The last game of the 1957 baseball season for OPRF High School pitted the home team Huskies against the Proviso East Pirates.
The game was played on Oak Park’s field, and it was not a game to determine first place because both teams had 4-4 records, but it was the last game the seniors would ever play for OPRF.
The Pirates had a 2-1 lead going into the bottom of the 7th, the Huskie’s last at bat.
The Huskie pitcher had tossed a great game, giving up only a few hits and two earned runs and had walked two. The Pirate pitcher had given up only one earned run and had walked no one.
I could see that Jack Kaiser the Huskie coach was nervous, because he was chewing gum a mile a minute, clapping his hands, and pacing back and forth behind the Huskie bench.
Mr. Kaiser called out some words of encouragement to the players, and then the Huskie lead-off batter stepped to the plate. On the first pitch he lined out to the Pirate shortstop.
The second batter hit a sharp single to centerfield, and the fans rose from their seats.
The third batter hit a long fly down the left field foul line which was caught by the Pirate leftfielder after a long run. From my seat in the stands, I heard a collective gasp from the spectators.
There were now two outs and a Huskie runner on first.
The fourth batter worked the Pirate pitcher for a walk, Huskie runners on first and second with two outs.
The next batter was Jim De Leonardis, who led the team in runs batted in and extra base hits, so hope was still alive as the fans moved forward on their seats with intense looks on their faces.
Jim and I had been classmates at Holmes School, and even when we were in seventh and eighth grades and played softball, Jim would frequently slug a pitched ball over the leftfield fence, which would often hit a pigeon coop scattering the birds.
Even though the atmosphere was tense and many of the fans had sweat on their brows, I felt that Jim would come through for our team.
I remember the following scenario as though it were yesterday.
The Pirate pitcher bore down, and his first pitch was a blazing fastball that Jim swung at and missed. The Pirate pitcher got the sign from his catcher and threw another fastball. Jim’s swing air-conditioned the field. He was trying too hard, and I yelled to him to ease up. The third pitch was high for a ball. The count was now one and two.
The fourth pitch was a blistering fastball. Jim swung and connected. The crowd rose to their feet and watched as the arching ball headed to left field. The Pirate leftfielder drifted back to the fence, timed his leap and raised his glove high, but the ball was hit just high enough and far enough to elude the fielder’s outstretched glove and land beyond the fence.
The crowd roared and the players and Mr. Kaiser shook Jim’s hand and slapped him on the back as he crossed the plate on that hot June afternoon 58 years ago.
John Stanger is a lifelong resident of Oak Park, a 1957 graduate of OPRF High School, married with three grown children and five grandchildren, and an English professor at Elmhurst College. Living two miles from where he grew up, he hasn’t gotten far in 71 years.