Baseball

My Dad: A Little League Big Shot

When it comes to my family’s baseball gene pool, I ended up in the shallow end.

With a pair of water wings.

Whereas I didn’t hit my growth spurt or figure out how to really hit a baseball (keep your head down!) until it was far too late, my younger brother, John, was a perennial youth league all-star and an all-conference performer during high school.

And my dad?

Well, he was all-everything.

My Pop, throwing filth

During college in the 1960s, my father, Joe, excelled as a pitcher at Kankakee High School and then Illinois State University. Excelled so well, in fact, that after earning his sheepskin from ISU he was plucked out of the Major League draft by the San Francisco Giants and dispatched to a minor league gig in Medford, Ore., where he lived out his dream.

Spending his days spinning curveballs under the Oregon and Idaho sun, my dad competed against the likes of future Major Leaguers such as Ron Cey and Doyle Alexander, the latter of which he defeated when Alexander was a peach-fuzzed 17-year-old making his minor league debut for the L.A. Dodgers.

With the Giants, my dad played alongside teammates that included George Foster, who won the 1977 NL MVP with the fabled “Big Red Machine,” and Leo Mazzone, who rose to fame as pitching coach for the 1990s Atlanta Braves featuring Maddux, Smoltz and Glavine.

Unfortunately, for my dad, his own career came to an abrupt halt when midway through his second season in Medford he injured his pitching elbow and never recovered.

“I needed Tommy John surgery,” my dad has said many times. “They just didn’t have it yet.”

If they did, it might be known as “Joe Wischnowsky” surgery today.

Nevertheless, despite the sour end to his playing days, my dad came home with plenty of sweet stories from the final years of his baseball career.

Although it’s always been the beginning that’s fascinated me the most.

Because, 50 years ago this summer, my then 12-year-old dad first broke onto the hardball scene in a starring role for one of the greatest Little League teams to emerge from the Land of Lincoln.

Ever.

In 1958, my father’s Kankakee Jaycees All-Star team’s incredible postseason run led them from small-town Illinois to Williamsport, Pa., and, ultimately, to a berth in the title of game of the Little League World Series, where they faced the defending world champions from Moneterrey, Mexico.

In the U.S. Championship game prior to the title bout against the Mexicans, my dad took the mound against a Gadsden, Ala., featuring a flame-throwing pitcher by the lyrical name of Mackey Moats.

Moats, according to what one of his teammates told my dad back then, was known an avid weightlifter.

Even though he was only 11 years old.

Nevertheless, my dad defeated Moats and the boys from ‘Bama 3-1, providing me with what’s probably my favorite of all of his baseballl anecdotes.

Many of the rest of the Jaycees’ memories, however, were captured nicely this past Sunday in an article written by Steve Soucie of the Kankakee Daily Journal .

The story is posted below. And I just want to say, I’m proud of ya, Dad.

And I’m glad I never faced your curveball.

I wouldn’t have stood a chance.

50 years later, Jaycees are still Illinois’ best

By Steve Soucie

Assistant sports editor

When Little League’s postseason slate began in 1958, most of those in the know believed the Kankakee Jaycees entrant in the tournament wouldn’t even get out of town.

But in reality, the team was about to begin a journey that has never been bettered by an Illinois squad in Little League baseball history.

The tournament was a single-elimination event at every one of its stages in 1958, which required capable teams to never have a bad game or even a bad inning, lest their fate be decided with a loss.

Fortunately for the Jaycees, they were built in a fashion that wasn’t apt to allow that to happen. The club won 12-consecutive games using an iron man pitching staff of two arms to claim the U.S. Championship before losing a 10-1 decision to a loaded Monterrey, Mexico, team in the World Championship game.

Not bad for a team that was an underdog from the start.

