Backstage with Ron Onesti:
Take me out to the ballgame … and concert hall
As the owner of the Arcada Theatre, I guess I am known as “The Music Man” of St. Charles. These days, I literally eat, drink and sleep music from the ’60s, ’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; it 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-70s turned me into a fantasy rock star.
However, with so much of my activity now in the music scene, rarely does my history in the sporting goods business come up. As I was gearing up for opening day of the baseball season recently, it brought me back to my sports business days — and the days when I was playing hard ball three days a week.
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 is now. 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 the 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 and advertising agency professionals, and between truck drivers and tradesmen. On any given day, 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 afterward. That is where all the “fisherman” stories would inflate those squib hits to the pitcher into three-base hits smashed over the third baseman’s head. But for me, the best was the Saturday mornings when my customers would come in, for no other reason than to manhandle the 36-inch “war club” wooden softball bats. On any given day, you might 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 just hanging and talking softball.
Just a few short years ago, under the auspices of Al Maag, a dreamer who turned the Sixteen-Inch Softball Hall of Fame into a realty, this grand hall in Forest Park opened. The building is jaw dropping, complete with exhibits, photos and memorabilia from the game’s greatest players, managers and sponsors.
A couple of years back, I got a call that my brother and I were nominated for induction into this 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 my 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, Harry Carey. Autographs, peanuts and hot dogs, doubleheaders on Sundays with my dad, and bringing my oversized glove to batting practice. And my dad watching the game while listening to it through an earpiece from his 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 my shows 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 just a few people enjoy life just a little bit more, then for me, I would have hit that World Series-winning homer in the bottom of the ninth with two out.
• 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.