Thursday, June 30, 2016

Tom McComas's No Game Today (1966)

In my recent research on old Comiskey Park in Chicago, I came across this terrific, evocative eleven-minute short directed by Tom McComas in 1966 about a boy who sneaks into and explores Comiskey on an off-day. No Game Today captures the excitement of being an eleven- or twelve-year old and having a Major League ballpark all to yourself. Certain the coast is clear, the boy hops a fence, opens a door into the park, and runs the ramps and aisles down to the field, where he leads off at first, and to the dugout, where he sits and pretends to manage. Grabbing a bat, he peers out to the field as an all-too-common fantasy begins: it's the World Series, Game Seven, the game's tied in the bottom of the ninth, the bases are juiced, and a rookie—our boy—walks up to the plate against none other than Sandy Koufax. The count runs full before the boy rookie lashes a triple to left. Victory on the line, he rounds third and attempts to score, and as the throw comes in, the fantasy is abruptly cut short, and—victoriously? forlornly?—he walks across center field as the film ends.

Tom McComas
I recently spoke to McComas about No Game Today. "I grew up a White Sox fan," he told me. "No Game Today was my fantasy." Born in 1938 and currently living in northern Indiana, McComas has for many years operated TM Books and Video, a company that produces entertainment and educational family films for Lionel toy trains, John Deere, Caterpillar, and the Ford Motor Company, among other businesses. In the 1960s, while living on the north side of Chicago, McComas produced documentaries and television spots for advertising agencies, but his eye was on Hollywood. He wanted to make feature movies, and produced No Game Today "with the idea of going out to Hollywood and selling a script that I'd written, not about baseball. But it didn't work out."

Growing up in Wilmette, Illinois, McComas dealt with a fact as hard as the streets: "Everybody was a Cubs fan! We're talking about the late 40s, and early 50s. The Sox were awful. I used to cry in bed when they lost. I spent my youth in tears! I learned how to deal with defeat and disappointment by being a Sox fan."

McComas pitched the project to Ed Short, the White Sox general manager. "They were OK with it. They didn't care one way or the other." On a crisp day in late September, between the second-to-last and the final series of the 1966 season, McComas, his crew, and Peter Sandquist, a young boy whom McComas knew from his neighborhood and who was the son of a state representative, gathered at the park and spent the afternoon filming exterior and interior footage. Particularly memorable are shots inside as an elated Sandquist runs past the long line of photographs of former White Sox players, their faces and bodies a blur of action. "Those photos were inside, right opposite the stairs leading into the park. So we used a hand-held subjective camera to show Peter's point-of-view as he runs past the photographs. That's why the picture is jumping up and down." Also evocative are interestingly-composed shots of Sandquist running past closed concession stands and empty seats, and along steeply angled ramps.
McCamos, on location at Comiskey Park
As for the film's conclusion, where the boy's fantasy remains suspended, McComas had very firm feelings. "I had a friend who was a child psychologist, and she watched it. She said, 'You know, kids never dream anything that's a disappointment. They always come out ahead in the end.' And I said, 'Yeah, but that would take all of the tension and mystery out of it.' I felt that it would be boring if he scores the winning run and jumps up and down. For this kid, the dream ended in mid-slide." To this day, McComas is unhappy with the music covering Sandquist as he runs the bases for the first time, and he has yet to find the appropriate substitute. But the final shot, of Sandquist walking across the vast, sunlit outfield, features "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" scored by friends of his who were in a jazz band. Their uniquely arranged version of the classic song, McComas feels, is a key moment in the film.

Also key: verisimilitude. McComas grew up, as so many in Chicago did, listening to the great Bob Elson call White Sox games on the radio, and he hoped to get the broadcaster to narrate the fantasy sequence in his film. "In those days they had debutante balls and coming-out parties," McComas says. "I met Elson's daughter at one of those and asked her if I could get to her dad." The ruse worked. Elson met McComas and his crew at a recording studio on Hubbard Street in Chicago. "I had listened to him for years so it was a big deal for me." Elson arrived in style, rolling up to the studio in a big Buick. "It was tough to find parking there, but I had a spot," McComas remembers. "I stood in the spot for him but he was late—I probably got into ten fights protecting that parking space! But he got in and we went upstairs, where I played the film for him once, and he said, 'Alright, I get it.' The idea was for Elson to ad-lib the action just like he would if it were a real game. So when the bases are loaded, Elson says 'Koufax into the stretch.' I said, 'Cut, cut! Bob, with the bases loaded he'd go into a full windup.' And he said, 'You're right!'

