When I heard that Len Kasper was giving up his 14-year gig broadcasting Cubs games on TV — arguably one of baseball’s most coveted play-by-play posts — to cover White Sox games on radio, and chalking up his decision to youthful memories of Ernie Harwell’s radio depictions of Detroit Tigers games, I couldn’t help but smile. Widely. And turn back the clock to the summers of my own youth in late ’50s Evanston. …
I’m a die-hard, pre-teen White Sox fan-attic. My team is playing West Coast night games. Bob Elson is handling play-by-play on the radio, Milo Hamilton is adding color, and I’m listening on a portable transistor radio tucked under the covers.
As good as it gets for a rabid young fan — secretly lulled to sleep by the soothing rhythms and cadences of slow-moving baseball games. I usually nod off in the fourth or fifth inning, knowing I won’t get the final score until the next morning. But no worries — all is well.
Those memories amplify the wisdom of Kasper’s decision: Baseball may no longer be “The Great American Pastime,” but it’s still a sport that can be savored on the radio at the same time one does whatever else one has to do, ears only perking up at key moments that can be recaptured later in video highlights.
Kasper put it this way: “I want to paint the picture of the great game of baseball on the radio like he (Ernie Harwell) did for me growing up.”
I get it. Real fandom — the deep-seated kind that becomes part of your persona — starts when you’re young, and as Kasper can attest, stays with you forever.
My dad’s side of the family — the South Siders — had White Sox season tickets in a box right behind the Sox dugout, and from the time I was eight or nine they took me to a couple Friday night games each summer against the dreaded Yankees. We’d leave our car south of Comiskey Park, on 37th or 38th, streets dotted with wood-frame houses where African American families sat on their front steps while their kids played on the sidewalks.
The fetid smell of slaughtered animals in the old Union Stockyards a mile away filled the humid summer air as we walked to the park to watch, sadly but inevitably, as Whitey Ford out-dueled Billy Pierce in games decided by a Mantle, Maris or Berra extra-base hit.
The Sox finally made it to the World Series in 1959, and at age 11, with other family members filling their box seats, I sat alone in the first row of the right field upper deck next to the foul pole, where I almost caught one of Ted “Big Klu” Kluszewski’s mammoth home runs in a series the Sox eventually lost.
The next year I reached my athletic apex when I pitched the winning championship game for my Evanston Little League team.
Over the ensuing six-plus decades I’ve remained a die-hard fan, so zealous that I applied twice for radio color commentator jobs that opened up.
In the mid-’70s the late Barnum-esque Sox owner Bill Veeck entertained my fantasy over a drink at a Gold Coast bar, and even called my pitch “intriguing” because I had college radio experience and a storehouse of Sox knowledge as a lifelong devotee.
But he wisely picked zany ex-player Billy Piersall to team up in the booth with Harry Caray, where they formed an iconic broadcast duo. Decades later I explored another opening but lost again to a former player. In both cases I already had journalism day jobs. Thankfully.
In between those flights of fancy I wrote a freelance story for the Sun-Times about how the Sox provided me with a rites-of-passage touchstone during my college and young adult years as I followed the team from a distance and attended their games in different cities I was passing through.
The article needed pictures, so I found one from Opening Day in 1960, when a Sun-Times photographer invited me down from our box seats to pose, holding an autographed baseball, with Pierce, the starting pitcher that day and one of my heroes.
Fifteen years later Pierce met me on the mound at Comiskey to take a new picture of him, long-since retired, and me, then a young journalist. The pictures made nice bookends for the article, as did the 2005 World Series, where I also attended a Game One victory. This time, unlike 1959, the Sox won three more games for a series sweep and a world championship.
Fast forward to this year, when COVID prompted seniors like my wife and I to hunker down. We isolated at our remote Michigan summer house, where I couldn’t get Sox games on TV, so I popped for the MLB package and watched the most exciting season in years on an iPad..
So here we are now, a few months away from a new season, and Len Kasper is getting ready to take over play-by-play on the radio.
I wasn’t a big fan of his predecessors in the radio booth, but now that an estimable former Cubs broadcaster and protegee of the late great Ernie Harwell has defected from the Cubs I’ll catch radio broadcasts whenever I’m driving in my car or feel like revisiting the old days while I’m reading or doing something else at home.
But times and habits change, as Len understands as well as anyone, and we now live in a world where pictures and video rule, so I’ll probably spend more evenings this summer watching the games on my iPad and listening to Jason and Steve chatter. They also add nice verbal touches to the real-time video of the great game of baseball.
I don’t know about you, but with my other local sports addiction, the Bears, struggling mightily, I am so ready for a new baseball season. And for a COVID vaccination so I can attend a few games safely and watch the “boys of summer” at whatever Comiskey is now called.
Transistor radios are as extinct as dodo birds so I’ll be listening to Len’s play-by-play on my iPhone as I watch.
Call it dream fulfillment for both of us.
In addition to his sports obsessions, Andy Shaw was a former ABC 7 political reporter and former head of the Better Government Association. He is still a good government reform activist.