LACON – Like Chicago White Sox pushing into the playoffs, Peoria-area fans have limited gathering places to celebrate the team.
Leading the cheers? Not a bartender.
For nearly half a century, Dale’s Hair Salon was a rare White Sox hangout in central Illinois, a mixed baseball territory populated mostly by Cubs and Cardinals fans and pubs. Among the small but loyal contingency of the Sox: owner Dale Bruda, 76, whose trusty barber coat is blue but whose heart is surely striped in black and white like the uniforms of his favorite team.
“I’ve always been a fan of the Sox,” he says. “I was born like this.”
He wears his allegiance on his sleeve – as well as almost every square inch of the walls of his shop in The con, about 30 miles northeast of Peoria. There are White Sox posters, pins and badges, glasses, caps, figurines, placards, bats, plaques, figurines, kewpie dolls, stickers, key chains and trash.
Sox flags? They come in all sizes and slogans. A huge reel of pennants spans a wall dedicated largely to the 1959 team, which reached the World Series during Bruda’s youth.
pictures of the Sox? He especially likes showing off a rare photo taken after the 1917 Championship, including Shoeless Joe and others who would later perform for the infamous 1919 Black Sox. But his favorite photo was taken there more than three years ago. decades, when all-time high Carlton Fisk (an associate of a Bruda client) made a surprise visit.
Beaming, Bruda showed a framed photo of himself standing next to Fisk, then said, “I have every right to brag that a Hall of Fame was here, right?”
In fact, Sox memorabilia does little to attract Bruda’s longtime clientele. Most of them are Cubs and Cards enthusiasts who simply appreciate the rarity of the business. Of course, there are women who cut their hair in salons from town to town. But Dale’s – with a required weathered bench extending out front as well as a faithfully rotating red-white-blue barber pole – is the last local stronghold of tonsorial arts and male ties.
Dan Wilkinson, 82, drove seven miles from his home to Henry for a chance to slip into Dale’s lonely chair. On a recent weekday, shortly after dawn, Bruda gave him a haircut as they discussed world affairs, including the baseball playoffs. Wilkinson, a 30-year-old customer and die-hard Cubs fan, was hesitant to say anything negative about Bruda’s favorite team.
“He’s got a razor in his hand,” Wilkinson said with a tight smile. “You must be careful.”
A decades-long legacy of the Sox fandom
This razor has been a part of Bruda’s world for almost as long as the Sox. As a boy in Ladd, about 35 miles north of the store, Bruda loved baseball and sided with the Sox as a form of protest.
“You’ve only heard of the Yankees and the Dodgers,” he said. “They were good teams. But no, not the Yankees or the Dodgers for me. He pauses, then adds, “I don’t know why I didn’t like the Cubs.”
Meanwhile, as a teenager, he thought he was going to join the Navy, until a cousin convinced him to go to barber college in Peoria. Once there, he realized that he would need to work at night while learning to cut hair during the day. So he got an in-game job for Caterpillar Tractor Co., bringing him to East Peoria for the first time.
He has lived there ever since, now with his wife, Donna. He shuttles from Tuesday to Saturday to Lacon, where he has been cutting his hair for 54 years, the last 47 in his shop, solo.
Younger, he made more than 25 hikes a year to Comiskey Park. A memorable trip came in 1990, when he secured multiple tickets to the stadium’s last game before it was demolished out of season. The week before, he had sold me one of these tickets. After the first pitch I searched for him for several innings before he finally came into the seat next to me, fuming.
The deadline? Outside the park, he had tried to sell one last extra ticket to a passerby who happened to be an undercover Chicago cop. It took him a while to sort things out, but at least he walked into the stadium to see the lights go out one last time.
“He’s the one I’ll never forget,” he said, shaking his head with a rueful smile.
In 2005, when the Sox reached the World Series, he couldn’t afford aftermarket tickets for the first two games in Chicago. It was cheaper to get a ticket, as well as a plane ride, to Game 3 in Houston. On the store wall, a photo shows the moment a Fox Sports camera captured Bruda watching the game, a thriller the Sox won in 14 innings.
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Bruda did not have a ticket for the next game. But with the possibility of the Sox winning the series, he decided to give it a shot and stick around. He called his airline to postpone his flight for a day. However, he couldn’t find accommodation, as every hotel room was booked by baseball fans as well as tens of thousands of attendees in town for an international quilting convention. So he rented a car, found a parking space and slept in the back.
The next day, he got his hands on a ticket. That night, he watched in wonder the Sox win their first championship in 88 years, and the first in his life.
The team has had little success since, during which time Bruda’s haircuts only went up by a dollar, to $ 10. This year, however, the team seemed destined for the playoffs since opening day. The Sox’s first playoff round kicks off Thursday in Houston.
Unlike the 2005 Sox playoffs, Bruda likely won’t be in the stands. Despite having seen two regular season games in Chicago, playoff tickets – many of which at $ 200 or more – already seem too expensive for his convenience. Come the World Series, if the Sox are still in the picture, he’ll probably stick to his television.
Depending on the playing time, this also means staying in your hair salon. Thursday and Friday games are scheduled for the afternoon, when Bruda will have the game on the store’s big screen TV. At the idea, Wilkinson expressed his concern for the other customers, if Bruda was upset or excited during the game.
“Customers will have to be careful,” Wilkinson said with a chuckle. “He’s going to cut the hair – and cut the ears.”
Winning over Houston would be a close shave, Bruda said. Their chances? “50-50,” he said.
Still, he said, maybe the Sox’s pitch will hold up. If so, his team has a chance to go far in the playoffs, maybe win it all.
He paused, glancing at the shop and at the souvenirs, some of which had belonged to him from his youth. With childish hope and wonder, he exclaimed, “Isn’t that something?”
Phil Luciano is a columnist for the Journal Star. He can be reached at [email protected] and (309) 686-3155. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.