SABR

Comiskey Park (Chicago)

This article was written by Curt Smith.

Circa turn of the Twentieth Century’s industrial post-war boom. An immigrant tide augurs writer Eric Goldman’s Metro-American. “The more people moved to the cities,” Bill Veeck observed, “enclosed parks moved the game downtown.” Self-interest led it where the action was. Slums, lumber yards, and vacant lots fell to baseball’s craze for cash.   

By then, the Cubs had already segued from Union Field via West Side Park through South Side Park to West Side Grounds, Chicago’s first double-decked cabash. The pennant-waving 1906-08ers owned the sole big – National – league. Success bred complacency, which, in turn, blurred vision.

In 1900, the minor American League requested a franchise in Chicago. “The N.L. said sure,” Jack Brickhouse said. “The A.L. was bush. Who’d see them?” The new “White Sox” chose the hardscrabble ex-Chicago Cricket Club at 39th Street and Princeton Avenue. Nationals roared: That owner Charles Comiskey, picking grounds as shabby as the team!

On April 24, 1901, Chicago beat Cleveland, 8-2, in the Sox -- also, A.L. – big-league debut. South Side Park II wed a 15,000-seat capacity and overhanging roof and jigsaw of an outfield fence. Americans head Ban Johnson soon dropped the term minor: “a ruse,” he conceded, “to make the Cubs let us in.” A.L.-N.L. peace soon spun a yearly post-season “[Chicago] City Series.” 

In 1906, the “Sox Win Pennant by Great Pluck,” read the Chicago Tribune. “They Gamely Fight to Top.” The “Hitless Wonders” then beat the Cubs in a can-you-believe this Series? Alight, Comiskey made a note: A new ballpark might make the getting that was good even better.

Between 1909 and 1923, 14 new urban, mainly structural steel, parks increasingly spun baseball’s web: Crosley Field; Fenway Park’s Back Bay bijou; Detroit’s fortress at Michigan and Trumbull. Each sired “an infinite feel for the spirit of the past,” wrote Ellen Glasgow, “and the poetry of time and place.” 

The first Xanadus to open were 1909’s Pennsylvania’s Forbes Field and Shibe Park.

“Comiskey visited both,” official baseball historian Jerome Holtzman said, “deciding to move his team from South Side Park.” Heading “upstairs, not uptown,” he plotted 1910-90 Comiskey Park a.k.a. White Sox Park, Charles A. Comiskey Baseball Palace, or Baseball Palace of the World.

The Old Roman, 50, hired Chicago architect Zachary Taylor Davis to build at West 34rd and 35th Streets, Portland Avenue (now, South Shields Avenue), and South Wentworth Avenue (Dan Ryan Expressway). The Sox broke ground February 15, 1910, for luck laying the green cornerstone on St. Patrick’s Day. Built for $750,000, Comiskey opened July 1 before 32,000 in a 28,000-seat plot. Gaping, they found it grand.

“Hundreds of automobiles,” the  Tribune said, “carted spectators to the game.” Four bands played. A military unit marched. Reach hailed what may “be without hesitation … declared to be the finest ball park in the United States.” Losing, 2-0, pitcher Ed Walsh augured his schizophrenic 1910: 20 losses and a league-low 1.27 ERA. A South Side cross-section watched: Catholic, Irish, and Eastern European with an ardor for the underdog. Their new home double-decked to first and third base. One tier trimmed the left and right-field wall.

“Comiskey wanted an ornate façade to fit his moniker,” wrote David Condon. Funds lapsed and a brick front replaced it. Arch windows studded a classical veneer. Roots were unclassic: an ex-truck garden and garbage dump. “A Sox committee visited other fields and then designed the park,” Veeck laughed. Its expanse – 363, lines; 382, power alleys; 420, center – gave hitters fits. In May 1917, Chicago was no-hit twice. On October 6, the Giants arrived for the Hose first post-’06 World Series. The Comiskeys quickly made up for lost time.

Eddie Cicotte and Red Faber spun a Sox 2-0 game lead. Winning twice, New York led next day, 5-2, on six Hose errors. The A.L.ers rallied, 8-5, then trained to the Polo Grounds, where fourth-inning muffs put two Sox on. Happy Felsch grounded to pitcher Rube Benton, who threw to third baseman Heinie Zimmerman, who vainly chased Eddie Collins home. “Goat?” he bellowed. “[Catcher Bill] Rariden was out of position. Who the hell was I supposed to throw the ball to? [Umpire] Bill Klem?”

