history just about impossible, since kids probably though that Benjamin Franklin took long bathroom breaks, or George Washington had lots of followers on Twitter.

Having lived through the olden days myself, I have to say that it wasn’t really that bad. I wish I had some of the cool things that my kids have now, but it’s impossible to miss something when nobody’s thought it up quite yet. And whenever these cool new things seem antiquated–which is bound to happen at some point–hopefully they’ll be able to embrace whatever comes along to replace it.