When you live away from Chicago it is guaranteed that you will know someone who is a diehard fan of those crazy Baby Bruins from the North Side. It is part of their heritage. From mother and father down through their children, and their children’s children, these were and continue to be official members of the living Cubs family of fanatic fans. No matter where you go to see a game in the Majors, if the Cubs are playing on the road, there will be a hoard of fans at the visiting stadiums…shouting, screaming and bringing a little bit of Chicago to their new home town.

Living in Wisconsin, there were quite a number. Growing up in the ‘50s, they would trade nearly anyone of their baseball card collection for a Pete Whisenant or an Owen Friend or…you get it. Hobie Landrith was a god to their misplaced youth as were Dee Fondy, Don Hoak, Walt Moryn, Monte Irvin and of course, the one and only Ernie.

Nearly every kid who grew up in the ‘50s knew who Ernie was. But to these devoted Cub Crazies, there were few before and until a season ago, none since that could live up to the legend of Ernie Banks.

One of my friends was devoted to the everyday doings of Ernie. If you happened to have a Sporting News (the bible of ‘50s baseball) beware of my friend. He would grab it and devour nearly every at bat Ernie had the week before. Game for Game, Inning by Inning, Ernie could do no wrong. If you wanted war, just argue who should be in the All-Star game, Banks or Johnny Logan, the shortstop of the Milwaukee Braves, then Wisconsin’s team.

But the one thing I remember most about this devotee was one day he actually believed that Ernie Banks was a relative of his. In arguing with his friends that Ernie was a distant cousin, we scoffed knowing with a large amount of certainty that he probably was not. That made our friend determined. That made him press his argument with his family. At dinner, he proposed to his mom and dad that in fact Ernie was a distant cousin. His dad, holding back a smile, gritting his teeth on his water glass, asked how he determined that. His mom simply said, ‘I never heard that. Is that true dear?’.

Then it dawned on him to pull out a Gale Wade. Now if you haven’t heard, the one Mr Wade, only played in 12 major league games in his entire career in The Show during 1955 and 1956. This was a card that nobody but a Cubs fan would want. It was bicycle spokes material. His mom loved the Wade card. ‘There’s Jeanny’s brothers’ next door neighbor’s cousin on the mother’s side’, she explained.

Maybe it was Wade who was a distant relative.

But no. My friend continued to push the issue of Ernie Banks being some-how related.

’Son…’, his dad said, ‘we are Italian. Ernie, I assume is not. Therefore, if Mr. Banks was related his name would probably have to be Banksarelli. Go ahead. Look at your Topps and see if that is his name on the back of the card.’

My friend quickly looked and it said Ernest Banks, Booker T. Washington High School, Dallas, TX. It showed in cartoon which stated, ‘He played in every game in ’54 and ’55.

Without a word, he got up from the table, excused himself, and was determined to find the family heritage tie between his beloved Ernie Banks and his family.

And that is how the legend of Banksarelli began.

It was 1957 on the East Side of Beloit, WI.

It has since shifted to Bonita Springs, FL.

Play Ball!

P.S. Gale Wade is now one of the 100 oldest living players. Is this the year he gets to see his former team win?


1954 Topps #239 Bill Skowron, New York Yankees

1954 Topps #239 Bill Skowron, New York Yankees

In just a few more days, in two weeks to be exact, pitchers and catchers report for spring training. It is a place where the grass is green, the sun is out and the weather is warm.  In the years past, it was a time when the players who had been off working at other jobs for the winter would get themselves back into shape.  Yes. Players in the ’50s and ’60s actually had to have jobs to support their families during the winter as their pay was not what it is today and the financial support of a second, off-season job, was necessary. Today’s ballplayer, has stayed in shape or gotten into shape for the past couple of months to arrive at spring training ready to get into the groove for the coming season. No second jobs for today’s ballplayer as they, at a minimum for one season, make more than most families earn in several years. Tweeners, those who are good Triple A players but not quite good enough to make it in the Bigs for a sustained period, make good money. For that good fortune, thanks should go to Curt Flood.

My first recollection of a player at a spring training camp was Bill Skowron, the big, burley first baseman for the New York Yankees. I remember a picture of him in The Sporting News when that magazine was the bible of baseball. That’s the only sport it really talked about. The ‘hot stove league’ must have been invented by The Sporting News. And that one year, in the middle of winter, at the drug store magazine rack, there was this picture of Skowron leaning into the camera and reaching for a bunch of bats in the on-deck circle.