The postseason begins

In 1958, the tournament began with a Sub-District, which was contested prior to the District Tournament. The Jaycees earned wins over Wilmington and Bradley to earn a berth in the District Tournament, but most, including some of the players themselves, believed the Kankakee Lions (now the Kankakee Knights of Columbus) might be too powerful to overcome.

“In the District Tournament, the Lions were supposed to be the team to beat,” Jaycees third baseman Mike DeBetta said. “They had some huge players.”

But Spring Valley took care of the Lions in District semifinal game, and the one-and-done format ended the so-called favorite’s run in their tracks. The Jaycees topped Coal City 12-0 in the other semifinal and then bested the upstarts from Spring Valley to move along.

The Jaycees had little trouble in the Sectional but ran into a bit a rough patch in the State Tournament, fending off tough teams from Marion and Evergreen Park to keep the dream alive.

Through it all, Don McKay and Joe Wischnowsky (who strangely went by the name of Wischnowski throughout his athletic career, never bothering to correct an erroneous spelling of his name) did all of the pitching. McKay threw a bit harder than Wischnowsky and would often throw the first game of the tournaments. Wischnowsky, armed with a surprisingly good curveball, would then pitch the second. The duo alternated between shortstop and pitching positions..

Only once was either of the two relieved for during tournament play — when McKay was forced out of the World Championship game after being plunked by a batted ball. Wischnowsky was unavailable having pitched in the U.S. title game, so outfielder Brian Adame was pressed into action.

“There’s no doubt Joe Wischnowsky was the better pitcher of the two of us,” McKay said from his home, just outside of Dallas, Texas. “Take a vote of the team and he’d win in a landslide.”

That tandem pitched back-to-back shutouts in wins over Gary, Ind., and Birmingham, Mich., at the Regional.

At that point, the team had achieved what basically nobody thought was possible — a berth in the Little League World Series.

At Williamsport

The format at the Little League World Series was just as unforgiving as the previous tournaments. One loss ousted a team from the tournament. The four U.S. qualifiers (Kankakee Jaycees, Darien, Conn., Gadsen, Ala., and Portland, Ore.) were joined by international representatives from Canada (Valleyfield, Quebec), Latin America (Monterrey, Mexico) and the Pacific (Honolulu, Hawaii). The Hawaiian team had to go through Pacific qualifying as Hawaii wouldn’t become a state for two more years.

The odd seven-team bracket had the Jaycees opening against the squad from Oregon. McKay locked horns with Portland‘s ace pitcher Rick Wise. Wise would later win 188 games in Major League Baseball with Philadelphia, St. Louis, Boston, Cleveland and San Diego.

But on that day, Wise was just another pitcher the Jaycees had to topple to keep the dream alive.

It was an epic battle.

Portland drew first blood with a run in the third inning, but DeBetta who emerged as a serious threat with the bat in the postseason, blasted a Wise offering over the fence for a game-tying tally.

“That was something,” DeBetta said. “I still get asked about that. I don’t hesitate to talk about it, either.”

The two teams stayed deadlocked until the sixth inning when Tom Fowler, the Jaycees strapping first baseman, connected for another home run off of Wise.

“I didn’t know him, of course, but what he did always left an impression on me, Rick Wise was at home plate congratulating Tom,” Wischnowsky said. “That’s sportsmanship. I don’t know if you’d see that today.”

McKay needed to get three more outs to get the Jaycees to the U.S. title game. He maneuvered that minefield successfully, and the Jaycees unbelievable run continued.

Alabama was next and the only team standing in the way of the U.S. title. Wischnowsky handcuffed Gasden for four innings before giving up a solitary run in the fifth. The Jaycees offense wasn’t exactly potent, either, but managed to turn two hits into three runs for a 3-1 victory.

Against Mexico

The U.S. title game was quickly followed by an opportunity to win the whole ball of wax. But Monterey, Mexico, the tournament’s defending champion, had overpowered each of its foes throughout the tournament and did so again, toppling the Jaycees 10-1 in the championship game.

