RoadTrip America A Sports Fan’s Guide to Route 66

by Ron Clements

Get Your Balls, Bats, and Sticks on Route 66!

Immortalized in countless books, songs, and movies, Route 66 is a timeless icon of American culture. Until now, however, no guide to this historic byway has focused on another beloved part of American culture: sports. That all changes with RoadTrip America A Sports Fan’s Guide to Route 66. In this groundbreaking new book, sports writer and lifelong sports fan Ron Clements goes beyond nostalgic buildings and classic cars to highlight historic sports venues, storied sports professionals, and current sports events along the Mother Road.

Rolling east from Chicago to Santa Monica, the author shares inside information about the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB teams who are based in the cites and towns that around on Route 66. In addition, enjoy anecdotes gathered from auto and horse racing tracks, rodeo areanas, golf links, and the magnificent lineup of high school and collegiate sports programs to check out along the way.

The book has more than three hundred photos and nine maps showing the various attractions in each of the eights states covered: Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. And because no book about the Mother Road would be complete without it, there’s plenty of info about the iconic roadside attractions that have entertained and enthralled travelers for the past century.

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Author picture

Ron Clements is a Wisconsin native and Green Bay Packers fan who married a Chicago Bears fan from Peoria, Illinois. Despite the rivalry, Ron and Patti make it work and have been living fulltime in an RV since March, 2018. They travel the country in search of new adventures and love attending baseball games and exploring national parks. They visited all 30 MLB stadiums in 2018 and have taken their RV to each of the lower 48 states. Ron is a veteran journalist of more than two decades and a summa cum laude graduate of East Carolina University, which he attended following his service in the United States Marine Corps. Ron has written for USA Today, Sporting News, CBS Sports, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Omaha World HeraldThe Philadelphia Inquirer, The Fresno Bee, the Montgomery Advertiser, and many other media outlets. Ron and Patti have two adult sons, RJ and David, and a four-legged travel companion named Maverick. While Ron’s home base is in Florida, he is on the road in his RV twelve months a year.

On the 5th of each month, Ron posts an article about current events and historical lore he discovered during his recent travels on the Mother Road.

A Sports Fan’s Guide to Route 66 will be in bookstores, online and wherever fine books are sold on August 3, 2021.

ILLINOIS

The Illinois segment of Route 66 may not be as scenic as the portion that runs through the fabled landscape of the American Southwest, but it has a little bit of everything for travelers. Beginning and ending in major cities, the 301 miles through the Land of Lincoln are dotted with small towns that embrace their Route 66 heritage. You’ll also find a lot of sports diversity with NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB teams, as well as auto and horse racing tracks in addition to a slew of high school and collegiate sports along the way.

CHICAGO

Chicago is one of just 12 U.S. cities to have at least one team in each of the four major North American professional sports leagues, but only two play near Route 66. Major League Baseball’s Cubs make their home at venerable Wrigley Field, but it’s seven miles north of the Route 66 starting point. The White Sox are at Guaranteed Rate Field five miles to the south. The NFL’s Bears are a little closer, two miles south of the Chicago Art Institute at Soldier Field. But the home of the NBA’s Bulls and NHL’s Blackhawks is United Center, and it’s only two blocks off the Adams Street portion of Route 66.

With your starting point on South Michigan Avenue in front of the Chicago Art Institute, head west down Adams Street about 3 miles before hanging a right on Damen Avenue. Before you even get to Monroe Street one block north, you’ll see United Center towering over Madison Street.

Larger-than-Life United Center

The first impression you get as you approach United Center is that it’s enormous. With a spectator capacity of more than 22,000 for sporting events, United Center is the largest NHL and NBA arena. Because of its size, it’s also a popular venue for NCAA events and a regular host for the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament in March.

United Center opened in 1994 and replaced the old Chicago Stadium, which opened in 1929. The Blackhawks were the first tenants of Chicago Stadium with the Bulls moving in for the 1967–68 NBA season. Known as “The Madhouse on Madison,” Chicago Stadium could cram 18,000 people into tight seats and steep rows and was known as the loudest arena in the NHL and NBA. Blackhawks team historian Bob Verdi said United Center is the new “Madhouse on Madison,” except with “suites and dessert trays.”

“One of the theories is that the noise at the old Chicago Stadium, one of the great old buildings, would never translate across the street to United Center, which is about three times as large,” Verdi said. “But there’s no lack of atmosphere at the United Center.”

Jordan and the Bulls’ Kingdom

Two decades—the 1990s and the 2010s—were especially raucous at United Center. Michael Jordan led the Bulls to three straight NBA championships twice. Chicago claimed the NBA crown from 1991 to 1993 and again from 1996 to 1998. The gap between the three-peats occurred when Jordan stepped away from basketball for two seasons to pursue a baseball career with the Chicago White Sox. Jordan never rose above Double A and returned to the Bulls in 1995.

“Michael Jordan helped build that building,” Verdi said. “There’s no doubt about it.”

A 12-foot statue of a soaring “Air Jordan,” known as “The Spirit,” was unveiled in 1994 outside the arena, but was moved into the United Center atrium in 2015. It’s now a popular meeting spot for fans before finding their seats. The atrium is lined with shops, cafes, ticket offices, and bars with “His Airness” in the center of the 190,000-square-foot space. Even for the casual sports fan, United Center is a can’t-miss experience.

