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EIGHTY-TWO YEARS AND WAITING
First published in 1999

Uniquely Chicago's:

Memories of Old Comiskey Park

 by George Bova

White Sox Interactive is proud to present the very first internet web site devoted to honoring the memory of one of baseball's most under appreciated jewels, Old Comiskey Park. Built by Charles Comiskey and opened in 1910, it served as home to his Chicago White Sox baseball team for eighty years. In the finest tradition of Chicago bluster, it was declared "Comiskey's Baseball Palace of the World". Through both the 70's and 80's, Comiskey Park held the distinction as the oldest ballpark in the major leagues. But for every one of those twenty years, Comiskey served in near obscurity -- Chicago's second ballpark to Wrigley Field. Few outside Chicago knew she existed and fewer still appreciated her. Certainly Comiskey Park had charms uniquely her own. Undeniably, her real faults were revealed and catalogued in the attacks and appeals to replace her. Many ballparks far younger than Comiskey have been torn down for far less. Now Old Comiskey Park is gone, too.

What made Old Comiskey Park so special? What's wrong with the conventional wisdom that with Wrigley Field Chicago still has one of baseball's finest historic ballparks? Understanding this is far easier if you knew a bit about a Chicagoan's perspective, had lived a Chicagoan's life, and could identify what is and what is not uniquely Chicago's. Then it is quite clear: the spirit of Chicago resided inside Old Comiskey Park, just as surely as the park itself stood at 35th and Shields.
 

Different than Wrigley?

Nelson Algren wrote that loving Chicago was like loving a women with a broken nose. Could Algren have written that about Wrigley Field? Of course not. The quaint neighborhood, antiquated scoreboard and ivy covered walls are just too damned cute to fit Algren's model. Comiskey is the park with the broken nose! Its classic symmetrical design and graceful arched windows pocked by the unseemly supporting posts. Wrigley Field is endlessly praised for its beauty and grace. If any slogan fits its style it is Chicago's official city motto, "City in a Garden" (Urbs in Horto). Chicagoans know that motto is inaccurate and misplaced. The local joke goes that the city's real motto is "Where's Mine?" (Ubi est Mea). That one fits Comiskey, too. Owner Charles Comiskey saved on the park's construction costs by adding the posts to the architect's original design.
 

Chicago School: Comiskey's Design

Chicago's world renown reputation for architectural excellence was born over one hundred years ago. Chicagoans of the late 19th century built office skyscrapers, warehouse blocks, and department stores using the latest building materials and most innovative designs of any city in the world. These architects (known collectively as the Chicago School) strived to create a democratic architecture consistent with American ideals. Clean lines, simple and organic patterns, and a philosophy that form should follow function. Unlike the great architecture of the Old World and American East, these buildings were commissioned by merchants and industrialists whose foremost concern was always their speculative value and contribution to the bottom line.  

It was into this architectural legacy that Zachary Taylor Davis designed Old Comiskey Park. Compare the simplicity of Old Comiskey's design to any of its contemporaries such as Shibe Park or Forbes Field. Note the simple and repetitive patterns in the park's exterior facade and the unified approach to all its design elements. The symmetry of the arched windows is matched by the symmetry of the park's layout. The smooth curves of the building are matched in numerous shapes and lines within the facade. The original design deliberately included plenty of cheap bleacher seats because both Comiskey and Davis knew the park's working class neighborhood could be counted on to fill them. Davis employed a modern all steel and concrete design which was the new standard for the day. In the best Chicago tradition, Davis went further and proposed a unique cantilevered design for the upper deck which would have eliminated the sight-obstructing posts for the fans. Sadly, in the worst Chicago tradition, Charles Comiskey rejected Davis's plan as too extravagant. Comiskey pocketed the difference and 80 seasons of White Sox baseball were viewed between the resulting posts.

No city has torn down more of its great architecture than Chicago. Only bits and fragments of these great buildings remain. Chicago's Art Institute contains the entire trading room to Louis Sullivan's Chicago Stock Exchange Building. Outside the museum stands the massive stone archway to what had been the building's main entrance. A nondescript steel and glass office building was built where Sullivan's classic once stood. With so many distracting posts, Old Comiskey Park could never be called great architecture. However bits and pieces of the park can be found in countless rec rooms and bar halls around Chicago. Across the street from where Old Comiskey stood, a prefabricated concrete building now looms. The site of Old Comiskey is nothing but an asphalt parking lot for the pale successor to the original -- quite in keeping with Chicago's most base architectural tradition.
 

Chicanery and Worse: Bearing Fruit at 35th and Shields

Much of Chicago's folklore concerns the city's infamous reputation for corruption.  Politicians who cheat, courtrooms that are fixed, cops on the take, and America's most violent hoodlums have made Chicago the city on the make. So which team in all of baseball history threw a World Series? Could the answer have been anybody but Chicago's White Sox. Caused by the owner's parsimony or the players' crookedness, you decide. The blackest of all marks to smear the national pastime, the scandal pushed Comiskey and his team to near obscurity. Like the city's good politicians, judges, cops, and citizens, these straight teams were tarnished through no fault of their own. The lean years at Comiskey Park lasted for almost half a century.  

Chicago's sorry history in race relations have strong ties to Comiskey Park and its Bridgeport location as well. The park sat on the border between the white, working class, politically-connected neighborhoods to the west, and the black, poverty-stricken neighborhood to the east. The city's worst race riot started in 1919 just blocks east of the ballpark.  A brutal attack on an African American youth occurred just steps from the park a few years ago. Racist motives or not, the construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway alongside Comiskey Park formed a fortress-like barrier for the working class neighborhoods from the public housing projects stacked along the opposite side. Still, Old Comiskey Park served as the home to the Negro League's annual all-star game, and fan support was strong.  White Sox fan support would certainly be improved if fans from all of Chicago could enthusiastically embrace the team, its park, and its south side location. The fact they don't is more a failing of Chicago's citizens than it is of White Sox fans. Now New Comiskey Park must cope with the same problems Old Comiskey could never fix.
 

"I Love Thee Infamous City!"  

A new baseball team carpet bagged its way from Saint Paul in 1900. Ban Johnson and Charles Comiskey had a plan to compete with the dominant National League. A strong franchise in the booming Midwest city of Chicago was needed to make their infant American League enterprise successful. Chicago was the city of big shoulders and hog butchering, not to mention thousands of impoverished immigrants. Less than one hundred years earlier it was nothing but a swampy marsh filled with stinking wild onions. Now a mushrooming population base fueled an enormous industrial and commercial explosion, and the city strived to achieve recognition as the greatest in America. The American League founders regarded the need for a strong franchise here as critical to the new league's viability. They, too, wanted to be number one. Comiskey called his team the White Stockings, clearly challenging the established National League Cubs whose winning legacy he deliberately stole by taking their old name. Chicago was a rough and tumble city and this pitch by Comiskey was clearly aimed at the Cubs' head. The newspapers eventually shortened the name to White Sox to better fit the headlines they printed. And what headlines! The White Sox won the league's first two pennants.  They drew 150,000 more fans than the Cubs in 1901. The 1906 White Sox achieved the greatest possible glory winning the world's championship over the mighty Cubs.  Comiskey's "Hitless Wonders" received national acclaim for defeating their heavily favored crosstown rivals.  In the commercial capitol of the American prairie, Comiskey's White Sox were an immediate commercial success. Even more prosperity appeared imminent for both in the still young century.  

It didn't happen. The Sox won again in 1917, but that championship is largely overshadowed by the Black Sox scandal that occurred just two years later. Chicago hasn't seen a baseball championship since. Catching and passing New York for number one never happened either. Chicago is America's Second City, a termed coined with humorous contempt by A.J. Liebling of The New Yorker magazine. The White Sox, like their city, are quintessentially number two, second in recognition, fan support, and futility. Old Comiskey Park sat half empty, more unknown than unloved, squatting on the decidedly unglamorous side of Chicago. Now she is gone. Can you spare a thought for all the dreams that could have been for her and the city she so perfectly reflected?


George Bova is editor and founder of WSI's FlyingSock.com.  You can write George at george@whitesoxinteractive.com.

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I always get a lump in my throat when I think of old Comiskey.  I lived in affluent suburban Wheaton in the late '50's and early '60's, and spent many long doubleheader Sundays with my Dad, smelling the cigars, beer, hot dogs, and people (!) who made the grand old palace so beautiful. Two days stand out in my mind.  August first, 1962, when Bill Monbouquette of Boston no hit the Sox.  It hurt, but it was history, after all.  And then there was a double-header in June of 1961, when Nellie Fox and Louie Aparicio hit homers in the bottom of the ninth in game one of a twin bill against the Twins, to win the game and begin a sweep of the day!  I think the same right field fan caught both balls!  Wow!  And of course, Bill Veeck's promotions were stunning, and my heart always pounded with excitement every time we came up a ramp and got that first spectacular view of the field and stands!  The sounds of the fans and vendors and the cracking bats in batting practice were overpowering to a kid like me.  The place was magic.  Beautiful, stunning magic.  When box seats were $3.00 for two Sunday games, and a coke was a quarter!  I could go on and on, but those who were there know what I mean.....

George S. Eisele, Terre Haute, IN

 

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