A game born in the 19th century and played in pastoral fields and charming ballparks, our national pastime of baseball is supposed to distract us from war, chaos and tragedies. Sometimes, especially for Chicago fans, baseball merely adds to our burdens.
But new Hall of Famers Frank Thomas, Greg Maddux and Tony La Russa gave Sox and Cubs fans something special in their unrelenting pursuit of perfection. Together, those three spent a combined 34 years igniting the passions of fans on both sides of town. Chicago legends have made this journey before. The late Ron Santo in 2012 was the last Cub to be inducted. The last player to go into the Hall as a White Sox player was Nellie Fox in 1997.
Today's induction ceremony, beginning at 12:30 p.m., welcomes three players and three managers, so our trio with local ties makes up half the 2014 class inducted into baseball's shrine in Cooperstown, New York.
Arguably the greatest White Sox player in the team's 114-year history, Thomas built his legacy with a methodical pitch-by-pitch determination that led to perfect at-bats, great games, remarkable seasons and a Hall of Fame career. A two-time Most Valuable Player who won a batting title and smashed 521 home runs in his career, Thomas put together a combination of walks, batting average, run production and power that elevated him to join a small group of legendary hitters such as Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx.
"It was an absolute pleasure to watch him play for my ballclub," says Howard Jaffe, 61, a longtime White Sox season-ticket holder from Libertyville who hasn't missed an Opening Day in 52 years and has seen numerous Hall of Famers in their primes. "Frank Thomas is the best ballplayer I've seen in my lifetime. He had incredible plate discipline and drew all those walks. He was incredible at going to the opposite field. And he was a big man who hit home runs."
That Thomas sometimes came across as aloof or even surly never bothered Jaffe. "He was paid to be a ballplayer," Jaffe says, "and he was that."
Dubbed the "Big Hurt" for the way he seemed to punish the baseball with his swings, Thomas spent 16 years on the South Side before finishing his career with stints in Toronto and Oakland. He signed a one-day contract with the Sox before the 2010 season so he could retire with the team whose hat he'll wear into the Hall of Fame.
He was one of the most outspoken critics of performance-enhancing drugs, and the consistency in his career was a stark contrast to the sudden increases in power or extraordinary late-career improvements that haunt steroid users. He was pure joy.
The joy the trio of baseball greats brought to Chicago fans remains tinged with bittersweet memories of what could have been.
Exemplifying the same pursuit of perfection for pitching that Thomas brought to hitting, the consistent Maddux used pinpoint control, masterful efficiency and a brilliant baseball mind to turn his average-speed fastball into a magnificent 23-year career that placed the baby-faced, 6-foot, 170-pound pitcher among the giants of the sport.
While Cubs fans claim Maddux as their own, the pitcher recorded 194 of his 355 career wins with the Atlanta Braves. After seeing Maddux win his first Cy Young Award as the league's best pitcher, the Cubs let their free agent star go to the Braves, where he collected three more Cy Youngs and a World Series championship. Then, he returned to the Cubs to lead the team in wins and record his 300th victory.
Maddux made his inauspicious Major League debut in a Sept. 2, 1986, game at Wrigley Field that was suspended by darkness and concluded the next afternoon. The 20-year-old pitcher gave up a solo home run in the top of the 18th inning and got the loss.
Two years later, Maddux was an all-star and the ace of the staff.
"He didn't throw hard. He didn't throw completely nasty breaking balls. He just beat you," says longtime Cubs fan Sean Hruby, 42, of Geneva, whose childhood memories of rooting for Maddux the Cub gave way to the heartache of seeing his team let its star pitcher go to the Braves and get even better.
"We got him just before he became completely dominant and right after he was completely dominant. But that's baseball," Hruby says.
Finishing his career with seasons in San Diego and Los Angeles, Maddux left the game with 3,371 strikeouts and only 999 walks.
Still, talent doesn't tell Maddux's entire story. While he completed games so quickly it seemed as if he wanted to be done in time to fit in 18 holes of golf, Maddux clearly loved everything about the game of baseball. An accomplished bunter, Maddux prided himself on being a smart hitter and good baserunner. His 18 consecutive Gold Gloves as a fielder is a record.
But one of the most memorable Maddux moments for Cubs fans came during the much-ballyhooed first night game at Wrigley on Aug. 8, 1988. The heavens opened during the fourth inning, and the grounds crew covered the infield with the giant blue tarp. After more than two hours of rain, the game would be canceled. But not before Maddux had some fun.
Maddux, catcher Jody Davis and pitchers Les Lancaster and Al Nipper ran onto the field and slid on the slick tarp as the crowd cheered.
Sliding on his belly with his arms outstretched as any little boy might do, a beaming Maddux later would be fined by Cubs management, which noted that the players could have hurt themselves. It was a $500 Slip-N-Slide ride for Maddux.
The spirit of fun that the amiable Maddux brought to the game couldn't be more different from the often cantankerous and testy mood of fiery manager Tony La Russa, who, like Maddux, had his best years after Chicago let him go.
Remembered as a White Sox manager who returned the Sox to the playoffs for the first time since the 1959 World Series, La Russa had his Cubs moment, too. As a career .199 hitter called up for short and unproductive stints with the Athletics and Braves, La Russa's playing career ended at age 29 in 1973, when he appeared for the Cubs in one April game. He pinch-ran for Ron Santo and scored the winning run in a ninth-inning 3-2 win.
After getting a law degree and passing the bar, La Russa found his baseball calling as a manager. Hired as White Sox skipper on Aug 2, 1979, to replace retiring player/manager and ex-Cub Don Kessinger, La Russa earned a reputation as a smart and sometimes arrogant manager, obsessed with details and confident enough to do things his way.
His Sox finished with 99 wins and the best record in baseball in 1983, winning La Russa his first of four Manager of the Year Awards. Fired by then-Sox General Manager Ken "Hawk" Harrelson during the 1986 season while meeting at a restaurant in Lisle, La Russa soon was snatched up by the Oakland Athletics.
He managed the As to three pennants and a World Series title before taking the manager's spot at St. Louis, where he led the Cardinals to three National League championships and two World Series titles.
Thomas, Maddux and La Russa remain in the hearts and memories of Chicago baseball fans on both sides of town. Their pursuit of perfection still leaves room for fans to ponder "if only …" possibilities. But baseball fans here should be thankful for what they did give us to enjoy.