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Friends of mine growing up who were Sox fans often had parents and grandparents who emigrated from the South Side. They landed in the leafy environs of Highland Park on the North Shore to flee the burgeoning African-American population brought on by the Great Migration. The White Sox were part of their heritage.
Our family was different since my parents were Cincinnatians who came to the Chicago suburbs in the early '50s because of my dad's job. He rooted for the Reds, the ones who played ball. Being a patriot and a conservative Republican, he did a 180 when it came to the other Reds.
Hailing from Cincinnati, Dad knew little about the American League, which was just one reason why my brother and I should have become Cub fans. Traveling to Wrigley Field, where the Cubs played only in daytime, was a breeze. The North Shore Line, which resembled a streetcar and traveled between Milwaukee and Chicago, stopped in downtown Highland Park, a 10-minute walk from home. We transferred at Howard en route to Addison. The trip took no more than an hour.
Plus, it was safe to go to a Cubs game. Nice neighborhood. Small crowds. Friendly ushers. Ladies Days. Cheap tickets. Only problem was the team. They were god-awful.
The Go-Go Sox were far more appealing. Even to our youthful eyes, we could see that the charismatic Minoso, Fox, Pierce, Aparicio, Lollar and others were genuine professionals. Maybe not the equal of the vaunted (and despised) Yankees, but pretty close to Casey's Yogi, Mickey, and Whitey.
Furthermore, the juxtaposition of the two ballparks couldn't have been more striking. Wrigley's capacity was 37,000 compared to almost 50,000 at Comiskey, with its imposing upper deck covering the entire lower seats except in dead centerfield. The ballpark was majestic and stately while Wrigley, without a roof over most seats, was built for sunbathers, ladies, and kids who sat in the seats while the men were at work.
Wafts of butchered livestock from the Union Stockyards were common in late afternoon at Comiskey, while fans in Wrigley's upper deck - which usually was closed because of paltry crowds - gazed longingly at sailboats on Lake Michigan.
However, the trip from Highland Park to Comiskey was a challenge. The North Shore Line didn't go there. We had to depend on Dad driving us if we wanted to see the Sox play. The journey began on the Edens, which at that time ended at Peterson. (The Kennedy wasn't completed until late 1960, a year before the Dan Ryan.)
Driving east on Peterson to Lake Shore Drive was no picnic, nor was LSD at rush hour if we were going to a night game. By the time we exited at 31st Street, we might have been in the car for two hours. Our father wasn't keen about making the trip, so two or three Sox games a season was the max. However, once my brother, who was two years my senior, and his friends got their driver's licenses, going to Comiskey became a regular occurrence.
Keep in mind that we were coming from Highland Park, physically 30 miles north but a world apart from the neighborhood surrounding the ballpark. I attended a high school of 2,100 students. There may have been one or two black students, but I can't remember any. If there were, they were the children of soldiers stationed at Fort Sheridan in Highwood. Like many of my peers, the only African Americans we had contact with worked in our homes as maids. To say that I was on the receiving end of white privilege is like saying Henry Aaron could hit.
When we pulled off the Drive at 31st, in no way did we acknowledge that the beach to our left was the scene of the stoning death of a black youth in 1919 because he crossed the line segregating black and white swimmers. Violence erupted and within a week 23 African Americans and 15 white people were dead. A thousand black families' homes were burned. Not only did we not recognize this painful time in history, we weren't even aware of it.
But we were cognizant of the fact that driving west toward the ballpark, we were in a black neighborhood. I can't remember for certain, but my guess is that we made sure the windows were rolled up. Did anyone ever threaten or so much as bother us? Never. The fact that the Sox played on the South Side where black people lived dictated that numbers of white folks simply were programmed to the point of staying away. After all, they could always watch the Cubs. Even today, as recently as last season, you can find a conversation on Yelp initiated by, "Is the White Sox Neighborhood Safe?"
The Sox won a pennant in 1959, and Dad in mid-season assured us that we'd go to the World Series if the Sox got there. Today I'm thinking he might have been a closet Yankee fan. More likely, he just never had much confidence that the Sox could overcome the New Yorkers.
As it turned out, Dad didn't have the clout to get Series tickets, so we proposed that brother John, I and a few pals go to Comiskey Park the night before Game 1 and wait in line for bleacher tickets which were going on sale the next morning at 8 a.m. Maybe Dad felt guilty he couldn't produce the goods, so he was more or less a pushover. But our mother was adamant that we couldn't be allowed to spend a night outdoors on the South Side of Chicago.
Lucky for us, she lost the argument, and that didn't happen with regularity. We were among a couple hundred fans on lawn chairs outside the bleacher entrance for the opportunity to pay two dollars to see the Sox and Dodgers tangle. Around midnight we walked across Armour Square Park to visit a hamburger stand. We lived to tell about it. And we repeated the event for Game 6 as Los Angeles closed out the Series.
A few years later, Comiskey Park was the locale for a Motown concert, featuring some of the biggest names in R&B. A couple of carloads of us white kids made the trip. The only other white people we saw that night were Andy Frain ushers, one of whom warned us that we were entering "a Ubangi jungle."
The park was packed by more than 50,000 people, and we walked both the lower and upper decks looking for a seat, of which there were none. I can't say I felt comfortable. I'd like to think that if I had found a seat, I would have stayed. No one made an issue of our presence. No one, aside from the guy at the turnstile, so much as questioned why we were there or confronted us in any way.
By comparison, let's say an African American at that time had decided to attend a Kingston Trio or Simon and Garfunkel concert. Would he or she have been in any danger of harassment or worse?
Years later when Comiskey was scheduled for demolition to make way for the new stadium, we parked our car at Mr. Brown's house. He lived approximately where left centerfield is located at The Grate today. Mr. Brown had room for about 10 cars in his yard, and we often parked there. He was a gentlemanly, sweet man, and Sunday was special because Mr. Brown had a 55-gallon drum that he built into a smoker. Sunday was his day to slow cook meat.
I don't know what the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority paid Mr. Brown for his property, which was bulldozed to make way for the present ballpark, but I hope it was fair. What I do know is that Mr. Brown had no choice except to move, whether he wanted to or not. I just hope he was able to take that smoker with him.
Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of Just Mercy talks about the need for proximity, meaning that people of different races and backgrounds need greater contact with others different than themselves. We tend to stick together with people who look like us, think like us, and experience the world as we do. We need more crossover, according to Stevenson, in order to separate reality from perception.
I think about those days long ago, the trips to the South Side to watch the White Sox play. I suppose that was as much proximity as I would experience as a young person. It wasn't much, but I'm thankful for those memories.
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