The first World Series I can remember getting excited about was in 1964. The St. Louis Cardinals were playing the New York Yankees, and almost every baseball fan in Memphis was either a Cardinal fan or a Yankee fan. The Cardinals were popular because they were the closest team to Memphis (The Braves were not yet in Atlanta) and several players from Memphis were on the team. Cardinal broadcasts with Harry Carey and Jack Buck were carried by a Memphis radio station and I was one of their devoted listeners. Many of us in Chicago who remember Harry Carey at all remember him as a kind of side-show attraction when he was past his prime; but in his day Harry was a marvelous broadcaster and a real artist on the radio. He could make a pinch hitter picking out a bat or a pitcher tugging on his cap a tense and riveting moment.
The Yankees were popular in Memphis, because, well, they were the Yankees. They were the closest thing we had to a national sports team, and they had large numbers of fans in every city in the country—even in cities that had a team of their own. That is because they were perennial winners. Since the 1920’s the Yankees had dominated the American League, and in 1964 they had appeared in the World Series in 15 of the previous 20 years. The 1964 Series went seven games and the Cardinals won. That winter CBS bought the New York Yankees and planned to take advantage of their national following. What had been for many years the Baseball Game of the Week on CBS with Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reece became The Yankee Game of the Week in 1965. But in 1965 something happened to the Yankees that no one expected. They stopped winning. The young players were never able to fill the shoes of their aging stars. The Yankee Game of the Week soon became an embarrassment and disappeared from the CBS lineup. The next time the Yankees made it to the World Series was in 1976, and by then the sports landscape was very different. Free agency in baseball had upended the traditional identity of a player with his team; and basketball, football, and hockey were starting to edge out baseball in popularity. The Yankees would never again be America’s dominant sports team.
This past week World-Series-starved Chicago got a chance to celebrate with the Jackie Robinson West All-Stars, a team that came within a hair of winning the Little League World Series. As this team from the South Side kept winning, enthusiasm and excitement kept building, drawing in people of all races and all neighborhoods. The front page of Monday’s Chicago Tribune was completed devoted to our World Series team. On Wednesday the players were honored with a parade that went all the way from the far South Side to the center of downtown. The question is, “Now that the parade is over, what happens next?” Can we in Chicago build on the good will that this team has created and come together over more substantial matters, to heal some of the wounds of the past and address some of the issues that drive us apart? Will making it to the World Series open doors to the future for these young black men or will they be exploited and tossed aside? Will these local heroes provide an alternative model to what often passes for success in many of our neighborhoods or will they get sucked into the numbing violence of our city?
Unfortunately we know that the tide can turn quickly. Fans stopped caring about the Yankees once they stopped being winners. But we already know about waning enthusiasm from the Gospel. Jesus, you remember, was also honored with a victory parade when he entered Jerusalem. Fans were so fanatical that they threw down their cloaks for Jesus and his donkey to walk on. Then, all these fans and their enthusiasm evaporated. They either failed to show up a short time later when Jesus went on trial, or else they were easily distracted by the momentum that built up when Pilate offered to release Barabbas. Fans can be fickle. That is why Jesus was always looking for disciples and not fans. Will Chicagoans be more than just fans for our World Series team?