Chick Gandil singled for two runs. Sox win the final, 3-2, their last title till 2005. Collins hit .409. Shortstop Buck Weaver batted .333. Catcher Ray Schalk snubbed doubt: “This is what we’re here for.” The memory jarred in the long free fall ahead.

The 1920-58 Series spurned Comiskey Park. In 1918, it visited sans Sox. “The Cubs won the pennant, but Comiskey sat more than Wrigley Field,” said Condon, “so they moved three games there.” Next year’s Hose waved another flag: their Classic hump, Cincinnati. “I knew some finagling was going on,” said the Reds’ Edd Roush. “Rumors were flying all around.” Grounded: Comiskey’s money. “Cheap!” cried pitcher Dickie Kerr. “Players hated it. But they played for him” – till the Classic.

Cicotte plunked its leadoff man: “a pre-arranged sign to gamblers,” said Holtzman: Reds, 9-1: The fix was on. Lefty Williams then walked six, having passed only 58 all year: Cincy, 4-2. Kerr countered, 3-0. The 1919 Hose batted .287, but got only six hits in Sets Four-Five, losing the best-of-nine. On September 28, 1920, a Chicago grand jury struck. “Eight Indicted!” the Tribune blared. “Query Goes On!” The jury cleared the defendants. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned them for life. Soon the Sox feared becoming the Atlantis of the American League.

The 1921-35ers missed the first division. Eight managers came and fled. “Didn’t matter,” said Veeck. “The product didn’t change.” By 1932, only 233,198 visited a park that had, ditching the wooden pavilion for a $1 million outfield stand. “Nearly the entire park was roofed and double-decked. Only center’s bleachers were open,” said Condon. Capacity rose to 52,000. The Sox got Al Simmons and moved the plate 14 feet toward the outfield. Lines dealt 365 for 352; power alleys 375, 382; center 455, 440. Frank Thomas became Chicago’s 1990s “Big Hurt.” For 21 years Luke Appling hurt by endlessly fouling balls.

“Comiskey wanted to make me pay for fouls,” Luke laughed. Instead, Old Aches and Pains hit .310 lifetime, twice won a batting title, set a then-shortstop mark for chances, assists, putouts, and games, and grasped the Pleasure Palace’s already old-timey feel. “He’s chasing a grounder,” said Veeck, “when cleats caught on a buried coffee pot from when Comiskey was a dump.” It seemed nouveau July 6, 1933: baseball’s first All-Star Game, before 47,595 to raise money for a players’ charity. “We have a sellout,” said John McGraw, “a fine day, and I hope the best team wins.” The A.L. did, 4-2.

In September, Comiskey hosted the Negro Leagues’ first All-Star Game: West 10, East 7. Its first night game lit August 14,1939: White Sox 5, Browns 2. Five years earlier Jimmy Foxx hit the first ball into the center-field bleachers. (Later: Hank Greenberg 1938, Alex Johnson 1970, Dick Allen 1972, Richie Zisk 1977, Tony Armas 1984, and George Bell 1985). In 1940, Bob Feller blazed the A.L.’s first opening-day no-hitter.

“Don’t look back,” jabbed another preternatural pitcher, Satchel Paige. “Somebody might be gaining on you.” The Sox weren’t. Paige pitched before a Comiskey night record 51,013 in 1948: Tribe, 5-0. By this point, the Hose expected a yearly full-cycle bath.

Rare 16-millimeter 1949 film shows Chicago’s Zeke Bonura sliding, Bobby Doerr covering second base, and blur of type on the scoreboard. “Chicago Cardinals. Comiskey Park. Pittsburgh Steelers, Washington Redskins, Los Angeles Rams, Philadelphia Eagles.” Next year hardship spread. Ted Williams crashed into a wall and broke an elbow in the All-Star Game. The Nationals won, 4-3, in 14 innings. “Some leagues are oh for a game,” a Sox pitcher said. “Our team is oh for a decade.”

