CHICAGO -- Comiskey Park was already fortysomething the first time I set foot inside. It was 1955 and I sat in right field to see the Yankees -- arguably the best club in the history of baseball -- play the White Sox. I have no record of the game, but I'm confident that the Yankees won. They usually did back then.
After that I went to lots of games there. In the 1950s the Sox were coming out of a long era of ignominy. Before 1951 they had not finished in the first division in eight years and only five times since the disgrace of the Black Sox scandal in 1919.
But the '50s were the golden era for the Sox. After 1951, when they finished fourth, to the end of the decade, they never were lower than third, then second, and finally -- only the second time in the decade that the Yankees lost the pennant -- first.
Now, after 80 years of continuous play, the Great Lady of the South Side is about to be razed and replaced by a thoroughly modern stadium, new Comiskey Park, directly across 35th Street that looms for the moment over the oldest park in the majors.
Cubs fans, who never had much in the way of a ballclub to focus on, will say that Wrigley Field (designed later by the same architect, Zachary Taylor Davis, who did Comiskey Park) is the "most beautiful ballpark in the world." So it has vines, no upper deck in the outfield and -- until 1988 -- no lights.
Comiskey may not be as beautiful as Wrigley, but it has grace and style -- arches in the exterior brick walls to allow a breeze into the park, a covered upper deck broken only by the center field scoreboard (the first in the majors to feature rocket launchers -- installed by Bill Veeck in 1959 -- primed to erupt whenever the home team hit a rare home run).
Comiskey has symmetry -- 347 feet down either line and 401 feet in dead center. It also has a real bullpen in center, not some makeshift affair in foul territory where relief pitchers have to worry about being hit by a batted ball while they're warming up. Back in the '50s, when a Sox relief pitcher had to make what announcer Bob Elson called "the long trip from center field," a Nash Rambler station wagon would bring him in, circling the field along the warning track and depositing him at home plate.
Under the lights the natural turf glistens like an emerald. When I was in grammar school I used to sit behind home plate at night games with Ralph Miller, my closest friend at the time, and watch Billy Pierce -- "slender little left-hander," Elson called him -- smoke his fastball past hitters. More often than not the park was filled and the Sox won, never by much, but they won.
The thing about the Sox of the '50s was that they were a team of overachievers, young men who always seemed to be struggling against insuperable odds and winning -- not just because they turned out to be more skillful, but because they were always performing at their maximum. They had to.
The team that general manager Frank Lane started building in the late '40s had no power and lackluster hitting. What it did have in abundance -- starting with the Go Go Sox of 1951 -- was hustle, finesse and guts. It had Minnie Minoso, a one-man rally playing left field, Nellie Fox (who belongs in the Hall of Fame, by the way) at second base and Luis Aparicio (who is in the Hall) at shortstop. Fox and Aparicio were the finest double-play combination in baseball at the time -- maybe ever. "Jungle Jim" Rivera, an unsavory character but a gutsy ballplayer, played right field and a succession of speedsters -- Jim Busby, Larry Doby and Jim Landis -- played center. Sherman Lollar, a steady, reliable Texan with the heart of a lion, played catcher.
But they were never strong at the corners, experimenting at first base with supposed power hitters Ferris Fain, Walt Dropo, Earl Torgeson and even Ted Kluszewski after his prime, and an equally forgettable group at third (with the exception of Al Smith, whom they got in a trade with Cleveland).
And that was pretty much it throughout the '50s. The Sox relied on a strong starting staff -- Pierce, Dick Donovan, Bob Keegan, Virgil Trucks, Bob Shaw and Early Wynn (at the end of the decade), a competent bullpen, luck, pluck and daring. A typical Sox run consisted of a walk, stolen base, sacrifice bunt, sacrifice fly.
Watching a game, or listening on radio as I often did with my father, was not for the fainthearted. They rarely scored in bunches, so anytime the opposition had a man on base, there was cause for concern. The Sox rarely breezed. More often, they eked it out.
I identified with these men. They were friends. I knew them. I lived three blocks from the residential hotel where most of them stayed when they were in town. I literally papered my bedroom wall with their autographs. I brought a tennis ball along while I waited and sometimes they played catch with me. Tommy Byrne showed me how to throw a curve.
Along the right field wall in Comiskey seven baseballs are painted. Each has a name and a number: Fox, 2; (Harold) Baines, 3; (Luke) Appling, 4; Minoso, 9; (Ted) Lyons, 16; Aparicio, 11; and Pierce, 19. I've seen five of them play at Comiskey. Three of them are in the Hall of Fame and two more -- Fox and Pierce (if Don Drysdale made it, then Pierce should be there too) deserve to be.
In less than two months, the right field wall, and the rest of the old park, will come down. The park next door will be ready. White Sox management says Comiskey is in bad structural shape and can't be fixed. The new park, costing about $175 million for everything and financed with Illinois Sports Facilities Authority bonds after a huge political hassle, will be ready next season.
It appears to have everything anyone could want in the way of amenities -- a first-class restaurant, an on-site bakery, sky boxes, seats close to the field, natural turf. The 43,000 seats, about what the old park has, will have no pillars obstructing the view. The park has no apparent eccentricities and retains the symmetry of the old park as well as the proximity. White Sox management claims the intimacy of the old park will be maintained, but it's hard to see how in the open air with no roofed upper deck to enclose the field.
Not that the new park isn't splendid. All that it lacks is character and memories. Babe Ruth will never play in it. Fox and Aparicio will never dance around second base. Mickey Mantle will never put one into the upper deck in right or left. Ted Williams will never crack the wall in right with a line shot.
I'm sure sooner or later I will see a game there. I will sit in one of the blue molded plastic seats and enjoy the view. The Sox may win, as they did the night I saw them play this July. Carlton Fisk may even hit a home run, as he did that night. And the scoreboard will explode.
All those things may happen. But for me, and I suspect for a lot of other Sox fans, it will never be the same.
Lawrence Meyer is editor of The Washington Post National Weekly.