Could a small town Illinois baseball team beat the odds and make it to the state finals? Sports Illustrated writer Chris Ballard goes back in time to uncover the Macon High Ironmen of 1970 and 1971 in his book, One Shot At Forever. He joins us on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm. Read the prelude and first chapter of the book below.
Bob Fallstrom had to read the sheet twice, and still he didn’t believe it. Was this some sort of joke? The work of a smartass kid? By 1971 Fallstrom had been at the Decatur Herald & Review for twenty-two years and had spent the bulk of that time covering small- town high school sports in central Illinois.
Over the years he’d seen plenty. He’d covered future major leaguers like Bill Madlock and farm boys who’d never seen a curveball. He’d dealt with coaches who were autocrats, coaches who were assholes, coaches who didn’t know their own players’ names, and, once, a married coach who skipped town on the day of a big game with the school nurse. But he’d never seen anything like this.
In his hand, Fallstrom held a rumpled survey returned by L. C. Sweet, the baseball coach at Macon High, a tiny school twenty minutes south of Decatur that had enjoyed surprising success the previous season. For Fallstrom, who was both the sports editor and lead columnist at the Herald & Review, the survey was a way to avoid spending weeks calling the coaches at the fifty-odd schools his paper covered. The form included lines for batting order and schedule, the coach’s lifetime record, and then, at the bottom, a few questions about team strengths and weaknesses. It was boilerplate stuff, and by now Fallstrom knew what to expect: coaches talking up their players and, when possible, inflating their own credentials. And who could blame them? Everyone wanted to look good in the Herald & Review, which was the only daily paper for dozens of small towns and held tremendous sway in central Illinois. As the saying went in the newsroom, “If it’s in the Herald & Review sports section, it must be true.”
This was different though. Fallstrom called over Joe Cook, his right-hand man in the sports department.
“What do you make of this?” Fallstrom said, handing over the sheet. “Make sure to read the whole thing, down to the bottom.”
Cook scanned the answers, then broke out laughing. There, at the end of the survey, under the heading of “Team Weaknesses,” Sweet had written the following word: “Coaching.”
Lynn Sweet never set out to be a baseball coach, and he certainly never dreamed he’d live in a place like Macon. In fact, when he got the call from Macon principal Roger Britton in the fall of 1965 inviting him to interview for a job teaching English, the first thing Sweet did was ask where, exactly, the town was.
A week later, Sweet threw on a coat and tie, hopped into his brown ’58, six-cylinder Ford Customline and hit the road, heading south from Chicago. As he drove, the city faded away, replaced by endless miles of denuded cornfields, the splintered stalks poking out of the hard earth like blond stubble. Every once in a while, Sweet breezed through a town, but mostly it was just him and that big blue sky. To pass the time he rolled down the windows, letting the cool air fly through his hair, and hummed a song about a Tambourine Man. He wasn’t quite sure where he was going, but that was fine. He rarely was.
At twenty-four, Sweet was a dreamer and something of an idealist. The son of a hard-driving Army sergeant, he had, as he put it, “broken the other way.” Sweet was against the war, fond of bucking convention, and convinced the world was full of good people who occasionally had bad ideas. From his mother, he’d inherited a love of the arts, books, and ideas, while his father had given him not only his name—Lynn Junior often went by his initials “L. C.” to differentiate himself from his father—but also the ability to relate to most any man. Later, he would come to look, as one opposing player put it, “like Frank Zappa had decided to coach baseball,” but for now he was still clean-cut, with short dark hair that framed a wide face, hazel eyes, thick eyebrows, and long eyelashes. Darkly handsome, he was both funny and a good listener, a combination women tended to find irresistible.
By the time he drove south to meet Britton, Sweet had come to a crossroads of sorts, forced to confront his future after years of giving it the slip. He’d dropped out of college twice and worked as a roofer, a painter, and, briefly, on the Kraft Foods factory line, a soul-deadening experience he hoped to never repeat. As far back as he could remember, he’d disliked school but loved reading. His mother read to him frequently when he was young and pushed him to make his own discoveries. He tackled Orwell in the fourth grade, later fell for Aldous Huxley, and wrestled with Joyce.
Though an indifferent student, Sweet was beloved by his teachers. On his seventh grade report card, one Cora Johnson of Hopewell Elementary School, in Hopewell, Virginia, had deemed the boy a “dreamer” and a “time-waster” who could “just about exasperate one at times.” Yet she went on to write that she “just loved the boy and thoroughly enjoyed having him in [her] class,” calling him “cooperative, helpful (in his own way)” and possessed of “a good mind.”
