Author: R.T. Johnson

Tornado Update

The relief effort for Fairdale has been overwhelming. The problem has become where to put everything. The fire station is full and the spare rooms at the school will be filled quickly.  Gift Cards are welcomed. You can send the cards to:

Kirkland Fire Department

3891 Illinois Route 72

Kirkland, Illinois 60146

Send them here because this is where the the victims have been getting relief.

If you would like to donate, you can at: http://www.gofundme.com/rk72t88r These funds go right to the victims through the local bank.

History will have to wait for a while.

Thank you.

Here is a picture of the tornado that struck the town.

The tornado is crossing Interstate 39 and is about 6-7 miles from Fairdale at this point.

The tornado is crossing Interstate 39 and is about 6-7 miles from Fairdale at this point.

Tornado

The school district I teach in was devastated by a tornado that leveled the town of Fairdale, Illinois, the home of many of my students. 

The people need food, clothes, water, and blankets. Donations can be made or sent to the Kirkland Fire Department, who are coordinating relief efforts.

Thank you for anything you can do.

A Glimpse into the Summer of 2015

010I have been teaching for over 20+ years but this summer I get to do something few historians get to do – I get to catalog a farm museum. Located south of Belvidere, Illinois, the museum actually started out as a hobby of a local farmer. It began with a few pieces 20 years ago and now has morphed into three buildings of agricultural lore. From seed bags to seed corn signs to toys and even wagons, over one hundred and fifty years of American agriculture is told through the machines used to grow and make the food we eat. I estimate there are between 2000-3000 pieces in the museum.

Yesterday, the farmer had an open house, which he does once or twice a year in addition to hosting school groups. I strolled around the grounds, took some pictures, and talked to some members of the community where I teach. It was a good day, but I also got an idea of the enormity of the task which awaits me.

My tools for the summer will be a tape measure, a camera, and a laptop. When I am done, there will be over a thousand slides that look something like this:

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It’s a big task. It might even be overwhelming. But it will be a fun task as I get to hear the stories behind each piece. Some people may make fun of the show American Pickers, but the people on the show truly do protect forgotten pieces of American history. And this museum, its owner, and its collection are pretty close to the people and places Mike and Frank see each week.

007To me, it is all about the stories behind the piece. That is what I look forward to most. I don’t know how long it will take me to catalog the three buildings. I really don’t care. It could be weeks, months, or even a couple of summers, but it something I think is important. My father, my maternal grandfather, and my uncle were all involved in agricultural. It is something that I think reminds me of them.

The blog this summer will post weekly updates with some items highlighted for their uniqueness or importance. The summer may go fast, but for this historian, it will be something few historians get to do.

Web Site of the Day

I was doing some research on the sinking of the Rouse Simmons Christmas Tree Ship when I found a cool web site that contains hundreds of articles in PDF from the National Archives’ Prologue Magazine. These are great sources for any student doing a National History Day project and for teachers supplementing their curriculum with great sources!

http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/

prologue magazine

 

History Project of the Day

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Yesterday, my students participated in the Northern Region History Fair at NIU in DeKalb. This is one of my student’s projects. It is by an eighth grade boy, and I must say, I was impressed by his marriage of history and sport! He advanced, along with 21 more of my students, to the Illinois state history fair on May 7. Click on the picture to enlarge.

Ernie Banks – A True Pioneer

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Ernie in his Kansas City Monarchs uniform

Ernie Banks was a true pioneer. Ernie helped paved the way for many African-American players in the Chicago Cubs organization. He also transformed the game. His quick swing through the batting zone allowed him to generate a lot of power. Before him, shortstop was seen as a defensive position filled with light hitting players. After Ernie’s career ended in the early 1970s, it would another ten years before another “power hitting shortstop” came along in Cal Ripken and more than ten years after that when Alex Rodriguez came along.

Born into poverty in Dallas, Texas in 1931, Ernie Banks was one of 12 children in his family.

“I enjoyed growing up in Dallas. Everything was within walking distance: the school I went to, the YMCA, my friends in the neighborhood, the park I played baseball on. Everybody knew everybody and kept everybody in line.”
Sports soon became his life. He was a three sport athlete at Booker T. Washington High School in Dallas. He played football, basketball, and track at the school. He never played baseball in high school.

However, sports did not make Ernie who he was. He was deeply religious and that side of him came directly from his mother’s influence. For a poor person, Banks said, “Your word is your bond. Things like that kind of stuck in my mind. I mean what I say, and I say what I mean.” And it was playing on his church softball team that his athletic skills were discovered first by Kansas City Monarchs Scout Bill Blair. Banks would begin his baseball career in 1950 with the Amarillo Colts. He did not play for them long as Cool Papa Bell and Buck O’Neil swayed Ernie to the Kansas City Monarchs later that same year. He wound up being drafted and serving in Germany during the Korean War.

