Life with a Laryngectomee
Chapter Thirteen: The Sporting Life
The highest compliment Dad could pay someone was to say: “She’s a real sport.”
By sport, he meant that the wife of a drinking buddy went along with the drill. A sport didn’t complain, or leave, or go to Alanon meetings; a sport filled the ice bucket and emptied the ashtrays and greeted the guesties without comment or complaint.
A sport didn’t have her kid play off-key clarinet on the second landing and drive all the guesties out of Mac’s Bar & Grill.
Dad obviously didn’t consider Mom a sport that night.
No, siree Bob.
Dad was a larygectomee after all, and he had undergone a disfiguring operation that had deprived him of his natural voice, and he was going to recover in the comfort of his own living room, thank you very much, and the least Mom could do was be a sport about it, and the least we three McKelvy bairn could do was be seen and not heard, and certainly not heard to honk and screech away on the second landing hoping for all the world that we sounded like Benny Goodman.
I obviously didn’t sound like Benny Goodman that night, and I probably never will, but I am enjoying the clarinet today, and I am playing it to please myself and no one else.
Although, I must say that when I am toodling away, I sometimes sneak a glance heavenward and think: What do you think, Daddy-O?
I like to think that he is in a better place than Mac’s Bar & Grill and that he smiles down on me from heaven, along, of course, with Benny Goodman.
They’re sports: my old man and Benny Goodman.
Sports with wings.
And I pray that the two of them are enjoying baseball games without end between the Angels and Saints, and I do offer thanks for the golden sporting moments Dad shared with us while he was with us here on earth where even baseball games do end eventually.
A proud graduate of Penn State, Dad loved to watch and listen to the Nittany Lions tackle opponents on the gridiron, and he loved nothing better than to watch “the golf” on TV as he shined the family’s shoes on a Saturday afternoon, but Dad’s first love in sports was, and still is, baseball.
And being a transplant to Chicago from Pennsylvania, Dad saw no reason not to cheer for both Chicago teams—the White Sox and the Cubs.
And he did indeed take us to see both the White Sox and the Cubs: at Comiskey Park at 35th and Shields and Wrigley Field at Clark and Addison respectively.
Dad didn’t buy that guff that South Siders could only cheer for the White Sox. He said that if a ball team had Chicago as its first name, why then he was going to root for that team.
So Dad taught us at early ages to be both White Sox and Cubs fans.
He took us to night games at Comiskey Park where we got to see the likes of Sox lefty Billy Pierce take on Yankees southpaw Whitey Ford, and he loved to haul us on up to the North Side for Cubs day games against such National League rivals as the Saint Louis Cardinals.
Thanks to Dad, we cheered for short stops Little Luis Aparicio and Ernie Mr. Cubs Banks with equal fervor, and thanks to Dad we know how to step up to the troughs at either ballpark and tap our kidneys and hang out with the really big guys.
Dad was himself at the old ballpark.
He was Mister Baseball at old Comiskey and Wrigley Field, and he was not self-conscious in either ballpark about speaking with his voice box, with his electrolarynx.
I can picture Dad in his shirtsleeves sitting in a box seat on the first baseline at Wrigley Field basking in the sun and ordering a beer from the beer man and shucking peanuts and just having a great time at the old ballgame.
We paid to go to Cubs games, but sometimes we got to see Sox games compliments of General Refractories Co., because the sales office bought box seats for customers.
I will always remember that hot summer night in 1959 when the customers couldn’t go to the Friday game. Dad said we were going, and he took my brother and me to see the White Sox host the hated New York Yankees in a classic pitchers’ duel between the aforementioned Billy Pierce and Whitey Ford.
Dad told us we were going to experience baseball at its best that night complete with an overexcited Sox fan dousing Yankees manager Casey Stengel with beer and that heady aroma of the day’s slaughter at the nearby Union Stockyards commingling with spilled beer, overcooked hot dogs and good, honest body odor.
Oh, my Papa, he was so wonderful when he was at the ballpark.
That’s where I remember him best—at the old ballpark.
Especially at Comiskey Park that night in 1959 when the White Sox beat Mickey Mantle and Moose Skowron and Roger Maris and Whitey Ford in as good a ballgame as one could hope to see this side of heaven.
Dad told us to stay close to him all night, and we did, and we shared his unbridled enthusiasm for the greatest game ever invented.
And when Dad took us out front on 106th Street and taught us how to throw and catch with the brand-new Rawlings or Wilson mitts he bought us, we delighted in playing catch with our Dad. We showed the neighborhood that our Dad was the only father on the block willing to go out on the street with his boys and throw the old horsehide around in the twilight of a summer day.
Dad always told us to keep our eyes on the ball.
And we did.
And when Dad took us to see the Blackhawks take the ice at the Stadium on West Madison against the Red Wings, Bruins, Rangers, Maple Leafs, or Canadiens, he always pointed out that Bobby Hull and his teammates were successful because they kept their sticks on the ice. And when he came to watch us play hockey at the rink he helped the men of the neighborhood produce every winter in the Bartlett’s big backyard, he insisted that we keep our sticks on the ice.
Dad couldn’t swim anymore because of the stoma, or opening, in his neck, but he spent lots of time demonstrating technique on dry land. He told us to relax in the water and to always respect the ocean, lake, or pool.
Look ahead, he said.
Crawl through the water.
Keep your eyes on the ball and your stick on the ice.
And: Be a sport.
It was hard not to be, especially during baseball season when Dad had the game on the radio he kept in the garage when we were out doing chores with him and watching him offer his friends a cold Drewrys Beer and rejoicing when Ernie Banks hit another homerun.
We loved hockey and football and golf at 1645 West 106th Street, but we held baseball in the highest esteem, and were grateful to live in a city that offered two—not one, but two—teams to cheer for.
And when the White Sox were American League Champs in 1959 and faced the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series, Dad took the week off from work and encamped next door at Big John’s house and told us to run home from school at lunch for some ballpark franks and peanuts and the early innings, and then sprint back after the final bell at 3:15 to catch the final innings of those six, heart-breaking games.
Yeah, the Sox lost the series 4 games to 2, but they did beat Sandy Koufax one/zip in game 5, and they looked good for a while in game 6 with Ted Kluszewski’s 3-run homer in the 4th, but Don Sherry checked our Sox and took the Dodgers to a 9-3 win and a World Series Championship, and we were there with Dad and Big John just drinking it all in.
Well, they were drinking it all in, and we were drinking pop from the bottle and basking in baseball.
Dad got to see the Cubs come close in 1984 when they jumped two games up on the San Diego Padres in the battle for the National League Pennant before losing three straight, but he died on September 13, 1985 before either of his beloved Chicago baseball teams could win a World Series for him.
So I like to think that the White Sox did it for my Dad 20 years later when they took it all in 2005.
Fans credit Ozzie Guillén with managing the Sox triumph in ’05, but we McKelvy children know it was all Dad’s doing.