In other words, Sweet had many of the makings of a good teacher. So, when faced with a choice between following his father into the military and entering a profession that would provide a draft exemption, Sweet told his father, “Sorry, this cat’s not going,” and majored in English at Southern Illinois University, with the intention of becoming a teacher. He was two months into a student teaching assignment in Chicago when Britton happened upon his name on a list of prospective teachers.
Sweet immediately intrigued Britton, who was a conservative principal in every respect but one: the hiring of teachers. Believing students should be exposed to a variety of influences and approaches, he’d set out to surround himself with the most interesting people possible after rejoining the Macon School District in 1965. During his first few years Britton hired, among others: a hard-ass former Marine to teach industrial arts; a foul-mouthed six-foot-two, two-hundred-and-forty-pound Southern good ol’ boy to coach football and teach chemistry; and a statistical whiz from the nearby Caterpillar factory’s quality control division to teach math. Once, upon being impressed with a barmaid at the Lone Oak Tavern in Decatur named LaVonne Jones, Britton brought the entire school board to the bar to meet her, then hired her on the spot.
In Sweet, however, Britton recognized a rare commodity: an English teacher who was young and male. From the look of his file, Sweet was also well educated (that SIU degree) and worldly (that Army brat background), at least by Macon’s standards. That he had only a couple months of experience didn’t bother Britton. He was more worried about how to convince the young man to move to a place like Macon.
Macon was indeed an unlikely destination for Sweet, who had grown up in a series of midsize cities in Virginia and Arizona before his father got a job teaching ROTC at the University of Illinois, allowing the Sweets to settle in Champaign. Now Sweet was living at the Ravenswood YMCA in Chicago and embracing the burgeoning counter- culture of the ’60s. He listened to the Rolling Stones, hung out at poetry readings with kids in berets, smoked his share of grass, and stayed up late debating politics and religion.
Now here he was, driving through a sea of cornfields and mulling a job offer in a town so small he was unaware of its existence only a week earlier. Just when Sweet began to wonder if he’d overshot Macon, or taken the wrong road, he saw a grain elevator rising like an iron redwood over the flat plains. It was easily the tallest building for miles. He had arrived.
As Sweet rolled into Macon, past the barber shop, the feed store, and Cole’s Arrowhead Tavern, he felt like he was going back in time, and in some respects he was. Though only two hundred miles from Chicago, Macon was, in 1965, still stuck in the Eisenhower era. Men had short hair; women wore long skirts; and the ideological shifts sweeping other parts of the country had yet to make their way this far into the heartland. Here, the greatest generation still held sway. Even though tens of thousands of war protesters had picketed the White House and marched on the Washington Monument only a month earlier, in Macon the United States was still viewed as infallible. The idea that anyone would want to stand up and shout about going to war was absurd. If Sweet was representative of where the country was headed, then Macon symbolized where it had been.
It was also, in the truest sense of the word, a community, the kind of town where kids were sent to the post office each morning to bring back the mail and the local paper, the weekly Macon News, ran the grade school menus on the front page of every issue (goulash and meat loaf were big). The paper’s slogan was “We print everything but dollar bills,” and that wasn’t far off the mark. The News contained a regular feature called “Two Minutes with the Bible,” and breaking news stories included headlines such as “Local Cemetery Board Hires Custodian”; “Win Places [Boy] on State Vegetable Judging Team”; and “Evening Woman’s Club Meets in Kyle Home,” a story that included the following dispatch: “Howard Brown, County Supt. of Schools, gave a very interesting report on ‘Squares.’ He says we should all start being square and stand up for what we think is right.”
If the town felt frozen in time, it was due in part to its location. When the Illinois Central Railroad crews set up a freight and depot stop south of Decatur in 1845, creating the settlement that would later become Macon, they just as easily could have chosen any other patch of flat grass in the surrounding prairie lands, which stretched for miles in every direction. With no reason for the town’s existence—no river, hilltop, or swath of ideal topography—there was no compelling reason for people to settle there. As a result, Macon remained an outpost, an hour from the nearest midsize city, be it Champaign or Springfield, and twenty minutes from the closest small one, Decatur. By the time Sweet arrived in 1965, Macon was a largely self-sufficient town of twelve hundred, boasting one bank, two grocery stores, two barber shops, a post office, and enough jobs and farmland that residents didn’t have to look elsewhere for their needs. It was possible to go months, if not years, without ever leaving the town, and many people did.
