For Elgin man, Monday marks his 60th Sox opener
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If the weather for Monday's White Sox game feels more like November, the Gambro family might just think they are getting together to celebrate Thanksgiving instead of the first home baseball game of the season.
"It's like another holiday," Adam Gambro says of the Opening Day ritual started 60 years ago by his grandfather and family patriarch, Frank Gambro.
Frank, now 79, went to his first home opener as a teenager in 1953, and he hasn't missed once since.
"I've never known a fan like he is," marvels Joan Gambro, 76, Frank's wife of 56 years. Before they could plan their life together, the couple had to work out the usual questions about religion, careers, family and where to live.
"He said everything could be negotiable," Joan remembers, "but the kids have to be White Sox fans."
The Gambro home in Elgin boasts proof of that with old ticket stubs, souvenirs and photographs showing the family's love for the White Sox. Trumping them all from a beam crossing the sunroom ceiling are large wooden letters that spell out FAMILY. That connection with each other is what makes their Opening Day ritual so special, personal and emotional, especially since the 2001 death of Frank's son, Fran. Three generations meet to remember the past, dream about the future and enjoy the present.
"Everybody has a job," Frank says.
His grandson Adam, a 31-year-old Wheeling firefighter like his father Fran was, brings his motor home for tailgating. Frank's sons John, 50, dean of education at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, and Tim, 44, also a Wheeling firefighter, provide snacks and pop. Fran's younger sons Nick, 30, a firefighter in Lincolnshire, and Derek, 26, on the path to becoming a firefighter, cook the food and bring the beer.
Frank used to wait in line outside the old Comiskey Park to buy tickets, but now he gets them from a friend. Depending on the weather, as many as 17 family members and friends will make it to Monday's opener against the Kansas City Royals. The family has a similar ritual to catch a Notre Dame football game, but that's another story.
Frank grew up on the West Side, where half his friends rooted for the Cubs and half for the Sox. A 95-pound freshman at the all-boys St. Mel High School, Gambro identified with the Sox.
"I was always for the underdog," he remembers.
As teens, Gambro and his lifelong Sox friend Jim "Scully" Watts, who died last August, would take the el to Sox games to see stars such as shortstop Luke Appling. Would they ditch school to catch the opener?
"You didn't know my father, my friend," Gambro says, bristling at the suggestion.
"My dad used to let me ditch school to go to the Sox' Opening Day," teases Tim, the youngest of Frank's three sons.
Fran, John and Tim memorized the letters their dad wrote to excuse them from school.
"Due to personal family business (insert Gambro kid's name here) is unable to be in school," read the letters that the sons reprised for the next generation of Gambros.
On Frank's first Opening Day, his favorite all-time Sox player, outfielder Jungle Jim Rivera, scored the only run in a 1-0 victory.
"I liked him because of his desire, his headfirst slides," Frank says of the player who didn't make the Big Leagues until he was 30 and is remembered mostly for diving catches, reckless play on the base paths and a uniform that always was dirty.
Frank met his future wife when he was 18 and she was 16. Having recently moved from Chicago to Whitefish Bay, Wis., Joan was visiting friends at a teen hangout on Cedar Lake near Lake Villa. Frank was hooked.
"Scully and I would hitchhike up to Whitefish Bay for dates and take the train back," Frank remembers.
He joined the Army at age 21 but never missed an Opening Day. He bused from Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri to Comiskey Park thanks to a fortuitously timed leave during basic training. The second year, he was at Fort Sheridan and made the game easily.
As Frank's Army stint was ending, he married Joan on Oct. 13, 1956, a few days after that year's World Series. Making $110 a month in the Army, Frank remembers thinking he was rich when Sears offered him a job in the plumbing department paying $70 a week plus a 1 percent commission on sales. When he retired in 1992, Gambro was the head of women's fashions and managed 55 people. He later worked part time for J.C. Penney at Randhurst Shopping Center in Mount Prospect. They raised their three sons in Niles, moved to Lake Zurich and settled in 2007 in a gated retirement community in Elgin.
A white sock emblazoned with "Go Go Sox," which was handed out by Sox owner Bill Veeck for the 1957 season, hangs from a wall in a room filled with Sox memories.
"That was pinned on Fran's bassinet when he was a baby," Frank says, his voice cracking with emotion as he remembers the son who died in 2001. A Wheeling firefighter who was active with the union and in the community, Fran Gambro suffered burns on his head while fighting a fire. He developed skin cancer, endured operations and was thought to be cured when it flared up again. Back pain during the family's Thanksgiving in 2000 was a sign the cancer was back. Fran died three months later, and his absence affected the Opening Day weeks later.
Opening Day in 1991 marked the first game in the new Comiskey Park, when Frank, Scully and Fran posed for a picture as the Detroit Tigers handed the Sox a 16-0 pounding. Frank was there for the 1978 opener when Ron Blomberg hit a walk-off homer to beat the Boston Red Sox, the 1981 opener when newcomer Carlton Fisk hit a grand-slam homer in a Sox win, and the 1993 game when the incomparable Bo Jackson came back from a hip replacement and hit a home run on his first swing. While many of the games have been memorable, family stories always trump the wins and losses. Take the 1962 opener.
"We went right from the doctor's office to the game. Opening Day was the day we found out we were having our second son, and I froze to death," remembers Joan, who still attends games during the summer but hasn't been to an Opening Day in 50 years. She says she might break her streak if Monday's forecast gets a little warmer.
Tim says the White Sox played a vital role in trying to persuade his girlfriend, Stephanie, to become his wife.
"She said, 'I'll marry you when the White Sox win the World Series,'" says Tim. The Sox won the Series in 2005, and they married in 2006. They plan to take their daughters, 5½-year-old Kate and 4-year-old Abby, to this year's opener.
Frank sent in countless entries in a lottery for the chance to buy World Series tickets in 1959. "I mailed them from different spots in the city," remembers Gambro, who figured that would increase his odds of winning. He saw the only win Chicago would get on their home field, an 11-0 gem featuring the pitching of Early Wynn and two towering homers from Sox slugger Ted Kluszewski.
In 2005, Tim and Adam each paid $1,000 for a World Series ticket, and consider that a bargain for their memories of seeing Scott Podsednik's unlikely walk-off homer that gave the Sox a 2-0 lead on their way to a four-game sweep.
John's sons Jack "Lefty" Gambro, 17, and Winston, 20, have been going to games since before they can remember. Their mom, Beth, is a Cubs fan but also roots for the Sox.
The grandkids all know Frank's mantra that if you don't root for the Sox, "you're out of the will." Among the Sox items he'll one day pass along to future generations is a letter.
"I hope you have a great time in your retirement from Sears," begins the note from Jungle Jim Rivera, which is framed and autographed. It ends with advice embraced by all the Gambros. "So take care, and pull for the White Sox."
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