By Jeffrey Markowitz / Detroit
As the month of February winds down, my heart starts beating a little faster because I know what’s ahead—it’s called “the countdown.” Realizing the hockey season is coming to an end, there is only one thought — how many days will it take until I can get on a golf course or a baseball diamond? This feeling has never left me for over 50 years. There isn’t a conversation with my buddies that doesn’t include this all-important question.
When I was a teenager growing up in Oak Park, Mich. in the 1960s, there was a field for anyone to chase their athletic dream. There were baseball diamonds, football fields, tennis courts, outdoor basketball courts, and an enclosed ice arena, just to name a few. We were very fortunate to have all these sporting venues readily available. We didn’t have to travel to other cities to play our favorite sports and we certainly didn’t know how lucky we were.
The premier spot in the city was the Oak Park Park. Located in the central part of the city, it was truly the place to hang out. There were many leagues that played baseball there, both softball and fast pitch. Most importantly, it was where Oak Park High School played its home games.
When I was finishing my first year of college in 1969 at Eastern Michigan University, a friend called to let me know about the start of a new slow pitch softball league. It turned out to be the rage of the country. In fact, one of the most popular spots for slow pitch was the Detroit metro area. It also produced some of the best competitive traveling teams as well.
My friend, who was nicknamed Fritz, told me whom he contacted to play on our team. Most of the team had played Little League baseball as kids and Varsity baseball at Oak Park High School. They were familiar with the fields. Each team had a sponsor who provided T-shirts with their local business names printed on the front. Scheduling was completed by the league and was then handed out to team managers.
By the third practice we were given our schedules for the season. With much anticipation and anxiety, we all wanted to know how many times we would be playing at Diamond One. We also wanted to know which teams we were up against.
Diamond One represented the dream that we were actually playing in a professional stadium. The field itself had stands up and down each foul line and trees hugged the fencing from the right field foul pole to the left field foul pole, giving the feeling of an enclosure. In addition, the fences were a few feet shorter than Diamond Two, which created an expection that there would be more home runs hit. Spectators came to watch softballs fly out of the park.
The city of Oak Park, where we grew up, was a story itself. It was truly a melting pot, and its official motto was “The Family City.” What was interesting was that people we didn’t know, who lived in Oak Park, regularly came to watch our games. Young and old would gather at the park on summer nights to watch America’s pastime. Some came with their children to enjoy an evening of baseball, hoping their kids might take the field one day. And other dedicated spectators would follow our team when we played at away games. They were loyal fans.
The crowds that cheered us on used our nicknames and probably never knew our real names. Almost everyone in Oak Park who was involved in athletics had one. To name a few there was Caesar, H, Bibby, Wally, Barbut, Beaver, Ballou, Zip, and The Mouse — my infamous name. All these nicknames have stayed with us for over 50 years.
On a clear summer night, you could see the park from several streets away. With the lights of two baseball diamonds, the tennis courts, the public pool and, of course, well-lit parking lots, it made for an unmistakable setting. You couldn’t miss the Oak Park Park even if you tried.
As a teenager, I would often wonder what drew these people to our glorified baseball games. It wasn’t until I was much older that I understood their need to watch our games and connect with the past. The crowds were enjoying an outing after a long workweek; it was an opportunity to get away from the responsibilities of everyday life. The games brought back fond memories of their own youth and the simple times they were missing.
Little did I realize back then that there were other reasons why people gravitated to our games. They were a diversion. In the 1960s, the world was changing quickly. Baseball brought relief from the constant images of the Vietnam War seen on TV. My friends and I were glued to “The Lottery.” This is when a random number between 1 and 366 was assigned to your birthday. Capsules with numbers were then pulled out of a fishbowl on prime-time TV. Men with lower numbers were called first. We all kept praying that our number wasn’t picked, and we wouldn’t be drafted.
Along with this anxiety, there were anti-war protests in most cities and college campuses. Issues regarding civil rights were in the spotlight and fighting for change was the focal point. Along with the women’s liberation movement, Watergate, and political assassinations, these issues created a need for escape. Baseball was the ticket.
Unfortunately, along with the excitement and comfort that baseball provided, there were people at the park who found distraction in other ways. They used baseball as a shield to hide what they were doing from the public. They were mixed in with the fans, but weren’t there to watch baseball. This was the dark side of the park — the drug culture.
Not only did the Oak Park Park offer baseball games on the weekends, it also was a place where people came to do business. Drugs could be bought, and they were plentiful. Marijuana was the big seller but some people found their way into psychedelics and opioids as well. Drugs then brought a different crowd to the park.
As drugs seeped into American culture, it also seeped into our own bloodstream — both on and off the field. We started to get high before our games, and even sneaked in a pill or two that were tucked into our baseball socks. At the time, Quaaludes were the rage. It seemed like many people in Oak Park were now hooked on “Ludes” and it created a lifestyle. On the baseball field, we were buzzed but still played well enough to win games and then got totaled after the game as well.
Spectators hardly knew what was going on with the drug scene unless they partied themselves. Parents, in particular, did not have a clue for years about the drugs their children were abusing. As a matter of fact, our parents were taking some of the same prescriptions drugs but they got them from the pharmacy to help with pain and sleep issues. We were buying them illegally and taking them from our parents’ medicine cabinets.
Even though the drug atmosphere started ramping up, baseball remained the focal point of our lives. During the week and even on weekends, the park was the place to be seen. It became a social hub and when you didn’t have a game, meeting girls was the next best thing. If you hit it off, you’d be on your way for a late night snack— Katz’s Deli, O Sole Mio Pizza, Stafford’s or even The Stage. These were the hot spots. But the evening wasn’t complete until my buddies and I visited the pool hall or preferably the racetrack. This was a great night out on the town!
Growing up in Oak Park was truly like living in a fantasy. Virtually every day of the year, there were sports to be enjoyed. But the recollections of playing soft ball at the park remain the most vivid. I can still hear the crowds shouting and rooting for our team. These are strong memories and clear snapshots that are cherished. One distinctive thing about Oak Parkers is that they remember the past like it was yesterday. Those early friendships are still the ones I have today and value the most.
After a 30-year career in construction management, building commercial and residential jobs, Jeffrey has turned to his passion–cooking. He is the master of the grill and has been nicknamed Chef Jeff by his family. Jeffrey also started a small catering business. Nothing makes him happier than satisfying his customers.
Jeffrey enjoys sports and has spent 60+ years playing golf. Competing with friends, playing the course and, most of all, keeping his head in the game for all 18 holes has been gratifying — even if he’s far away from par. He is also the husband of Judi Markowitz, who writes the Dateline Detroit column for The Insider. They have four adult children and seven grandchildren who keep them on their toes. Oh yeah, let’s not forget George, their Bernese Mountain granddog. Jeffrey’s life is full, and he is happy.