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WSI News - WSI Spotlight

Chicago's Ballparks

Part 1.  Tribune vs. Reinsdorf:  the early years.

This is a tale of two ballparks and two owners. Both bought their baseball clubs twenty-one years ago. The first of these to buy a baseball club was a group led by Eddie Einhorn and Jerry Reinsdorf. They purchased the Chicago WhiteSox before the 1981 season from Bill Veeck, an owner beloved by fans and promoter of a beer garden atmosphere at Comiskey Park. Einhorn and Reinsdorf were not Veeck's first choice to buy the club. That was Edward DeBartolo. But in its infinite wisdom, and to give Veeck one last slap in the face, the entity known as Major League Baseball cited DeBartolo's interest in (gasp!) racetracks as a mitigating factor in the denial of the sale.

Veeck let it be known that this was not his first choice, and when Einhorn said that his group's goal was to make the Sox "a class operation," Veeck went to the north side in a huff, doing his level best to never to set foot in any facility known as Comiskey Park for the rest of his life.

The second owner purchased the Chicago Cubs from William Wrigley, who had inherited the club from his father, longtime Cubs owner P. K. Wrigley. They were a faceless entity known as the Tribune Co. This media giant had purchased a club that had a record of futility matched by few teams in the history of the game.

Both clubs had ballparks that were aging. However, over the years, the Wrigley family always had enough cash on hand to pay for needed renovations while the various owners of the White Sox always seemed to be
strapped for cash and could often only slap on a new coat of paint when what was really needed was a major overhaul.

The ballparks were in very different neighborhoods, too. Wrigley Field was in an area that was suddenly being rediscovered by yuppies. Real estate agents began referring to West Lakeview not by its true name, but as
"Wrigleyville." The neighborhood prospered, and the ballpark became the center of the restaurant and bar  trade along Clark St.

In an important move, right after they bought the club, the Tribune Co. decided that Jack Brickhouse's designated replacement, Milo Hamilton, just didn't fit the image they wanted to project. Meanwhile on the South Side, Einhorn and Reinsdorf decided that they had had enough of Harry Caray and his partner Jimmy Piersall. Suddenly the abrasive Caray was available, and the Tribune Co., aware of how good a marketing tool Caray had been for the Sox, ousted Hamilton and brought in the bad-boy announcer under an important stipulation. He was not to badmouth the Cubs.

Einhorn, meanwhile, decided to put most of the Sox games on Pay TV. He imported Don Drysdale and Ken "Hawk" Harrelson to broadcast the games. Most Sox fans didn't care to pay for what had been free since 1948, and they stayed away from SportsVision in droves, preferring to watch the handful of free games on WFLD-TV.  Still, Sox fans were known to show up at the ballpark when the team was good, and they did when the team won the AL West in 1983.

Unfortunately, the team fell apart in 1984 while the Cubs, still on WGN, which was now a satellite "superstation" won their first division championship ever and made their first post-season appearance of any kind since 1945.
Wrigley Field suddenly became a place to party, an image that has stuck with the place ever since.

Meanwhile, the Sox, promoting a "family" atmosphere at Comiskey Park, steadily lost attendance with a succession of bad ballclubs. Things were getting so bad on the South Side, and the ballpark was so close to falling apart, that Jerry Reinsdorf, now the CEO, decided that a new ballpark had to be built, and the State of Illinois would be the source of the funding.

Resistance from downstate was high, but outgoing governor Jim Thompson, responding to Reinsdorf's threat to move the team to St. Petersburg's new domed stadium, cashed in almost all of the political chips he'd been
saving during his decade as governor, and as the clock on the wall indicated the deadline to pass the funding bill had passed, it was announced that instead the bill had passed at 11:59 p.m.

A new Comiskey Park would be built. Sox publicity made it out to be what the original structure on 35th St. had been billed as, "The Baseball Palace of the World." All through the 1990 season, as the fans came back to say goodbye to their old friend and to watch an exciting young team surprise the American League with a 90-win season, things looked bright for Reinsdorf. Perhaps the Sox and Cubs could coexist and both draw around 2.5 million or so fans a year.

NEXT: The Ball Mall


Editor's Note: Hal Vickery has been a White Sox fan since 1955 when he was five years old. For much of that time he also had a secondary rooting interest in the Cubs, which he has shown the good sense to abandon. When not cheering for or writing about the Sox, Hal teachers chemistry and physics at North Boone High School, in Poplar Grove, IL. Hal commutes there daily from Joliet, where he lives with his wife Lee, and their dog, Buster T. Beagle. Hal's opinions are necessarily those of North Boone High School, his wife, or Buster T. Beagle. You can write Hal at nsmf@aol.com.

More features from Hal Vickery here!

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