Boys (and Girls) of Summer
Did you know that local farm boys from McHenry County once squared off against the Chicago Cubs and White Sox? That a hurler from Marengo pitched for the last Cubs team to win a World Series? Or that a second baseman from Johnsburg became the first National Leaguer ever to hit a grand slam in World Series play?
The National Pastime Finds Fertile Soil
Nobody knows for sure when baseball first took root in McHenry County. Its popularity blossomed in the late 1860s, when Civil War veterans came “sliding home” from duty with a new game called “base ball” they picked up in the Union Army. By the dawn of 20th century, to be sure, McHenry County boasted top-notch, semi-pro ball clubs. The Olivers, sponsored by Woodstock’s Oliver Typewriter Company, were among the best in the Midwest.
Their 1902 team sent three players on to the big leagues. Most notable was George Moriarty, who, at age 17, impressed major league scouts during an exhibition game between the Olivers and the Chicago Cubs. Moriarty debuted for Chicago’s northsiders the following season, beginning a 55-year career as a player, manager and umpire in the majors.
Charles “The Old Roman” Comiskey, owner of the Chicago White Sox from 1901 to 1931, owned a summer home overlooking the Fox River in McHenry. Folks say he rose a lantern in the evenings to signify a Chicago White Sox victory. Despite a reputation for frugality—some critics called him an outright miser—Comiskey helped sponsor the semi- pro McHenry White Sox. He once splurged so his American League club could ride the train out from the city for a friendly exhibition game against their country namesakes. In 1914, with spitballer and future Hall of Famer “Big” Ed Walsh on the mound, Comiskey’s Chi-Sox bested their McHenry County hosts 13-1 before an enthralled crowd.
Cary also organized a strong semi-pro ball club. By 1921, these “salaried” players averaged $15 to $25 per game and up to $75 for a good pitcher. Many local businessmen chipped in. Fans enjoyed a friendly wager and often put their hard-earned cash behind their local nine. One time, the Cary crowd noticed portsider “Lefty” Williams warming up for the visiting team. Williams, a two-time 20-game winner for the Chicago White Sox, had been banned from major league baseball for his role in the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal. Word quickly spread, and all bets were off.
Baseball Gives Life to Local Rivalries …
By mid-century, exhibition games with Chicago’s big league teams were a thing of the past. There was more than enough competition locally as semi-pro and company teams gave way to a talented amateur circuit.
The competition was fierce. Perhaps the greatest rivalry was between McHenry and Johnsburg. “We’d pass a hat through the crowd, filling it one quarter at a time and sometimes raised a $100 dollars,” said Bill Bolger, McHenry Shamrocks manager from 1946 to 1954, explaining how they managed to pay for uniforms and equipment. “We’d make three times that when we played Johnsburg.”
Bolger continues: “On Memorial Day 1949, for the Lake-McHenry League Championship, we played the highly talented Johnsburg Tigers at the McHenry ball field. Johnsburg had their ace, Joe Jackson, back from the minor leagues for the game. The Shamrocks pitcher, Sammy Miller, did a great job holding the heavy-hitting Johnsburg team to three runs. Meanwhile, our hitters went wild. McCulla had six hits in six at-bats, and Harry Stilling went 5 for 6. I was never much of a home run hitter, but in the second inning I hit one with the bases loaded.
“The Shamrocks won by an unbelievable score of 21 to 3. In the middle of a Shamrocks rally, the Johnsburg manager came to home plate and asked his catcher, ‘What’s the matter, doesn’t Joe have it today?’ ‘I don’t know,’ the catcher, Joe’s brother Geo Jackson, replied. ‘I haven’t caught one yet.’”
The McHenry Shamrocks formed in 1938 and played well into the 1950s, until “television changed everything,” said Bolger.
A League of Their Own
Women’s baseball—fast-pitch baseball, not softball—enjoyed great popularity as well during the post-war era. At times, up to 200 fans attended night games under the lights at Marengo’s old American Legion ballpark.
“We had a pretty good following,” said Shirley Kitchen, who played third base from 1950 to 1954 for the Marengo Girls Hardball Team. “I never paid attention to the crowds. But we were a tight-knit group, and there wasn’t much else in town to do.” Gloria Anthony, who played left field, says she still gets teased over a play she’d like to forget. “I bent to pick up a ground ball that rolled out to the outfield, jammed my thumb and passed out on the field from pain,” she said. “My sons will never let me forget that one.”
Other girls’ teams in the local circuit included Harvard, Woodstock, Belvidere and DeKalb. One highlight for the Marengo team was playing the Rockford Ko-Eds, farm team for the Rockford Peaches (made famous in the movie, “A League of Their Own”). “We didn’t wear skirts,” Marengo catcher Mary Jane Bauman said, referencing the impractical attire of the Rockford team. “It’s a good thing because we sure wore our spikes, and we learned how use them when sliding. There were lots of bruised shins and some pretty bad raspberries. I don’t remember the final score of that Rockford game—but I do remember the skirts.”
Just for the record, the Peaches farm team did defeat the Marengo girls, 6-2, in a battle for first place. But we’re sure that Bauman and her teammates made those skirt-wearing Rockford Ko-Eds pay for every earned run.
A Local “Tiger” Makes History in the Major Leagues
McHenry County’s most celebrated son to play in the major leagues was Chuck Hiller. Born in 1934 in Johnsburg, Hiller was a product of the fierce rivalry between his hometown Tigers and the McHenry Shamrocks. He signed on as a free agent with the Cleveland Indians farm system in 1957, breaking into the big leagues with the 1961 San Francisco Giants.
He made baseball history by becoming the first National Leaguer to hit a grand slam in the World Series. The blast came in the seventh inning of game four of the 1962 Fall Classic between the New York Yankees and Hiller’s Giants. The game was tied, 2-2. Hiller had struck out at the plate two innings earlier. His round-tripper put the Giants ahead for the game as friends, neighbors and former rivals crowded around radios and television sets across McHenry County to cheer on their home town hero.
Chuck Hiller hit only 21 home runs in his eight-year major league career, yet this is the one we will always remember.