Of course, Sweet didn’t know any of this as he pulled into the Macon High parking lot. He just knew he was a long way from the schools of Chicago. Certainly, Macon High wasn’t much to look at: a one-story brick building that, on its north end, became the junior high. Out back, a rutty baseball diamond shared real estate with the football field. A sign out front read WELCOME TO THE HOME OF THE IRONMEN.
Strolling into the front office, Sweet was greeted by a skinny, neat woman with a brown bob haircut. It was Roger Britton’s wife, Vera. Presently, Roger himself appeared. Tall and still possessed of the athletic build that made him an elite high-jumper and hurdler as a teenager, he had neatly parted, gray-flecked hair and a long, sharp nose. He struck Sweet as an easy man to get along with, and most of the time he was. What Sweet didn’t know was that Britton was both a powerful, persuasive speaker and a savvy salesman, naturally attuned to the ever-changing angles of leverage in any situation. He was the kind of man who, during contract negotiations with the Macon School Board, once brought a phone into the meeting. While discussing a pay raise, the phone rang. Britton picked it up, spoke for a moment, and then placed the receiver off to the side. “Well, this is the other school,” he announced, looking around the room. “They want an answer right now.” Scared of losing a young, talented principal, the board OK’d his pay raise on the spot. It’s a shame none of the men thought to pick up the call. If they had they’d have discovered Vera Britton on the other end.
At the moment, however, Britton was focusing his considerable talents of persuasion on luring Sweet to Macon, and he thought he knew how to do it. Walking down the white-tiled linoleum halls, past the tiny cafeteria and the chemistry and typing classrooms, Britton emphasized how, with 250 students and nineteen teachers, Macon High offered the kind of intimate, personal environment where a young teacher could have an impact. He mentioned that he was a former English professor and, upon learning that Sweet was a Cubs fans, casually mentioned that not only was he a Cardinals man himself, but if an employee were to, say, sneak off for an afternoon ball game, it wouldn’t be viewed as the worst offense in the world. Finally, Britton came to a stop in a small, white-walled classroom at the southwest corner of the building. A row of large windows looked out upon empty cornfields and two dozen individual desks were arranged in rows. Blackboards covered two of the walls.
“Here’s your desk, your textbooks, and your grade books,” Britton said, pointing to a stack of materials on an old wooden desk. “We play poker on Wednesday nights.”
Sweet stared at him. “That’s it? I got the job?”
Britton nodded. He hadn’t said a word about what he expected of Sweet or his curriculum, and this was by design. Britton had taught in three schools, had a master’s in education from Millikin University in nearby Decatur, and was pursuing an advanced degree from Eastern Illinois University. He’d been around a lot of teachers of all inclinations and Sweet struck him as a man who valued autonomy, who perhaps harbored grand ideas about teaching. He was a man to be encouraged, not reined in.
“But I haven’t accepted it yet,” Sweet said. “True, but we’d like you to,” said Britton. Sweet stood there considering the offer, and the friendly but assertive man in front of him, and he began to warm to both. It’s not like I have to live in Macon the rest of my days, he thought. Life was full of opportunities; if he didn’t like this one, he’d move on to the next. Besides, he was only an hour from friends and family in Champaign and, best he could tell, Britton was offering him carte blanche as a teacher. Plus, he did like poker.
Ah hell, Sweet thought, why not? He extended his hand and smiled.
Britton smiled back. “Welcome to Macon,” he said. He turned to leave, took one step, and then paused. “One more thing,” Britton said. “There are three taverns in the town and as teachers we don’t drink at them. To set a good example, you understand.”
Sweet nodded and gave Britton a look that said, Of course I understand.
A few minutes later, when the paperwork was in place, Sweet walked out to his Ford. He turned on the ignition, pulled out of the parking lot, and promptly drove down to Cole’s Tavern, where he drank a beer with the locals and talked about the Chicago Bears. He then proceeded across the street to Claire’s Place for another beer before dropping in at the Nite Owl on Wall Street, where he shared a Pabst with the afternoon crew, at which point Sweet felt safe in his determination that all three were fine establishments.
It wasn’t Champaign or Chicago, but Macon would do.
Excerpted from ONE SHOT AT FOREVER by Chris Ballard. Copyright © 2012 Chris Ballard. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold. All Rights Reserved.
Learn more about the book from author Chris Ballard in the following video.