Since Hamlin Park was only a block from our street, we went there fairly early in our childhoods. Times were much safer then. Hamlin Park, or “Ham” as we used to refer to it, takes up a complete city block. It is bounded by Hoyne, Barry, Damen, and Wellington Avenues. The swimming pool, which we called “the Big Pool”, was located at the corner of Hoyne and Barry.
Our first experiences in the park were no doubt on the playground. The playground was enclosed by a high iron spiked fence, and the main entrance to it was on Barry Avenue. On the right when entering the playground were the brick walls and windows of the field house and gym, and to the center and left was the playground itself. As I recall, the first pieces of playground equipment inside the entrance were the “baby swings”, the small seat-like swings with a restraining slat in front. We kids played on those swings long after we should have. Since they were higher than the regular swings, you could get quite an exciting ride by standing up in them and then “pumping”---a repeated crouching and straightening while pulling back on the suspension cables. We also rode the standard swings in the same way. We could go quite high, and then sit down. Frequently we would leap off as the swing came forward. During the war years, we imagined ourselves as paratroopers jumping out of planes. Sometimes we would double on the swings. One boy would sit while the other stood, straddling the sitter, facing in the opposite direction. Both would “pump”, but the main energy came from the one standing, who described his activity as “taking you up.”
In the center of that part of the playground was a steel slide. It was straight and very tame by today’s standards. When we got bored with sliding down on it, we would try to run up the slide itself. Quite a challenge unless you wore sneakers or, as we called them, “gym shoes”. On the side of the playground opposite the swings were three “teeter-totters”. I never cared for them. Because I was heavier than my friends, I would spend far too much time sitting on the ground looking up at one of them as he squirmed and contorted his body trying to make his weight lift me off the ground. Not nearly as much fun as the swings.
The other section of the playground contained the wading pool, semi-surrounded by three large sandpits. This part of the playground was separated from the equipment section by a stone pavilion with stone benches. The pavilion had been there for many years. I have a photograph of my grandparents and some of my aunts and uncles taken in that pavilion in 1911, one year after Hamlin Park was opened. Though Jim Innis has fond memories of later necking with girls in that pavilion, my friends and I just used it to get out of the rain.
When we were small, too young to be allowed into the “Big Pool” by ourselves, we had a lot of fun in the wading pool. We called it the “Baby Pool” or, more picturesquely, the “Pee Pot”. How much each of us contributed to the truth of that latter designation we would never admit to each other. We would run through the pool, splash each other, and “swim” salamander-style on all fours. Periodically we went into the sand pits, got sand all over ourselves, and then went back into the pool to wash it off. The first day the Baby Pool opened was an important day for the little kids.
Of course the ultimate aquatic goal was to be admitted to the Big Pool by ourselves. While the Baby Pool is now gone, the Big Pool is still there, and it doesn’t look much different than it did in our day. I can’t remember how old you had to be to be admitted without an adult, but I think it was 9 or 10. Perhaps there was a height requirement. But what a thrill to get into that pool the first few days of summer. As I recall, “boys’ days” were Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. “Girls’ days” were Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. I believe different gender days was due to there being only one changing room. There were lights around the pool, and there was evening swimming for adults.
The depth of the pool was three feet to seven feet. A standard diving board was located at the deep end. I can only recall one life guard. He, of course, had great status among us. The water was very cold. Straight out of the tap, and changed every week. The only unpleasant thing I can recall about swimming there was that first leap into the water. But we quickly “got used to it” and didn’t notice the water temperature again. It was a great summer day when around 12:30 we rolled our towels up tightly around our swimming suits (There was a certain technique to that.) and headed up Hoyne to stand in line to get into the pool.
In those years the Catholic Youth Organization ran at Hamlin Park what we referred to as “Summer School”. Kids were broken up into groups and then, supervised by nuns, participated in various handicraft activities that usually had religious motifs. Several summers I attended with my Catholic friends. The real appeal for me was that one or two mornings a week the summer school kids could get into the big pool for an hour or so of free swim. Swimming was important, and I was willing to sacrifice for it, even putting up with religious activities led by strict, no-nonsense nuns.
Two gates on either side of the teeter-totters in the playground led to the athletic fields. That part of the park was like a shallow bowl with two softball diamonds and a baseball diamond located in the bottom of the bowl. Today the area is totally level. As little kids we would roll down the hills leading to the diamonds, and in the winter time bring our sleds there for down-hill “belly flopping”.