"So I corrected Bob Elson!" McComas laughs at a memory that still delights him a half century later.

McComas felt some pressure to finish the film, as he was anxious to submit it to the Chicago Film Festival, then in its second year. In post-production, he recognized that the film needed more work, "five or six re-dos or shots that I didn't anticipate." Alas, running the bases wasn't the only physical activity Sandquist had been enjoying that late summer: "He broke his arm skateboarding! I talked to his mother and asked how long the cast would be on, and she said, 'Well I think the cast will come off on October 10.' So there was about two weeks between the cast coming off and the screening at the Chicago Film Festival." In mid-October, McComas and his crew hustled back to Comiskey for re-shoots. At the doctor's office, McComas had told Sandquist to make sure he wore the same t-shirt, but some continuity suffered: "In the background there's a wagon with wheels on it, way out in center field. The season was over and they had equipment all over the place, working on the field, preparing it for winter, I guess. When he's running toward second that was before the broken arm, and sliding into second and leading off was after the broken arm, and there are three or four shots where you can see him holding his arm kind of awkwardly, like it's still in a cast. And I'm saying, 'C'mon slide, Peter! Your arm's fine!'" McComas and his crew "edited night and day to get it ready for the festival. It was shown, but it was too late for the judging. We submitted it the day before the screening. It turns out they judge these things before they show them to the public."

The image of a tow-headed, striped-shirted boy jumping a fence and running the bases is strangely eternal, yet also, in its innocence, very much of the era. I asked McComas if he feels that he could make his film today. "They'd probably want money," he sighs. "Everybody wants money." Of no small surprise to McComas is the the general indifference with which his film was greeted by the White Sox organization. "No one ever picked up on the film. Years ago, I sent it to the White Sox marketing guy thinking that, once they'd moved to U.S. Cellular Field, there'd be nostalgia, a yearning for old Sox fans to see the old Comiskey again. The first 20,000 would get a free DVD of the film, or they could show it on the screen during a rain delay. But I never heard back from them. I don't know that it got to the right guy. They can still do it."

"It was fun for me to get into the park and to do all that stuff," McComas says. "They say you should do what you know. And I definitely knew that."

Here are some screen grabs, followed by the film:

Photo of young McComas via Tom McCamos.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

"This is a baseball joint": McCuddy's Tavern, 1910-1988

Photo via Chicago Bar Project
I've written here, here, here and here about old Comiskey Park in Chicago and of my regrets at never having caught a White Sox game there. To that threnody I'll add my misgivings that I never had a beer at McCuddy's, a bar that stood at 247 West 35th Street for nearly eight decades until it was demolished in 1988 during the construction of what is now U.S. Cellular Field. Despite vague promises from the city, the tavern was never rebuilt near the new park.

The demolition made national news. Tipped by a piece at Chicago Bar Project, I dug up an October 12, 1988 New York Times article about the joint's closing:
McCuddy's has been a Chicago institution since John J. McCuddy got a tip from a rich friend and sportsman, Charles Comiskey, who owned Chicago's American League franchise at the turn of the century and long harbored dreams of moving from the old ball park at 39th Street.

John J. McCuddy was one of the few people Mr. Comiskey let in on the dream, and McCuddy's opened its doors in time to serve the construction workers who built Comiskey Park—dubbed the ''baseball palace of the world'' when it opened on July 1, 1910.
From a March 28, 1989 article in the Los Angeles Times:
As the 12-year-old great-great-grandson of the tavern's founder tearfully pulled the lever, a tractor-like high lift from Speedway Wrecking Co. took the first big chunk out of the small saloon across the street from Comiskey Park.
Young Jack Blachley, who used to sell hot dogs in the tavern, was too choked up to talk about it at first and hid his face as he said of the demolition, "It's stupid."
My favorite quote comes from Pat Senese, the bar's owner, in the New York Times article: ''We've been open for every home game ever since. In fact, that's the only time we are open. They have rock concerts here, soccer games, whatever—our doors are shut. This is a baseball joint—always has been, always will be."

