EDITOR'S NOTE: Joe Gisondi and Brian Poulter, journalism professors at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, traveled Illinois 1 over the summer and recorded their journey. For our purposes, their journey started in Danville, but the six-part series will cover the length of the road from its origin near Cave in Rock and its end near the south side of Chicago.
Gisondi is the author of “The Field Guide to Covering Sports” and blogs about sports journalism at SportsFieldGuide.com. He is finishing a book about Bigfoot researchers that will be published next year by University of Nebraska Press. At Eastern, he primarily teaches courses in advanced reporting, sports writing, sports media and computer-assisted reporting. He worked as a sports journalist for more than 20 years at the Orlando Sentinel and other Florida dailies.
Poulter has taught photojournalism at Eastern for more than 20 years. An award-winning photographer and teacher, he is also the co-author of news writing software News Scene. His travel photography has documented the Mississippi River, Dalton Road (Yukon), and the Oregon Trail. Recently, under a grant from Verizon, he used only an iPhone 4S to photograph the National Road. On the Illinois 1 project, he used an iPhone 5 and a Nokia Lumia 928 cellphone. Before joining the faculty at Eastern, he worked extensively for newspapers on the East Coast and in the Midwest.
Illinois 1: A road less taken
DANVILLE — Wilma West knows very few of baseball’s terms, strategies or rules.
But that doesn’t stop her from cheering excitedly every time her boys, the nice collegiate kids playing for the Danville Dans, simply catch an easy grounder, cradle a pop-up or draw a walk during a game in this amateur league game played on a field in historic Danville Stadium, which sits within view of Illinois 1.
When the Dans score, Wilma’s eyes light up, twinkling behind silver-rimmed wire eyeglasses and charming those around her on the bleachers several rows up behind home plate. Wilma and her daughter, Cathy Miller, are stalwarts at Dans games, arriving early, cheering often, and remaining until the last pitch — even if that means remaining through two doubleheaders on a muggy Saturday or remaining late on a week night for an extra-inning affair.
They cheer so animatedly that other regulars at the ballpark, such as Danville mayor Scott Eisenhauer and Dans managing co-partner Jeanie Cooke, now easily recognize the two ladies.
Purists are enamored of connecting baseball to religion, comparing stadiums to cathedrals, seats to pews, and baseballs to rosaries. Both baseball and church certainly revolve around rituals, venerate traditions, and emphasize community. But none of that matters to Wilma and Cathy. They just love watching their boys play ball.
Still, baseball has definitely been a blessing to Wilma. At first, these games were a distraction from spending hours alone at home after her husband Russell had died in 2009. No longer would she hear Russell play bluegrass music on his guitar or harmonica, watch him fish in the Wabash River, or see him refurbish midget automobiles for racing. As a housewife, her life had revolved around Russell and her three children, not around some obscure game played with a small, white ball. That’s why Cathy started bringing her mom to these games.
Even now after having watched more than 100 Dans games the past four years, Wilma struggles with the terminology when she speaks with Brian Poulter and me during the latter innings of a game against the rival Quincy Gems, unsure, when she tells me a story, whether baseball is indeed the proper term for the round, leather object her boys have been smacking to all fields for their current 4-0 lead.
Like most fans at Danville Stadium, Wilma also probably does not know much about the historic stadium or the Prospect League, one of several associations that exist to develop the nation’s premier college baseball players. Players are not paid in order to retain their NCAA eligibility, but they must have at least one year of college eligibility remaining. Players live with host families who offer free room and board. The schedule is such that players cannot really work since they only have about one day off a week. In addition, each team recruits its own players by forging relationships with college coaches across the country. The current Dans roster includes players from 12 states and 25 colleges as distant as California and as close as Illinois, which boasts the most players at 11, followed by Florida with five.