‘Have you paid for that copy?’, the owner of the pharmacy asked. ‘Can’t read it unless you are at the counter and drinking a Coke or Malt’, he’d explain for the 800th time. So you would go over to the far end of the counter, take a seat on that round red cushioned plastic circle on top of a pedestal that swiveled, and order a Cherry Coke for a nickel. You then had the pleasure of being able to read The Sporting News without paying for it as long as there weren’t customers waiting to do the same thing. ‘Don’t spill on it if you’re not buying it’, he would always say as he walked away giving you a straw for your drink.

Why was it the memory of Skowron that I associated with spring training? He was a football player from Purdue and a punter on their teams. Wisconsin had been playing Purdue forever and that is probably why the association occurred. But for many of those days in February, it was cold…sometimes bitterly cold. And wouldn’t it be nice to have a chance to escape and go down to spring training where it was sunny and warm.

There are several things wrong with that last thought. First, it was a dream. And dreams end when you wake up. Second, as a kid, you don’t control your travels. Like most, I was stuck in the snow and cold until it melted away and became that messy, dirty mush on a pewter grey day that seemed to last forever. Grabbing a bat at that time of the year in the cold basement was foreign. It felt big and heavy. Your swing even was labored. Everything was tight. The glove was stiff and the ball a bit slippery. It just had to get warmer. Third, a kid doesn’t chart his ‘spring break’. During these times you yearned for that comfortable warm corner with The Sporting News to read in order to fill your mind with all of the baseball minutia that one could possibly stuff into your head. After all, there was no telling what break you would get to answer that all important question about … ‘Who was a former football player from Purdue who now stars for the New York Yankees?’…for one million dollars and a trip to spring training. You and only you knew that the break was just around the corner. You see, to be a baseball fan, you are always in a season of hope. That is especially true if you are a Cubbies fan. My next door neighbor was one such labored fan. Each winter he would talk about how great the Cubs would be this coming season. Each spring he would trade every card in his possession for a Cub player. He was my baseball card ‘Bank’. I could trade him Dee Fondy for Mickey. Talk about a season of hope. For a Cub fan it is a lifetime of hope.

In The Sporting News you would read about what was happening or could happen or should happen if this guy was traded to that team for that other player. This was the magic of imagination. With one simple copy of TSN, you literally had the world in your hands. Then, as if magic happened, on a Saturday in March, with the weather still crummy and you would swear that you would run out of cardboard for that hole in your shoe before the snow fully melted, an actual broadcast of a game was on radio. They said it was sunny and warm and fans in the stands were in their tee-shirts. The melodic voice of Earl Gillespie along with his sidekick, Blaine Walsh, brought the Milwaukee Braves into the home back up in the cold, wintry north. ‘Miller High Life and Clark…Bring You Out To The Park’ the opening jingle rang out. At first, you thought it was a mistake and you should run to your mother and tell her about the hallucinations you were having. Surely she would rush you to a hospital and summon Dr. Maurman to save you. It was certainly that dreaded disease, baseball fever that Dr. Maurman always warned your Mom about. ‘That child is going to have to be watched’, he would have said if he were actually in this dream. ‘Baseball fever is nothing to laugh at. It is a disease that affects the nervous system of young boys who read The Sporting News too much.’

The only saving grace what that The Sporting News was not banned and placed on the Legion of Decency list. For once I was safe from Sister Ramegia’s uncanny see-all/know all elastic arms of the law. This was a nun in a wheel chair that would actually ‘chase you down’ if she wanted to speak with you. Hell. She was on wheels.

But I digress. The Sporting News was everything to a real fan. It brought us all the nuance we thought only we knew. It was our hidden treasure trove of information that would save the world from destruction and….

‘Wake Up! You’re day dreaming again. Were you thinking about baseball again’, she would say, as your Mom was all-knowing. ‘You can’t let baseball rule your life or you will be destined to write about it.’

Yikes! Mom….cut that out. I’m all grown up now and you are still invading my consciousness when it comes to baseball. No. I’m not reading The Sporting News. You know why? It doesn’t do just baseball anymore. It hardly ever does baseball anymore. And besides, I’m just thinking that my birthday is only a few days away and that is the time when spring training begins.’

She responded in my head, ‘I suppose you would like to go and see them play. Don’t worry. Before you know it they will be back up north and you can listen to them all you want. And besides, Bill Skowron has just been traded to the Dodgers’.

Play Ball!