“You can go to a game at any of these arenas now, never see a minute of the game, and still have a great time,” Verdi said. “It’s not just a game; it’s an event.”

The Bulls and Blackhawks do a wonderful job of paying tribute to the franchises’ respective histories. Photos, plaques, and signs line the concourses on every level. Banners of each team’s retired numbers as well as their championship banners are draped from the ceiling—Bulls on one end, Blackhawks at the other.

Blackhawk Wins through the Decades

Like the Bulls, the Blackhawks have won six championships. While the Bulls won all six of their titles in a single decade, the Stanley Cup championships are spread across more than 80 years. The Blackhawks won their first title in 1934—the club’s seventh season of existence when the NHL had just 10 teams. Another championship followed in 1938 and again in 1961 with Hall of Famers Stan Mikita, Al Arbour, and Bobby Hull leading the way. The Blackhawks didn’t win another Cup until the 2009–10 season, but won two more in 2013 and 2015.

Mikita and Hull are immortalized with bronze statues outside of United Center. The 7-foot-tall bronze sculptures, unveiled in 2011, show the two in full color with red sweaters and leggings, sticks in their hands, and skating in still-motion atop 5-foot-tall black granite pedestals.

The Blackhawks were one of the NHL’s “Original Six”—along with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, and New York Rangers. Verdi said that distinction is still recognized by today’s young players.

“We all assume the millennials don’t have an appreciation for what came before them, but for some reason, the ‘Original Six’ is implanted in the new players,” Verdi said. “If you’re a 25-year-old and you get traded here or to the Toronto Maple Leafs, that’s a big deal.”

Verdi said ending the 49-year championship drought in 2010 was similar to when the Hawks ended their 23-year drought in 1961.

“When Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita arrived in the late ’50s, it kind of rescued the Blackhawks from a dark period,” Verdi said. “They were drawing nobody and played neutral-site games because the crowds were so bad. They played in St. Louis, Omaha, Indianapolis, and Minneapolis.

“At one time, the situation was so bad, the NHL talked about moving the Blackhawks to St. Louis. But obviously it never happened.”

Winning fixes everything, and Verdi said the Blackhawks now have one of the best game environments in the NHL. Since 2008, the alternative rock song, “Chelsea Dagger” by the Fratellis, has been played after each Blackhawks goal and victory.

“You’ve got standing-room-only crowds,” Verdi said. “They’ve made the in-game experience and presentation really spectacular.”

It doesn’t get much better than when the Blackhawks are playing the St. Louis Blues because of the cities’ natural sports rivalry. When the Blues entered the NHL in 1967 as an expansion team, they went to three consecutive Stanley Cup Finals with a roster full of former Blackhawks players led by Arbour. Verdi said United Center is “very intense” and “rocking” when the Blues and Blackhawks face off.

Before seeing a game at United Center, you can have dinner at historic Berghoff Restaurant on Adams. If you’re staying in Chicago for the night after a game, grab breakfast at Lou Mitchell’s on Jackson on your way out of the Windy City.

HINSDALE

From Interstate Highway 290 in Chicago, rejoin Route 66 at Harlem Avenue and head south four miles to Joliet Road. Joliet Road winds through the villages of Lyons and McCook before intersecting with 55th Street. Located just three miles west of where Route 66 splits from 55th Street and turns south onto Brainard Avenue in Countryside is the Hinsdale high school with more state championships than any other school in Illinois.

The gymnasium at Hinsdale Central is impressive with banners for the 103 state championships (through 2020) in the 31 sports in which the Red Devils compete. The entirety of the gym is encircled with banners from each of the school’s state titles. The school’s most prosperous sports are tennis and swimming, which won a combined 70 titles from 1955 to 2019. Central set a state record with state championships in eight events during the 2014-15 school year.

“We’re in an area where both [tennis and swimming] are very popular with parents and the community itself, so the kids get involved at an early age,” said Dan Jones, Hinsdale Central’s athletics director. “We have a lot of clubs in the area that give lessons. We have three swim clubs that feed into our school.”

Olympic gold medalists John Kinsella and John Murphy came out of the Central swim program, and Olympian Robert Nieman was also a Red Devils swimmer. The Central tennis program helped Marty Riessen become a professional player. Former Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck, who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991, also attended the school when it was simply known as Hinsdale Township High School.

The Red Devils’ primary rival is Lyons Township High School, four miles northeast on Brainard Avenue in LaGrange.

“It’s a heated rivalry in every sport,” Jones said of the Central-Lyons rivalry. He added that basketball and football games are standing-room-only events when the two schools face off. “It’s heated, but competitive. There isn’t a lot of tomfoolery. There is some good-natured ribbing and pretty good student chants.”

Central and Downers Grove North also have a friendly rivalry, and the two teams have played for “the Old Oaken Bucket” every year since 1935. The scores from each of the games are written on the bucket and its wooden pedestal.

When it comes to big-time high school sports in Illinois, it really doesn’t get any bigger than Hinsdale Central.  Three miles due south from Central is the iconic Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket on Route 66, which again merges with Interstate 55 along Highway 83. Six miles later, take exit 268 for Joliet Road and head west for three miles until you connect with Illinois Highway 53.

Paperback with Reinforced cover and flaps : $24.95 US      ISBN: 9781945501739 — First Edition: August 2021
ePUB: $10.99 US      ISBN:  9781945501746

 

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