Don first showed a propinquity for hitting at an early age. In the summer of1963, when Don was 6 and I was 12, we spent a week at our grandparents’ home in rural Alabama. Every day that week we played endless games of whiffle ball home run derby. Our playing field was a sandy lot with an enormous oak tree in the right field power alley. Since there were no fences in the yard, we simply drew a line in the sand to serve that purpose. The games were always nine innings. For brothers of 6 and 12, the stifling Deep South heat mattered little. After all, there was plenty of cool water or sweet iced tea between the games of a double header.
We played in shorts, shirtless and barefoot. The hot sand and an occasional sandspur never seemed to deter us from that relentless quest to see who could hit more “over the line in the sand” homeruns. Even though I was six years older than my brother and had completed four years of little league, Don always seemed to hold his own. There was already a certain beauty to his left handed swing. It was a swing that would serve him well through little league, high school baseball, where he competed on a state championship team, and later in life on the numerous softball teams for which he played.
Not wanting to take advantage of my little brother’s smaller stature and age, I often batted left handed as well. After watching Don consistently hit long line drive blasts over the line, however, I would sometimes revert back to my normal right handed stance when I fell behind. It really didn’t matter to Don. I’m sure we kept score, but the score was soon forgotten. The togetherness and shared love of baseball were not. We were just brothers enjoying the freedom of summer and baseball. It was a time of peace.
We never really know when a lasting memory is going to be made. Oftentimes we take for granted the simplicity of a summer game, time spent enjoying the company of brother and a sport alike. But those simpler times remain with us. As I walk along the Appalachian Trail in the heat of July, I’m sure that there will be a day when my mind will travel back to south Alabama and a game of homerun derby in the sand. I might even pause for a minute in the middle of the trail, use one of my hiking poles as a bat, and swing at an imaginary whiffle ball thrown from the hand of my brother. I’ll watch the ball soar high toward a distant mountain and see the smile on Don’s face acknowledging the hit and my hike. Then I’ll walk on up the trail toward Don and the next white blaze, moving steadily north to Maine with my brother and all the memories we made and shared together.
As a youngster two of my favorite pastimes were reading and baseball. Often I would combine the two by reading a biography of a famous baseball player. Of all the biographies I read between the ages of 9 and 12, Lou Gehrig’s was my favorite. Even though the Yankees were far from being my favorite team, I admired their present day players of the early 60’s as well as the Hall of Famers from the 30’s and 40’s. And of course, Lou Gehrig was one of those Hall of Famers.
In addition to reading Lou’s biography, I also had seen the old black and white footage of his farewell speech at Yankee stadium on more than one occasion. When Gehrig declared that he felt like he was the “luckiest man on the face of the earth” on that hot July 4th afternoon in 1939, he knew, like my brother Don, that he was going to die from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. It still seems beyond ironic that my baseball loving brother would lose his life to a disease associated with one of the greats of the game.
Even though there were six years difference in our ages, Don and I shared a love of baseball from an early age. At some time after Don had gotten old enough to understand records, we discussed what major league baseball records we felt would never be broken. The four that we concluded were the most solid were Babe Ruth’s 714 career home runs, Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game consecutive hitting streak, Cy Young’s 511 career wins, and Lou Gehrig’s 2130 consecutive game streak. Since Don and I were both huge Braves fans, we celebrated heartily when Henry Aaron hit home run number 715 in April, 1974. I still remember watching the feat on TV with Don and our dad.
After Hammerin’ Hank’s accomplishment, we still believed that the other three records that we had classified as being unbreakable were safe. So on September 6, 1995 when Cal Ripken, Jr. played in his 2131st consecutive game, we both watched in admiration. As he did on so many occasions when something noteworthy happened in the game of baseball, Don called me that night. I remember how both of us recalled our discussions in the past about Lou Gehrig’s record. We were happy for Cal Ripken, Jr., but we just couldn’t help but talk about Lou Gehrig. Despite having played long before either of us was born, Gehrig would always have a place in our baseball memories.