Henry Aaron Milwaukee's Greatest Baseball Player

Henry Aaron
Milwaukee’s Greatest Baseball Player

On Wednesday, February 5, 2014

When he first came up he played in left field. A few feet away, I saw him move gracefully along the outfield grass, never over extended. Always in complete control. He will always be a part of the Milwaukee community. Today he is 80. Here’s to having many, many more, Hank.

#1 At Goudey

When you were a kid and bought your first pack of baseball cards when they came out for that next season, one of the things that struck you was the #1 card. Who would win the honor of being the first in the deck for this coming season?

Too often it was a struggle getting the #1 card as pack after pack contained journeymen players. Trades were hard to come by unless you had a Cub fan next door. They would trade for a beloved Cubbie. Lucky us. Bye bye,Dee Fondy. Hello Jackie robinson.

Historically, baseball sets belonged to the top players in the game. For instance, in 1940, the Play Ball set had Joe DiMaggio as the #1 card. In 1941, the famed pastel Play Ball set produced Eddie Miller of the Boston Braves as the #1 card. An All-Star in 1940 & 1941, he had a 276 batting average with 79 RBIs for the Bees the previous year. In 1943, the M.P. & Co. put out a set with Hall of Famer, Jimmy Foxx as the #1 card.

After the war, Leaf Candy Company of Chicago came out with a set (marked on the back of some of the cards as printed in 1948 but were produced jun 1949. It is marked as the 1948 Leaf set. It is an iconic set and is the first color printed baseball card set after World War II. The #1 card was Joe DiMaggio. This set had more stars than MGM, including the then recently deceased Babe Ruth as the #2 card. Bowman’s 1948 set had Bob Elliott of the Boston Braves as #1 after a .313 batting average and driving in 113 runs in 1947. In 1949, Vern Bickford gained the #1 position after a great rookie season and became the first pitcher to be so honored after winning 11 games for the National League Champion Boston Braves. In 1950, Mel Parnell, a sensational 25 game winner the year before for the Boston Red Sox, was #1 on the Bowman set. In 1951, Whitey Ford, with his rookie card, was #1 on the Bowman set that year. On the initial Topps 1951 Red Back set, his battery mate, Yogi Berra was the #1 card while on the Blue Back set, Eddie Yost of the Washiongton Senators was on the #1 card. In 1952 Bowman honored Yogi while Andy Pafko was #1 on the famed 1952 Topps series while Jackie Robinson was #1 on the 1953 Topps edition. Over at Bowman, they put out two sets. On the 1953 Black & White set, Cincinnati Redlegs great, Gus Bell, who hit .300 that season was #1 and on the 1953 Color set, Davey Williams, an All-Star second baseman that season was the #1 card. It is one of the most interesting cards ever produced as he is in a fielding position, eyes off the ball in front of him, with an empty Polo Grounds stands behind him. while Phil Rizzuto of the New York Yankees was #1 on the Bowman set, Ted Williams grabbed the #1 card in the 1954 Topps collection. In the 1955 and last of the great Bowman sets, Hoyt Wilhelm, the New York Giants pitcher who had a great 2.11 ERA in 1954 Championship season, held the honor of being the #1 card in the final Bowman baseball set. The 1955 Topps set was led off with Dusty Rhodes, the hero of the 1954 World Series for the Giants. You  get the idea. It was usually one of the stars of the game during the previous season.

But in the ‘modern’ era of baseball, the first hereat set that landed smack in the middle of the Great Depression, was the 1933 Goudey baseball set. Enos Goudey was proclaimed as the ‘Penney Gum King In America’ by none other than William Wrigley, Jr. In 1933, the Goudey Gum Company brought out the very first baseball card set with a stick of gum included in every pack. This set produced one of the greatest baseball cards of all-time,  #106 Napoleon Lajoie. It actually wasn’t in the original set but was a premium that you had to get through the mail after the season. This 240 card set is considered one of the Big Three in the history of baseball cards along with the famed T206 (Honus Wagner card) and the 1952 set (Mickey Mantle’s famed #311).

So who was honored as the #1 card on arguably the #1 set in modern baseball? It as a basketball and baseball star, Benny Bengough of the St. Louis Browns. Benny Bengough? St. Louis Browns? Born in Niagara Falls, NY, Bengough attended Niagara University. In 1923 he joined the New York Yankees and played with them in three World Series before Bill Dickey joined the team. Benny was released in 1930 and joined the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association (Triple A franchise of the Boston Braves). In 1931, he was bought by the St. Louis Browns and played with them until his last major league game on September 24, 1932. He batted .252 in his Big League career and did not hit a single home run. So why was Benny Bengough of the St. Louis Browns the #1 card on the #1baseball card set in modern baseball?

