Brushes with greatness

That time I met The Greatest


(The first meeting between Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston took place 55 years ago today. I’ve dug out this past posting to mark the anniversary).

In 1988, I took a round-trip train ride to New York City to visit my brother. On my return to Chicago, as I walked through the main room at Union Station, I was shocked to see the world’s most famous man.

Muhammad Ali was waiting for his luggage.

In the blink of an eye, so much went through my mind:

  • The first fight (as Cassius Clay) with Sonny Liston which ended with the “unbeatable” Liston giving up and refusing to leave his corner for the seventh round.
  • Ali’s refusing to be inducted into the military on religious grounds, causing him to be stripped of his title and denied the right to fight in the US, until he prevailed in the US Supreme Court.
  • The “Rope-a-Dope” strategy that brought him a victory over the heavily favored George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire in 1974
  • His three battles with Joe Frazier, including  the 1975 classic “Thrilla in Manila.”

This man had been a huge part of my life and here he was, with no security to keep fans at a distance.

It was just Muhammad Ali and his assistant, waiting for their luggage.

I wanted Ali to know that he was one of my heroes. That I admired his greatness in the ring and his courage for standing up to the government. I wanted to tell him that he’d entertained and enthralled me since I was a boy.

I had to meet him.

As I got within about four steps of him, I lost my nerve and veered off to one side.

I tried to pull myself together, and approached again. This time, I got within about three steps, then lost my nerve a second time.

I mean this was not some mere mortal. This was Ali!

I knew I’d hate myself forever if I didn’t try again. As I got within two steps, Ali, who I was sure hadn’t noticed me on the first two passes, suddenly looked up, made an intense face and drew his fist back as if to throw a punch.

Time stood still.

Then he smiled that world-famous smile and extended his hand.

He never said a word, but shaking the hand that shook the world was one of the great thrills of my life.

He was the greatest.


McBarronBlog Bonus

Ali is the only person I’ve ever met who had met The Beatles. That 1964 get-together is remembered here.



Rx for Bears blues: YouTube


Last Sunday was a dark day for fans of Chicago’s NFL team. People who ordinarily think  realistic thoughts had allowed themselves to buy into the idea that this season’s Chicago Bears, who turned out to be much better than anyone expected, had a shot at the Super Bowl.

It was a  pipe dream that ended in the final seconds of Sunday’s playoff game, when kicker Cody Parkey, already holder of a record for hitting the uprights four times in a previous game, hit the upright (and the crossbar) one last time for the Bears.

Though I’ve given up on football, I saw the last few minutes of Sunday’s game and must admit the “double-doink” even made me sad. Those suffering from Bears Blues, need to know video mood elevators are plentiful on YouTube. Here are a few favorites.

The Payton Game

Every Bears fan depressed about last Sunday’s game should see the last play of the first game the Bears played following the death of the legendary Walter Payton. The 1999 Bears team, which was not very good, managed to hold their own against the much better Packers, led by future Hall of Famer, Brett Farvre.

Like last Sunday’s game, it came down to the final seconds. All the Packers needed to do was kick an easy field goal to win. (click the “watch on YouTube” link)

Another clip that always cheers me up comes from last season’s Cubs, who were one strike away from a 3-0 loss to the Nationals when rookie David Bote lived the dream of anyone who ever fantasized about batting with two out in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded. Listen for the sound of the ball hitting the bat. Beautiful.

Speaking of fantasies, Accountant Scott Foster got to live the dream of every boy who ever thought about playing for the Blackhawks when his perfunctory role as “emergency goalie” was upgraded after two goalies were injured on the same day. The 36-year old Foster, who hadn’t played anything but “beer league” hockey since leaving college, was sent into an NHL game with 14 minutes left and the Blackhawks leading 4-2.

Sports fans can relive past glories on Youtube as we wait for the next season of promise.

Speaking of which, pitchers and catchers report in less than six weeks.

Do you have any sports videos that help you beat the blues?

McBarronBlog Bonus

What’s more fun than unexpected sports excellence?

