This article was written by Sam Pathy
This article was published in the The National Pastime: Baseball in Chicago (2015)
The 1968 season ended the White Sox’ 16-year reign as kings of Chicago baseball. They had outdrawn the Cubs by a wide margin since 1951. In the aftermath, they spent three years in a proverbial hell, marked by one of the worst seasons in team history, 1970. The South Side franchise would continue to struggle to find a permanent equal footing in Chicago.
Between 1951 and 1966, the Chicago White Sox outdrew the Chicago Cubs by a wide margin: 18,966,405 fans to 12,636,867. The White Sox proved the picture of on-field consistency during this period, never finishing below a .500 winning percentage. The Cubs proved nearly as consistent during these 16 years: only once did they finish above .500. The winning White Sox held an enviable position, one that would seemingly continue far into the future. In 1966 the White Sox drew 990,000 fans, while the last-place Cubs drew 636,000.
In 1967, the White Sox battled the Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers, and Minnesota Twins for the American League pennant. The South Siders led a close race for more than two and a half months; the four teams were tied for first in early September. The White Sox spent the final weeks with a good chance to win. But the Red Sox eventually took the flag; the White Sox finished three games out.
Chicago fans did not support the team as expected during the pennant stretch. For example, only 60,050 fans attended a pivotal three-day, four-game weekend series against Detroit from September 8–10. Only 4,314 fans saw the White Sox beat Cleveland on September 14. Chicago Tribune sportswriter Edward Prell stated what many were thinking: “In their moment of triumph, the White Sox have cause to wonder what’s happened to their fans.”[fn]Edward Prell, “South Siders Whitewash Tigers, 6–0 and 4–0; Take Over 3d Place,” Chicago Tribune, September 11, 1967.[/fn] In fact, even though the White Sox nearly won the pennant, their attendance dropped in 1967.
In the view of many, including sportswriter Jerome Holtzman, the White Sox’s historical reliance on pitching and strong fielding to win ballgames had become “dull.”[fn]Jerome Holtzman, “Dear Arthur: Sox Owner Gets Memo,” Chicago Sun-Times, July 18, 1967.[/fn] He wrote that “fans want to see action. They get weary of watching ground balls and strikeouts.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn] To add excitement to their games, Holtzman suggested that the White Sox shorten the dimensions at Comiskey Park, which in 1967 was the worst hitting environment in the American League.
The White Sox’ negative image contrasted with the sudden resurgence of the long-moribund Chicago Cubs, who finished third in 1967 with a muscular showcase of future Hall of Famers including Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, and Ron Santo. Consequently, the White Sox’ 355,000 attendance margin over the Cubs in 1966 dwindled to just 8,000 in 1967. Something big was happening to Chicago baseball and it was happening quickly.
Prior to the 1968 season, the White Sox agreed to play nine regular-season games in Milwaukee. Arthur Allyn (public face of the Artnell Corporation, which owned the team) had obviously noticed that 51,144 fans watched his team and the Twins play an exhibition at County Stadium on July 24, 1967. Allyn denied that the gambit was a precursor to the White Sox moving to Milwaukee, a city which had lost the Braves to Atlanta just two years earlier.[fn]Roy Damer, “Sox Slate 10 Games in Milwaukee,” Chicago Tribune, October 31, 1967.[/fn] Perhaps most important to Allyn was the potential to plug extra income into his stalled franchise.
On April 10, 1968, the White Sox lost their home opener, 9–0. What was worse was that only 7,756 bothered to show up. The game came less than a week after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and subsequent riots accelerated the growing fear that Comiskey Park, and its Bridgeport neighborhood, were dangerous to visit (even though the closest riots to the park happened more than five miles away).[fn]“Darkened Areas Show Portions of City Hit By Rioting,” (map), Chicago Tribune, April 6, 1968.[/fn] In the last decade, white flight had affected the Canaryville and Back of the Yards neighborhoods near the park, as the Union Stockyards all but closed down, eliminating decent jobs. African-American families began moving into these neighborhoods when the housing covenants that had previously restricted them to the “blackbelt” area just east of the ballpark were made illegal.