The 1941-50 Hose once made the first division. General manager Frank Lane arrived to rebuild – the field. An inner “homer fence” cut right/left to 332 feet. Alleys became 362. A five-foot canvas wall made center 415. (Pens moved from left and right foul ground to behind the fence.) The diminution helped -- a visitor. “We start April 22,” Lane said. “Eight games later, we’ve homered eight times, and the other team 15!” The Yanks played at Comiskey June 5, the day Frank removed the fence. “That night two of our guys hit drives that would a’ been homers if I’d kept it up.” Amazingly, interest lived.

In 1951, the Sox drew a record 1,328,234. The trick was getting there. “Streets jam up and parking lots are inadequate, can handle only 3,500 cars,” wrote Robert Creamer. For $50, a season-ticket holder could park daily. A cab took 15 minutes: $2 from the Loop. “Or Clark Street car (20 cents) direct to work, or southbound El (from State Street, 20 cents)” to four blocks from the park. Minus: narrow aisles and ramps, only 12 rest rooms, and untruth in advertising – outfield/corner upper deck “box seats.” Plus: clubs finally worth your time.

The 1951-58ers finished fourth, third five times, and second twice under Paul Richards, Marty Marion, and Al Lopez – the Senor. Capacity fell to 46,550. Except for 1958, attendance topped a million. Billy Pierce v. Whitey Ford packed Comiskey. Catcher Sherm Lollar made seven All-Star teams. In 1951, a Cuban arrived via Cleveland to ding in his first at-bat. Orestes Armas Minoso – Minnie – was the Sox’ first black player. At last the Baseball Palace had a court.

Nellie Fox won three old Gloves, four times led in A.L. hits, had only 216 Ks in 9,232 ups, and played a bigs second-base record 798 straight games. Chico Carrasquel began a wave: the first great Latin shortstop. Replacing him, Luis Aparicio became 1956 Rookie of the Year. Nine times he won Gold Gloves and led the A.L. in steals. “Look at his records,” said Condon: most bigs games and league assists, chances, and putouts. The 1950s put homers first. Comiskey hyped throw, catch, and hit ‘em where they weren’t.

In 1958, Minoso returned to Cleveland. Pitcher Earl Wynn arrived. Fox set a record for successive fanless games (98). Attendance hit 797,451. Next March, Veeck bought the team, built a left-field picnic area, and vowed a million. Opening Day failed to produce Fidel Castro,” wrote Condon, “and [Bill’s] fireworks display fizzled,” but free beer eased ire. A double-header vaunted 10 elephants, bare back riders, a sword swallower, snake charmer, and clowns: to Elson, “more predictable than the pennant we got.”

The Series began October 1. Veeck gave roses to 20,000 women, but barred familiar red, white, and blue bunting. “We’re proud of our clean park, and want fans to see it just the way it is for league play,” he explained. Unexplained: the Sox path traveled after 1959.

 “When you come to a fork in the road,” Yogi Berra mused, “take it.” In 1960, one road was paved with arms and gloves. (The ’59ers hit an A.L.-low 97 homers.) Veeck took the other.

“The Series,” Lopez observed. “All those guys left on base [43]. ‘I’d better get some power,’ Bill said” – and did. It changed the Comiskeys’ core.

Minoso, 37, re-upped. The Sox acquired Gene Freese, 26, and Roy Sievers, 33, strong and slow. Prospects left: Norm Cash, Earl Battey, John Callison. “Veeck liked the present,” Condon said. The ‘51ers had put an electronic scoreboard atop the bleachers. Bill scrapped it for an “exploding” board of fireworks, aerial bombs, rockets, tapes, and pinwheels. “What is this -- Disneyland?” Jimmy Dykes huffed after a Comiskey blast. Tongue in cheek, the Yanks lit Roman candles upon Cletis Boyer going yard.

The Hose scored 741 runs v. 1959’s 669. By contrast, when Freese and Sievers caught anything not directly at them, sirens sounded across Illinois. Chicago lured 1,644,460, more than it would till 1977. Veeck painted Comiskey (white) and put names on the back of shirts (try Kluszewski). In 1961, an ailing Barnum sold the team. Eying the 352-415-352 outfield, the Sox repaired to pitching-first, placing fourth, fifth, then second thrice through 1965.