Cheers, McCuddy's. Would I have loved to duck in for cold beer or three before a game.

Here's a visit to the bar in 1984:

Photo via Chicagoist

Screen grab via Comiskey Park: There Used to be a Ballpark Right Here

Photo via FlyingSock

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Magic Balancing Bat, and other Sights and Sounds at U.S. Cellular Field

At the Chicago White Sox/Toronto Blue Jays game at U.S. Cellular Field yesterday, I noticed something very small but charming that a television director night not have noticed, burdened as he or she is by options of angles and statistics to offer the viewers during between-pitch down time. In the eighth inning, Blue Jay right fielder Junior Lake fouled off a pitch from Chris Sale past the first base line. After swinging, he'd dropped his black bat near the plate, which White Sox catcher Alex Avila then grabbed and, with grace, balanced in the center of homeplate, awaiting Lake's return. The bat stood erect for a second or two before Lake retrieved it. Funnily, Lake didn't seem to acknowledge Avila's wizardry: does this kind of thing happen regularly? I'd never seen it before; it was there and gone, a little playfulness between two players in front of 28,000 fans on a sweltering day. You had to be there.

I'll unhappily report that Lake drove the next pitch from Sale, a 91-mph fastball, into the seats in right-center, halving the Sox lead (which the home team maintained). Maybe it was a magic bat, after all.


Oh and this detail from the park: someone in the White Sox front office has great taste in rock and roll, as the Ramones' version of "Little Bit O' Soul" blared through the stadium speakers during appropriately rousing moments. Very cool.

What's next, Chicago natives Jim Skafish's "Wild Night Tonight" booming through The Cell?? I can only hope.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Your Last At-Bat...

Here's a very cool, five-year old post by Arne Christensen at The Hardball Times about great hitters' final at-bats. With the exception of certain stars of the game—think Ripken, Jeter, et al—who know that they're in their last season, many aging sluggers keep an eye on next year's Spring Training, if not with their current team than maybe with a different one, and often face their bodies' decline, and their fate, only in the off-season, not realizing that their at-bat in, say, Tampa Bay or San Diego, was in the fact the last of their career. Unsurprisingly, mega-documented or not, a hitter's final at-bat is often much like the majority of his others: uneventful. Some players got lucky, a few famously-so. (In 2014 I wrote about Chicago White Sox player Paul Konerko's second-to-last career game: also uneventful.)

I've cherry-picked from the list that Christensen provides, and in its un-heoric tone it reminds one that disappointing plate appearances spare no one, that on the day-to-day score baseball could care less about drama: Yaz pops out to second; Gehrig flies out to center fielder; Murray, pinch hitting, grounds into a 5-4-3 double play to end the game; Ott, also pinch hitting, grounds out to an unknown infielder; Thomas strikes out swinging; Mantle pops out to shortstop; Griffey hits a grounder for the forceout at second; Ruth grounds out to first base....

Humbling stuff. Here’s Christensen's full breakdown of what 30 players did in their final at-bats:
Ground out: 10
Pop up: 3
Fly ball: 4
Strike out: 3
unknown out: 1
Single: 5
Walk: 2
Homer: 1
Sacrifice fly: 1
And now to some videotape:

Jeter, of course, did this in his final at-bat:

George Brett, appropriately enough, singled in his:

And tragically, Thurman Munson's strikeout against Ken Kravec at Comiskey Park on August 1, 1979 turned out to be the final at-bat of his great career:

Image via OpenClipArt.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Where it Begins and Ends

7:30-ish and long shadows.
As I've written before, I was born and raised in suburban Washington D.C., and, thus, I was a by-default fan of the Baltimore Orioles, the old Washington Senators club having decamped for faraway Texas when I was a young boy. Untethered to an intense, loyal fandom, when I moved to Ohio and, later, Illinois, I adopted the Chicago White Sox as my favorite team. This is a careful way of saying that I am not a Cubs Hater. Had I been raised a White Sox fan, my Cubbie antipathy would likely be unwavering; though I don't closely follow the team, I love the game, and so was happy to get to another contest at the Friendly Confines last night (courtesy again of my rock & roll and baseball buddy, Mal Thursday).

