The months between the end of the World Series and Opening Day are torturous for baseball fanatics. So, on this opening day, WGN Sports Director Dan Roan has a tribute to one of Chicago’s baseball greats.
His name is Steve Sakas, a ballplayer himself back in the day. Sakas looked at life through the lens of baseball, knew how to pitch, and spent a lifetime sharing his gift with Chicago kids.
“Baseball was my dad’s life. Everything was about baseball, “ says Steve Sakas’ only daughter, Connie Markoutsas. “Because he got so close to becoming a professional and never did it, he ended up living his dream through all these children. My dad just wanted to help kids.“ Steve Sakas and his wife Georgia raised four kids of their own, a daughter and three sons, in this modest home in Skokie.
That it faced a baseball field was no accident. “My dad was given a gift,” says son Jim Sakas. “He was given a gift to teach kids how to pitch.” His children describe him as a natural athlete with good instincts and a great eye. Steve’s son Bill became a professional golfer. “He says listen you guys aren’t Greeks you’re Spartans. And Spartans are better. They’re warriors they work harder. “ Tony Tichy became a teacher and himself a pitching coach with the help of Steve Sakas. “ We worked a lot on the curve ball. Steve was always known being able to get the best curve balls out of his players.” Major leaguer and World Series champ George Kontos was a Steve Sakas prodigy. “I think the curve ball was the one things he was more passionate about than anything in baseball was that curve ball.” Sakas played baseball at Amundsen High School. At Wright Jr. College he struck out 15 batters in a row, in one game! The legendary Dizzy Dean saw him in the minors and made this prediction, “ Kid, you’re gonna be in the big leagues someday.” “I played professional baseball for eight years…” This is Steve Sakas in 1989 being interviewed by his grandson and namesake Steven. “Then in 1942 I had a good year, I was supposed to go to spring training with the White Sox, but got drafted in the service.”
Like a lot of able bodied, athletic men, Sakas’ baseball career was interrupted by World War Two. He served his country believing a career in the majors would be waiting for him, and it was. He was 15 and two with Texarcana when got called up. But he hurt his arm. Jim Sakas picks up the Dizzy Dean story. “Many years later after my dad had gotten hurt he was throwing batting practice for the Cubs. Dizzy Dean walks by the Cubs dugout and sees my dad there and he goes “Hey kid I told you you were gonna be here someday, Congratulations!” My dad had to go hey Diz I’m not here, I’m here to throw batting practice, I got a dead arm.” Instead he came home to the family bar business, became a scout for the Cubs, Sox, Brewers, Angels, and Diamondbacks, and he was a pitching coach well into his 80’s.
“You either have it or you don’t, “ says son Jim. “And you know what? He was a teacher, he was a coach. He had it.” Sakas stressed the importance of education and pushed Northwestern for its academics and exceptional baseball. But, his proudest moment came in 1989 when he was honored by players and coaches. Again, son Jim picks up the story. “When he won the Pitch and Hit amateur baseball coach of the year and Gleason was up there giving him the award and he goes Steve what’s your secret? He goes, “Have you hugged your kid today? “
“My dad taught all these kids how to pitch,” says son Bill. “There’s thousands of kids that he got either baseball scholarships for or he got ’em into the minor leagues.” (kid pitching at Slammers in Lake Forest –ball hitting the glove) Jim “There you go, right there. You feel it?” Steve’s son Jim is a special education teacher at Niles North and like his father, a long time pitching coach. “He’s got so many kids that he’s coached that are now coaching themselves…“ guys like former ball player now teacher and pitching coach, Tony Tichy. “What he taught me was to compete, challenge myself, to understand my limitations, but at the same time always continue to work hard.”
Son Jim has this to say, “He’s had several players make it to the big leagues. He’s never wanted a dime. He’s never wanted any publicity from it. He would just say one thing, “Come by and visit me.” He’d say, “don’t forget my name.” Steve Sakas watched his final season of baseball last fall with two of his “kids” in the bigs; Christian Friedrich of the Colorado Rockies, and George Kontos of the San Francisco Giants. “I’m one of the few guys you still see go over their head with their hand in the windup, and that was main thing from the windup, hands over the head no matter what. But ya, my delivery is a product of him.” Kontos went to the mound in the World Seires with Steve Sakas’ name scribbled inside his hat. At age 91 1/2 with failing eye sight, he could hear what he couldn’t see. Son Bill was watching by his side. “He heard Joe Buck saying the thing Kontos has done is he’s come in and right away started throwing strikes.
And my dad goes, “You damn right he’s throwing strikes.” Kontos came home from the World Series to see coach one final time; the day before he died. “During the wake he had a baseball with a curve ball grip in his hand.” Son Bill calls that fitting; “The last two guys he worked with were Friedrich and Kontos and they both make it to the major leagues. And then Kontos, the Spartan pitches in the World series and wins the World series. And it’s like what better way is it to just go off into the sunset?” Daughter Connie tells this story; “When my father was dying, he said to me and my brother he says, “I’m so sorry I wasn’t more successful. Having 400 people show up at a man’s funeral. How much more successful can you be?” This baseball season just won’t be the same for the Sakas clan. But son Jim says they’re hoping the big guy is using some of that Spartan spirit to help their favorite team. “We’re Cub fans and my dad was alive for 91 years and never saw a World Series. And you know Dad if you’re up there, help us out? Dad please! (laughs)
We’d like to thank our very own Steve Sanders for that acoustic guitar version of “Take me out to the ballgame.”
Pam Grimes produced this story. Photojournalist Mike D’Angelo was the photographer and editor.
And if you’d like to know even more about Steve Sakas, click these links: