Am I the ghost of Wrigley Field? That echo of distant laughter you can almost grab on to before everything goes icy dark? Is that me?
Perhaps it would be best for you to decide. It is October again. When there is always more than what you see.
But where are my manners? I am Pastor John. And I walk.
Across the years, across the decades, I walk this patch of land, these celery farms and swamps near the shores of Lake Michigan. Before me, the Winnebago, Ottawa, and Miami people stopped here on their trails to better times. After me, when the man from Switzerland, Conrad Sulzer, built a home and settled in to stay, because he knew all about snowy winter winds, back when they named this the township of Lakeview, laid out the streets and lit the night with gas lamps, I was here too.
And I am still here now.
With wide rushing streets like concrete streams. Waveland Avenue and Sheffield, Addison and Clark Street. Mr. Weeghman’s baseball stadium, now cradling 42,000 swaying souls instead of the 14,000 in shirt, suit coat and tie gentlemen cheering on the home team. The home team then was the Chicago Whales. Then the Chicago Cubs moved from their original field on the west side of the city and in 1920, this green grass, white line diamond on the middle of the gritty gray city that was growing like a mushroom, became Cubs Park. And then in 1927, it became Wrigley Field.
But I jump ahead of my story. I’ve always done that. I suppose it started when the neighborhood children started calling me “Pastor Whatsnext.”
And I’ve been walking this land since long before there was even a glimmer of a thought in Mr. Charles Weeghman’s mind that there should be a baseball stadium here in the township of Lakeview, in what they now call Chicago.
Long before that frozen February ground was broken for what later became Wrigley Field, I was here on the very same land where the ballpark would be built.
In Chicago, everyone comes from somewhere else. I was born in a cherry blossom summer. A house my father built. We farmed endless acres of cherries right up to where the trail took a dip just past Fish Creek Wisconsin and down to the Bay Shore. They tell me I passed crawling and went straight to walking. So I walked our land, helping my father build and repair, wrapped in the scent of those cherry blossoms, the fruit like tiny, perfect red pearls from above.
Fish Creek made me into a walker and that made me curious.
So my father understood when letters from his brother in New York City, read around the fireplace one snowy winter night, spoke of the green fields of Mr. Olmstead’s Central Park. Grassland, trees and trails not all that different from the land that surrounded our cherry orchard. But this Central Park was planned and sprang up in the middle of the coal dust, yelling, throngs of people and buildings, this constant river of people and noise. Peace in the middle of chaos. That’s what Central Park sounded like. So I went. A steamer across the Lake Michigan. Walking and a train ride chugging into New York City. I saw the Park. Watched the sun touch the grass. And on Sunday afternoons, I saw the men play this game in an open field. Smack this ball with a giant stick. No limits to how far could travel. No boundaries of time. Just running around a diamond while everyone cheered and clapped. And there was something in the game. Something in the full-throated joy of touching each side of the diamond that was instantly familiar. It was as if the joy in the game had always been there.
And I remembered that joy on my trip home when the steam ship docked in Chicago. The Chicago River was even wilder than the streets of New York. Slower but deeper. Dirty and loud and brimming with eyes of men that were always asking, “Where’s mine?”
It was October. A day not all that different from today. The golden, orange, red autumn leaves whirling in a warm wind that still had undertones of a coming winter. I set out on the walk north from the river to Lakeview where my uncle was a Supervisor in Mr. Abbott’s pill company. My uncle and aunt had a tiny cottage just east of The Lutheran Theological Seminary, at the corner of Addison and Clark Street. The Seminary buffeting the music and the noise of the drinking bursting out of the bars on Clark Street.
I remember walking up Addison, and seeing my aunt and uncle sitting on their front porch. Seeing them stand, the expression of sorrow on their faces, and the song in my head was one of Mr. Stephen Foster’s. I heard, “Hard times come again no more” as if the song was a gift to prepare me for what was to come. And then they told me. During my time in New York, my father had passed. They told me it had been quick. They told me that not for an instant did he complain. They told me he was not alone. My mother was there with him. And before he had gone, he had bought her a small house in town so she would be among friends. He sold the farm. And finally, he had a message for me. They said he was smiling when he said his message to me was “Keep walking.”
That evening, after dinner, I walked thru the grounds of the Seminary. The noise of the Clark Street bars floating over the Biblical Studies. The children of the neighborhood running aimless in the streets and across the grounds of the Seminary.
It was a week of those after dinner walks that I began to feel it well up inside like one of Mr. Foster’s songs. I had what they said was a calling. I would stay at the seminary. I would become a Pastor. I’m not sure why. I had a trip up north to make sure my mother was safely ensconced in her new home in town. But then I came back. Turns out I was to keep walking, but the walking would all be on a small piece of land.
In the seminary, it was hard to read with that Clark Street noise. I knew the noise would eventually win and the seminary would be no more. But my eyes were on those children. Aimless and ragged. They needed something more than words. So it seemed only natural that I would introduce that same game of baseball I had watched in Central Park.
The parents first thought it strange. A young man studies to be a minister only to go playing a child’s game with a stick and a ball. The parents would tell their kids, “What’s next!”
The kids picked up the phrase. Mimicking the exasperated tone of their parents they’d call out “Hey Pastor Whatsnext!”
Then someone would take that stick, smack that ball up high into the heavens, where it might, where it could, go on forever.
And that’s when I’d smile, laugh, clap my hands and cheer.
The kids would watch me, they’d cheer too as the batter ran the diamond, the ball went on forever, and finally that cheer went on forever.
And if you listen hard at Wrigley Field; you can hear us cheering even now. The kids and I. Back where there used to be a seminary. But now stands Wrigley Field.
Am I the ghost of Wrigley Field? You decide.