Our seats were in Section 416—way up in the grandstands, first row, and our perch afforded us a tremendous view of the beautiful park and a terrific, absorbing game (Adam Wainwright and the Cards edged the Cubs, 4-3), if limited access to vendors. Oh well—we beered-up on the way up, and the ascension to our seats might've been my favorite part of the night. I'd never seen a game at Wrigley from the upper deck. Climbing the ancient, narrow walkways and steep, crowded ramps, one has the impression of going back in time, as if in a tactile dream, past ghosts of fanly heartbreaks and elation. The concrete steps, and modest, green-painted railings over which we peered at the game, feel as old as the city itself. I couldn't bring myself to sing "Root, root, root, for the Cubbies" during the seventh inning stretch, and my applause during the night was stirred by the plays, not the players, but fan allegiances aside, catching a ballgame at Wrigley on a gorgeous June night with friends is a reminder of where it begins and ends for me.
Mal and me on the ramp, with beers. Photo by Bailey Walsh.

Monday, June 20, 2016

White Sox: Throw Strikes, Ctd.

In March, I quoted Chicago White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper on his hope that starter Carlos Rodon might be more consistent throwing early strikes this season: "If we do that, we lessen walks," Cooper said. "If we lessen walks there will be more balls in play, more balls we can catch. There might be some hits involved, but the bottom line is if he can get ahead and get contact early. If they don't have contact early with the pitches he's got, he can be devastating."

"So simple, and so often, so aggravatingly, ignored by pitchers," I observed then.
I write "ignored" from the perspective of the fan who last played a competitive baseball game when he was twelve; I know that Major League pitchers can throw strikes, and that when they fail to they're usually toying with batters by wasting pitches (ie, throwing balls) to upset a batter's timing, expectations, and instincts, to widen the plate. Yet Coop's argument is unassailable; everything comes from first strikes and getting ahead in counts: fewer walks; anxious, defense batters; fielders on their toes; less wear on pitcher's arms; quicker games; etc..
Rodon has pitched adequately thus far (74 strikeouts, 27 walks in 75 innings, an unspectacular 1.493 WHIP). But Cooper's job hasn't gotten any easier. On new starter James Shields's historically awful first four starts with the team, an exasperated Cooper remarked, "I've looked at tipping, a lot of people have looked at tipping, and we're still addressing that."
But before tipping, we need strikes. The main thing as far as I'm concerned is not tipping first, it's strikes.
When you see after 30 pitches, it's 15 balls, 15 strikes, we need more strikes than that. You've got to attack, and specifically earlier in the count to get into pitcher's counts.
So simple....

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Bad Sports, Great Tunes

Bad Sports: Orville Neeley and Daniel Fried (Gregory Rutherford obscured)

DOWN AT THE ROCK & ROLL CLUB—A good night of rock and roll at the Empty Bottle in Chicago. I came out to see Bad Sports, a Denton, Texas band whose albums Kings of the Weekend and Bras I've really liked. A trio that plays riffy, super-charged songs, earnest but wound-up, Bad Sports were all about the tunes: guitarist and vocalist Orville Neeley, bass player and vocalist Daniel Fried, and drummer Gregory Rutherford said literally nothing between songs. My buddy Dave, with whom I met up at the show, told me that at a gig at Gonerfest in Memphis, the guys had been mouthy and boastful. Not last night: the only thing Neeley uttered was a terse but genuine "Thank you" after the last song. Then he grabbed the mic and stuck it in his back pocket.

But they were welcome, and didn't need stage patter to galvanize the crowd. Mod-ish and sharp, Bad Sports sprinted through a set of tight, desperate rock and roll muscled up by Neeley's thick-sounding Gibson and snarling, Phil Lynott-styled vocals and Fried's eighth-note riffing, spiky with hooks; Rutherford seemed impatient between songs, tapping at his hi-hat, raring to get things going again. The band played a lot of tunes from a new self-titled mini-LP—"Living With Secrets" and "Anymore" were stirringly good—and a handful of older songs, all of which give the impression of well-crafted bombs lined up in a row, vibrating with intention. Like all great rock and roll, the best songs threatened to fall apart at each measure, but Neeley, in his black fitted-tee and Johnny Ramone sneakers, and Fried, in his polo shirt and sharp shoes, were stylishly in charge. The floor felt as if it was shifting beneath me during the best songs. It's the reason I go out to shows.