Ernie's Scouting Report

Ernie’s Scouting Report

Upon his release in 1953, Ernie returned to the Monarchs. Later that fall, his contract was sold to the Chicago Cubs. He would be the first African-American to play for the team.

The shock of moving to a segregated city like Chicago was not lost on Banks. He said the following of the differences:
“You’ve got a lot of players from the South and very few blacks. It was not as multicultured as I had anticipated. They had a few players from Puerto Rico and from Latin American countries, but most of the players were from the South and West.”

Banks lived on the south side of town throughout most of the 50s before moving to the West Chesterfield neighborhood in the late 50s.

When Ernie stepped onto the field in 1953, there were only 20 other African-Americans on 7 other teams. But more than that, Ernie represented a new kind of player with Henry Aaron and Willie Mays – all three were players who combined speed with power. They revolutionized the game. And for Ernie, he revolutionized the shortstop position.

As a Cub, slugger Ralph Kiner took a liking to Ernie from the start. The two would often talk hitting and Ernie credits Kiner with helping Ernie to refine his own swing with quick wrists in order to see the ball deep in to the zone and to just react. Ernie Banks hit 40 home runs in a season in four consecutive years from 1957-1960. The 6’1” 185 lb. shortstop won two NL MVP awards in 1958 and 1959. One person quipped that without Ernie, the last placed Cubs “would have finished in Albuquerque.”

Everywhere Ernie went as a ballplayer, his race followed him. Ernie spoke eloquently of the dichotomy of his being an African-American pioneer in baseball:

“Some people feel that because you are black you will never be treated fairly and that you should voice your opinions, be militant about them. I don’t feel this way. You can’t convince a fool against his will. If a man doesn’t like me because I am black, that’s fine. I’ll just go elsewhere, but I’m not going to let him change my life […] As black athletes, if we speak on various issues, or wear our hair in certain ways, we are considered militant, in opposition to The Establishment, which put us in a position of being opposed to what gives us our livelihood. If we don’t speak up about racial issues, political matters, or the organization itself, we are called Uncle Toms.”
He knew he could not please everybody. So, Ernie was just himself.

In 1962, injuries began to take their toll on Ernie. He moved from shortstop to third base to left field before finally settling on a new position. For the last 9 years of his career he played first base.

Ernie never played in the post season. For 19 years he tried, for 19 years he never made it, but it was not for a lack of trying. The closest “Mr. Cub” came to the post season was in the legendary 1969 season where the Cubs blew a 10 game lead to the Mets in August and September. Along with the Ron Santo and Billy Williams, the trio endeared themselves to Cub fans everywhere.

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As a pioneer of the position, Ernie was also a pioneer because of his attitude. His most well known saying is, “Let’s Play Two!” meaning to play a double-header. Throughout Chicago, Ernie’s positive mental attitude never wavered throughout his life. As great of baseball player as he was, he was even more of a gentleman. Everyone he met, he felt it was his duty to say something nice to them, to encourage them.

Playing baseball during a time of segregation did not leave Ernie bitter. He stayed at different hotels, rode different buses, lived in a different part of town, but it not did deter him from having positive attitude toward other human beings. Ernie said,

“There are certain things that you have to fight for, not by looting or burning, but by letting society know that you will demand your rights and will use every legal means to get them. I don’t agree with the guys that say in order to find pride in your blackness you have to hate everything that is white. That’s just plain wrong. We shouldn’t hate anybody. If you want to get a good job, or get into business, you’ve got to live with other people including the white ones.”

Ernie was an 11 time All-Star who played in 13 All Star games (some years they played two All-Star games a year) who finished with 512 Home Runs. His 500th home run turned into the one of the great calls in baseball television history.

In 1977, Ernie made into the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

After his playing career ended, Ernie continued to be the face of the Cubs. He gave often to charities in the Chicago area and was a face in the community. He appeared at many baseball card conventions, Cub games, and Cubs Conventions. He became a mentor to many Cub players over the years including the current team.

The last time I saw him in person was at the Chicago Cubs Convention in 2014. When I heard he was not going to be attending the Convention of a week ago, I wondered about his health. I hoped that everything was alright. He passed away yesterday at age 83.

Most people will remember him for his infectious attitude and how he had a kind word for everyone. That he did do. However, the mark he left on the game is just as important as the mark he left off the field in transforming the game in the 1950s and 1960s. For every person that he ever touched with his smile and attitude, he touched just as many with his play. He made it possible for a power hitter to play shortstop. Ernie made it possible for Robin Yount, Cal Ripken, and Derek Jeter to transform shortstop from a defensive position into an offensive one. And he made it possible for an African-American player to be the face of a franchise in Chicago.

Ernie and Derek Jeter at Wrigley Field

Ernie and Derek Jeter at Wrigley Field

In 2013, Ernie was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama. It is the highest award a citizen can earn in this country.

Ernie Block Quotes
Timothy J. Gilfoyle. “From Wrigley Field to Outer Space: Interviews with Ernie Banks and Mae Jemison.” Chicago History Magazine. Winter, 1988-89.

