December 10, 2013
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Sunday, June 30, 2013
Twenty-five years ago today, the Chicago White Sox stayed the Chicago White Sox. When the day began, it wasn’t clear that would be the case. There was a very real chance the Chicago White Sox would end the day as the St. Petersburg White Sox.
Back in the 1980s, the Sox still played at old Comiskey Park. Opening in 1910, it was the oldest park still in use at that time, but it was falling apart, and the Sox wanted a new stadium. And like seemingly every sports team, they wanted the taxpayers to foot the bill for their new stadium.
That led to negotiations. Ultimately, the battle for financing a new stadium went to Springfield, the state capital of Illinois. White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf is (of course) a very successful businessman, and he knew nothing helps a business negotiation like some leverage—and he had some mighty nice leverage.
St. Petersburg, Fla. wanted a major league team badly. The city had wanted one for years. If it acquired one, it wouldn’t just be the junior city in Tampa-St. Pete area, city officials believed. They wanted a team so badly, they began construction on a year-round dome in 1986.
Reinsdorf entered into negotiations with St. Pete officials, and it wasn’t just talk. Reinsdorf may have been a lifelong Chicagoan, but he also wanted his deal. If Illinois wouldn’t give him the money he wanted, he’d take the team to Florida and try his luck there.
So it came down to what the Illinois state legislature did in the summer of 1988. The clock was ticking ... give Reinsdorf what he wanted or say goodbye to the White Sox. And June 30, 1988, was the big day. The legislature had to get funding passed that day or … bye. People in Florida watched the news wire with baited breath. They were on the verge of getting their team.
The clock certainly was ticking. The bill made it through one house but still had that second one to get through, and there just weren’t enough votes to get pass funding.
Reinsdorf’s bill would give the Sox $200 million, and plenty of state congress members thought that was too steep a price. Governor Jim Thompson began lobbying legislatures as best he could, but he was still short. And the clock kept ticking. 11:00 p.m. came and went, and they didn’t have the damn votes. 11:30 p.m. came, and the bill backers were closer, but not close enough. Tick, tick, tick went the clock.
With midnight approaching, the city and business leaders in St. Petersburg were about the pop the corks on champagne bottles. Midnight inched ever closer, and the clock kept ticking. As badly as Governor Thompson might’ve wanted to keep the Sox, it’s not like he could stop the clock from ticking.
Oh, wait—check that. He could stop the clock from ticking. In fact, that’s exactly what he did.
He may not have been able to control the hands of time, but he could control the clock in the Illinois state legislature, so he ordered the damn thing unplugged. So it was. He had to get a few more votes rounded up, and he rounded them up.
After a few non-clock minutes, the bill went up for a vote and passed by one legislator. The Sox had their money and would stay in Chicago—because the official time stamp on the bill still said June 30, 1988. Floridians cried foul, but it didn’t matter. The deal was done.
Illinois has long had its share of shady political stories. Plenty come from Chicago, but folks in Chicago hardly have a monopoly on, um, “curious” Illinois political stories. (Just google Paul Powell, for example.) But this was one of the more memorable tricks, and it happened 25 years ago today.
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