Kirk Gibson gives Dodgers an unexpected win in the 1988 World Series.

JoeCarter’s Game 7 walk-off home run to win the 1993 World Series

Ryne Sandburg homers twice off previously unhittable Bruce Sutter to help  the Cubs beat the Cardinals in “The Sandburg Game Game


Good public servants deserve to be paid


My wife and I recently stopped into the corner bar and grill for dinner. This being Chicago, the bartender immediately engaged us in a political conversation.

“You live around here? I’m gonna to run for alderman.” 

He explained his philosophy, which sounded fine, then added what he believed would close the deal:

“…and I won’t accept a salary.” 

It’s a thing. Would-be public servants grandly announce they won’t accept payment from taxpayers. They will work for us “for free.”

This promise is intended to win public trust and admiration, though anyone familiar with the history of Illinois politicians knows official compensation is mere tip money for those who take graft seriously.

A current list of high-profile government employees claiming to be doing taxpayers a favor by  working for free includes President Donald Trump, First Daughter, Ivanka Trump, First Son-in-law, Jared Kushner, US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and, closer to home, soon to be ex-Illinois Governor, Bruce Rauner.

We can add to the list the next governor of Illinois.

Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker, a billionaire who pumped a record $171.5 million of his personal fortune into his winning campaign for Illinois governor, will forgo his state salary, his staff said.

Considering state government’s annual spending is nearly $38.5 billion, the $177,412 annual salary Illinois pays its governors is a drop in the bucket. But the Hyatt hotel heir takes office next year facing steep financial challenges — the state’s sitting on at least $7.5 billion in unpaid bills — and refusing a salary sends a message to lawmakers and voters as he starts addressing them.

The only good news about Rauner’s bad governing is that we got it for free. He didn’t accept his governor’s salary.


Remember, the state owes $130 billion borrowed from the state pension systems and expects to take in $36.7 billion, so the impact of the governor’s refusal of payment is infinitesimal.

With J.B. Pritzker, we’re again getting a governor “free of charge.” Will he be better? He’d almost have to be. But like Rauner four years ago, he has no record. We’ll have to see.

Sadly, this idea of getting a public servant “at no cost you YOU!” is likely to become more popular. That’s bad for democracy.

In my years working for teachers and education support employees, I often heard from school board members who were focused exclusively on taxpayers while paying lip service to student needs. These folks balked at the notion school employees should be treated as professionals, suggesting teaching is a “calling,” and therefore not an activity for which the teacher’s education, training and experience should be fairly compensated.

That was wrong. It is always wrong. If you want qualified, competent people who care enough to do their very best and take on important responsibilities, you have to pay them. You should want to pay them.

We shouldn’t let the Bruce Rauner disaster obscure the fact that delivering important public service is real work, deserving of fair compensation.

If J.B. Pritzker can get Illinois on the right track, he will be worth far more than the salary we aren’t paying him.

McBarronBlog Bonus:

Despite the corruption and incompetence, about 25 percent of American voters remain loyal to Donald Trump, proving the producers of The Apprentice did a great job creating his undeserved reputation as a tough, decisive, successful businessman.

Read all about it.



Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, Mrs. McGinley


There are no chairs in the hallway outside the Social Security/Medicare office on Chicago’s northwest side. Nevertheless, arriving well before the office opens has benefits; standing for the better part of an hour is a small price to pay for those hoping to get necessary business completed so they can get on with their day.

I was fifth in line on Friday, getting there about an hour before the 9am opening. Very quickly, I got to discuss my Medicare issues with an expert.

I had needlessly dreaded this visit. The woman assisting me, who wore a badge reading “Mrs. McGinley,” could not have been farther removed from the stereotype of the uncaring civil servant. Our conversation lasted about 20 minutes and, when it was over, I understood all I needed to know about my Medicare benefits and costs.

She helped me immensely and efficiently. I was and am grateful.

