In the summer of 1974 or '75--no one's quite sure of the exact year--Jon Seidman organized a softball game at Bent Park, in the northwest corner of Evanston. He'd come home from college for the summer and was looking for something to do on a Saturday afternoon. He called friends and friends of friends, and soon had enough guys to play.
They came back the next Saturday and the next. They played the following summer too, though they moved the game across town to Boltwood Park (now known as Crown Park), at the corner of Main and Dodge. One summer followed another, and almost 30 years later Seidman's friends are still playing softball, or football, on Saturday. "Yes, that's right--every Saturday, rain or shine," Seidman said in early October. "Even if there's a friggin' ice storm, I guarantee you someone will show up."
Many organized recreational leagues in and around Chicago have been going strong for years. But none of Seidman's friends know of another unofficial game--without rosters, uniforms, or referees--that's survived three decades. "They ought to give us a trophy for longevity," said Seidman. "A lot of the players are the same ones who started way back when."
Seidman wasn't sure why the games had lasted so long, though he figured it had something to do with the nature of the players. None of them was a star--few, if any, were fast or strong or coordinated enough to make their high school teams. Saturday afternoon was their shot at glory. "We're not great softball players, but we're good enough," says Bob Ruschman, a regular since sometime in the early 80s. "We play slow-pitch but without a high arc--just lob it in and take your swings."
Paul Thompson, another mainstay, says, "I came to Chicago from Oklahoma in about 1970 or 1971, and not long after that I met Jon. I was working at the warehouse at the old Northwestern University Press. Jon's mom was an editor there, and she got him a job for the summer. He told me about the game. We just started playing, and we never stopped."
Among the longtime regulars are John Jurney, Jerry Lange, Carl Olson, Wally Polinski, John Roegge, Bob Seifert, and Gabor Ujvary, as well as the brothers Joe and John Van Duzer and Mike, Rob, and Steve Cichowicz. "My wife and I had opened an interior design business, and we were doing a lot of work with Rob Cichowicz, who was working at a paint supply store in Wilmette," says Ruschman. "Rob and I started talking, and I mentioned that I really wanted to play. He said, 'Why don't you come out to our Saturday game?'"
Ruschman figures that over the years many dozens of players have been part of the game. "It's the kind of thing where a guy brings a friend, and then the friend stays after the guy who brought him has left," he says. "Then ten years pass, and the original guy shows up again, out of nowhere. The game's an institution. People know it's there." The games have never gone coed, and the guys don't bring their kids.
By the early 80s most of the players wanted to play something after the cold weather pushed them off the diamond, so they started a two-hand-touch football game. "We play one thing or the other year-round, no matter how cold it gets," says Rob Cichowicz. "The thing is that not all of the guys who play softball play football, and not all of the guys who play football play softball. There's always this debate at that ambiguous part of the year where we aren't quite sure if it's cold enough to officially switch sports. So we have a vote. I'm not making this up. The guys who lose are disappointed. But democracy rules."
There were always routines. Guys started showing up around 1 PM to stretch. Then two captains, usually Seidman and Thompson, picked teams. "In football there's not really much downtime to talk," says Cichowicz. "But in softball there's a lot of time to sit on the bench between at bats and just shoot the breeze. We'd talk about movies or sports, or you'd make fun of the guy who just batted. Guys don't talk about their jobs too much. I mean, it's a real mix of humanity. You've got blue-collar and white-collar. No one cares. I don't even know what most people do for a living."
If the group had a leader, it was Seidman. He was scrappy, quick, and coordinated. He played second or short, scooping up most grounders that came his way. At the plate he crouched low, slashing shots along the foul lines. "Jon always kept us loose," says Ruschman. "He was such a wise guy with his dry, sarcastic sense of humor. If you missed really bad he'd say something like, 'Nice swing--you must have practiced it.' He policed the games. He settled the disputes. A couple of the guys have been known to have tempers. All right, Thompson and I have had our share of arguments. But Jon was always the one who stepped in and said, 'Hey, take it easy,' or, 'Let it go.'"
Seidman--who married his college sweetheart, Amy, had two daughters, and bought a house in northwest Evanston--worked as a business consultant. His assignments frequently took him on the road, but he rarely missed a game.
"Our attitude is, come Saturday we're at the game," says Ruschman. "I can't really explain it. It's just something we can't miss. I remember after one game Jon had this sheepish look on his face, and he was talking really low, saying, 'I'm sorry, but I can't make it next week. I have to be involved with Indian Princess with Nora.' That's this thing where dads and their daughters camp out. We got a big laugh out of that. I said, 'Jon, I'd take a bullet for my kids. But I don't think I'd miss Saturday softball for them.'"
By now most of the players are either pushing or past 50. Their hair has thinned, turned gray, or fallen out. Some limp about with banged-up knees or aching ankles. Yet few thought about the games ending, until one day almost two years ago, when Seidman learned he had pancreatic cancer. "By the time they had diagnosed it the cancer had spread to the liver," says Thompson. "They did some minor treatment, trying to retard the growth."
Seidman lived with the cancer as it slowly spread to other parts of his body. "He hardly missed any games," says Cichowicz. "At first it was a little uncomfortable--guys didn't know what to say. But Jon put us at ease. He never complained. He was just so humble, so selfless. He never talked about his problems. At the end his skin was yellow from the jaundice, but he never gave up. He went five for five in the last game he played. And I'm talking clean singles too--we weren't giving him anything."
Seidman played into August of this year, then had to stop. He made one last appearance in early September. "He was pretty sick then, very thin, and he only came to watch," says Ruschman. "He brought his dog, and he sat on the sidelines in this big foldout chair, and he threw out those classic-Jon derogatory comments about how we were playing. Saying something like, 'It's amazing that I'd be associated with people with so little talent.' Everybody was laughing, but it was hard not to cry."
Ruschman last saw Seidman about three weeks ago. "I went to his house for a visit, but it was kind of a monumental effort on his part to recognize who I was. I said, 'I'm already missing you, Jon. I don't know what we're going to do without you on Saturdays. I don't know who's gonna keep me and Thompson from killing each other.' When I said that, his face sort of lit up, and he gave me a great smile of recognition. Then he just faded away. He was there, but he wasn't there."
Seidman died on Sunday, October 27. His funeral was held at Beth Emet Synagogue in Evanston. More than 200 people attended, including about 20 of his Saturday friends. Among the five eulogists was Thompson. "I met Jonny 30 years ago, when he was 17," he said. "We were a strange match. He was a high school kid from Evanston, and I was a hippie from Oklahoma. When he played softball everyone wanted to be on Jon's team--he made you want to be his teammate. He'd get a big kick out of seeing all of his teammates sitting here in their ties and nice suits."
After the burial Seidman's teammates joined the other mourners at Amy Seidman's house, where they reminisced about countless games on countless Saturdays. They recalled Jon's batting stance--"butt way out"--and how he wiggled the bat before he swung. How he ran with a quick little step. How he flipped the football when he threw. How his endless wisecracks broke up their fights.
And they vowed to continue the Saturday games. "The games were Jon's creation--he's the one who started them. He's the one who brought us together," says Ruschman. "We're going to continue to play because, well, what else would we do?"
On November 2, three days after Seidman's funeral, they returned to the park to play football. It was a crisp autumn day, and they met on the soccer field in their ratty sweats and tattered T-shirts.
Before the game started Rob Cichowicz gathered them for a moment of silence. For a few seconds they stood in a circle, their heads down. The only sounds were the shrieks of children scampering along a nearby hill. Then they looked up, clapped their hands, and ran onto the field.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph, courtesy Amy Seidman.