Sunday, November 11, 2007

Jens Jensen and Shaun's Homerun

What the heck does the great landscape designer Jens Jensen have to do with baseball? Good question. I was reminded of Mr. Jensen's link to America's Pastime while reading this great blog piece about Jensen's Garfield Park Conservatory by Beth Botts of the Chicago Tribune. For starters, the author notes that the Conservatory opened the same year the Chicago Cubs last won the World Series; by winning back to back World Series' in 1907 and 1908 the Cubs performed the "two-peat". The Tribune blog piece is fantastic largely due to the knowledge the author brings to the piece, she not only volunteers as a University of Illinois Master Gardener at the Conservatory, but she has taken the El past Garfield Park and the Conservatory for years. As a fellow long time El rider (different lines), I can appreciate her ability to take in the long-term changes that are taking place out there.

I can add my own baseball related Jens Jensen recollections, as a kid I played pick-up baseball games in a Jensen park. Mahoney Park is a Jensen garden (there is only a mention of the park near the end of this great link) that straddles Sheridan Road at Tenth Street, at the extreme south-east corner of Kenilworth, Il. Sheridan Road runs along the shore of Lake Michigan from the north side of Chicago to at least Fort Sheridan, the former Army fort it was built to serve. The Jensen park was built on some of the final Mahoney family land that was left undeveloped by Joseph Sears, the man who developed Kenilworth. Much, if not all of what is now east Kenilworth was a farm owned by the Mahoney family, thus the name Mahoney Park. The town school was named after Joseph Sears. Ironically, considering the neighborhood, there was a time when a portion of east Kenilworth, north of Mahoney Park was a golf course.

Mahoney Park consists of two fields, to the east of Sheridan Road is a park open to the street in the center with trees and bushes on the outskirts, the east side of the park sits on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. The eastern park is rung by a walking path and contains two fire pits with chimneys at the lake-side corners. On the west side of Sheridan Road the park is similar, it is open to Sheridan Road, it is rung by a walking path and contains two fire pits, although the fire pits are much larger and sit at the north corners, the pits contain no chimneys. The south end of the west side of the park contains a wooded area featuring a small water fall and a stream. By the late sixties Mahoney Park had become somewhat overgrown, and although it was kept up by the village and some volunteers, the park was being used. It was being used by families, it was being used by the Girl Scouts and it was being used as a baseball diamond by the neighborhood boys.

To the chagrin of garden lovers but no doubt to the joy of many mothers in my childhood neighborhood, there were enough boys around my age in the area to play full baseball games in Mahoney Park. Sure, we all played Little League but that wasn't enough, if we couldn't get eighteen kids together to play we had ground-rules for just about every contingency. We could play a half field game or even have one outfield as out of bounds, depending on how many played in a particular game. And there was usually somebody with a broken or sprained something or other who would umpire. The park's grass had long since given way to baseball by the time I arrived, showing the dirt patina of home plate, a flat pitcher's mound and the three bases. We played fast pitch hard ball, one much younger kid who was good enough to play with us later played in the Cubs minor league system, another later played in the NFL, becoming a member of the NFL Hall of Fame. It was good competitive fun among kids of a variety of ages with no adult supervision.

We played in that park through the summer after my seventh grade, during part of each summer we were forced to play ball elsewhere or do something else because the Girl Scouts ran a day camp in the park during the mornings. During the rest of the warm months we considered that park our baseball diamond. When we started to play baseball again during the spring of eighth grade we were joined by a new neighbor, Shaun. Shaun had lived in town but had moved out of town before moving back from suburban Detroit, and despite our recent growth spurts, Shaun was much bigger than all of us. One of our ground rules involved home runs and the ever changing list of limbs on certain trees that signified home run territory, frankly we probably had more of the inside the park variety.

On that first warm spring day we were playing a tight game when our friend Shaun came up to the plate and hit a shot that not only sailed over all of our carefully crafted sets of limb-based home run markers, it was not only over all of the trees in the park, but that ball sailed over Tenth Street into Wilmette and into the construction site for a bank before sailing straight through a plate glass window that was being installed in what is now a Harris Bank branch. We all heard the smash, and we all knew there was a construction site across the street, so we all ran through the wooded area at the south end of the park to peer through the bushes and a cyclone fence to see what was hit. The construction guys spotted us right off and told us not to run, we all figured that we were in big trouble, but the construction guys laughed about it and told us the glass was insured, then they gave us back our baseball. As I look back at that incident as an adult I can see a certain Norman Rockwellish view from those construction guys' perspective, what with nearly twenty kids peering out at them through those bushes and that fence.

Walking home that day my friend Dave and I both agreed that we had outgrown the park, we both continued to play a lot of baseball and softball after that day but neither of us ever played in Mahoney Park again, we moved on to bigger arenas, in baseball and otherwise. Some years ago I happened to walk past Mahoney Park and noticed that all traces of our baseball days at Mahoney had been overgrown, given up to smaller families and organized sports. Thankfully, the Jensen Park has not been overgrown, the village has worked with the local garden clubs and other volunteers to restore the park. Not only are there likely not enough kids in that neighborhood to support such a localized ball game, but people are reasonably reluctant to let their kids play baseball on a major road like Sheridan, on the other hand we did have a whole bunch of baseball bats, which came in handy on a few occasions.

I do feel like I may be stepping on toes of Publia from the fantastic Wilmette blog with this North Shore themed post, but reading the linked Tribune piece on the Garfield Park Conservatory reminded me of all the time I spent in a Jensen park. Besides Publia has a great piece on Veterans Day today.

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Blogger Publia said...

Kenilworth is your beat!

I never, ever knew that there was more to Jensen Park than a little sign and a few feet of grass. I had no idea that it is large and hidden from view. While I have attempted to look a little closer, that's hard to do at the speed of traffic. Sadly, I have never done anything more than drive by it.

One of these days I am going to park in Harris' lot, salute that picture window, and go exploring.

Your post is a gem.

11:45 PM  
Blogger PVS said...

Wonderful walk down memory lane. Loved the post J. PVS

12:12 PM  

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