I had grown up in Wrigley Ville as it was referred to by the locals. My family and I lived in Waveland, just across from the ballpark itself. I loved sports, but baseball was my passion, and living in this area only fueled my love of the game.
I ran around with a group of boys, mostly good kids. There were a few that had started hanging out with us; they were older and had a rougher attitude. I was only thirteen, one of the youngest in the group, and I was teased by the newer guys when the others weren't looking. I guess I was kind of nerdy looking with my thick eyeglasses, and tightly belted pants. My mom insisted that I wear long pants all the time, and I had to wear a belt to keep them from dragging on the ground. She had always bought our clothes oversized so that we could wear them for a longer time.
It was just before school was ready to start again, that my father got a job transfer to New York City. I was ready to leave because of what had happened earlier in the Summer. It was something that I had tried to put out of my mind, but every so often, as I watched a Cubs game on TV, I thought back to what had happened.
I was turning 57 this year. I had been divorced and had no children. My parents were both deceased now, and I had never spoken to anyone about what had happened. I hadn't been back to Chicago since then, and it was time to put the demons to rest.
I hadn't gone anywhere in years; I had been saving my vacation time for this trip. I didn't know how long it would be before I was able to walk down that street in front of the ball field. I put in for a few weeks and told my boss that I would call him if I needed more time. I told him that there was a personal matter that I needed to resolve without going into any more details.
I looked out over the city of Chicago as the plane circled O'Hare. It had seemed like such a large city to me growing up; that is until I moved to New York. I had booked a room close to the airport and planned on taking the train into the city from there. I was as close as I wanted to be in proximity to that stadium. Getting a train schedule and buying a CTA pass were the first things that I did. I had to start slowly. I couldn't rush back to my old neighborhood yet.
My first day, I took the blue line to the loop, pulled out my map and began walking towards the Pier. I remembered how much fun I had had there as a kid with my family. Starting off this trip with happier memories was probably the best plan. Having used the buses and subways in New York, I was a pro at this now. I caught a bus that took me right down to where I needed to be.
When I first entered the building, I was almost knocked over by the noise and the smells. Of course, it had changed, but I was astounded by all of the activities going on around me. There had to have been forty or more vendors that sold all different sorts of food. They all appeared to be reasonably priced, and I vowed that I would come back for something after I walked the rest of the pier.
The first few days went on that way. I visited the old sites that I had been to when I was younger. All of them brought back wonderful, bittersweet memories of my family and I. Then I began to dread what I knew was still ahead of me. My trips from the city on the blue line back to my hotel after each day were giving me too much time to think about what was ahead. I knew that I had to visit my old neighborhood soon. I wasn’t enjoying the trip down memory lane anymore.
When I woke that morning, it was to a hot, muggy day. The forecast said there was a chance of rain and rain be welcomed, kind of a cleansing of the soul. I caught the train into town, and from the loop, I caught a bus. I got off as close as I could to Wrigley’s but made sure to give myself plenty of time to walk.
I slowed down when I came to the area now called Boystown. I had heard someone refer to it as such because it was populated with gays. They had jokingly said to me as I got off to watch my backside. It wasn’t my backside I was worried about, but my peace of mind as I got nearer to my old apartment.
I could see the stadium just up ahead of me. Soon, my old apartment building would come into view as well. It was the street running the other direction from Waveland, Sheffield Ave. was causing my stomach to knot up. I still wasn’t ready to turn right on the street. I would turn left, then circle that dreaded corner from another direction.
When I neared my old home and saw what everyone had told me about. In Chicago, the airspace above many of the buildings was purchased by businesses. The rooftop, where I had once been able to watch the Cubs play ball, had now been converted into bleachers. There was no more free viewing of the greatest game on Earth. Sad that it had come to this.
I reached the corner and diverted my head from looking to the right. I immediately turned left and walked parallel with the train that shook the ground below as continued to the next stop. There was a ballgame today, and I could see stragglers still trying to reach the stadium. It was incredible how intricately the city transit kept this area moving. Like New York, there wasn’t a great need for owning a car at all. Everything could easily be reached by bus or train.
I turned right at the next intersection. I would make my way down this street then turn on the corner that would bring me back to Sheffield. I glanced across the street and was surprised to see the old Soda shop that we had hung out in was still there. The Cubby Chill looked to be thriving and was packed at the moment. The muggy air kept them busy back in the day, and every time there was a game, it was a great place for the families to go.
There was the hole in the wall that my dad used to frequent. The Cub Hole had been his favorite place to pass out. I remember my mom grabbing my older brother after getting the call from the owner almost nightly, to come and take him home. I swore that I would never drink after seeing their arguments afterward. Unfortunately, what I had witnessed had driven me to drink, almost killed me at a point after a binge. I stopped drinking when I woke up in the hospital.
The area would be crawling with people after the game today, and I needed to finish what I had set off here to do. I approached the corner, and I felt my hands clench at my side. I turned right, and there it was, the entrance to Charlie’s. I walked up to the door, and I couldn’t stop myself from crying out! “God No!”
The door was boarded shut, and the windows were as well. I could see a little piece of the glass peeking through at the very top of the building near the roof. The sign across the door read ‘For Sale.’ It couldn’t have been closed all this time, could it? I sat down on the ground and let the memories come flooding back.