The roster also includes players like centerfielder Jake Thomas, a health studies major at Bowling Green State University who realizes this might be his last summer playing competitive baseball. That’s why he’s forsaking a summer of fly fishing for smallmouth bass and trout in Lake Erie.
“I’m five feet ten, 160 pounds, 21 years old and going bald,” he says, jokingly. “Scouts aren’t looking at me. But you only get to do this for so long. I can fly fish the rest of my life. Here, I get to play ball every day and have a great time with a terrific group of guys.” Jake’s already planning for graduate school at the Cleveland Clinic to earn a degree as a physician’s assistant after playing his senior season at Bowling Green.
Major league scouts do attend. Unlike college, players in this league may not use composite bats that enable balls to soar unnaturally long and to take off at speeds that are becoming dangerously fast. The NCAA recently changed its rules for these graphite/aluminum bats, but balls still trampoline off hybrid bats at speeds about 10 mph faster than off wooden bats, making it difficult for pitchers and third basemen to react as safely. In these wooden bat leagues, scouts can evaluate players more appropriately.
As a result, players are getting drafted off these teams. About half of all major league players once played in an amateur wooden bat league. The Dans, who have placed 22 players in the major leagues, had 12 former players selected during June’s major league baseball draft. Among Dans alum in the majors are Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon, Athletics starting pitcher A.J. Griffin, Rangers first baseman Mitch Moreland, and Marlins centerfielder Chris Coghlan, the 2009 NL Rookie of the Years.
“We’re in the growth business,” Cooke said. “We grow players, coaches and staff people.”
JEANIE COOKE SPEAKS softly but quickly in her office, a long room that appears more museum than business office. Jeanie loves to talk baseball, but she has many other concerns. Interns pop in to ask about the sound system for tonight’s guests, the official Chicago Blackhawks band, that will perform between innings, and about seating in the special section behind home plate where more than 50 mayors, in town for a state municipal conference, will sit, eat and watch. Jeanie is also thinking about the brats being prepared, special promotions, printed game programs and many other tasks to be completed before fans arrive in a few hours.
That Cooke can function this afternoon is amazing. Last night, she stayed at the stadium until after midnight, was awakened by a call from the team’s co-owner at 5:30 a.m., and then worked all day in her regular gig as executive director of the Danville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. Now, she’s back for another night of baseball.
Cooke, who has black hair cropped short and above her ears, is passionate about baseball, a trait passed from her father, whom she watched play in local leagues as a young child. Were Cooke to invite any three living people to her home for a dinner party, two would be connected to baseball — Cubs Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg and Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti, a former sportswriter for the Danville Commercial News. The other choice? Newt Gingrich for his knowledge of history.
Under the stadium, down a hallway that parallels the first-base line is where Cooke is offering her own history lessons on baseball at Danville Stadium, which has hosted hall of famers, all-stars, future managers, and a film crew for the 1992 movie “The Babe.” The plywood walls are covered with photos and posters of the stadium’s historic moments, players, and events.
There’s a black-and-white picture of baseball’s first commissioner, the harsh, controversial Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, holding a young girl who’s sitting precariously on the grandstand wall behind home plate in the original Danville Stadium, then located about three miles away near downtown where the current Veterans Affairs building stands. Landis, a former federal judge, had expelled eight Chicago White Sox players, including Shoeless Joe Jackson, from baseball several years earlier for conspiring to lose the 1919 World Series.
There’s a newspaper clipping from 1947 that includes a photo of Branch Rickey, the innovative baseball executive who created the framework for the minor leagues and who signed Jackie Robinson, the first African-American major leaguer. Rickey had recently left as general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals to run the Brooklyn Dodgers. Upon Rickey’s urging, Danville had built this stadium for the Dodgers’ Class D minor league affiliate in 1946.