“They were by far the class of the tournament,” Wischnowsky said. “What struck me was how mature some of them were. I think some of them were already shaving; it was like men against boys. We were hoping to beat them, but it was obvious pretty early on we weren’t going to.”

Hector Torres, a 9-year Major League veteran who played the 1971 season with the Cubs, stymied the Jaycees’ bats, limiting them to just three hits and a lone sixth-inning run, well after the outcome was decided.

But few, if any of the Jaycees, focus on the loss. For them, it’s about the journey that came before it.

“It was just a really fine collection of boys,” coach Gus LaRoche said. “We played great defense and we had really good pitching. It was something else. One loss and you were out. We didn’t get that loss until the last game.”

The celebration that ensued following the team’s return to Kankakee was impressive. A large contingent of team supporters caravaned the team back to Kankakee before a huge reception back at Beckman Park.

Banquets and other perks followed, including an on-field tour and recognition at Comiskey Park, where the team brushes elbows with Chicago White Sox greats Sherm Lollar and Nellie Fox.

“We knew it was it something special, but we were kids and we were just having fun, and I don’t think we realized the magnitude of what we were doing,” Wischnowsky said. “But as we look back, we realize it. I still get thrilled about it, even 50 years later.”

General

A new California angel

Longtime Wisch List readers dating back to my days in Ottawa – or those of you who own my book – likely will recall the columns I wrote in 2003 about my irrepressible pal Mark Wiebe, a wheelchair-bound high school student who weighed just 40 pounds but carried more weight than an army of men in the hearts of those who knew him.

Five years ago this June, Mark — who collected marbles, ran his own Web site (tagline: Wiebe Jammin’) and sang in the school chorus — died at the age of 17 after battling the paralyzing disorder Spinal Muscular Atrophy his entire life.

But despite his limitations, Mark’s spirit, intelligence and quick wit enabled him to become larger than life in the eyes of so many, including myself.

Such was the case with James Melroy, a newspaper sports editor in Long Beach, Calif., who passed away in his sleep last Friday at the age of 36. 

Born with arthrogryposis, a rare congenital disorder that left him in need of a wheelchair to get around, James didn’t let his disease keep him from pursuing his passions to the fullest.

And leaving a legacy on the southern California prep sports scene.

To read a touching tribute to James – who I didn’t know, but wish I had – in the Long Beach Press-Telegram, click here.

Trust me, it’ll be worth your while.

And, James, say hey to Mark for me.

General

I’ve been busy …

I’ve been busy.

Busy working, yes.

But also busy with Happy Hour (hello, Durkin’s). And busy with Cubs games (goodbye, White Sox).

Busy with concerts (on Southport). And busy with movies (at Village North, a quaint little place in Rogers Park).

Soon enough, it’s likely I’ll be busy with street fests, North Avenue Beach and who knows what the heck else.

At least, that’s the plan.

Pretty much, I guess, I’ve been busy with, well … with life in Chicago.

You know, as in actually having one.

Because, honestly, that’s a pretty novel concept for me.

After all, when you do things like, oh, spend 20 consecutive months working on Saturday nights from 5 p.m. to midnight at the Tribune Tower (yes, you read all of that right), it’s kinda hard to have much of one.

At all.

But now that I’ve shaken off the shackles of the newspaper biz and its wacky hours, I’m intent on finally fully enjoying a Windy City summer.

For the first time since I moved here in 2005.

So, as I ease back into the swing of this writing thing, I plan to blog here and blog there during the next couple of months –depending on how often my muse taps me on the shoulder – but I have no set schedule or expectations.

Which is a nice change of pace.

I spent five hectic years writing a column and then a blog “about life – and the people who live it,” but the irony of it was that often that group didn’t include me.

These days, though, I’m happy to say, it does.

But, all right, enough with all that sappy stuff.

Let’s get on with the show …

Obama-McCain do Lincoln-Douglas?

