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WSI News - WSI Spotlight

A Ballmall for Chicago?

Part 2.  Chicago's Ballparks.

As Comiskey Park rotted away during the 1980's the Tribune Co. made a move that would insure their keeping an increased share of the Chicago sports entertainment dollar. Although he was about to put up lights when World War II started, and despite President Franklin D. Roosevelt's suggestion that more night games be played to help wartime morale of factory workers, Wrigley sold the material for the light standards as scrap
metal to "help the war effort." For almost forty years after that Wrigley refused to even consider the idea of installing lights in his ballpark, ostensibly as a way of keeping good relations with the citizens of the Lakeview

The Tribune Co. didn't want to risk the animosity of the Cubs' neighbors when they bought the club, but all of that changed in 1984 when the Cubs unexpectedly won the National League East. Because only day games
could be played in the playoff series with San Diego, MLB moved took away the Cubs home field advantage that should have been theirs that year (due to it being the East's turn to host three of the fivegames, and gave
the advantage to the Padres. The Cubs would play only weekend games at Wrigley Field because those were already scheduled as day games. The three scheduled night games would be played at San Diego. The
Commissioner's Office further decreed that if the Cubs indeed won the NL pennant, all their games might have to be played in the nearest NL ballpark, St. Louis.

Leon Durham's use of his legs like a croquet wicket took care of the latter problem, but the Tribune Co. saw the writing on the wall. To prevent future embarrassment in the off chance that the Cubs might actually make it to the postseason again during their fans' lifetimes, Wrigley Field would have to have lights. Otherwise the Cubs might just have to pack up and move to the suburbs, perhaps Schaumburg.

It took a lot of political maneuvering, but Wrigley Field got its lights. Suddenly "Wrigleyville" became a happening place at night, at least for the eighteen nights each year that baseball would be played there. Night
games became an event. The crowds were huge. People were bused to the ballpark in shuttles from parking lats as far away as Lane Tech. Wrigley Field was becoming the world's largest outdoor beer garden.

As the 1990 season moved towards its conclusion, and the surprising Sox settled in second place in the AL West, a new Comiskey Park began rising. Soon fans saw the upper deck towering over the old ball park.  No one seemed to express much concern as to how high those seats were compared to similar seats in the old ballpark. The Sox were moving into the new millennium with a state-of-the-art facility, designed along the lines of Dodger Stadium and Royals Stadium (now Kauffman Stadium).

When the Detroit Tigers came to town for opening day 1991, people looked at the new facility in awe. There were no posts obstructing views. The upper deck was high for sure, but at least you weren't going to sit behind a post. The ball park was sold out on a regular basis as the Sox drew 2,194,154 fans, still a Chicago baseball attendance record. All was not well with the Sox, though. They won seven fewer games than in 1990 and new GM Ron Schueler, who had replaced Larry Himes, advised manager Jeff Torborg that he should accept an interview for the position of manager with the New York Mets.

The Sox finished with one more win in 1992 under new manager Gene Lamont but dropped to third place.  Attendance dropped slightly, too, to 2,681,156. Fans across the nation were treated to a new look in ballparks that year with the opening of Camden Yards in Baltimore. It was the first retro-park, something that Jerry Reinsdorf had had the chance to build but would not (as has been written about in the past here at WSI by George Bova). Still, the Sox were contenders, and when they won the AL West in 1993, 2,581,091 fans were there to see it.

It looked as if the Cubs and Sox would combine indefinitely to draw a combined total attendance of about 5 million fans a year, at least as long as the Sox kept winning. Then disaster struck in the form of Jerry Reinsdorf.
Reinsdorf took it upon himself to be a leader in the movement to break the players union. The result of his stance was the strike that began on August 12, 1994. The Sox were in first place by one game with the Royals and Indians breathing down their necks. Suddenly there was no baseball, and Sox fans, who thought that 1994 was their year for World Series glory reacted as if they had had their birthright taken away from them.