There’s a frame that displays nine trading cards from accomplished alums, such as Gorman Thomas, Cecil Cooper, Charlie Moore and Darrell Porter, who played in Danville Stadium between 1971 and 1974 for Milwaukee’s Class A minor-league affiliate. In 1982, these players faced off in the World Series, Porter then a catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals. Robin Yount, incidentally, was born in Danville but moved to Southern California as young child before starting his hall of fame career and playing shortstop for this Brewers team.
There are posters for visiting Negro League teams like the Indianapolis Clowns that featured Globetrotter Goose Tatum and hall of famer Satchel Paige, easily among the greatest pitchers of all time.
There’s also a sepia-toned photo of the first Dodgers team that played here in 1946 as the Class D minor league affiliate. In the picture, John Dowling sits cross-legged in front of three rows of players, a 13-year-old kid serving as bat boy — the best job in Danville, his friends would jealously lament. Dowling later served as an office manager, typing contracts and running ticket sales. Like his friends, Dowling wanted to become a ball player, but he never learned to hit the curve. “But I did learn how to get along with people,” Dowling says between the first and second innings. He later coached a high school, taught, and served as a principal for a local elementary school.
There’s even a heavy, cotton uniform under glass from the 1946 season.
Jeanie Cooke loves to recall stories about the stadium, which has been home to minor league teams representing the Dodgers, Braves, Giants, Cardinals, Brewers and Angels and which was nearly razed in 1988 after a fan’s foot broke through a decaying floorboard.
Did she mention that a Maynard Dewitt, who set a stolen base record, once raced a quarter horse here? Or that Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese and other Dodgers played an exhibition game here in 1947? Or that this stadium was the second minor league park to play under lights?
More than 80 professional players and managers have played here through the years, she says, including Warren Morris, who launched college baseball’s most memorable home run in the 1996 College World Series, a two-run shot with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Plus, Cooke says, this is where Jackie Robinson was finally accepted by his white Brooklyn teammates during a preseason visit. Reese and two teammates invited Robinson to play golf with them at Harrison Park Golf Course, a scene addressed in the recent movie ‘42.’
“I wasn’t kidding about this place,” Cooke says eagerly. “This place reeks history.”
IN “FIELD OF DREAMS,” fictional author Terence Mann implores Ray Kinsella not to sell a baseball field he’s carved from his Iowa cornfield back to the bank, no matter that it is about to be foreclosed. People will come, Mann says, and fork over $20 to walk around the field, sit in the bleachers, and cheer the ghosts of players like Shoeless Joe Jackson.
Says Mann: “The memories will be so thick, they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come, Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again. Oh people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.”
In many ways, Cooke is also selling nostalgia.
And the price is low for a few wistful moments. Tickets are $3 for kids, $6 for adults, or $90 for 30 tickets. Everything is $2 on Tuesdays — tickets, sodas, beer and hot dogs. On Thursdays, $9 buys a ticket, a beer or soda and hot dog.
Cooke won’t disclose her financial status, but says she pretty much breaks even. So why spend so much time and energy? “I just like to fix things, I guess,” she says. “And I love baseball.”
John Knaap, a White Sox fan who spent time here as a kid in the late 1970s, sits high in the grandstand with his two grandchildren, reminiscing about spending time here in his youth. Knapp used to collect baseball cards, putting players from the hated Yankees in his bicycle spokes. Back then, the stadium was beginning to fall apart. Knapp and his friends would look through holes in the aisles. It’s the first time Eleanor, 9, and Henry, 10, have been to this stadium. A few weeks earlier, Eleanor had caught a foul ball at Busch Stadium. Tonight, snagging another ball is her primary goal.
Turk Miller, sporting a Cubs tattoo on his left forearm, sits right behind home plate with his wife, Ebey, a San Diego native who’s wearing a Padres jersey, and his father, Harvey, a Yankees fan. Like many Cubs fans, Miller talks about the 1984 National League Championship game where Leon Durham made an error that cost Chicago a spot in the World Series. Ebey talks about the 1998 Padres team that also reached the World Series, while Harvey focuses more on Danville players warming up on the field. “You just can’t beat a day at the ballpark.”
