I was nine years old, living on the South Side, near 87th and Jeffrey. There was a park, 2 blocks square, just across the street from the Chicago Vocational School.
It had two large areas that were somewhat like little league fields. No back stop. No bases, no pitcher’s mound – just a sandlot. This park used to be a prairie, with tall grasses, wetlands, frogs, small snakes, etc.
The Chicago Park District made it a real park, with grass, playgrounds, and open fields. They flooded two corners of the park in the winter time, letting out water from the fire hydrants. This is where we used to ice skate.
By the time I was 9 years old, I was a true ‘tomboy’: The only girl who could play baseball every day or night in pick-up games. How did this happen?
When I was 5 yrs. Old, my brother put a mitt in my hand and said ‘ you’re going to learn how to play baseball.” And I did. I threw like a boy. I ran bases like a boy. I stole 2nd like a boy, sliding under the tag. I was always one of the first kids to be picked, and played SS, 3B, or 2B. And sometimes, even relief pitcher.
At nine years old, there was a field house built in the center of the park. The person managing the field house, gave out bats, balls, and what have yous. There were lots of ins and outs when it came to what equipment was still there, by the time some boys and myself wanted some equipment.
But most of the time, whoever showed up would bring their mitt, and others would bring bats, balls, and just play the usual pick-up games. With real –sized Little League baseballs.
No one could afford to go to any organized day camps. We just played when we could. My girlfriends did their own thing, but I always wound up at the park. Some days I would just sit shot-gun in father’s cab, and not play till we got home. These were the days that my Mom just couldn’t handle my energy. Unlike my older sister, who was the perfect “mother’s daughter,” I was just totally different – something my Dad and older bother saw in me.
How did I learn how to play, beside playing catch with my brother? Well, here it goes – finding out how old I am. I watched Luis Aparicio (SS), Nellie Fox (2B) ,and Bubba Phillips (3B) play White Sox games on Sunday double-headers with my Dad. He’d sit me down and make salami on rye sandwiches for us. And we’d watch both games.
I was 9 years old. Running around with my pig-tails, always flapping in the wind, under my White Sox baseball hat.
One day the boys came up to me and said I should play in the Little League games and join their 6 week team. So I went to the game with them, and sat in the stands.
I saw the head of the league a few rows down, and went up to him. Between an inning, I’d ask him if I could play with the boys on a team. He was aghast. He looked down at this little girl, with a Sox cap and mitt in her hand, and told me directly, “Girls don’t play baseball. They cook and sew and clean house. But if you want, you can become a “Little Leaguerette.”
I asked him what that was. He said it was made up of all the sisters of the boys, and they collected money in the stands and did bake sales, to raise money for the Little League.
I was devastated. Here I was, always chosen to play SS, 3B, or 2B in the pick up games, because I could REALLY play. But the Commissioner had never seen me play. So I ran home. No way was I going to collect money for the boys. I could play, period. It was not fair, I told myself.
It was then that I had actually had my first “sexist experience” in life. But I didn’t know what it was called. I just cried. I ran home . My sister asked me what happened, and I told her the whole story.
And she hugged me – and told me not to listen to this guy – and just go out and play ball with the other boys at night, or during the day – like I always did. Later that day, my mom, dad, and brother found out, and somehow knew there was nothing that could be done. Rules were rules.
So I just kept playing with the other boys in the sandlot/ park, and worked even harder to steal bases like Little Louie and slide under the tag. I was fast, and was always put in the lead-off spot. I could really hit too, which all the boys knew.
Even though it was past the actual summer time, school started in September, and the pennant race was heating up. The Cleveland Indians and the New York Yankees were competing with the White Sox for the American League pennant race. This was when there were only 8 teams in each league: The American and National Leagues. Sixteen teams.
Even though only boys were allowed to play in the organized Little League, I just seemed to brush it off. The boys knew how I played. And my we batted around till the fireflies were lighting the field, past sunset.
And one Sunday, with my whole family in front of the TV, in September, we watched the double-header with Cleveland, when the Sox won the pennant. My parents ran off to Midway, where the Sox were going to land. And late into the night, my parents got the signatures of White Sox players, climbing over the fence to greet the players as they got off the plane.
Unbeknownst to many Chicagoans, Mayor Daley rang the sirens throughout the city, when the Sox won. And some people thought WWIII had started, which was during the Cold War era. It was a crazy time – and I was just so happy to be part of that whole experience.
I went to bed with my mitt under my pillow. To hell with that guy from the Little League, who wouldn’t let me play, because I was a girl. The White Sox had won the pennant, and that summer was the best one, playing baseball, like the American League champs.