Prize Worthy

At the age of eight I was old enough to recognize when Spring had sprung. The days were at least a temperature of fifty degrees Fahrenheit and Daylight Savings arrival and made the sun stay out past 8:00pm. That’s also when three different ice cream trucks would make its way at various times of the evening within a few block radius of Quincy Street in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. Each truck driver knew his territory in the fight for a kid’s hard won allowance money and made sure not to bud in on the competition or suffer the consequences.

The compact, white colored Good Humor truck had a picture of an ice cream bar on the side panel. Chiming bells was instant recognition that Good Humor was somewhere in the area. The driver dished out to willing customers with appropriate coinage orange colored creamsicles, various flavored popsicles and sundry ice cream cones.

Two other larger ice cream wagons also addled along our street playing their franchise’s theme song. The less popular vendor was Tastee-Freeze while Mister Softee seemed to win hands down in popularity. Maybe it was the very catchy and hypnotic tune that rolled off the truck’s loudspeaker that could be heard even a block away. Or maybe it was the chocolate custard ice cream scoops on small square cones.

In order to solidify a hold on its customer base, Mister Softee decided to hold a contest to name a parrot. The winner would get the parrot. Which brings us to Arnold, a neighbor directly across the street. We shared four things in common. We were both lefties, had the same shade of bright colored red hair, the same birthday (although I was one year older) and our mothers had identical first names. The only negative was that he was a White Sox fan, while I was loyal to the Cubs. Naturally, he lived on the south side of the street and I on the north. His father was an interesting fellow in that I never could quite figure out what he did for a living and always seemed to be listening on his police scanner radio either in the front parlor or the front steps to the house for fire calls. He certainly didn’t look like a firefighter.

Arnold was fretting because he saw the Mister Softee contest promotion and was desperate to win the parrot. He told me that he had a mental block (at seven years of age!) and couldn’t come up with a good name for a parrot- one worthy of winning the contest. I thought for about two and a half seconds and said, “why don’t you submit ‘Polly’?” He told me that he thought it was a good idea and had his mother help him fill out the entry form. Lo and behold, a couple of months later my name selection or I should rather say Arnold’s won.

It took several years to finally get any type of pat on the back. It didn’t come from Arnold as our families had by then left Austin for the North Side and we no longer kept in touch. I got my reward in 1970 as a result of playing in an intramural basketball league in high school. I was the captain of a team which meant I selected guys who I knew would let me hog the ball for fear of my making them ride the bench for long stretches. In other words, I was a great strategist and among the best of the non-athletic male students in school who could dribble and not trip at the same time.

At the end of the season I was placed on the intramural all-star team as evaluated by the league referees. I was given a giant, heavy trophy that had an athletic-looking figure holding one hand almost straight up with the ball cradled in it. After a few years, I put it in the trunk of my car thinking it could be a good weapon if the need ever arose.

Before you mock me along with the hundreds of others who already have had their chance, the games were refereed by the coaches of the senior and junior varsity teams. And the senior team won first place in their city-wide private league losing only one game all year. By the way, and of course this is strictly co-incidental, I was usually the official scorekeeper or timekeeper at the home games that year. Just saying…

In 1984, I had one last hurrah as a manager of a team in a late summer softball league hosted by a field house in suburban Evanston. They had finished the construction of a well-manicured baseball diamond under the lights in June and were looking to put it to use before the end of July. Word got out in our early summer Rogers Park league of the need for players willing to commit. Along with another fellow on my then current team, we recruited a motley group of individuals- some were very talented athletes with a history of winning championships in the Rogers Park league. Others were hangers-on whom I encouraged to come to the tryout to make sure we had enough numbers to make solid selections.

It ended up being a ten game season playing twice a week so that it could be done before Labor Day along with playoffs. Being thirty-one and three quarters of age and recognizing my declining athleticism, I coached third base and got into just one game for a couple of innings. To give you an idea in the disparity of the talent in the league, we finished in fourth place which qualified us as the last team in the playoffs. Our record was 6-4, with four of our wins coming by slaughter rule. To not give us swelled heads, we made sure we also lost two by slaughter.

My easiest and smartest decision as a manager happened in the second inning of our first game. A fellow drives up in a convertible and jumps out of the car with cans of beer in both hands. He belonged to another team that had been brought intact from the famed Robert Crown League in another part of Evanston. His team had a reputation of rarely losing a game which they made sure didn’t happen in our league despite using mainly their bench players.

Apparently Leon broke his team’s rule of coming late for the game and was summarily kicked off. This ticked him off and he was desperate to play. He approached me and begged me or rather told me he was joining my team. I looked around to see if anyone knew of him and a couple said he was the real deal despite his enjoyment of liquid refreshment even during a game while out in the field. I gathered very quickly that he was by trade a center fielder. He proved that very adequately as well as showed that he could catch anything hit to right or left. In other words, he was a ball hog but whatever he went after he caught.

Yes, he did come late to our games and yes he was generally smelling from alcohol but as a professional manager I believed in two sets of rules. The first rule was win at all costs; the second, make sure Leon gets in the game and does his thing.

We didn’t win a trophy but we were the only playoff team to be put together in less than ten days before our first game. The others had played as a unit in other leagues. It was our only season and my shining moment- enough for me to go out in a blaze of glory with a winning record as a manager. A Hall of Fame baseball player such as Ted Williams couldn’t even claim that.

Nowadays, I look for simple pats on the back. I’m not suggesting, but if anyone wants to nominate me for a Pulitzer Prize, this is where you can find the information:

Pulitzer Prize Recommendation Entry Form

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