My brother Don really didn’t share much with Lou Gehrig. They did both bat left handed and they both certainly loved baseball. But today, a few months after Don’s death, I can’t help but think about how Don and the baseball great were alike. Neither Lou Gehrig nor Don wanted to die of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. Neither wanted to be deprived of his ability to swing a bat or throw a ball. And certainly neither wanted to leave a family that loved them so much. Lou Gehrig lost his life to ALS at the very young age of 37; my brother Don died of ALS at 55, certainly much too young to die as well. So next spring when the new baseball season begins, I know I’ll smile as I recall fondly the many baseball memories I shared with my brother Don.
Throughout the years I’ve always liked a good adventure. It’s just in the past all my adventures have been much less than five months. In the winter of 1990 I phoned my brother Don one afternoon to discuss my idea for a trip to Chicago that summer. Since both of us had always been avid baseball fans, and since that was the last year for Comiskey Park, I felt we owed it to ourselves to attend a game there before its demolition. And if we were going to Chicago, we might as well see the Cubs at Wrigley as well. As most baseball fans know, however, it’s rare that both the White Sox and Cubs are in town at the same time. So after perusing the schedule for the upcoming season, I determined that there was going to be just such an occurrence in mid-August.
When I called Don that afternoon and told him that I was purchasing tickets for an event six months in the future, I must admit that my brother seemed a bit incredulous. Neither of us was in a position to invest a significant amount of revenue for the venture, so my suggestion that we do the trip in only three days, and drive, was met with a mild degree of skepticism. Still, my brother Don, like myself, liked the idea of the “adventure.”
So on the morning of August 13, 1990, Don and I set off on our Chicago expedition in my 1989 Ford Tempo. This was before GPS’s and MapQuest; therefore, we departed with only the old Rand-McNally road maps in hand. We wouldn’t make our first stop until Kentucky, for gas, and would drive until past midnight and Indianapolis before finding a motel to rest. After a short five hours of sleep, we were on the road again.
Without a hotel reservation and not really knowing the location of Wrigley Field, we decided to take what looked like a desirable exit in midtown Chicago. To our good fortune we were able to locate a Best Western with a parking lot and a James Dean themed McDonald’s right across the street. We easily secured a room for one night (yes just one night, because our plan was to hit the road for home as soon as the Cubs game ended the following day). As I remember, the room was comfortable and cost under $100 for the one night. I also recall Don later writing a letter of complaint concerning the construction work that commenced outside our window at six the next morning.
With check-in complete and several hours before the White Sox night game at Comiskey, we journeyed a couple of blocks to a Hard Rock café for an afternoon meal. En route, Don was approached by one of those sidewalk wholesalers who offered a “great deal” on a Rolex. At times Don loved to feign a sort of “southern ignorance” with vendors of this sort. Today, however, was different. I suppose it might have been that he was just hungry, because Don reframed from any banter as we ambled by.
Shortly after lunch we decided to take the el train for the Southside of Chicago. Arriving well before game time, we rested on a bench in a nearby park, watching neighborhood children playing in a fountain. It was a hot afternoon. A while later we proceeded on to the stadium and found our way to the gate where the visiting team was to arrive. The Sox opponents for the night were the Toronto Blue Jays. I still remember watching a youthful Fred McGriff get off the bus. At the time I had no idea that Don and I would be in attendance when McGriff made his debut as an Atlanta Brave three years later. Even though we were older than most of the players, we enjoyed the moment as if we were kids again.
When the gates opened we were among the first to enter. Not wanting to immediately head to our seats, Don and I secured a spot behind the home team’s dugout to watch infield practice. Frank Thomas, a rookie who hailed from our home town, tossed a ball with a teammate only a few feet away. With heightened anticipation, we watched the White Sox warm up for the mid-week game. More importantly, however, we shared this one opportunity to attend a major league baseball game in the last year of an historic park. Unlike the stadiums of the present day, Comiskey exuded the timelessness of the game. It was almost as if Shoeless Joe was still in the lineup.