He was one of Babe Ruth’s best friends on and off the field. One of the best defensive catchers in the game, he had a fielding percentage of .988 for his career 10 points above the average catcher in that era. But it was his friendship with one of the games greets players…the man who brought baseball out of the darkest period in its existence, the Black Sox scandal of 1919.

Benny Bengough. #1 at Goudey, the first of baseball cards in the modern era.

Play Ball!

New Orphans Plotting At The Wrig

The first memory of the game, like many before and after, was with my Grandfather. A fervent baseball fan, he would be in the living room, sitting in his favorite corner chair (the ‘easy’ chair) where the game would be on the radio with Bert Wilson calling the action. He would always say, “I don’t care who wins, as long as it’s the Cubs!”. They were the first major league club I ever saw in an exhibition game against the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association.

What happened this past week was a milestone of sorts. Those loveable Cubs were not in the basement of the Central Division of the National League. What in Clark & Addison is happening?

For as long as one can remember, the one word you could use with the Chicago Cubs was ‘hope’. When Jack Brickhouse (‘Hey-hey!”) was calling the play-by-play, ‘hope’ was in the form of Dee Fondy or Ernie Banks (reminded me of legendary Crusader shortstop, Lenny); Phil Cavaretta or Stan Hack on WGN. Hack was my Grandfather’s favorite player. No wonder. He was a .301 career hitter. When it was Vince Lloyd calling the play-by-play (Holy mackerel!”) or ‘Harry’ in the booth, (“It might be…it could be…it is!”), ‘hope’ was Santo or Gracie; Ferguson or Sarge. Problem was…all of these teams rarely finished above level…above .500 for the season.

There were a few Cub teams that finished above .500, but in the 21st Century, the beloved Cubbies have only been above .500 for a season 6 times, including the heartbreaking 2003 season (we simply will not mention the guy’s name and you know who we are talking about). In the 1990s, there were only two seasons when they finished above level. Same with he ’80s; three times in the ’70s; four times in the 60; none in the ’50s and only twice in the ’40s in which they were in their last World Series. Since 1937, when Bill Veeck planted the ivy that grace the outfield walls of the ‘Friendly Confines’, the Chicago Cubs finished above .500 only 21 times in 76 YEARS. That brings a whole new meaning for the word  ‘hope’.

This is a team that is celebrating their 137th year in the National League this season. The National League of Professional Baseball was formed with an eight-team circuit consisting of the Boston Red Stockings (now Atlanta Braves), Chicago White Stockings (now the Cubs and starring A. G. Spalding, the sporting goods king), Cincinnati Red Legs (expelled after the 1880 season for marketing beer at their games and for playing on Sundays were reformed in 1881 and are today the Reds), Hartford Dark Blues (disbanded in 1878 due to one of the first gambling scandals in the game), Louisville Grays (disbanded in 1878), Philadelphia Athletics (expelled after 1876), Mutual of New York (expelled after 1776 season) and St. Louis Brown Stockings (folded after 1877).

There were great teams along the way. After the 1902 season, a group of young kids named Tinker, Evers and Chance gave the Chicago Daily News the distinction of renaming the team The Orphans. This band of superb players were legendary. In 1906 they won 116 games and lost to the rival White Sox in the World Series but won the World Series in 1907 (110 wins); in 1908 and 1910 (104 wins). They were no longer orphans but baby bruins and renamed the Cubs.

These beloved Cubs were last in a World Series in 1945. Who can forget ‘Curse of Bill “The Goat” Sianis’, with aging pitching star Lon Warneke; Hank Wyse who had a 22-10 record that season; Phil Cavarretta at 1st with a .355 BA; Stan Hack at 3rd with a .323 BA; Peanuts Lowrey with a .283 BA; Andy Pafko with a .298 BA, all of whom where managed by the legendary Charlie Grimm.

That was then.

Today it is up to a group of New Orphans named Rizzo, Castro, Wood, Samardzija, Valbuena, Feldman and Castillo. Led by Dale Sveum on the field and Theo Epstein in the front office,  for a brief moment this past week the New Orphans were born. They were not in the basement of the Central Division.

Never being sure of what a season will bring, ‘hope’ this year may be more than a reminder of the past. Three wins in a row will do that. As of this Sunday morning, they are NOT in the basement.

Play Ball!