From the “Best Idea I’ve Heard All Month Department” comes a letter to the editor that was published June 6 in The (Ottawa, Ill.) Times by reader Larry Thomas …

“With an announcement that John McCain and Barack Obama are looking to debate each other several times in the Lincoln-Douglas style, I felt Ottawa should jump at the chance to be the host for the first one,” wrote Thomas, a resident of Ottawa, where on Aug. 21, 1858, the first of the famous senatorial debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas was held.

“Surely the mayor, or local Republican or Democratic parties, or Chamber of Commerce could make speedy contact to offer our city to the process,” Thomas continued, “This would be an outstanding forum to display and market Ottawa on a world stage.

“With proper security, it could even be conducted in Washington Square at the exact location of the first Lincoln-Douglas Debate.”

Seeing that 2008 marks the 150th anniversary of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and that the national political spotlight is currently shining on the Land of Lincoln due to Obama’s candidacy, I can’t think of a more ideal place for this year’s presidential hopefuls to meet.

Somebody in Ottawa seriously needs to get the ball rolling on this one.

After all, Abe and Steve are waiting.

Heck, so am I.

Seven Dirty Words, One Disappointment

When I was a senior at the University of Illinois, one afternoon in my Communications Law class we listened to comedian George Carlin’s famous stand-up bit “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” as part of an assignment.

While poking jabs at society’s language taboos during the bit, Carlin was both clever (which I admire) and crass (which I don’t mind — as long as it’s clever).

Two years earlier, however, when Carlin gave a free performance at Assembly Hall during an event to kick off my sophomore year, he was all crass.

And no clever.

So much so that me, my friends and hundreds of our fellow students proceeded to simply walk out on Carlin midway through his routine.

He was that offensive.

In today’s Chicago Tribune, reader Oren M. Spiegler of Upper St. Clair, Pa., opined this about Carlin, who passed away Sunday at 71:

“I will remember George Carlin as one of the funniest comedians of my lifetime. I regret that he was so intent on offending civilization as to render his material unsuitable for general audiences.”

On at least one occasion, his material was unsuitable for college kids, too.

And that’s saying something.

My Cousin Vinny

Is it just me, or didn’t new Chicago Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro always look more like an auto mechanic than an NBA player when he was with the San Antonio Spurs?

I’ll give him credit, the guy has cleaned up his look and looked quite dapper during his introductory press conference earlier this month.

And, while I don’t have the slightest idea if Del Negro can fix the Bulls, I’m hoping that maybe there is at least one thing he can at least fix.

Joakim Noah’s fashion sense.

Planet of the Grapes

While visiting my parents on Father’s Day, my mom told me that she had signed up for a wine club through the National Rifle Association.

(My mom doesn’t own a gun, mind you. She just likes owning an NRA card.)

I told her that it sounded like a good deal and, with a smirk, proceeded to ask if Charlton Heston’s likeness was on the bottles.

And if they had a flavor called “Damn Dirty Grapes.”

The 100-year Itch

When it comes to the Cubs, I can be a little over the top when it comes to my devotion

Anyone who knows me, knows that.

But, this season, I’m blowing even myself away.

Because, when I take my seat at tonight’s game at Wrigley against the Baltimore Orioles, it will already be my 19th Cubs game of the season.

I’m not 100 percent sure, but I think that’s already a career high.

At least it is until tomorrow night.

When I attend Game No. 20.

I told you I’ve been busy.

Parting shot

From reader Craig Burzych in today’s Tribune …

“The White Sox were right: Something really stunk at Clark and Addison this past weekend, but it wasn’t the Cubs and it wasn’t Wrigley Field.”

Man, I love baseball in Chicago.

General

APB? No, BRB

The Wisch List hasn’t gone on vacation.

Or retired.

It’s just been busy.

(Got this dang thing called a job.)

New posts coming very soon, though.

Promise.

General

Rim shot, please

So, my good buddy “Dish” of PropCulture.com sends me an e-mail with the subject head: “My new favorite website.” This is it.

