Zalusky: Elk Grove resident had dugout seat for Allen-Melton era
Hanging on the walls of Jim Riley's Elk Grove home, a gallery of framed pictures shows a high school kid in a red pinstriped uniform at White Sox Park.
In one picture, he is kneeling in the on-deck circle with Bill Melton. In another, he and Melton are watching Dick Allen swinging and connecting with a pitch at home plate.
The photos are souvenirs from Riley's tenure as batboy for the Chicago White Sox, a job he held from 1972 through 1975.
Riley, who grew up in Evergreen Park and attended Mount Carmel High School, had already been frustrated after applying to Sox General Manager Stu Holcomb.
In the end, he landed the job through "good old Chicago politics." His uncle was an electrician at the ballpark.
This electrical connection led to Sox Equipment Manager Larry Licklider, who hired him in January 1972 after an interview in Manager Chuck Tanner's office,
For his new job, Riley received a uniform and former Sox pitcher Joe Horlen's old spikes.
"Here I am wearing spikes from a guy who pitched a no-hitter," Riley said. "Talk about surreal."
The 15-year-old Riley wasn't old enough to drive, so after night games, which started at 8 p.m., Licklider would give him a lift to his home in Hickory Hills, where Riley's dad would pick him up.
Riley was quickly initiated into the clubhouse atmosphere, which, he admits, was intimidating at first.
"Here's Bill Melton coming through the clubhouse and he's yelling (at Licklider), 'Larry, these pants don't fit.'"
Melton, Riley said, was a jokester and a source of good-natured ribbing.
"Melton always called me Howdy Doody, 'cause I had big cheeks."
If Melton was familiar, Dick Allen was friendly but aloof.
"He was really nice to us kids. He was never rude or would raise his voice to us, but he was the king," Riley said.
Riley said the bat boys were closest with the youngest players on the team, pitchers Terry Forster and Rich Gossage.
"They were not much older than us. Terry Forster, I think, was five years older than me."
The high point of Riley's career was 1972, the year the Sox -- lifted by Allen's mighty bat -- finished second in the American League West behind the world champion A's.
"He's without a doubt the best baseball player I've ever seen play the game live," Riley said of Allen. "The way he cut the corners when he ran the bases, his control at the plate, not going after bad pitches, was just amazing to me."
He said the sound of Jose Abreu's bat reminds him of Allen's.
"He's got that pop when the ball hits the bat."
The memories of White Sox Park are still vivid, including the smells.
"The old ballpark had this combination of pine tar and rosin," he said.
He remembered the infield synthetic turf, dubbed Sox Sod, "a carpet on concrete."
"On a hot sunny day, you could see waves coming off that stuff," he said.
The clubhouse, he said, was a haven for raucous humor, where "they would play practical jokes on each other all the time."
The best practical joker was pitcher Stan Bahnsen.
"He would do things like nail guys' shower shoes to the floor," he said.
Another time, he had Riley ask the ballpark switchboard operator for some "while you were out" notes with her initials on them. On one, Bahnsen scrawled that a "Mr. Lyon" was calling for Carlos May and left a number to call back. When May called the number on a clubhouse phone and asked for the party, the operator said, "Sir, this is the Lincoln Park Zoo and I think somebody's playing a joke on you."
Tanner, he said, was a great guy but "very tough. Nobody wanted to mess with Chuck."
He said Allen got along well with Tanner, whom Allen called Lefty or Skip.
If 1972 was the high point, 1974, when Allen suddenly retired in September, was the low mark.
"It just sucked the air out of the clubhouse when he quit," he said.
Riley still has more than 20 discarded bats from the ballpark in his basement, including those belonging to Melton, Allen, Ron Santo, Bucky Dent, Mike Andrews, Buddy Bradford, Jerry Hairston and his all-time favorite player, Walt Williams.
Riley remembered when he and trainer Charlie Saad helped carry Bradford on a stretcher after the outfielder broke his collarbone running into the wall in right-center.
"Buddy is a big guy, and here I am in front of all these people. I'm like 5-6 and I weighed about maybe 135, 140, and Charlie was smaller than I was." When they reached second base, Forster relieved the pair of their burden.
Riley said he saw the negative side of the baseball life. "You saw people get (mad) and explode," bashing water coolers and breaking things.
As a result, he said, "I'm not star-struck anymore around athletes."
Riley, who works for Zurich Insurance, ended his days as batboy after he graduated high school.
In 2012, he took part in a reunion of the 1972 team. Allen was there, as were Melton, Gossage and May.
He was on the field when, as part of the celebration, Allen threw the first pitch at a Sox game. Shortly after, he introduced his daughter to her idol, Paul Konerko.
"After that I couldn't do any wrong," he said.
Looking back, Riley said, "I always tell people, 'It's kind of a shame when your best job is when you're 15.'"