This article was written by John Rosengren
This article was published in The National Pastime: Baseball in Chicago (2015)
Jerry Reinsdorf has always wanted to win, both now and then. When the task of organizing the annual faculty-student softball game at Northwestern University School of Law fell upon Reinsdorf, then the law review’s managing editor, the 24-year-old senior wanted to give his side a legitimate shot at victory.
Tradition dictated the umpire would be Virgil Peterson, then chairman of the Chicago Crime Commission and a man turned perennially crooked on behalf of the faculty, but that year, 1960, luck seemed to tilt in the students’ favor: Peterson would be out of town. That gave Reinsdorf the opportunity to find a neutral replacement.
Reinsdorf drove his jalopy to the White Sox offices at 35th and Shields, site of the original Comiskey Park, with a plan to line up an impartial celebrity ump. Outside the park, he spotted his quarry, team owner Bill Veeck, walking down the sidewalk. Reinsdorf pulled to the curb and petitioned Veeck. It was the kind of stunt the owner noted for his Barnum & Bailey marketing gimmicks might have approved. But he said no.
“Why don’t you ask Hank Greenberg?” Veeck suggested. Typical for him to stick his co-owner with his unwanted tasks. Veeck had left it to Greenberg to deal with Chuck Comiskey (namesake of the man who brought the White Sox to town), who refused to cooperate with the new owners after they bought his sister’s majority share.
So Reinsdorf parked his car, traipsed into the White Sox offices and tracked down Greenberg, the team’s vice president and treasurer, fibbing, just a little, that Veeck had said he should ump the law school’s annual softball game. Greenberg agreed.
Reinsdorf’s ambition didn’t rest with bagging the former Hall of Fame player as an umpire. He sent a letter to Ford Frick and asked the MLB commissioner to put it on his official letterhead. The letter said that Frick, as commissioner of all organized and unorganized baseball, had become aware of the travesty at Northwestern’s School of Law and had appointed Hank Greenberg umpire to put an end to the chicanery. Frick went along with it. “For some reason he trusted me,” Reinsdorf laughs years later.
Reinsdorf sent Frick’s declaration to the Chicago newspapers and television stations, who picked up the story. Chicago’s American even printed the commissioner’s letter on the front page. There was no way for Greenberg to back out now. “I can’t believe I had the balls to do this at 24,” Reinsdorf says.
Greenberg good-naturedly carried out his duties in the game, which was played in the downtown park across Lake Shore Drive from the law school. He addressed every batter by name their first time up. When Reinsdorf took his turn, Greenberg called the first two pitches, which were well outside, strikes. After the second called strike, the young law review managing editor turned around to look at the ump. “You’re not going to get any balls,” Greenberg said calmly. “You better swing.”
Reinsdorf ended up with a double and triple that day. The student nine was ahead, looking like it had the chance to notch its first victory over the faculty in years, when the plot thickened. The faculty called time out and appointed Greenberg honorary dean for the day, a move that made him a de facto member of its side…and sent the man with the .313 career batting average, 331 home runs, and 1,276 RBIs to bat.
Reinsdorf, who had anticipated the faculty would pull some such underhanded stunt, countered. He summoned a young woman to pitch and surreptitiuosly slipped her a ball packed with cotton. He figured Greenberg would not be able to give the truly soft ball much of a ride. But on the first pitch, the former Tiger slugger literally knocked the stuffing out of the ball, which landed foul, so the girl had to deliver her next offering with a regulation 16” softball. Greenberg drove that pitch “as far as you could and still stay in the park,” Reinsdorf says. “We had a guy stationed in the outfield about 800 miles away who caught it.”
The next time up with runners on base and the students clinging to a one-run lead, Greenberg slashed a drive that the shortstop tried—unsuccessfully—to field. “It nearly took his hand off,” Reinsdorf says.
Greenberg’s hit drove in two runs that put the faculty ahead. The law school’s permanent dean promptly declared the game over, preserving the faculty’s winning streak. “Cheaters,” Reinsdorf says. “I thought for sure we were going to beat them.”
Reinsdorf didn’t see Greenberg again until an old-timers game at Comiskey Park the day prior to the 1983 All-Star Game. By then the owner of the White Sox himself, Reinsdorf ran into Greenberg in the dugout. Twenty-three years later, the ump who had produced the game-winning hit still remembered the softball tilt. That pleased Reinsdorf, who was finally able to accept the loss.
JOHN ROSENGREN is the award-winning author of eight books, including “Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes.” You can find him at www.johnrosengren.net.
Jerry Reinsdorf, interviewed by the author November 8, 2010.