Lew Freedman (2007). African-American Pioneers. Greenwood Press: Westport Connecticut.

Using Baseball as a History Fair Topic – Instilling Changes

Baseball and history tend to go together. This blog is no different. As a practicing teacher whose students participate in the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency’s Student Historian Program (aka History Fair) and National History Day, I steer some reluctant kids towards baseball topics. It has worked and has changed lives. One of my most successful students did three baseball exhibits, two research papers, and one hockey exhibit over six years in route to six superior ribbons at the state history fair. He is now a sophomore in the honors program at Northern Illinois University and his work as a junior in high school can be read here. SAM_0643He spoke at a conference with me last fall and talked about how doing these projects made him a better student.

Choosing a baseball topic for a history fair project has many advantages. First, the use of newspapers and interviews as primary sources are great tools for any historian. Learning how to find information through these early accounts are exactly what historians do in researching any topic. Second, it teaches verb usage. Most of these accounts use verbs in the active tense. This creates a text that is more exciting, easy to read, and most importantly, makes the subject and writing come alive.

A third reason for using baseball as a history fair topic is that it teaches structure. Students learn how to organize information. They can organize their paper, board, website, or document chronologically, thematically, and statistically. With the plethora of sports statistic sites like Baseball Reference, Baseball Almanac, and Fan Graphs, it is easy for the student to acquire information and data to help prove their thesis. Whether it is numeric data, hitting charts, or hitting zones, the images can be  to cover a year, career, and any significant data stream the user requires or inputs.

The fourth, and maybe the most important, reason for choosing a baseball related topic is that the player or event showcases a change in American society that is reflected on the diamond. From the use of defense and pitching with Tinkers to Evers to Chance to the cheating and gambling industry of the White Sox Scandal to the creation of the Negro Leagues by Rube Foster, the history of baseball in Illinois shows the history of change in Illinois. One of the key aspects of grading any history fair project is can the student(s) show how their topic changed history. A baseball topic clearly does that using evidence over time.

Fifth, and most importantly for the student, it is fun. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I saw a student get excited about learning history by doing their history fair project about a baseball topic. Once that happens, the student is hooked and puts all their efforts into creating a product of which they are proud.

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1937 Construction of the Wrigley Field Scoreboard

As a teacher who is retiring in the next 5-8 years, when I look back at all the successful baseball projects my students created, I get a little misty because the topics were monumental events or personalities in the game. Students assembled projects on Mordecai Three Finger Brown, Albert Spalding, Tinkers to Evers to Chance, the 1906 World Series, Rube Foster, Baseball in Rockford in the 1800s, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Ron Santo, Bill Veeck, Margaret Donahue, 1937 Wrigley Field Changes, the 1907 – 1908 Cubs, The Rockford Peaches, The Chicago American Giants, Curt Flood and the Reserve Clause, and the first All-Star Game put together by Arch Ward.

With this year’s topics already selected, several students chose baseball topics for their websites or papers with Margaret Donahue being the most popular. The regional history fair is not until February 28, 2015. However, I have already started to cull some new topics and information for 2016 and will introduce a couple of new baseball topics.

First will be how baseball stadiums influence their teams. The focus will be on the old West Side Grounds and its mammoth 500 feet to center field design, the 1937 Wrigley Field changes, the old Comiskey Park, the Cell, and the new changes to Wrigley Field. It will be interesting to see if any student picks the topic or even just focuses in on one stadium (I would recommend the West Side Grounds). In fact, I might prefer they pick just one stadium so they can  go more in detail.

Old Hoss Radbourn

Old Hoss Radbourn

The second topic is a little more adult. Charles Radbourn was a pitcher for the Providence Grays in the 1880s. In 1884, he won 59 games as a starting pitcher. His prodigious events and life are chronicled in the spectacular book Fifty-Nine in ‘84 – Old Hoss Radbourn and Bare-Handed Baseball & the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had by Edward Achorn. I was also able to find some newspaper articles supplied by the Bloomington Pentagraph, Radbourn’s hometown in central Illinois. Combined with some PDF journal articles and the afore-mentioned websites, a student will not have any trouble finding information.

Here is your warning – Doing “Old Hoss” as a topic is reserved for the more mature student as “Old Hoss” lead quite a saucy life, and that is putting it mildly. I first became aware of the topic because I love baseball and I love Twitter. There is a Twitter account named @OldHossRadbourn, which I find hysterical at times. The account looks at modern day baseball through the eyes of “Old Hoss.” Needless to say, he does find their commitment and achievements lacking and paling in comparison to his. He was baseball’s first Ironman and his endurance, be it out of greed, stupidity, or pure genius, set one baseball record that will most likely never be broken. In reflecting on modern day baseball, Twitter’s @OldHossRadbourn does pinpoint the changes in the game and the changes in American society over the past 130 years. Those changes are essential to what a history fair project can do; it is just seen through the eyes of baseball.