Ron Onesti: Take me out to the ballgame … and concert hall
Baseball is back … kind of! Who would have thought we would be going through all of this AND a 60-game season with no fans in the seats? This MUST be some sort of bad dream; somebody wake me up! But regardless, I love my baseball, and will take it any way I can get it!
After more than 35 years of putting on shows, I guess I am known as “The Music Man” of St. Charles. These days, I literally eat, drink and sleep music from the 1860s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Since I was a kid, music has been a passion of mine. It really wasn’t about me playing an instrument or singing in a band. This passion was more like me grasping a hair brush with two hands, falling to my knees and belting out “Stairway to Heaven” in front of my bedroom mirror. That classic rock of the mid 1970s turned me into a fantasy rock star.
But with so much of my activity in the music scene, rarely does my past history in the sporting goods business come up. As I was gearing up for this make-shift opening day of the baseball season, it brought me back to my sports business days when I was playing hardball three days a week while owning a sporting goods store. Yes, I was a bit crazy even then!
The year was 1985. The Chicago Bears were in Super Bowl XX. Up until then, the sports wearables business wasn’t as huge as it has become. Of course, there was a Cubs’ shirt here and a White Sox jersey there. But when the Bears of the Ditka regime became national superheroes, the team jersey and T-shirt market exploded! And in my own entrepreneurial spirit, I wanted a piece of that action!
I bought all the screen printing equipment, sewing machines and artwork design tables. We stocked baseball and softball bats, gloves and balls. My brother, Rich, and I opened Onesti’s Softball City on Irving Park Road in Chicago, and for the next 12 years, baseball and softball was our bread and butter.
We not only made softball team jerseys and sold the equipment, but we joined together a culture of Chicago-style, 16-inch “Clincher” (no glove) softball players. This was the early ’80s, and 16-inch softball was at every city and suburban Chicago park. The sport evened the field between lawyers, advertising agency professionals, truck drivers and tradesmen. In any given game, a pitcher who is a plumber by day could be staring down the batter, a brain surgeon by night.
The best part of the game, of course, was going to the bar afterwards. That is where all the “fisherman” stories inflate, turning a squib hit to the pitcher into a three-base hit smash over the third baseman’s head. But for me, the best was the Saturday mornings when my customers would come in, for no good reason, other than to man-handle the 36-inch war club wooden softball bats. On any given day you may find sports radio personality Mike North (who was a hot dog stand owner at the time), Rich Melman of the Lettuce Entertain You empire, or the great television/radio personality Bob Sirott, all just hanging and talking softball.
Just a few short years ago, Al Maag, a dreamer who turned a 16-inch Softball Hall of Fame into a realty, opened the grand hall in Forest Park. The building was jaw dropping, complete with exhibits, photos and memorabilia from the game’s greatest players, managers and pioneers.
A few years back, I got a call that my brother and I were nominated for induction into the Hall of Fame as pioneers of the game. It turns out that Onesti’s Softball City was not only the pre-eminent supplier of the sport in Chicago, but also one of the principal entities to foster the game. So Rich and I were inducted into the Chicago Sixteen Inch Softball Hall of Fame! What an honor.
Yes, opening day of baseball in Chicago has to be one of the most sacred days of the year, for a baseball fan, anyway. It brings memories of Jenkins, Hundley, Santo, Kessinger, Beckert, Banks, Williams and the rest; Jack Brickhouse; the various Chicago White Sox uniforms; Minnie Minoso, Luis Aparicio, Richie Allen and Harry Carey; peanuts and hot dogs; double headers on Sundays with my dad, bringing my oversized glove to batting practice; autographs; and my dad watching the game while listening to it through an earpiece connected to the AM transistor radio in his shirt pocket.
I truly think it is baseball that gave me my passion for music. It taught me about respect for the greats, the importance of working hard, practicing your craft. It showed me how timing is a vital element in sports, as cadence and melodic timing is important in music. It also taught me how to sit back and truly feel the game, much like I do the music.
And that is my continued plan for the rest of my career. I can only hope that my shows will be back soon and I can help people stop their worlds for a couple of hours, while they feel the music. I will never be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but if my shows can help a few people enjoy life just a little bit more, then for me, I would have hit that World Series-winning, walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth with two out, and a combination of “Hey Hey” and “Holy Cow” over the loud speaker.
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.