Since President Trump forced the federal government “shutdown” on Friday night, I’ve been thinking a lot about Mrs. McGinley. I’ve read comments online about the affected federal employees; “They’ll eventually get their money” “This is no big deal,” etc…

It’s certainly a big deal for civil servants who, at Christmas, unexpectedly will have their paychecks delayed. It’s interesting to note that, though this political theater is supposedly due to Trump’s strong feelings about border security, 54,000 border protection agents will be working for free over Christmas.

What did these public servants do to deserve this disrespect, this uncertainty?

Not a damn thing.

Because our hopelessly corrupt President seeks to distract us from investigations and resignations, Mrs. McGinley and her colleagues are pawns in a game of “Look over there!”

The far right has done a masterful job of ratcheting up resentment of government employees, charging the workers with essentially stealing from taxpayers for advocating for reasonable pay and benefits in exchange for providing services we all need.

People like Mrs. McGinley seem to take it all in stride. While suggesting I follow-up my visit with a phone call to Medicare she added, under her breath, “If there’s anyone answering the phone next week.”

But, once the shutdown ends, she and her two million federal colleagues will continue to answer the phone. They’ll do it because it’s their job to help us, whether we appreciate them or not.

Thank you, Mrs. McGinley. And Merry Christmas.

# # #






(Updated) When a political leader dies, especially when the death is not a surprise, reaction arrives in predictable waves. Straight news reports give way to biographical assessments, which are almost always laudatory.  Overwhelming praise is soon replaced by reassessment and, inevitably, by disparagement.

So it is with George Herbert Walker Bush, 41st President of the United States, who died November 30 at 94.

In addition to a recounting of Bush 41 accomplishments, it’s been rightly pointed out that, as President, GHW Bush made some bad decisions or allowed terrible things to be done on his watch.

He made the reckless decision to put the uniquely unqualified Dan Quayle a “heartbeat away from the presidency. ”

His 1988 presidential campaign was extremely divisive.

Under the tutelage of hardballers Roger Ailes, James Baker and Lee Atwater, Bush impugned the Americanism of his opponent, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, the son of Greek immigrants, and pandered to prejudice in making hay of Dukakis’ honorable decision to accept a Massachusetts Supreme Court judgment that deemed mandatory pledge-of-allegiance recitals in public schools to be unconstitutional. “What is it about the Pledge of Allegiance that upsets him so much?” Bush taunted. Then came the Willie Horton ads that hyped the scare-story of an African-American criminal, released on furlough from a Massachusetts prison, who raped a woman and assaulted her husband. Never mind that Reagan, as governor of California, had signed a similar furlough bill.

Perhaps nothing Bush did as president was as indefensible as naming Clarence Thomas to replace Thurgood Marshall on the US Supreme Court when there were much better qualified African American judges or legal scholars he could have chosen.

Yet, GHW Bush deserves our respect for his military service, for the many posts he held in government and, yes, for his single term as President.

If you have strong opinions about politics and policies, and you pay close attention to both, every President will disappoint you.

Every President.

Imagine if we had a president who cared nothing about uniting the country after a divisive election? A president who encouraged division?

Imagine if our Chief Executive was the kind of person who would take actions counter to American interests because he wanted to personally profit, or because he feared alienating his core constituency?

No patriotic American wants that.

Bush 41 was not that man. He foolishly took a “No new taxes” pledge but did what was best for the country by reneging on it.

When former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke won the Republican nomination for Governor of Louisiana, Bush got involved:

“When someone has a long record, an ugly record of racism and of bigotry, that record simply cannot be erased by the glib rhetoric of a political campaign,” Bush said of Duke. “So I believe David Duke is an insincere charlatan. I believe he’s attempting to hoodwink the voters of Louisiana, I believe he should be rejected for what he is and what he stands for.”

He had a memorable presidency. There was good and bad. Some presidents are better than others and 41 was probably somewhere near the middle.

He represents a time when we could have a president who you might not have voted for, and who held distinctly different political views from your own, but who was not an embarrassment and who did not represent a threat to the Constitution and the rule of law.

We’re hearing now from people who think those who are speaking respectfully of George H. W.  Bush have developed amnesia. They seem to think we don’t remember or don’t care about mistakes he made or that were made in his name.