During the headlining set by Radioactivity, Rutherford stayed behind his kit while Neeley and Friend swapped instruments to back guitarist and vocalist Jeff Burke, whose tightly-wound songs were propulsive and intense, but samey. I refrained myself from yelling "More changes!" But that's me. The crowd was euphoric, with dozens singing along. My favorite moment of the night might've been during Dumpster Babies' set, when bass player John Gorman seemed startled and then pleased to see a few fans singing along to the chorus of his song, always a warming victory for the opening band playing before a scant crowd.


Bad Sports

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Slump! Wonder, Bewilderment, Realization, Horror, Determination, Rage, Self-Pity, Relaxation, and Cure

Six months ago I wrote about novelist Andre Dubus's life-long attachment to baseball and the memory of a passage he'd come across as a kid in Joe DiMaggio's 1948 book, Baseball For Everyone. I recently chanced upon Joey D's book at Founders Library at Northern Illinois University. It's a fairly straightforward instructional read common to the era, with chapters devoted to hitting, fielding, pitching, base-running, signs, coaching, and the differences between the Minor and the Major Leagues. My favorite chapter is the one on the Slump, that bedeviling, leveling agony suffered by all players at some point. DiMaggio writes about some legendary and not-so-legendary downsides among players he knew or had heard about, and includes some remedies and a nice detail about the way his wife inadvertently cured one of his own slumps (he hadn't been standing and swinging as before; he learned this when she innocently remarked that she wasn't seeing the number 5 on his jersey after he swung through).

A terrific illustration by Lenny Hollreiser, a prominent sports cartoonist in the the mid-Twentieth century, accompanies the chapter. Goofy and winsome, Hollreiser's drawing is both funny and kind of scary. Blinder-affixing, bat-sawing, feet-lassoing gremlins: it's a head game, after all. I wonder how many impressionable twelve-year old kids, after a day scuffling at the plate in Little League and having put down DiMaggio's book, were visited by this image late at night.

The best passage is a small paragraph that all-too-accurately describes the fraught journey taken by a slugger in the blues:


Saturday, June 4, 2016

Hangin' at Three Grand Tavern

I love this photo from Old Comiskey Park: Essays and Memories of the Historic Home of the Chicago White Sox, 1910-1991, published in 2014 by McFarland in their Historic Ballparks Series. Oak Park, Illinois resident Lynda Prischman recalls that her father, Leo Janush, owned a bar called the Three Grand Tavern (great name!) at 3000 South Canal, about a block north of Comiskey Park, in Bridgeport. "To be born in Bridgeport is to bleed Black and White for the White Sox," Prischman says.
Parts of Old Comiskey live in my basement. We have a stadium seat and the metal barred ticket window still in its housing. It has at least a hundred layers of white lead paint on it. A friend of my son bargained that off the back of a truck for him.

This Sox and baseball connection spans three generations as my grandfather owned the Three Grand before my father. His stories included baseball players (Sox and others) who came by the tavern after hours to drink, eat my Lithuanian grandmother’s cooking, and play cards around an oak poker table that is now the dining room table in my brother’s home. Famously, one of those players was Babe Ruth.
It seems highly unlikely that the any of the men in this photo are ballplayers; scholars more knowledgeable than I can determine that. (Perhaps they're ex-ballplayers.) I only know that to gaze at this image of a local VFW Headquarters is to reaffirm all of the dearly-held, likely naive, and certainly romanticized ideas I have about a different era of baseball, when players might visit a local divey watering hole after a game, become regulars, maybe, the divide between players and fans not nearly as gaping as it has become in this century.

Disappointingly, I can't find a single photograph online of the Three Grand. Unsurprisingly, Google Street View reveals that the bar is long gone. As is the Babe.


Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Holiday in New York

The cover of the April, 1949 Holiday magazine, an all-Manhattan issue for which editor Roger Angell invited his stepfather E.B. White to write the preface. White gave Angell the legendary "Here is New York."

The photo was taken from the Staten Island ferry. Here's a recent Vanity Fair article on the long-gone Holiday magazine and the era it covered.