This elevated section of the park provided a nice vantage point on summer evenings to watch the many organized adult softball games that were played on the three diamonds. Several leagues utilized Hamlin Park, and on weekday evenings the diamonds were filled with young men in brightly colored uniforms with some local business’s name---their “sponsors”---printed on their backs. Their wives or girlfriends usually sat on the small bleacher seats or in folding chairs that they brought from home, cheering on their men. If the men had children, they would play on the hillsides and in the bushes that surrounded the ball fields. There was always some dominant team, or team a relative played on, that became one’s favorite team. I even had a local hero whom I came to watch---a left-handed power hitter by the name of Johnny Kramer. He played first base and would occasionally leap and catch a high throw with one hand. One night I gave my Uncle Gerhardt, who had just played a great game for his “Amvets” team, the supreme compliment of telling him he played “just as good as Johnny Kramer”. I have no idea who Johnny Kramer was off the diamond. It’s strange for me to think that this man, who no doubt now is gone, lived out what was probably a very ordinary life, without ever being aware that for a few brief summers he was a hero to a little boy he never even knew existed.
Chicago, as far as I know, was the only place in the country where 16 inch softball was played. The standard 12 inch softball was referred to as “girls’ softball” or “kitty ball”. 16 inch softball was played without gloves. The gold-standard ball had the brand name of “Clincher”, and when they were new---as they always were at the beginning of one of the organized league games--- they were hard and slippery. There were ten players on a team, the extra player referred to as a short-center fielder. He played behind second base. I believe the base paths were shorter than those in regulation softball. The under-hand pitched ball would have to have a noticeable arc on it, or it would be called a “ball” by the umpire. The best pitchers would deliver the ball with several hesitations and body contortions as the catcher chanted something like “C’mon, Danny---chuck to me baby---chuck to me.” There were lots of hits, and the games were usually high scoring.
My friends and I never played much on the regulation diamonds. The expanse of the field was too large for us when only a few of us were playing. We played a lot of our softball on a little informal diamond in an area of the park off Hoyne where the tennis courts, horse shoe pits, and outdoor basketball court were located. In fact, the tennis court fence was the “outfield fence” that stopped the balls from rolling too far when only six or seven of us were playing. With so few of us, we frequently didn’t divide into teams, but instead played a variation called “Peggy Shove-up” or “Peggy Push-up”. That was basically an individual game. All but the person up to bat were fielders. If the batter got a hit or made an out, the next player in a predetermined rotation abandoned his fielding position and came to bat. The rest of us then shifted our fielding positions. It was always “pitcher’s hands out”---If the pitcher got the ball before the batter reached first base, he was out. . We had no umpires. If there was a dispute we may have argued and yelled at each other, calling each other liars and cheaters, but we eventually sorted it all out and continued playing. We knew that if we couldn’t compromise and resolve our differences the game wouldn’t go on.
Hamlin Park had other activities as well. Jim Innis participated in more of the organized activities than I did. He recalls playing in the gym. Both he and his brother, Ed, have fond memories of the woodshop located below the library. They spent a lot of time there. I was never mechanical and a bit afraid of the power saws, so the woodshop was not much of an attraction for me. I do remember a time, shortly after the end of the war, when kids there were making models of guns. They paid for a pattern and an appropriate piece of wood and then used the power saws to cut out the toy gun. Finally, they painted their finished product. I only used the woodshop once---to make a replica of a German Lugar pistol. Someone else cut it out for me, and I painted it. Even though I didn’t spend much time in the woodshop, the smell of certain paint solvents still reminds me of it.
Located above the woodshop was a small library. I did check books out of it occasionally. The “Quiet” rule was strictly enforced, and the librarians always seemed strict, so I didn’t stay there very much. I recall they had some Saturday reading programs, but I never went.
A game room with ping pong and other table games connected the library to the main office and the stairways to the showers and gym. I don’t recall playing much in the gym, but Jim Innis has some memories of nice times spent there. Downstairs from the main office were the men’s showers. Since none of our homes had showers, occasionally a friend and I would take our towels and soap to Hamlin Park for the novelty of a shower. I will always associate the smell of Life Buoy soap with those shower rooms.
Another smell I will always associate with Hamlin Park is the smell of cigar smoke. The office was inhabited by the park director, Joe Gaffney, a stocky, bald Irishman who chain-smoked cigars. Joe was brash and loud, but everyone seemed to like him. Looking back on the multitude of programs taking place in the park, Joe must have done a good job. Security was provided for years by a policeman whom my friends and I knew simply as “Art the Cop”. He was tough-talking, but the kids liked him too. I remember Hamlin Park as being what I think a city park should be. A place, relatively safe, where there were open spaces, in which kids could play either by using their own means or by participating in one of the many programs. Adults were there to provide those opportunities, not to dominate them.