CHICAGO – It was a good day to be a ballhawk.
The wind was blowing out, straightaway to center field, stretching the American flag atop the Wrigley Field scoreboard. The sky was overcast, which made it easier to spot flying baseballs. And the Cubs’ opponent, the Pittsburgh Pirates, had some boppers who could blast home runs beyond the left field fence and on to Waveland Avenue as the team’s batting practice started 90 minutes before a recent game.
“The ball is carrying like crazy,” said Rich Buhrke, 67, as he peered toward the sky. “There should be quite a few out here.”
Buhrke stood on the sidewalk across the street from the stadium. His typical station is at the northeast corner of Waveland and Kenmore avenues, but because of the day’s hitter-friendly conditions, he shifted about 75 feet toward left-center field.
As time passed, dozens of Cubs fans strolled past Buhrke, heading toward the turnstiles. A man in a hot dog costume – “EAT ME… at Full Shilling,” it said on his back – strode toward the row of bars on Clark Street. Fire engine No. 78 pulled out of a nearby station and rumbled east on Waveland, siren blaring.
Buhrke barely noticed. He was focused on the sky.
“So far, there’s been nothing right here,” said Buhrke, who wore a black Mizuno mitt. “But there will be.”
He’s a lifelong Cubs fan. Of course he’s an optimist.
Buhrke was 12 years old when his life changed forever.
It was the summer of 1960. Buhrke was a neighborhood kid, out riding his bicycle with friends, when he passed by Wrigley as the Cubs were playing a game.
Suddenly, the crowd roared. A ball came screaming over the stadium fence.
Buhrke and his friends pedaled toward the landing spot to see what had happened. There, they learned about the existence of ballhawks, a group of men who wore gloves and stood outside the stadium in hopes of catching long home runs.
“It was an Ernie Banks home run,” Buhrke said. “It turned out that one of the guys misjudged it and it hit him in the side, and the ball marks, the seams, were still on his hip. That’s when I first realized, ‘Hey, they hit balls out of here.’
“I came back the following weekend, and the rest is history.”
Before long, Buhrke had his first catch: a Willie Mays’ batting practice home run. The ball smacked against Waveland and ricocheted off a nearby tree branch.
“It hit the limb of the tree and came right down into my glove,” Buhrke said with a chuckle. “So, it caught me, I didn’t catch it.”
By the numbers
Buhrke had caught the ballhawk bug, or maybe the ballhawk bug had caught him.
Either way, he was hooked. There was no going back. Not for the kid who loved baseball but had to work his tail off just to make his high school team at Evanston.
“It’s been a lifelong dream to be a major league ballplayer,” Buhrke said. “This is the closest I ever got. But it definitely puts you in the middle of things.
“Because when they hit that ball out and you catch it, just for a second, you’re a part of that game.”
All told, Buhrke had caught 3,533 balls in his life, from spring training to Wrigley to midseason road trips and the Arizona Fall League. He had caught 179 in-game home runs. He even had caught two in-game footballs from the 1960s, when the Bears played at Wrigley and goal posts towered over Waveland.
Now, more than a half-century after his first grab, the split-second rush still fueled Buhrke. He drove from his home in Des Plaines on this day in search of the first ball of his 55th season as a ballhawk.
“It makes you feel young,” Buhrke said. “It does. Until you try to run with some of these kids and find out that you can’t run anymore.”
Stranger than fiction
Baseballs are simple to count, but much tougher to tally are the stories that Buhrke has collected from his spot on the sidewalk.
Like the time Mickey Mantle hit the second floor of a yellow house near Sheffield during batting practice of the 1962 All-Star Game.
Like the time Dave Kingman drilled the front of a house three buildings down on Kenmore.
Like the time Glenallen Hill crushed a ball into the rooftop bleachers across Waveland.
In addition to seeing great strength, Buhrke has witnessed plenty of strange.
Like the time when Reds pitcher Tom Browning crossed Waveland in the middle of a game, in full uniform, to watch his teammates from the rooftops.
“We saw it happen,” Buhrke said. “We didn’t know what in the world he was doing.”
Or like the time when a UPS delivery truck was traveling down Waveland as a home run ball sailed through the air. The truck had no doors on the driver or passenger sides, and it never stopped as the ball skipped through the cab.
“I swear to God, the ball bounced through one side of the truck and out the other,” Buhrke said. “That was one of the nuttiest things I ever saw.”
The old baseball stories were happy and funny, always ending with a smile.
But Buhrke’s grin faded as he discussed the changing culture surrounding the Cubs. Before long, he said, Wrigley’s ballhawks would be forced into extinction.
About eight years ago, the Cubs renovated and expanded the bleachers to stretch past part of the street. The expansion eliminated about two-thirds of home runs that used to leave the stadium, Buhrke said.
Now, the Cubs want to erect a massive scoreboard atop the left field bleachers.
“If they throw that thing up there, it will be all over,” Buhrke said. “And they will eventually put that up there, there’s no question about it.”
Could this be the final year of the ballhawks?
“It very well could be,” Buhrke said. “When we said goodbye last fall, we thought that was it. But then about halfway through the winter, you realized that there was no way that they were going to get the OK to go ahead with [the scoreboard].
“So we knew we’d get one more year out of it. And that’s probably going to be it.”
At Wrigley, at least.
Buhrke eventually hopes to retire to Arizona or some place else where he can attend baseball games year-round. In the meantime, he works at Glenview Ice Center, recently working 16 out of 18 days in order to free up his schedule for baseball.
“I want to get to a place to retire where there’s nothing but baseball almost 365 days a year,” Buhrke said. “If I can still move and my lungs are still breathing, I’ll be doing something that has to do with baseball. I love baseball.”
Despite Buhrke’s high hopes, batting practice had proved to be a disappointment. The Cubs had skipped their session, and the Pirates were failing to hit long balls.
Even though the wind was blowing out, only two balls had cleared the stadium, and neither landed close to Buhrke. Another ball had headed toward him on a perfect trajectory, but it thudded against the top few rows of the expanded bleachers.
Only a few minutes remained before batting practice would end.
And then it happened.
A ball soared toward the sky and into Buhrke’s line of sight. He turned to his right as it landed in the middle of Waveland and hopped high against the side of a building. After the ball hit the building, it ricocheted and rolled to a stop against a wrought-iron fence that lined the sidewalk.
Buhrke crouched and scooped the ball with his bare right hand.
The first ball of Year No. 55.
The 3,534th ball of his life.
The unofficial ending to a long, cold winter.
“Look,” Buhrke said.
He held out his hand. It was shaking.
“It’s always that way.”
If only for a moment, Buhrke was 12 years old again. He was a neighborhood kid with a bicycle. He was clutching a major league baseball, admiring its seams and its stitches and its scuff marks.
It was a good day to be a ballhawk.
• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @tcmusick.