New owner Arthur Allyn renamed White Sox Park, ditched The Star-Spanged Banner for God Bless America, and installed an inner fence (335 feet, lines; 400, center). “Some teams had all-Astroturf fields,” wrote Dave Nightengale. “Only here – artificial infield and outfield grass!” The 1970 last-placers drew six thousand per date. Said Veeck: “Fans feared the park” – ¾ of a mile from its el stop. Then, in 1971, an ex-Cardinal duce left Oakland for Sox TV/radio. Soon the seats going first were under Harry Caray’s booth.   

Organist Nancy Faust played each seventh-inning Take Me Out To The Ballgame: by quirk, the only score that Harry knew. “I always sang, but nobody heard me.” Rebuying the Sox, Veeck, hearing Caray’s sotto voce, put it on the PA. mike. “What was that all about?” Harry later asked, voice booming all around. Bill: “I’ve looked for 40 years – and as soon as I heard you, I knew you were the guy.”

Caray beamed. Veeck then stuck the lance. “I figured that any fan knew he could sing better and would join in. If you had a good voice, you’d intimidate them.” Instead, Harry bayed, “All right, lemme’ hear ya’, everybody!” For a long time, Bill said, “He was the only star Comiskey had.”

The Bicentennial 1976 White Sox lost 97 games. Veeck lost $670,000. ”No one could have imagined that next year we’d rise like we did.” The South Side Hit Men broke their attendance mark, led the A.L. West till August, and revived a forgotten rock anthem: Na na na, hey hey, kiss them good-bye.

The Old Order said hello. Minoso returned as coach. Veeck II renamed White Sox Park Comiskey – “the world’s largest outdoor saloon.” Footage retrieved 352-440-352. Reborn: clowns and dancers, Limo and Ethnic Night, and beer halls under stands behind the plate. The foul lines were water hoses, painted white and flattened. Abiding was patchwork charm: bleacher wall speaker horns; wall clock to the flagpole’s left; and outside redolent of the Roman’s.

Comiskey hated to spend money. Veeck despaired of having it. A 1979 promotion petitioned disco records. Hundreds stormed the field flinging LPs like Frisbees. Bill booked rock concerts, gouging turf and raising cash. “Needed was someone who flew around in Lear jets and operated under the protection of a tax shelter,” wrote Richard Lindberg. In 1981, Veeck sold to a group led by TVS Network founder Eddie Einhorn and Chicago realtor Jerry Reinsdorf. “We’re going to clean things up,” Reinsdorf chimed, knocking Bill. “Baseball is more than a park full of drunks.”

By 1983, Comiskey was full of a record 2,132,821 carolers. The Sox clinched the West September 17, lost the League Championship Series, but “figured we’d get back,” said catcher Carlton Fisk. Instead, the ’86-89ers placed fifth and seventh. Einhorn and Reinsdorf began panting for St. Petersburg. “I will bleed and die before I let the Sox leave Chicago,” replied Governor James Thompson, siring the first baseball-only park since 1973’s Royals Stadium.

U.S. Cellular Field nee Comiskey II mimed the next-door original’s arches, exploding scoreboard, and rose-colored exterior. Two tiers passed each line. A bleacher deck connected them. Hitters liked the blue outfield backdrop. Few liked the tyro’s steep upper deck, small roof, and distance from the field. Comiskey fils opened April 18, 1991. That month a wrecking ball doomed its progenitor.

“I thought it would be here forever. I’m a grown man and I almost want to cry,” said an 80-year-old Canadian, who likely had as Comiskey turned dowager: loose wires, chipped asphalt, broken floors. Paint put makeup on a weary face. The Sox postponed a 1990 game after record 7-hour, 23-minute rain delay. The Baseball Palace was canceled September 30. “THANKS for the Memories,” read the last-game board. “Comiskey Park, 1910-90.”

Joni Mitchell sang, “They paved paradise to put up a parking lot.” A 7,500-car lot replaced Comiskey Park. Today an outlined plate and batting box recall a distant night, under a cloudless sky, with the moon over 35th and Shields. In Chicago, baseball still has a 1959 state of mind.

This article originally appeared in the book Go-Go To Glory—The 1959 Chicago White Sox (Acta, 2009), edited by Don Zminda.


Sources

The principal source for this story was the author’s Storied Stadiums: Baseball's History Through Its Ballparks.

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