And now it’s my favorite, too. (You know, for today, at least.)

Cubs

Safe at ‘home’

I used to live a few blocks away from Wrigley Field.

Not anymore, though. This summer, I’ve decided to just move into the place.

Seems like I spend most of my time there anyways.

So, it’s back to the bleachers again.

(I know, rough life, right?)

Remarkably, the weather is even nice.

So, two days after drinking this at Thursday’s night game – on May-frickin’-29th! – I’m planning today to instead have one of these.

Or, maybe, two.

And, who knows, maybe the Cubs will rally from 10 down today.

General

Now, you can’t Bee serious

I’m a good speller.

Heck, probably a great speller.

But after stumbling to a somewhat-disappointing 4th-place finish in the districtwide finals as a first grader (I flubbed “lyric,” a word I’d simply never heard before. I think I misplaced the “i” and threw in a “k”), I never competed in a schoolwide spelling bee again.

That’s still weird to me, as I’m certain I was — after, you know, learning what a lyric is — a better speller than almost every other student in my grade. Whereas numbers, basketball or, well, detentions were the forté of some kids in school, my strength was words.

Still is.

Now, letters, on the other hand, well they belonged strictly to my childhood buddy Thoufiq Kutty.

Along with his brothers Malik and Rafiq before him, Thoufiq — now an attorney and alumnus of Northwestern University and University of Chicago — was part of a spelling dynasty at Bourbonnais Upper Grade Center during the 1980s.

Back then, the Kuttys did one thing: They won spelling bees.

And by the time Thoufiq rolled into junior high in 1988, it was simply expected that he would sweep the 6th, 7th and 8th grade bees over the next three years.

Just as his brothers had before him.

Really, I don’t know he had any other choice.

The pressure was on.

And I certainly didn’t want to add to it.

So, each spring during a schoolwide assembly, I’d sit up in the gymnasium balcony, twiddling my thumbs and spelling to myself while watching other classmates drop like flies during the bee, misspelling an “allusion” here or a “conscience” there.

And every year, at bee’s end, Thoufiq stood alone. Victorious.

And, I’m certain, relieved.

Now, it’s not that I would have surely beaten Thoufiq (in fact, it’s unlikely I would have), but never once did I even enter our school’s spelling bee during junior high.

I believe I may have claimed stage fright as my excuse, and perhaps that did have something to do with it. But I think even more of a reason for ducking the bee was I feared I’d actually win the thing.

And beat my buddy, snapping his family’s cherished streak.

I didn’t even want to try.

In any case, the only reason why I’m sharing this little tale with you today is to display the strong respect that I have for spelling.

And bees.

That said, however, I still had to laugh this morning when I read a “BREAKING NEWS” e-mail alert sent by my hometown newspaper, the Kankakee Daily Journal (where I have friends, and once interviewed for an editor job).

Because, while spelling bees are great and all, I’m still not sure they’re quite this buzzworthy … 🙂

Sent: Thursday, May 29, 2008 8:33 AM
Subject:
***BREAKING NEWS FROM THE DAILY JOURNAL ONLINE***

Ajay Chatrath, an eighth-grader at Grace Baptist Academy in Kankakee, correctly spelled his first word this morning in the Scripps National Spelling Bee.More on this story will be posted on www.daily-journal.com as details are available.

General

Heat Waive

Chicago Summer R.I.P.

May 26, 2008 – May 26, 2008

Wednesday afternoon update: Well, at least the sun is out today. But, still, people simply should not be wearing parkas and scarves on “L” platforms three days before the start of June.

This happens next year and the CTA is going to have to start keeping those heat lamps at my Red Line station active until May 31.

Or July 31.

The current shut-off date of March 31 is not cutting it anymore. Not even close.

Of, course … ahem, I’m guessing CTA officials probably have other things on their minds today besides the Chicago chill.)