Eisenhauer, the city’s third-term mayor, is drawn to the stadium thanks to his father, Ike, who once served as vice president for baseball operations when the Brewers’ Class A team played here. As a kid, Eisenhauer would spend summer days hanging around the stadium. At night, players such as Darrell Porter might stop by his house. Today, Eisenhauer attends several games a season, sometimes announcing a game on the radio.
“I think the most important aspect is that the stadium is a social centerpiece for this city,” Eisenhauer said. “Every summer, you can come out here and people will see each other for the first time in, perhaps, a month. This stadium brings community members together for at least a night or two.”
Cooke recalls a night 20 years ago, when she first started working with the team. It was around 11 p.m. By the time she had finished compiling stats for the local media, she was virtually alone in the stadium. But she noticed an older man sitting, hunched over in the grandstands, as she departed.
“Are you all right?” Cooke asked.
“I was thinking of the last time I was here,” the man said, tears in his eyes. “All night long, I felt as if I were 11 again.”
It’s maudlin stories like this that evoke scorn from non-baseball fans, but, clearly, these folks do not understand the sentimental tug of a moment spent simply playing catch with another.
IT’S THE BOTTOM OF THE SEVENTH INNING. More than 1,000 fans have arrived tonight, part of the 36,000-plus who will attend the 24 Dans games this season for a league-best 1,513 average.
Quincy had scored in the top of the inning after pitcher Blake Stevens walked a batter with the bases loaded. Now, the Dans have also filled the bases with two outs. The crowd is buzzing. The batter hits a grounder to the second baseman, who throws to first for the final out of the inning. In the meantime, a runner crosses the plate, prompting animated cheering from Wilma, whose eyes sparkle, body rocks, and hands clap in wide arcs.
Wilma doesn’t know anything about Major League Baseball’s Rule 4.09 that stipulates that no run may score during a play where the third out is made by a batter before he touches first base. In her mind, the Dans have found a way to score another run.
“We scored another one!” Wilma squealed, without knowing or caring the run didn’t count. “That’s our boys!”
That’s another thing about Wilma. When she cheers, everything is punctuated with an exclamation mark.
“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” says Cathy, who sits to Wilma’s right. “We’re always hoarse when we get home.”
Wilma’s eyes widen when she speaks about the time a month earlier when the Danville players gave her a signed baseball. “I cherish that baseball,” Wilma wrote in the back page of a pocket calendar she keeps in her purse. A week ago, the team manager had invited her onto the field, prompting Wilma to hug every single player and coach. It was the first time Wilma had stepped on a baseball field of any kind. Afterward, she recorded this moment in her calendar as well.
“It was awesome,” Wilma tells me. “I just love all of them boys. When they don’t win, I’m sad for them.”
As we depart, Brian Poulter (the photographer on this journey) kisses Wilma on the cheek, which elicits a howl. “I won’t be washing that spot for a while,” she says, eyes blazing.
“She really won’t,” says Cathy.
As soon as we are out of sight, the ladies are focused on their boys again.
Wilma and Cathy have had much to cheer about this season. Danville had won 16 of its past 18 games, built a two-game lead in the Prospect League’s Western Division, had an 11-game win streak, and won nine games in its last at-bat. A few weeks later, Danville would set a league record for victories (41) to capture the division title. The Gems, though, would sweep the Dans, 2-0, in the three-game series in early August, saddening Wilma and thousands of other fans.
On the way out of the stadium, we stop by Cooke’s office, where dozens have just filed out, smiling and clearly impressed by the photos and narratives. We speak briefly about Wilma, especially the diary entry she penciled into the pocket calendar.
Cooke beams. “What should I tell people when they ask what I do?”
“That you sell memories,” Brian says.
Jeanie considers that for a moment and smiles, pleased at the thought, and walks back out to the grandstand for the final two innings.