As the park began to fill, we moved toward the first base side where our seats were located. Still not wanting to sit down, we stood in the first row in short right field absorbing all that the old field had to offer. At some point, a stray baseball bounced into the stands only a few feet from where Don stood. My brother could have easily picked it up, but just as he was about to, he noticed a boy of about ten racing toward it. Don moved his hand aside so that the youngster could retrieve the ball. We both watched the jubilant lad, grin on his face, holding up the Official American League baseball for his family to see. This selfless act exemplified the kind of man Don was, a man who valued the excitement of a boy over a Comiskey Park souvenir to take back to Georgia.
I don’t remember much about the game except that the Blue Jays scored quickly and often. Going into the bottom of the ninth inning, the White Sox trailed 12-0. Many of the fans had departed early, but not Don and me. This was our only night at Comiskey; we weren’t leaving before the last out.
As the final half inning began, Toronto brought in Jim Acker, an ex-Brave. 1990 was one year before the Braves would begin their winning ways, so when Acker strode toward the mound, Don commented, “The White Sox still have a chance; a Brave is pitching.” Even though we both loved the Braves, we noted the humorous irony of the moment. Here we were in Chicago, watching an Atlanta Braves castoff coming in to finish up the game. And finish the game Acker did, but not before the White Sox had rallied for four runs. Even though the game ended in a 12-4 defeat for the home team, Don and I had relished every moment that we shared that night.
Not wanting to walk to the el station at this hour, we hailed a cab. As the driver sped along Lakeshore Dr. Don and I re-played parts of the game that we had just witnessed. We both felt so fortunate to have finally watched a game at Comiskey, a park that our father had talked about and even visited himself three decades earlier. The excitement mounted as we turned our attention toward the Cubs game, which was on tap for the next day.
After a short night’s rest and breakfast at the McDonald’s across the street from our motel, we walked to the el train station for the ride to fabled Wrigley Field. Again arriving well before the gates opened for the afternoon game, we walked completely around the park, basking in the sights and smells of the neighborhood. We took pictures on Waveland Ave. before moseying through a souvenir store to purchase gifts for Brent, Sam, and Rachel.
When we were finally able to enter the park, we wandered throughout the “friendly confines,” soaking in the history of a very special place. First we made our way down the third base line, into the left field corner, to watch batting practice. After noticing that a right handed batter could pull a ball into the seats where we were located, Don readied himself “just in case.” My brother always possessed this uncanny ability to get battling practice baseballs, and that day was no exception. Within a few minutes of positioning himself, a towering fly ball off the bat of Andre Dawson approached. Hurling himself over a couple of rows of seats, Don grasped the ball in one hand as he balanced himself from falling with the other. This time there were no youngsters in the area, so Don pocketed the Official National League baseball.
As game time grew near, we made our way up to the second level where our seats were located. Even though Don and I were neither Cubs nor White Sox fans, we appreciated with enormity the venues where both teams played. And since the Braves weren’t in town that afternoon, we planned to cheer for the home town Cubs against the Houston Astros. Today, like last night, however, the home team would suffer a loss. I don’t remember the score. What I do remember is how quickly the day went by. At the time I think both of us still felt as if we were part of some baseball fantasy, being able to attend two major league games in two historic parks on consecutive days.
When the game ended we again rode the el train back to the station nearest to our motel. Even though we had checked out earlier in the day, we had left the Tempo in the parking lot there with the proprietor’s permission. So only a little over 24 hours after arriving in the windy city, we were stepping into the automobile for the journey home.
I remember stopping somewhere in Indiana for supper and again in Nashville for coffee at about 4 A.M., but we never stopped to sleep. Don may have dozed briefly, but for most of the trip home, we recalled various events of our whirlwind adventure. We had driven to Chicago, watched two baseball games, and driven home. The trip proved to be the topic of conversation at many family events over the years. It was a moment that we shared as brothers that both of us cherished then and that, even after losing my brother, I will continue to cherish. Every time I read or see a reference to the Chicago White Sox or Cubs and Wrigley Field, I’ll think of Don, and smile, as I remember those three days in the summer of 1990.