This annotated week in baseball history: Sept. 16-22 2007

Wherein Richard visits the Windy City, coming back with a few photos and a good deal of history.

Speaking here from personal experience, if you tell someone you are going to Chicago to see ballparks, that person will think you are talking about here:

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or more likely, here:

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And, as those photos demonstrate, I did visit both those stadiums, seeing the Cubs win in dramatic walk-off fashion and the White Sox go down in defeat. (I also missed Jim Thome’s 500th home run by just a game, thus repeating the pattern I started with Alex Rodriguez’ 500th earlier this summer.)

They are not the only ballparks Chicago has had, although they are the only two currently standing. With that in mind, let’s take a little tour around the Windy City, paying special attention to the sites once occupied by ballparks.

We’ll start here, in Chicago’s Millennium Park.

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On the shore of Lake Michigan inside Grant Park and just north of Soldier Field, Millennium Park is the brainchild of Mayor Richard M. Daley and was touted by his supporters as Chicago’s biggest public project since the 1893 World’s Fair. (I guess they aren’t counting the time they managed to flood most of downtown Chicago, which was a neat trick.)

The park is home to, among other things, a well-regarded concert hall designed by Frank Gehry, and this sculpture officially known as “Cloud Gate” but nicknamed, for obvious reasons, “The Bean.”

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For those who’ve wondered what your humble correspondent looks like, that second one would be my self-portrait à la Bean, a seemingly mandatory activity for everyone around the sculpture.

The real interest for baseball fans, however, is on the park’s outer edge, at the corner of Michigan Avenue (a bit south of its Magnificent Mile section) and Madison Street. This was the location of home plate of Lakefront Park, the view of which is pictured below. The large white building on the left and extending out of frame is the Aon Center, Chicago’s second tallest building. The silver section at far right is part of the Gehry-designed concert hall.

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Lakefront Park was (in)famous for its tiny dimensions. The park had to be built around the massive Illinois Central Railroad yards that occupied most of the site that is now Millennium Park. Even so, the park was laughably small—not even 200 feet down the lines and just 300 to center field. The dimensions were so short that with the exception of one season, balls hit over the fence were considered doubles.

It was in that season, 1884, that Ned Williamson set the single-season home run record, hitting 27 home runs. His record would stand all the way until Babe Ruth powered 29 home runs 35 years later.

There is no indication that baseball was played at the site. No marker, plaque or otherwise commemorates Williamson’s accomplishment or that of any of the Chicagoans who plied their trade at Michigan and Madison. The official City of Chicago history of the park says only that “the railroad area remained a blight in its corner” of Grant Park. Lakefront Park deserves better.

Sadly, deserving better is something of a theme when it comes to Chicago’s former ballparks. Just one stop north on the “El” from US Cellular Field, the 23rd Street Grounds is a relatively obscure historical park but still one worthy of note.

After their original home had been destroyed—like almost everything else—by the Great Fire in 1871, the Chicago White Stockings (now the Cubs) did not field a team for two seasons until they rented out the 23rd Street Grounds in 1874. Even for 19th century baseball, the park’s history is vague. Major League Baseball claims the Cubs had a 42-18 record at the park, but I have no idea where those figures originated.

Only written descriptions of the park survive, so there are no visual references to seek out. Furthermore, even the streets around the park have shifted on Chicago’s grid, making finding the park’s boundaries a distinct challenge.

That being said, the picture below depicts the site of the park. The red brick building is what I think is a teacher’s college and occupies most of the site.

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Below is the near view of the site. The lamp post in the foreground at far left gives an approximate idea of where home plate would have been (the park was oriented south). The rather drab apartment buildings in the background occupy where I imagine the grandstand would have extended. As at Lakefront Park’s site, there is no marker to note its history.

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Of course, having a marker does not in-and-of itself make a site historically worthy. No greater proof of that is South Side Park. Here, the city has seen fit to put a plaque; it’s pictured below. The text is largely about Rube Foster, a Negro Leagues player who, quoting the sign here “in 1911, in partnership with white saloonkeeper John Schorling, founded the Chicago American Giants.”

Foster (who supposedly acquired his nickname after defeating Rube Waddell in a head-to-head matchup) also founded the Negro National League and that, quoting again, “gained Foster the reputation of being ‘the father of black baseball.’”

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The park that occupied the site where Foster’s plaque stands—known variously as the South Side Grounds, Schorling’s Park and the 39th Street Grounds—had been built as part of the 1893 World’s Fair for a traveling cricket team. The White Sox would move into the park later in their history, until they become too popular for the relatively small grounds and moved into Comiskey Park, a few blocks north.

After the White Sox departed, Foster’s Giants moved in, with their manager and co-owner leading them in his own way—from a box seat, usually while smoking a pipe. In the 1940s, as the Negro Leagues began to fade away (Foster himself died in 1930), the park was demolished to make way for a housing project.

Sadly, the site has since fallen into disrepair. The first picture below shows the corner where home plate stood, while the second is the view from “first base” back down to home. While it not uncommon for former ballpark sites to be succeeded by public housing (the fate of both the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field sites), the one near South Side Park seems especially grim, albeit under renovation.

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Perhaps most depressing, the park lies across the street from a scrap metal company whose space was found to be so polluted in the mid-’90s that it was declared a Superfund site. It seems especially a shame that Chicago would manage to put its worst foot forward concerning the only park site it chooses to memorialize.

Finally, there is the site that formerly held Comiskey Park, where the White Sox played until 1991, after leaving the 39th Street Grounds. Being that “Old Comiskey,” as it was sometimes called until its successor was corporately re-branded, was still standing within the last 20 years, it seems logical that it should be the park with the most left.

Unfortunately, the White Sox seem to be trying to minimize the site as much as they can without being outright accused of doing so. There is a marker showing the former location of home plate at the old park, though at the White Sox game I attended the area was roped off so that a local band could play.

And then there is the plaque on the new park commemorating its opening, pictured below. While I understand the desire to celebrate those involved in the building of the Sox’ new home, not indicating anywhere that it was replacing a park of the same name seems, well, tacky.

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If the White Sox are doing this deliberately—and I can’t say for sure that they are—it might be because there is not much compelling to the site. Although Comiskey hasn’t made the housing-project destiny of other old parks, it is instead a gigantic, rather uninspiring parking lot.

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At least, to get around that parking lot, you have to drive along a stretch of Shields Avenue that has been named for one-time Sox owner Bill Veeck.

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I’m aware it isn’t easy for a city to mark every site of historical note. (And, of course, it is possible to go the other way, as in London where seemingly every pub where John Donne and Ben Jonson shared a pint gets marked.) That being said, it is a pity Chicago does not do more for its baseball heritage. Popular imagination may have the ghosts of baseball haunting a corn field in Iowa, but many of the specters of their parks live in Chicago. It should not be a challenge to find them.

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