That’s not true.

We’re just very aware of the present as well as the past.

# # #

McBarronBlog Bonus


Independence Day

Battle_of_Trenton_by_H Charles_McBarron
The Battle of Trenton
Battle of Bunker Hill
The Battle of Bunker Hill
Battle of Yorktown
The Battle of Yorktown
Battle of Guilford Court House
Battle of Longue-Pointe, outside of Montreal, Sept. 25, 1775.
Battle of Longue-Pointe (outside of Montreal, Sept. 25, 1775)
Battle of Cowpens

McBarronBlog Bonus:

About the artist

VIDEO: 1991 news interview with H. Charles McBarron Jr.

TIME Magazine: Ten American protest moments

Baseball · Politics · Radio

Thirty years ago, Illinois defeated Florida – Jim Thompson got the save



The owners of the Chicago White Sox were adamant: they were going to get a new ballpark.

As for “In what state?,” Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn were open-minded.

The Sox had played on Chicago’s south side since 1901. However, in the summer of 1988, business leaders and politicians were offering a sweet deal in St. Petersburg if the Sox would become Florida’s first Major League Baseball team.

A cherished dream of many Floridians — the state’s own major-league baseball team — moved closer to reality Tuesday when legislators approved a $30 million plan to lure the Chicago White Sox to St. Petersburg.

”We are extremely pleased,” said Larry Arnold, chief assistant city manager of St. Petersburg.

”We have taken a major step toward bringing major-league baseball to Florida. We have every hope that they’re going to be in St. Petersburg in 1989.”

Supporters of the plan said Tuesday’s votes by the House and the Senate significantly increased the odds that the White Sox will play ball next year in a 43,000-seat domed stadium under construction in downtown St. Petersburg. 

This was a fact: Unless Illinois lawmakers passed the stadium bill by midnight (60 votes needed in the House) on June 30, the White Sox would be Florida-bound on July 1. The reason: after that date, the legislative bar would be raised. A proposal as controversial as the $150 million taxpayer-funded White Sox stadium bill would never get the super-majority (71 House votes) needed for approval after June 30.

On June 30, the stadium bill needed to first get 30 votes to clear the Senate, itself a seemingly impossible task.

It all had to happen by midnight.

In the Senate, Chicago Democrats favored the proposal, but at least three Republicans needed to join them. Noted Chicago-hater James “Pate” Phillip of DuPage County was the Republican Senate leader. His opposition meant no Republicans were willing to vote for the stadium bill.

But the Save Our Sox campaign had some well-placed supporters.


Governor Jim Thompson, a Chicago Republican popular in his hometown, understood losing one of the city’s two Major League teams would be a blow to the local and state economies. Thompson, in his fourth and final term as governor, also knew a departure of the the White Sox on his watch would stain his legacy.

It was more personal for Speaker Michael Madigan, a White Sox fan whose legislative district is located on Chicago’s south side. But, regardless of what Madigan wanted, saving the Sox would be impossible without Republican support.

June 30, 1988

In the late afternoon on June 30, based on Senate President Phillip’s opposition, Lt. Gov. George Ryan pronounced the Sox stadium bill “dead.”

Phillip had a vice-like grip on his members, so there was no reason to doubt Ryan as the bill awaited a Senate vote.  But, Gov. Thompson wasn’t giving up.

“I said, ‘Pate, this is personal. I want this stadium and you have to help me,'” Thompson said.

In a surprise, Phillip dropped his opposition, allowing his members to vote as they wished. The Senate Minority Leader smirked as Thompson prowled the Senate floor, looking for Republicans willing to support the bill.

Shockingly, Thompson convinced three Republicans to go along, giving the bill the minimum 30 votes needed. As soon as the votes were tallied, Thompson and his lobbying team literally sprinted into the House chamber to try to get the bill passed before the midnight deadline.

What happened next was as dramatic as anything that happened at Comiskey Park  during the 80 years it hosted ballgames.

The sound in the House chamber was a dull roar. The atmosphere was extremely tense.

