I didn’t know it until recently, but apparently I was raised in the original South Oak Park. Today’s 1500 block of South Clarence Avenue in Berwyn, where I grew up, was, before the turn of the century, situated in a swath of territory then known as “South Oak Park.”
According to the Berwyn Historical Society, the area between Roosevelt Road and 16th Street, bordered on the east and west by Ridgeland and Harlem, was actually considered a part of Oak Park until, in the late 19th century, the Oak Park and River Forest High School District set Roosevelt Road as its southern boundary. That move cut off the area, between Roosevelt and 16th Street, from what had been its home community. Shortly thereafter, in 1901, the same set of parcels, making up what would later be my boyhood neighborhood, was incorporated into the new municipality of Berwyn (I lived there from 1957 through 1972).
Berwyn and Oak Park are each grooved deeply into my bones. I lived in the former for 15 years, in the latter for 22 years, counting the year in which I rented an apartment as a graduate student on East Avenue near the Green Line. What a surprise, then, to learn that 1504 S. Clarence, the bungalow in which I was raised, is on a plot of land that was once part of “South Oak Park.”
Just last week, for the first time in over 40 years, I took a walk around my former neighborhood, parking our grey, Ford, C-Max hybrid on the 1400 block of South Wesley, adjacent to the baseball field on which I cavorted. That park had been the home of the St. Mary of Celle Little League. I stepped into the parking lot beyond the outfield fences, and surveyed the diamond, dormant now in winter.
I played on this field in the “minor” league for boys, age 9 and 10, and then in the “major” league when I was 11 and 12. I was actually quite a star back then. I was tall and could throw hard with good control. Playing for the Berwyn Eagles, and then for our league’s all-star team, I was undefeated in my final year as a pitcher. In the all-star game, we beat LaGrange 2-0. I struck out 10 batters in six innings, and held the team from that elite suburb to two hits.
I notice that the scoreboard in center field is no longer there. The sunk, brick dugouts have survived; something you don’t see in many youth baseball parks. Behind home plate, there is a square wooden building, painted green just as it was all those years ago. Back then, a dad would sit with a microphone and speaker behind the screened window of a similar structure, and announce the game to the fans in the seats along the right field foul line and those watching from beyond the fences.
My dad, I recall, once had fun at my expense during a game in which he was at the mic. I was playing shortstop. There were two outs with a runner on first. The batter hit a ground ball to me, which I fielded cleanly. I wasn’t sure how many outs there were so I ran and tagged second base, forcing the runner, and just to make sure, threw to first to complete the double-play … unnecessarily. With a chuckle, my dad teased me over the speaker: “Four outs!”
Our pastor at St. Mary of Celle, Father Robert Mastny, or to us, “Father Bob,” founded the league in 1950. Back then it was limited to the boys. A former three-sport athlete himself, he stayed close to the organization and the teams. The rectory in which he lived is located opposite the field, as are the church, school, and convent. It was a short walk to the diamond for him. In fact, the parish campus — church, school, rectory, convent, baseball field and parking lot — is situated entirely on that block, between Wesley and Euclid.
For a Catholic kid like me, and there were many of us in those days, Father Bob and the parish were part of everything. Following the annual, opening-day parade, he would bestow a blessing on the assembled teams. After the season, he would start the awards dinner with a prayer as well.
St. Mary’s was my school. Father Bob handed out our report cards at the end of a grading period. When he walked into the classroom, we would all rise and say in unison: “Praise be to Jesus and Mary, good afternoon, Father Bob!” He greeted us warmly, sat down at the teacher’s desk, and one-by-one, review and hand out each report card, calling each of us to the desk by name. He would admonish a kid for a bad grade, and praise him or her for an “E” (for excellent). If you received a “C”, “D” or “F” in conduct, he’d have a stern word with you. I remember a couple of kids with bad grades for conduct going back to their seats, holding their report cards, crying.
He didn’t mind calling you out during Mass either. For a few years, at least, each grade would attend its own special service, once a month. During eighth grade, he didn’t like the way I was mumbling during the collective recitation of the Our Father. In mid-prayer, he stopped us, pointed at me, and told me to recite it for everyone to hear. I did. Then we continued the group recitation.
Even though the border with Oak Park was only a few blocks away, I don’t remember ever thinking much about our municipal neighbor to the north, at least not until high school. I attended Fenwick for two years and got to know a lot of guys from “The Village,” as well as from other western suburbs.
At Fenwick I started to understand that Berwyn was viewed as, and was in fact, quite a different place from Oak Park, River Forest, Elmhurst, and other more middle and upper-middle communities. I learned from other students that they looked on me as a “greaser.” In fact, that was the label with which some of the sophomore guys on the baseball team tagged me. I sat at the “greaser table” in the lunchroom. You could tell us apart from the majority “climbers” at the school by our pointed-toe shoes, combed-back hair, and the different way we had of carrying ourselves.
I didn’t understand consciously at the time that the greaser-climber distinction was rooted in class differences. But in my gut, I knew that when I left school at the end of the day and headed home across Roosevelt Road, I did in fact live in a town with smaller houses, tighter lots, and a different posture toward daily life. I transferred from Fenwick to Morton West during my junior year, and graduated in 1971. I left for college after that, and rarely ever went back to Berwyn.
After growing my career for 20 years in Pennsylvania and Indiana, I returned to our area in 1996 and bought a house in the “new” south Oak Park, on the 700 block of South Scoville Avenue. My wife Maureen and I raised our four kids in The Village, moving from that small Victorian on Scoville into a larger Victorian on the 100 block of South Elmwood. For 10 years, I coached my three sons’ teams in Oak Park Youth Baseball. Some of our games took place at Maple Park near Roosevelt Road, where as a kid, I had crossed over to play pickup games. We joined Ascension Parish and sang in the choir.
We downsized after all of the kids had attended District 97 schools as well as OPRF High School. In 2017, we moved to the South Loop, but maintain close ties with friends and family in Oak Park.
So Oak Park and Berwyn have cycled back and forth in me. In some respects, Berwyn is a different place now. Looking back, I recall how many of the guys on my Berwyn Eagles baseball team were Italians, many of whose families had moved from the West Side during the construction of UIC. I see that the old St. Mary of Celle Little League still exists as the corporation created by Father Bob. But it’s been renamed the Berwyn Little League and is now dedicated wholly to girls’ softball.
My old team’s roster carried names like Pasquinelli, Barbato, Gaspari and Compobasso. Today, the little league invites girls to sign up, in Spanish or in English: “Registro de ninas de Softball” proclaimed on its Facebook page. The original South Oak Park’s majority is now Mexican-American, with many having moved, like the Italians before them, from Chicago’s West Side.