Shortly after the 1968 opener, Bill Gleason of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote this: “[the White Sox] have to go to work now to persuade the sports-buying public of the Chicago area that Comiskey Park is attractively located. They must roll up their sleeves and fight the ‘bad neighborhood’ slander.… Those who say the neighborhood is ‘bad’ are suffering from vision distorted by racism or fear.”[fn]Bill Gleason, “Sox off Base in Sale of Fun and Fresh Air,” Chicago Sun-Times, April 19, 1968.[/fn] Gleason added that “Allyn and [General Manager Ed] Short should get out into the neighborhoods where their customers are, stand on the corners, visit the taverns, shake a few hands, and ask fans why they are staying home.”[fn]Bill Gleason, “Future Bleak, But Sox Must Face It,” Chicago Sun-Times, April 18, 1968.[/fn]
Unfortunately, it turned out to be good advice. The 1968 White Sox, who finished eighth in the ten-team American League, drew only 538,323 fans to 59 dates at Comiskey Park. In just nine dates at County Stadium in Milwaukee, they drew 265,552—nearly half their Chicago total. The Cubs, on the other hand, again finished third in the National League and drew 1,043,409 fans, nearly double the Sox’ home total.
White Sox management tried to rectify some important issues prior to the 1969 season. The club spent more than $100,000 to light Comiskey Park’s exterior and parking areas.[fn]Richard Dozer, “White Sox Fans Will See That Changes Have Been Made,” Chicago Tribune, February 11, 1969.[/fn] The White Sox played a heavy majority of night games, as opposed to the Cubs at lightless Wrigley Field, and if their fans needed night games to look like day games to feel safe, then the team was willing to spend money to do it.
Management also instituted changes to update the franchise and make the team more exciting. The club hired 15 “Soxettes,” mini-skirted female hostesses who directed fans to their seats.[fn]David Condon, In the Wake of the News, Chicago Tribune, April, 16, 1969.[/fn] At the new Dugout Restaurant beneath the Comiskey Park grandstand, fans could order gourmet sandwiches and cocktails and listen to the house band, the “Four Baggers.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn] Perhaps most important, workmen installed wire fences deep in the outfield, shortening the foul lines by 17 feet and center field by 25 feet.[fn]Dozer.[/fn]
The White Sox also rocked the baseball world by installing a synthetic surface on Comiskey Park’s infield. The 11,163 fans at the 1969 home opener saw the first major league baseball game played outdoors on artificial turf; the Houston Astrodome was the only other ballpark with an artificial surface.[fn]Edward Prell, “History Made in 1st Duel on Artificial Grass Outside,” Chicago Tribune, April 17, 1969.[/fn] The team called it “White Sox turf,”[fn]“Astroturf for the Infield, Billboards and Balloons,” Chicago Sun-Times, March 15, 1969.[/fn] but the disconnect of having only the infield covered tempered the mod experience; the cash-strapped White Sox lacked the extra $300,000 to carpet the outfield.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
The short porches (along with the lowering of the mound and shrinking of the strike zone) helped batters hit 65 more home runs at Comiskey Park in 1969. Moreover, teams scored 12 percent more runs at Comiskey Park than at the average major league park; from 1950 through 1968, games at Comiskey Park had 9 percent fewer runs scored than average.[fn]Seymour Siwoff, Steve Hirdt, and Peter Hirdt, The 1988 Elias Baseball Analyst, New York: Collier Books, 1988, 34.[/fn]
The myriad improvements didn’t help attendance, which dropped dangerously. For 59 home dates, the 1969 White Sox drew only 392,762 at Comiskey Park. They played 11 more dates in Milwaukee and attracted 196,784. Of course, it didn’t help that the South Siders lost 94 games. To illustrate how much the two Chicago teams’ fortunes had changed, the annual Boy’s Benefit exhibition game between the White Sox and the Cubs drew 33,333 at Comiskey Park—the largest paid crowd to see a game on the South Side that year.
To make things worse, the mid-July Back of the Yards Council Fun Fair, an annual South Side event where the White Sox usually ruled, invited the North Siders and drew 12,000 for a “We Love the Chicago Cubs Night.” A neighbor near the fair sounded the alarm, saying, “I never thought I’d see this area so keen about the Cubs.”[fn]David Condon, In the Wake of the News, [fn]David Condon, In the Wake of the News, Chicago Tribune, July 17, 1969.[/fn], July 17, 1969.[/fn] At the time of the fair, the Cubs led the National League’s Eastern Division and were dominating the minds of most casual Chicago sports fans. Later in the season, the Cubs suffered their legendary collapse, being caught and passed by the New York Mets, but still drew a Chicago record 1,674,993 fans in 1969.
