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"It was the mecca of stadiums," said my boyhood friend Tim Russell.
No, he wasn't talking about the original Yankee Stadium or even old Comiskey. We were talking about Thillens Stadium at the corner of Devon and Kedzie, where the landmark baseball sign was recently removed.
As documented in the local media, the Thillens family, which gave up operation of the facility to the Park District eight years ago, severed all connection to the park when the rusting sign disappeared from the corner.
Apparently the Thillenses - they're the guys with the armored trucks who compete with Brinks to ferry cash from here to who knows where - have been annoyed because of the deteriorating condition of the hallowed ground bearing their name.
Unlike my pal Tim, I never played at Thillens, but I saw a number of Little League games there in the 1950s. And I never had to leave home to do it because WGN carried live Monday night telecasts of the games with none other than Hall of Fame broadcaster Jack Brickhouse describing the action.
Maybe "action" is a mistaken term since my recollection is that most hitters either struck out or walked with a few hits sprinkled in between.
"It was a very exciting place to cover games and watch games," said Jack Rosenberg, WGN's sports editor from 1954 to 1994, when I phoned him. But televise Little League baseball? Who would possibly watch that?
"In those days we were willing to try anything because when I came to work up here in 1954 a lot of people still did not have television sets, so obviously there was no color, no videotape, no nothing," said Rosenberg. "It was a different day and age where we were willing to try anything and a lot of it worked. Some of it did not. But that's OK. We went back and tried again. And by the time I left 45 years later, we were all over the world."
My memories of those telecasts were of Brickhouse putting as much expertise and enthusiasm into a game of 10- and 11-year-olds as he did calling another Ernie Banks' round-tripper.
Imagine if the bosses today assigned Hawk Harrelson or Steve Stone to call a Little League game in a North Side neighborhood.
On second thought, they might see better baseball than is being played at either big league park in Chicago this summer.
"We thought nothing of that," said Rosenberg. "Why did Jack and I go to LaGrange every year and do the LaGrange Pet Parade? I still recall we were going to try to have President Kennedy on the Leadoff Man [the Cubs' pre-game show]. People said you've got to be kidding. But we did it. Years later Jack and I went to the White House to interview President Reagan. Here again no one thought this was doable. President Reagan, of course, had broadcast Cubs baseball as a young man in Des Moines, Iowa, on Western Union ticker tape. It was fantastic to be a part of it."
Probably the most notable accomplishment of televising Little League from Thillens - aside from actually doing it with a Hall of Fame broadcaster - was the advent of the center-field camera.
"A number of people had a hand in that," recalled Rosenberg, adding that no one individual can be credited with the idea. "I was not one of them. I was not on the technical side. It turned out to be something that is still used today."
In the '50s Thillens had a house league with six or eight teams complete with replica major league uniforms. These were the games that appeared on TV. In addition, there was a travel team of the best players.
My pal Tim, who grew up in Highwood, which also boasted a vigorous youth program created by iconic recreation director Don Skrinar, played in 64-team, end-of-the-year tournaments at Thillens featuring the top Little League teams in the area.
"The stadium itself I can remember certainly," Russell told me. "But I can remember more about some of the players that played on those teams. They had real authentic major league uniforms, [which were] quite amazing to see, and they were so good - the best players in the city."
Skrinar, a premier promoter credited with the invention of Little Guys basketball for kids under 5 feet, invited teams from Thillens to Highwood, no doubt expecting reciprocal invitations to play at Kedzie and Devon.
"Skrinar gets this idea to bring them up to Highwood on Friday nights against our All-Star team," said Russell. "Not their All-Star team, just one of their teams. The Thillens Cubs were legendary. When they came to Highwood, it was a revelation. They kicked our ass, they were so good."
As were many teams in the tournaments at Thillens in the mid-50s.
"We went up against this kid from Villa Park," Russell said. "We're on our way down there, and I'm crying about this kid because he throws so hard. He beat us 1-0. Skrinar had everybody bunt. Sometimes he told us to bat lefty and don't swing.
"The next year we're in the semi-finals, and here comes another kid from Arlington Heights. The kid threw bullets. We lost again 1-0."
Although almost 60 years have passed, the memories of specific players remain alive for Tim.
"The superior players wanted to play at Thillens," he said. "That was the place to play. Jim Woods played there and later played at Lane Tech. He went on to play third base for the Phillies."
Actually Woods signed with the Cubs before making brief appearances in 1960-61 for Philadelphia. Another Thillens product signed by the Cubs was Chris Barkulis who never made it to the majors but played six seasons in the team's minor league system. My friend Tim played in the City-Suburban All-Star game staged every year alternating between Wrigley and Comiskey featuring the area's best high school players.
"Barkulis hit one off the wall at Wrigley in that game in 1960," he said.
Then there was a Little Leaguer named Becker. "He was the only kid who had a nickname when he was 11," said Russell. "Shotgun Becker. He used to get his name in the paper a lot. He played for the Thillens Cubs. His real name was Bob."
Years have passed since the glory days of Thillens Stadium. I can't think of a comparable park in the city that does what Thillens did, but the suburbs are filled with facilities that are fancier, more expensive and fully-utilized. There's no reason to travel into the city today to compete on a stage like Thillens.
"It's a great part of our baseball history here in the Chicago area," said Jack Rosenberg.
Of course, he's correct on both counts. The Thillens we knew was a gem. And now it's gone, a piece of history.
1. From Mark Schaeffer:
Sad about Thillens. I played there as a Little Leaguer, and many years later my kids played there as Little Leaguers. It was a special day when your local park league had "Thillens Day'' once every year. You felt as is you were playing in a major league park!
2. From John Powers:
I recently went by Thillens Stadium. Despite the loss of the sign, the stadium looks great, and was being used by young baseball players. The stands were pretty much full.
I don't know how you can write "The Thillens we knew was a gem. And now it's gone, a piece of history." The Thillens sponsorship is long gone, but the Stadium and its baseball operations appear to be doing just fine. If the Thillen family wanted to continue sponsorship, they should get their checkbook out and do just that.
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