The Sox were on an attendance pace similar to the three previous years at the new Comiskey Park. By the time the strike was over, many Sox fans had nothing but animosity for anything that bore the mark of Jerry Reinsdorf.  That included the Sox new home. It didn't help when the Sox were slow coming out of the gate when play resumed in 1994 and they dropped to a sub-.500 record. It also didn't help that in addition to Camden Yards, new ballparks such as Jacobs Field and Coors Field showed how a new stadium didn't have to be a carbon copy of Dodger Stadium.

Suddenly the upper deck was too high. In reality it is no higher than that of many other ballparks built in the past forty years. There is a design flaw in Comiskey Park's upper deck that has been pointed out in the past in this
column. The entryways are at the bottom. This means fans have to climb that steep angle for 29 rows, something those of us who wear XXXL teamwear find a bit difficult.

The upper deck wasn't the only problem fans now saw. Now fans saw the mall-like atmosphere of the lower-deck concourse as a negative. There was too much concrete and not enough color. The blue seats weren't real baseball seats. Real baseball seats, we were now told by disgruntled fans, are green. The litany continued. The batters eye in centerfield was ugly, and it got uglier when Albert Belle told management to paint it black so that it matched nothing else in the place. The moats between the outfield stands and the fences was keeping fans out of the action. The new ballparks had all kind of quirky angles. Comiskey was symmetrical.

Of course the overriding factor in all of this is that the Sox weren't winning anymore. Gene Lamont gave way to Terry Bevington who gave way in turn to Jerry Manuel. The White Flag trade further alienated fans. Reinsdorf told his side of the story and told fans that his conclusion was that the players had not been fan friendly. New young fan friendly players, the kind who scrapped their way through the season were the order of the day.  Surveys conducted by the Sox showed that fans didn't really hate the Comiskey Park.

But they weren't coming either. The upper deck was nearly empty every night. By 1999 attendance dropped to 1,338,351, the lowest level since 1989. "The Kids Can Play" was the uninspired advertising slogan, but no
one was buying it. Sox fans wanted a winner, and they got a division champion in 2000 when those kids suddenly seemed to mature. Still, attendance missed the 2-million mark by over 52,000 fans.

While this was going on, up on the North Side, Cubs fans were oblivious to the normal sub-.500 seasons only occasionally punctuated by a winning year. When the Cubs backed into a playoff spot in 1997 and then went three-and-out to the Braves in the Division Series, you would have thought they'd won the World Series.  Wrigley Field was sold out nearly every game from June through August. The Sox sold out only when they played interleague series against the Cubs. No one was talking about the Sox and Cubs combining for an annual attendance of 5 million-plus. Instead the media, led by the Chicago Tribune, were asking why Sox fans weren't coming to the ballpark. Any perceived flaw in Comiskey Park was suddenly jumped on.

It was common to hear people spreading the absolute lie that "Chicago has always been a Cubs town," and the press and fans believing it. Sox fans knew better, but most spent their time bashing Jerry Reinsdorf and
Comiskey Park, and using both as excuses for not coming out to see the Sox play.

In the midst of the 2000 turnaround in the club's on-field fortunes, the White Sox front office surprised the fans with an announced three-stage renovation of Comiskey Park. Gone were the protestations of ownership that Comiskey was perfectly fine as it was and that it was fine until Camden Yards changed perceptions. Instead we were now told that management had indeed heard us and was prepared to make the ballpark more fan friendly.

Phase 1 of the renovation would be financed by the White Sox. It would include the addition of thousands of new seats along the foul lines beyond the dugouts, and the addition of more seats in the outfield by adding rows up to the fences. The fences themselves would no longer be symmetrical, but there would be no odd angles. The bullpens, previously difficult for fans to look into would be turned 90 degrees. A deck would be put in above the bullpen bar.

Phases 2 and 3 would be contingent on finding a corporate sponsor for Comiskey Park. If such sponsorship were found, it was hinted, something might be done to improve the upper deck. One rumored plan was to cut off the top ten rows and putting an overhanging roof above the deck. It was hoped that this would help alleviate the feeling of vertigo experienced by so many fans.

Of course a sponsor had to be found before these changes could be made. And that was the problem.

NEXT: The worm turns?

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

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

More features from Hal Vickery here!

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