It had been early August, a day very similar to this one. Our group always gathered before a game to strategize about getting the foul balls. We called ourselves the Clubdogs, and other groups were after the same thing that we were. In the area, we were all referred to as ball hounds. If we were able to get a foul ball during a game, then we would wait by the door where the players left to get it signed. Most of the players loved to sign a souvenier ball for us, and some didn’t.
Most of my group had a ball already, but I didn’t. Today was going to be my day to get that signed ball. I was stoked. Even the newest members of our group swore they would help me out. Today they were playing the Cardinals, and the ultimate goal of all the ball hounds was to get a ball with both of the teams’ signatures on it.
We waited in front of the stadium for everyone to arrive, the rougher bunch showed up, and the leader of our group Kevin swore at them. “What the F, David, you are going to get us all in trouble. You smell like alcohol!”
The grungiest and biggest of the group stepped up and got right into Kevin’s face, “What of it? Any of you pussies want to leave, go ahead. Otherwise, shut up and get the F..k out of my face!” They stood nose to nose like that for a few moments, then Kevin motioned for everyone to gather by the nearest garbage can to talk. We needed to be away from the other ball hounds so they couldn’t hear us talking.
We all gathered around our leader, and I could see that David’s bunch had pulled out some bottles that were being passed around. One of the bottles got to me, and I smelled it. I quickly passed it to someone next to me. There was no way I was going to go back home smelling like that, not after what my dad put my mom through. I noticed that quite a few of the others were drinking from the bottles. I didn’t like the way they started acting.
Kevin approached Tommy and me and told us to stay away from Kevin. We were the youngest in the group, and I knew he was worried about the drinking that was going on.
We were all going to spread out on each side of the ballpark. As soon as someone yelled foul, whoever spotted the ball first was to call out to the others the direction to converge. It sounded like a great plan, except for the fact that the others were still drinking, and as soon as they went running for a ball, they would jump for whoever was nearby, and I could see the punches fly if it was another ball hound group. I was getting nervous; Kevin was trying to stop a few of our members from fighting with another group. Then I saw it coming over the wall — the most beautiful sight I had ever seen.
It looked like it was coming right at me. I got my glove ready, and I yelled out loud, “It’s coming straight for me!” I saw it now in my mind, the ball coming closer, and closer, then it went right over my head and crashed through the window of Charlie’s store.
The breaking of the glass stopped everyone from fighting. I saw David push someone down, and then he motioned for the rest of our group to follow him. In a daze, I stood there watching what was happening. I was finally going to get a ball!
I ran after Tommy into Charlie’s, and the first thing I did was starting searching the floor for the ball. How I missed what was going on in the corner, I will never know. I saw Kevin walking towards Tommy and me with such a look of horror on his face. “Get out of here now!” I heard screaming, and I pushed around Kevin to make my way past him.
I saw David and his bunch kicking and punching someone on the ground. Then I watched as a frail old hand fell to the floor, and watched a bloodied baseball roll across the room toward me. I watched that ball as it moved slowly – like a nightmare. The sounds of screaming had stopped, but I still could hear the sounds of bone hitting against flesh.
Kevin turned and grabbed me and took Tommy and me outside. He ran down the block pulling us both. When we were far enough away from the horror that was going on inside of that store, he dropped onto his knees in front of us. He was crying, and I couldn’t understand what he was saying at first. We were all in shock!
“You boys need to listen to me. I want you to both go home now! Don’t say a word to anyone about this, do you understand? Not a word! If you do, you will both go to prison. Now promise me,” he stood up. “promise me!” I watched him run his hands over his face and through his hair.
Tommy and I both squeaked out, “I promise!” I ran home and up the three flights of stairs as fast as I could. What had just happened? Did they kill him; did they kill Charlie? I ran into my apartment and headed for my room. I needed to calm down before my mother saw me. I couldn’t go to prison.
A few days later, my dad came home from work. I hadn’t left my room in days, and I told my mom I needed to catch up on my reading. I listened at my door as soon as my dad started talking. I had been waiting for some news about what had happened to Charlie. I hoped that he was still alive, but I was afraid he wasn’t. I think he was about seventy, and I don’t know how anyone could have survived what I had seen.
I heard him say something about gangs and a robbery. Then I heard him say, “Poor old Charlie died later that night. He had gone through quite a beating. They are still trying to find everyone who was involved.”
Then my mom spoke, “Poor old man, hush I don’t want Charlie to hear about it.” I cried myself to sleep that night, and I never spoke to anyone about what had happened that day.
It was such a relief when we had to move away from here. I finished thinking about the whole horrible event. I realized that tears were running down my face. I got to my feet; it was time to go back home to my life in New York. There was nothing I could do about that day, but maybe the dreams wouldn’t haunt me anymore. I had blamed myself all this time because it had been ‘my ball’ that they had been going after. The fact was that they weren’t after a ball at all; they were looking for an excuse to be the thugs that they were, and the alcohol had fueled their stupidity.
I stood there for a moment and looked around. I noticed a group of ball hounds just across the street by the main entrance into Wrigley’s field. Then I heard someone yell foul ball. I looked up and watched that ball headed straight for me. It was like a bad dream all over again. Then I heard the crashing of glass and looked up to see the ball smash through that small piece of window near the roof.