On the sun-draped afternoon of June 11, 1952, a few days after
Cleveland Elementary School had closed its doors for the summer,
I hopped on an Oakton Street bus in my hometown of Skokie,
Ill.--a suburb just north of Chicago--transferred to an elevated
train at Howard Street and set out on that gloriously twisting,
creaking ride to Wrigley Field. ¬∂ For a boy of 11, there was
surely no adventure more grand, no sense of joy more keenly to be
felt or savored, than the journey by train to Wrigley--the
spiritual center of sports in Illinois, with its perfectly
manicured yard and the ghosts of Hack Wilson and Gabby Hartnett
whistling in the ivy like the wind. What made the ride so special
on this day was the sublime prospect of seeing Hank Sauer, the
National League's emerging home run king, the Cubs leftfielder
with the 40-ounce bat, lumber to the plate, whip his lanky
frame around to meet a fastball at the letters and send yet
another towering blast over the leftfield bleachers onto
Waveland Avenue. Long before Aaron, Sauer was the original
Hammerin' Hank. Of all the two-legged sporting heroes of my
long departed youth, from Roger Bannister to Ray Nitschke to
Sugar Ray Robinson, none today conjure more vivid and
pleasurable memories than that man bestriding that place.
I had been haunting Wrigley since the late 1940s, when I was
growing up on the city's North Side and could reach the yard by
electric trolley in 20 minutes. The trip from Skokie may have
taken longer, but that merely heightened the sense of expectation
I felt at the promise of spending another afternoon scrambling
after home runs during batting practice or cadging autographs as
the Cubs, some in snazzy double-breasted suits, arrived for work.
At 6'4", with a face lined and leathered by a life spent under
the outfield sun, with the inevitable plug of tobacco stuck in
his cheek, Sauer looked like a warrior-giant to the Lilliputians
who scurried at his heels outside the clubhouse door.
Sauer was having the season of his life in '52--he would win the
National League MVP award that year--and by June 11 he already
had 15 homers and 55 RBIs, and the city papers seemed aglow every
day with his latest exploit. Better yet, the Cubs were playing
the even more lowly Phillies that day, and even better than that,
Philadelphia was starting Curt Simmons--a hard-throwing
lefthander on whom Sauer had feasted for years; back in 1950,
Sauer had hit three homers off Simmons in one game. So there I
was, having paid my 60 cents at the iron gate and climbed the
ramps to the only place in the universe that a Chicago boy had
reason to be that day--the bleachers in left.
Lawdy, what a day! In Sauer's first at bat he struck a fastball
flush, and I can still see it flying over the chain-link fence
above our heads. I turned. The ball caromed off Waveland Avenue
and bounced against a house. In the sixth Sauer launched another
Simmons heater, this one to the catwalk in left, that had a bunch
of us scrambling after it, only to get pushed aside by a bearded
man who had the reach of a gorilla. Finally in the eighth Sauer
thumped his third solo shot of the day, driving Simmons's pitch
into the bleacher seats far to the left of where I was standing.
Sauer got three standing O's that day, and for the last he waved
and lit that leathery smile. That the hapless Cubs actually won
3-2 was the mustard on the sauerbraten.
April 4, 2004
Illinois has always offered a smorgasbord of sports stars. The
White Sox had Nellie Fox and Billy Pierce and later Frank Thomas.
The Bears had Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers, and later Jim McMahon
and Walter Payton. Blackhawks followers still talk of Stan Mikita
and Bobby Hull, the Golden Jet. And, of course, Michael Jordan
worked his unearthly miracles with the Bulls. I saw them all.
But, in the gloaming now, what I still remember first and best is
Henry John Sauer in '52, the year he hit 37 and knocked in 121,
and that perfectly sublime June day at Wrigley when, with the ivy
waving to him like a million hands, he hammered three out.