Playing Hooky

PLAYING HOOKY

By Sam Garfield

April 16, 1958 

(Comiskey Park) –I took in the White Sox-Tigers game at Comiskey Park yesterday. There’s nothing better for the soul than to ditch the office and head out to the ballpark on a fresh spring afternoon.

As usual, I arrived early and made my way to the upper deck behind home plate –my favorite place to watch a game. (I avoid the press box; too many wisecracks, not enough fresh air.)

I noticed the youngster sitting directly in front of me. The kid –I’d learn his name was Nick Scott– wore a starched, blue cotton shirt, navy dress slacks and polished black shoes. Somewhere in this town, I thought, there’s an empty desk at a Catholic grade school. Lost in thought, the lad couldn’t take his eyes off the ritual on the field.

Behind home plate, a swarm of reporters, photographers and broadcasters gathered in small groups around the cage as the White Sox took batting practice: Warren Brown laughing with Edgar Munzel and John Carmichael; George Brace taking pregame photos; Bob Elson and Van Patrick trading stories near the home dugout. These men, in dark suits and sports coats and fedoras on the freshly mowed field of green, walking across the on-deck circles like they belong there, and in street shoes, too. How dare they. How lucky, though, to be down there, so close to Fox, Aparicio, Pierce. To smell the grass; to hear the baseball whistle across the diamond and smack into the mitt; to watch the ball explode when Lollar connects. Heroes all, in baggy white flannels.

“I’ve got a good feeling about the rookie,” Jack Brickhouse, the TV voice of the Sox and Cubs, said from his spot behind the batting cage. “He’s going to stick around this year. We could use some young blood at first.” With that, Ron Jackson, the rookie, cracked the ball high into the sky. The older man next to Brickhouse shielded his eyes with his hand and smiled as he watched the baseball disappear into the April sun. “The glory that belongs to the young,” said Irv Vaughan, who had covered Chicago baseball for the Chicago Tribune for more than forty years. A pair of Sox pitchers looked up to see the ball soar over their heads as they jogged along the outfield warning track.

They came in waves from the neighborhood. April baseball, anything’s possible; we’ll beat the Yankees this year, no doubt. Go ahead, take the afternoon off, close the shop early, play hooky. Across the street from Comiskey, they packed McCuddy’s saloon. They talked about this year’s good mix of speed and power; how Pierce will win twenty again; how the Yankees won’t win four pennants in a row. They can’t, they all agreed. McCuddy’s, after all, was the perfect place for dreams, for fantasy. Baseball lore says Elizabeth “Toots” McCuddy would serve Babe Ruth a beer or two between innings when the Yankees visited Comiskey during Prohibition. It’s true, ask anyone.

Game time: Billy Pierce scratches the dirt on the mound with his spikes and finds a comfortable spot on the rubber. First pitch, fastball for a strike. Twenty-eight thousand fans cheer and settle in…In the Sox’ half, Aparicio lays down a bunt. Detroit pitcher Jim Bunning struggles to get off the mound, and Little Louie is safe to start the White Sox first. A good start. I take a sip of beer.

Going into the bottom of the third, Pierce and Bunning, the American League’s only twenty-game winners in ’57, were in mid-season form. In the upper deck behind home plate, Nick Scott kept a meticulous scorecard. He also kept an eye on the clock atop the huge scoreboard that towered above the center field bleachers. He hoped for a quick game, no more than two hours. This would give him time to run back to the garbage can outside the Grocerland where he hid his schoolbooks and get back home on time. After dinner, he’d write the note explaining his absence from school. Tucked away in the middle of the sea of green seats, up high, higher than he’d even been in his life, Nick Scott felt in control. The game unfolded slowly from up here, more deliberate. The boy penciled in each play and anticipated how Pierce might pitch to each Tiger batter. He second-guessed the Sox’ Al Lopez when the manager put on the bunt sign. “Why give away an out? It’s too early,” he yelled. When Sherm Lollar came to the plate in the third, Nick Scott stood in anticipation. Looking beyond the left field bleachers, his eyes focused on the faraway arched windows that wrapped around Comiskey’s brick façade. He saw the treetops in Armour Park sway in the breeze beyond the park.

Not far from the boy, in the WGN-TV booth, Brickhouse told his audience: “Oh boy, what a spot for a long one. I’d even take a seeing eye single because Goodman has a nice lead from second and would probably score. Bunning’s set, here we go.”

Lollar swings, a deep, high one that curves foul down the left field corner. The plate umpire reaches into his suit coat pocket; it bulges with baseballs. He pulls out a new one and tosses it to Bunning. A high fastball.  Lollar tomahawks the pitch, high and deep toward left. The outfielder looks up, but he never moves. The ball comes down in the last row of the bleachers.

Nick Scott jumped out of his seat and screamed with joy. But only after he penciled in: Lollar, 2-run HR.

A good day to play hooky.

Copyright © 2012. John Theodore — All Rights Reserved. Text may not be reproduced without permission.

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