A September 21, 1969, Chicago Today article by Dick Young seemed to verify long-suggested rumors; the article’s headline screamed, “Milwaukee to get Sox Soon.”[fn]Dick Young, “Milwaukee to Get Sox Soon: Young,” Chicago Today, Sunday Final, September 21, 1969.[/fn] Three days later, however, the White Sox revealed they were staying in Chicago—with some changes. Art Allyn transferred the presidency of the White Sox to his brother, John. Art had soured on the direction of his franchise and grew tired of fending off rumors of the White Sox moving to Milwaukee, Dallas, or Toronto. For his part, John was adamant about keeping the team on the South Side and looking to better days.
But John Allyn understood the desperate challenge. The Chicago Today reported that “while he [John Allyn] insisted he doesn’t intend to continue operating in the red, he also pointed out he is prepared for a 1970 season that could be ‘the poorest we can envision—worse than this year.’”[fn]John Hillyer, “Only Sox Owner’s Name Same,” Chicago Today, 5 Star Final, September 26, 1969.[/fn] There wasn’t much fight in the White Sox, but at least John Allyn would go down swinging.
As if on cue, the 1970 Sox lost a team-record 106 games. According to Vic Ziegel in Look magazine, “they lost the league’s most home games, road games, extra-inning games, one-run games, [and] doubleheaders, gave up the most home runs, [and] struck out the fewest batters.”[fn]Vic Ziegel, “106 Ways to Make Money on the Worst Team in Baseball,” Look, April 20, 1971, 67.[/fn] The White Sox drew just 495,000 fans, a higher rate than 1969 but a total that did not include games at Milwaukee, which now had its own club. Included in the morass were two September games that attracted only 672 and 693 diehards.
Few memorable events stand out in this mostly forgettable season. The best might have been the unveiling of a new “mascot.” The soon-to-be National League champion Cincinnati Reds earned the nickname, the “Big Red Machine.” The White Sox set their sights lower; several players jokingly rebuilt a 1929 Ford and painted it white and blue—the team’s new colors as of 1969—with letters on it reading, “The Big White Machine.”[fn]Edgar Munzel, “Repoz Homer Helps Angels Top Sox,” Chicago Sun-Times, August 8, 1970.[/fn] The grounds crew drove the jalopy around the edge of the field after each precious victory. On the other side of town, the Cubs again drew more than 1,600,000 million fans. But by the end of another unfulfilled season, their “Cub Power” shtick wore thin; the Reds and Pirates had supplanted them as National League powerhouses, and their hoped-for World Series would slip away.
The White Sox cleaned house for 1971. They hired Chuck Tanner as manager, Roland Hemond as director of player personnel, and brought in new players such as Rick Reichardt and Tom Bradley to add to a core of youngsters that included Bill Melton, Carlos May, and Bart Johnson. They made an important score by hiring broadcaster Harry Caray, even though he was forced to warble on three weak-signaled suburban stations after the White Sox lost their contract with WMAQ after 1970.[fn]George Langford, “White Sox Plan to Form Their Own Network,” Chicago Tribune, December 8, 1970.[/fn] The team even changed uniform colors. Gone were the powdery blues, replaced by pinstriped red and white. General Manager Stu Holcomb explained it best: “Red makes you look faster.”[fn]Ziegel, 75.[/fn]
April 9, 1971, proved to be a watershed in White Sox history; the fans came back to Comiskey Park. An opening day crowd of 43,253 saw the new White Sox beat Minnesota, 3–2. The attendance that day equaled 8 percent of the total 1970 attendance. The young, exciting team won 23 more games than it had in 1970 and drew 833,891 fans. The following year, another new acquisition, Dick Allen, enjoyed an MVP season that led the White Sox to a second-place finish. By 1974 the White Sox had again pulled in front of the Cubs in attendance, 1,149,596 to 1,015,378.
The 1968 season had ended the White Sox’ 16-year reign as kings of Chicago baseball. In the aftermath, they spent three years in a proverbial hell, marked by one of the worst seasons in team history, 1970. The die-hard fans began to return in 1971, buoyed by a young, exciting team with a new message and messengers. The casual fans returned, some surely turned off more by the Cubs’ inability to “win it all.”
But the South Side franchise would continue to struggle to find a permanent equal footing in Chicago. The team changed owners again during the decade and nearly moved to Seattle in 1975 and Tampa/St. Petersburg in 1988.
Today’s White Sox franchise still battles the erroneous “bad neighborhood” rap. Some would argue that U.S. Cellular Field and the Bridgeport neighborhood lack the charms that bring many fans to Wrigley Field. But the core Sox fans always seem to come back, and they cheered long and loud when the team claimed the 2005 World Series.
SAM PATHY is a public librarian and a native Chicagoan. He is the author of “Wrigley Field Year By Year: A Century at the Friendly Confines.” He lives in Worthington, Ohio.