In the days before Michael Jordan, the kids around Cabrini-Green played a lot more baseball. Lou Carter, who grew up there in the 70s, was one of those kids. "I didn't play basketball until the seventh grade," he says. "Believe it or not, baseball was king." Then baseball got pushed aside, and basketball became the year-round rage.
Carter's trying to change that. He and other coaches in the local youth-baseball league are trying to promote the new $1-million baseball park that the New City YMCA is building on a field on Clybourn near Halsted and North--the community's first. Sammy Sosa Field will be a state-of-the-art facility with dugouts, home-run fences, and bleachers. "I think it's going to have a big impact on turning kids on to baseball," says Carter, who coaches a team in the Near North Little League. "This could revive the game."
Carter doesn't understand why a game as great as baseball needs reviving. "Don't get me wrong," he says. "I love basketball--I coach it too. But come on, you know how great baseball is. These kids today just don't understand." Realizing that he sounds like an old-timer romanticizing the good old days, he says insistently, "It was better back then. We didn't just play one sport. We played them all--football, baseball, even hockey. That's right. Over on the Hudson playground we would get a hose and pour some water over the basketball court. We'd get some skates from Seward Park--no one had money to buy them--and we taught ourselves how to skate. We'd pretend we were Bobby Hull."
But Carter's favorite sport by far was baseball. "I think it was just around more back then, what with the Cubs being the only thing on TV," he says. "Actually my grandmother turned me on to baseball--she watched it every day she could. Once I was into it I was into it big-time. Like all the kids. We played baseball from sunup to sundown. We played 'strike 'em out.' That's how we learned to pitch and hit. Today kids call it 'fast pitch.' All you need is a batter, a pitcher, a rubber ball, and a bat. You just paint a strike zone on the wall and play."
Finding a wall wasn't difficult, he says. "We couldn't afford to be particular, now--any wall would do. There was this little old lot, couldn't be bigger than 40 feet long. It was a pit near the row houses off of Chicago Avenue and Cambridge. There was a wall there, and that's where we played strike 'em out. Of course, every now and then someone broke a window. Man, we'd run like crazy, but it didn't do us no good. All the mothers knew where we stayed. They'd track us down and say, 'Boy, didn't I tell you about throwing that ball? You're gonna pay for that window.'"
By the time he was ten, Carter was one of dozens of local kids playing in the Near North Little League. "We played in the parks--Seward Park--or at the Boys and Girls Club, or at the community center. Wherever there was a diamond. They mostly divided us up by where we stayed. So kids from the low-rise town houses tended to play on their own teams, and kids from the white high-rises played on their own teams, and kids from the red high-rises had their own. There were also teams from the Town and Garden complex, just to the north of Cabrini at Sedgwick and Evergreen.
"Most of the coaches were men who lived in the community," says Carter. "I didn't know much about them. To this day, I still don't know their first names. There were men like Mr. Thurgood and Mr. Harvey. I think Mr. Harvey worked for the city. But I don't know. They just showed up with the balls and the bats and the uniforms, and they taught us the fundamentals of the game."
The teams were sponsored by the larger businesses in the area. "Oscar Mayer had the big factory on Sedgwick--they sponsored a bunch of teams. We all had uniforms. I remember the first time we got our uniforms we must have worn them for two days without taking them off. Mr. Thurgood would be telling us, 'Don't be getting that uniform dirty until you have a game.' We'd say, 'Yes, sir,' and take them off. But as soon as he wasn't looking, we put them right back on."
In seventh grade Carter joined the Pirates. "We were good, man, really good," he says. "That was some team. Michael Huff, Aaron Rogers, Dennis Goodwin--that boy could play some infield. Ricky Kenny. A lot of them are still my friends, my lifelong friends."
According to Carter, the Pirates came within a game of winning a regional championship and playing a south-side team at Comiskey Park. But a ball took a fluke hop over Goodwin's mitt, allowing the winning run to score in the bottom of the ninth. "That hurt, man," he says. "Matter of fact, it still hurts."
Carter went on to play baseball at Lincoln Park high school under coach Nate Mason, now the school's principal. After he graduated from Lincoln Park in 1978, his baseball-playing career pretty much ended. He went on to graduate from Northeastern Illinois University and eventually found work as an aide to Secretary of State Jesse White.