Thompson scurried around the Republican side of the aisle in a feverish attempt to find supporters. Voting for a stadium for Chicago was not an easy sell for downstate and suburban Republicans.

Every Republican Representative was a potential supporter, as far as the governor was concerned. With all eyes on him, and with Speaker Madigan’s support, Thompson unashamedly played “Let’s Make a Deal” on the House floor.

Afterward, there were stories that Thompson was awarding “pork” projects right and left. One legislator said the governor had promised to support him for Secretary of State.

I’m not sure how a representative could hear any of the promises being made. The decibel level in the chamber ranged from “very loud” to, as midnight drew near, “deafening.”

Ordinarily, a bill is read and debated, voting opens and, after 30 seconds or less of members being prodded “Have all voted who wish?”, voting ends and results are tallied and posted. Reporting a legislative vote “live” for the radio is an uncomplicated task, normally.

What happened shortly before midnight on the evening of June 30, 1988, was not normal.

In the House press box, with a phone jammed against my ear but unable to hear anything being said to me by the WMAQ-AM news producers back in Chicago, I had to assume I was “live” on the air. With one eye on the House tote board and the other on Gov. Thompson twisting arms on the House floor, more than 20 minutes of radio “play-by-play” was improvised for audiences in Chicago and St. Petersburg.

Here are the last eight minutes of the WMAQ broadcast of the House vote. Listen for the tone signaling midnight.

Illinois Issues:

Senators, having adjourned for the night, filled the rear of the House chamber. When the voting opened in the House several members did not register their votes on the electronic board. The voting was closed, thereby forcing representatives to declare their votes. The board showed only 54 yes votes, and 60 were required. The roll call was not announced, giving Thompson and other supporters time to convince reluctant representatives to change their votes. The clock on the vote board was switched off, so nobody could be sure of the exact time. Slowly six representatives, three from each party, asked that their votes be changed from no to yes. When the 60th vote was lit up on the board the vote was immediately announced, as well as the time of 11:59 p.m., although the printed roll call recorded the time at 12:03 a.m.

WMAQ was the only news outlet to broadcast the entire vote “live.” Chicago TV stations, believing the Sox bill was dead, had left Springfield while Chicago’s radio news leader, WBBM, cut away from the Statehouse to air CBS network news at the top of the hour.

WBBM took the “midnight deadline” literally. Speaker Madigan did not.

In the House, after many observers saw their watches read past midnight, the constitutionally mandated adjournment time, the House passed the measure by a 60-55 vote. The published roll call read 12:03 a.m. Friday, which normally would mandate any bill passing by a three-fifths majority, or 71 votes.

“I don’t think there is a judge in the nation, especially in Illinois, who would challenge this,” said Madigan (D., Chicago), who also had strong-armed three Democrats to switch their votes before the electronic toteboard was closed.

“By my watch, it was 11:59′” Madigan said.  “I didn’t know this would pass. The Republicans told me they had seven votes when we went in, but the governor and I and all the members took risks and passed this bill to keep the White Sox in Chicago.”

It was akin to the White Sox coming from behind to win after the final out had been recorded.

“You bet I was worried,” a relieved Thompson told reporters. “Wouldn’t you be worried? Weren’t you watching the votes? This is a political resurrection from the dead, a baseball resurrection from the dead.”

During his 14 years as the state’s chief executive, Jim Thompson usually governed with Republican minorities in both the House and Senate. He won some and lost some but, unlike the current governor, Thompson would never have claimed he was “not in charge.”

Because Jim Thompson knew how to govern, he was able to save the White Sox for Chicago and Illinois.

# # #

McBarronBlog Bonus:

Had Thompson failed, Chicago would have missed out on an amazing 2005 season.

The stadium bill’s passing meant the end for a great ballpark. Watch a brief documentary on Comiskey Park

Aerial photo of Comiskey, taken during the 1959 World Series

Watch the final three outs at old Comiskey.

A look at what might have been from a Tampa-St. Petersburg baseball fan 

*This Sox stadium anniversary post is a revised and updated version of a McBarronBlog post from last year.