Baseball continued to flourish on the near north side well into the 80s, thanks in part to Jay McMullen, the husband of former mayor Jane Byrne. He built a baseball field, named for local politician Bud Carson, in the vacant lot just west of the el at Division and Sedgwick.
But by the late 1980s the field was full of weeds and garbage, and the league was tottering. It was around then that Carter began working with several other local activists and coaches--including Al Carter, Bill Seitz, and Andrew Jones--to bring back the Little League. But they had to deal with changes in the neighborhood that were far beyond anything they could have imagined. Many of the major employers, such as Oscar Mayer, had closed, selling their land for development. Well-to-do whites were buying property from working-class blacks, and in 1991 the city embarked on an ambitious plan to tear down Cabrini's high-rises and replace them with mixed-income communities.
Ten years later several of the high-rises are gone. But the mixed-income communities still haven't been built, and it's hard to find a field for baseball. Carson Field was demolished to make way for town houses, so for the last few years the Little League has been playing on the diamond of a local grammar school or at Jones high school. Now the city intends to demolish Jones and let it be replaced with yet another town-house complex.
Fortunately the New City Y is giving local kids, including girls' and boys' softball teams, a permanent place to play. Financed largely with money donated by the Cubs, the new field should be completed by August.
Yet Carter says it will take more than a nice new field to recharge the lure of baseball. "Let's face it," he says, "all the kids are just intoxicated with basketball. I think a lot of it has to do with the glamour of Jordan and the success of the Bulls. Everybody's always talking about basketball, basketball, basketball. You see the stars on TV advertising the shoes. It turns kids' heads. I had a kid play for me a few years ago--he had a million-dollar arm, a southpaw. I thought he had a chance to play in the majors. But guess what? He went off to high school and didn't even play. Went out for basketball, and that was that."
Carter also says, "We live in an electronic age--kids are playing video games all the time. They want instant gratification." Baseball is slower. It requires patience. "You have to stay on your toes," he says. "You may have to wait five minutes before the ball comes your way. But you'd better be ready, because you'll have half a second to react. But a lot of kids are thinking, 'This is boring. I want some action.' See, a lot of it is ignorance. These kids just never learned how to play and appreciate the game. Then again, you got some kids who say it's boring when really they won't play 'cause they're scared. They might have been hit with the ball when they were little, and now you can't get them back. They're not afraid to drive the middle of the lane, but they won't go near a baseball."
During practice Carter and his assistant coach, Frankie Jackson, endlessly preach the need to be fearless. "We tell the kids to use your mitt--that's what the gloves are for," says Jackson, who also grew up in the area during the 70s. "Once you see that the ball doesn't hurt when you catch it in the glove you won't be scared anymore. It's basic baseball--stuff coaches used to teach us."
On a recent Saturday a dozen or so of Carter and Jackson's players gathered for practice at Franklin elementary school, on Wells at Evergreen. It could have been a scene out of the 70s: a hodgepodge of kids swatting at balls. With one big exception--one of the kids was white.
"With all the development around here it was bound to happen," says Carter. "We had a father come up to us. He said he'd just moved into one of the town houses, and his son had been watching us play, and he loved baseball and all, and, well, can he play? I said, 'Of course.'"
The team fielded grounders and worked on cutoff throws. Then the heavy rain came, and they headed over to Seward Park to get an early start on the birthday party Carter was throwing for Desmond and Dominique, his twin ten-year-old sons. And there in the confines of the old Seward field house the kids played--what else?--basketball. Or their own high-octane version of basketball, which consisted mostly of kids piling on top of whoever happened to have the ball. "This is something, but I know what it's not," said Carter as he pulled apart one pileup. "It's not basketball."
After a while Carter gave up refereeing the game and retired to the sidelines with the other parents, including his old friends Kenny and Goodwin. Carter started teasing Goodwin about that ground ball. "That wasn't no freak hop," he said, as Kenny nodded his head. "It went right through the man's legs--cost us the championship."
Goodwin shook his head. "It hit a pebble, man," he said. "Took a freak hop."
Carter and Kenny still live in the area, but Goodwin now lives on the south side. "I still come by all the time," he said. "I saw that billboard of the new field they're building at the Y. That would have been something to play on. Better late than never, but you know, I wish they'd had it back in the day."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.