Don Mattingly had just left the on-deck circle, swinging the bat over his head, when the night began crackling, and the last stragglers from the rest rooms hurried toward their seats along the first base line at Comiskey Park. Glancing over their shoulders, some stopped in the aisles and sat down on the concrete stairs to watch Mattingly begin the final act of the drama.
It was nearly 10 p.m. on June 29, and the Chicago White Sox were just percentage points ahead of the Oakland A's in the American League West. For seven innings against the New York Yankees, the Sox had nursed a 1-0 lead that designated hitter Ron Kittle had given them in the second inning when he thumped an 0-1 pitch 454 feet into the upper deck in left, setting off the bombs and rockets above the scoreboard in center. Now it was the top of the ninth, and Chicago reliever Bobby Thigpen was pitching to the Yankees' best hitter. Mattingly promptly stroked what looked like a line drive double into the alley in left center.
Left fielder Ivan Calderon sprinted full bore to his left and, at the last instant, sprang forward as if from a high cliff, gliding in the air toward the ball, his body stretched parallel to the ground. Calderon caught the ball in the webbing, at which point a roar rose from the stands, but he landed so hard that the wind was knocked out of him. He lay writhing on the ground as Herm Schneider, the team trainer, rushed to his side.
Holding his ribs, Calderon rose to his feet and returned to his position to rousing cheers. He had barely got back when New York leftfielder Mel Hall cut under a rising Thigpen fastball and sent it toward the lights behind third, in foul territory. Sox third baseman Robin Ventura gave the ball mad chase and finally found it dropping toward him just inside the wall. He overran the ball, then leaped backward for it, snagging it as he fell in a heap on the ground.
A fan by the wall got so carried away watching this that he accidentally spilled a beer all over Ventura as the player went down. Like a boxing referee, shortstop Ozzie Guillen held up Ventura's gloved hand with the ball in it. The umpire pumped his right arm. Another roar went up. Old Comiskey was charged now, with fans everywhere on their feet, and not even catcher Matt Nokes's single to right could break the spell.
Nothing could that night. This was the last year for Comiskey Park, which was only two days shy of its 80th birthday. The stadium would be facing the wrecking ball at the close of the 1990 season. For a brief, electric moment, time just hung there like a fat curve, and it might have been any season, any time the Sox were winning. It could have been 1959, the culminating year of the Go-Go Sox, the last season they won the American League pennant. Or 1972, the year in which Dick Allen, on his way to the league's MVP award, was driving baseballs into the bleachers. Or 1977, the year of the South Side Hit Men, Richie Zisk and Oscar Gamble, or 1983, the last year of glory, when Chicago won the Western Division title and the players made a museum piece of general manager Roland Hemond's champagne-soaked suit.
When Yankee rightfielder Jesse Barfield strode to the plate with two out and the tying run on first, that low buzzing began in the stands, and grown men and women hid their faces in their hands. Nick Masterson, a banker, and Jack Knight, a sales manager, both longtime Sox fans, had been witnesses to this kind of scenario many times before, Masterson as long ago as 1940, when his father first brought him to the park. Here he saw it coming again, as fresh as the memory of watching Billy Pierce, the Chicago lefthander, pitch against Whitey Ford when the mighty Yankees came to town in the 1950s. "We'd go into the ninth inning with the score tied, and Yogi Berra would hit ball four into the upper deck," Masterson was saying.
Barfield is no Berra, but standing there he looked ominous to every White Sox fan who had haunted this place over the years. "The sonofabitch is gonna hit one out," Masterson said.
"School is out," said Knight, resigned. "Uh-oh. Good night."
Thigpen delivered. Barfield swung—crack!—and the ball lifted off the pad toward rightfield, rising in an arc toward the bleacher seats, climbing into the blinding lights, looking smaller and smaller. Masterson and Knight and a dancing fan named Herman Little tracked the ball from the stands, their faces up, and Chicago rightfielder Sammy Sosa watched it climb above him. The ball hung for a long time in the warm night air....
On July 1, 1910, at least 28,000 people flocked to 35th Street and Shields Avenue a few miles southwest of Chicago's downtown Loop. They were brave souls. The temperature was in the upper 90s, and 10 people would die of heat prostration in Chicago that day. But the infernal sun was not enough to keep White Sox fans away from the biggest show in town.
On land that had once served as a truck farm and garbage dump, Charles A. Comiskey—known as the Old Roman for his imperious bearing—was presiding over the gaudiest, grandest opening of a baseball emporium ever held in the country. The first brick had not been laid until St. Patrick's Day of that year, less than four months before, and armies of laborers were still scurrying around the park on the morning of its opening.
The place was festooned with tricolored bunting, potted plants and ferns. Inside the gates, a brass band was warming up to greet the thousands of thirsty patrons who had arrived by trolley from the Loop. Beer was five cents a stein, and the popcorn, set out in baskets, was free. It was a turn-of-the-century celebration, a festival honoring the biggest venue for the emerging national game. Not another weed-infested, tinder-dry firetrap, as so many ballparks were in those days, but a spanking-new, $700,000 brick-and-steel stadium—the "Baseball Palace of the World," the publicists called it—that left speechless the Midwesterners who first stepped up the stairs and beheld the vastness of its interior. Then, as now, it was a pitcher's paradise, and not only because Comiskey had ordered home plate to face toward the lake, whence the wind would often blow in against the hitters.
Comiskey had played 13 years in the major leagues, mostly as a first baseman for the St. Louis Browns, and he had never been much of a hitter, .264 lifetime. He retired believing that all batters should work for what they got at the plate—indeed, that the ideal baseball game was a low-scoring duel between pitchers of the quality of his own fair-haired boy, Ed Walsh, who had won 40 games in 1908. As if to stick it to all the more gifted hitters who followed him, Comiskey appointed Walsh to a committee charged with designing the new park. Of course, Walsh suggested there be ample room for the outfielders to roam for fly balls.
So there it was, on Opening Day, a playing field that ran 363 feet down both foul lines and stretched 420 feet to the scoreboard in center. Although Walsh and Comiskey's Hitless Wonders lost 2-0 to the Browns, the afternoon was a triumph. The next day The Chicago Daily Tribune reported fervently: "Charles A. Comiskey's big housewarming party went off without a hitch yesterday.... The White Sox were given a hearty greeting when they emerged from their dressing rooms, clad in new coming out gowns of dazzling white, nattily trimmed with blue, and designed by G. Harris White, dentist, pitcher, and outfielder as well...the big automobile parade began streaking across Thirty-third Street with hundreds of cars decked in streamers and Sox banners of blue and white."
So began the long, eventful life of the house that Charles built on Chicago's South Side. Today, it is the oldest of all the major ballparks, two years senior to Tiger Stadium and Fenway Park, both of which opened on April 20, 1912, and four years older than its North Side rival, Wrigley Field, which opened on April 23, 1914. These four are the only parks remaining from the pre-World War I era, and they are irreplaceable repositories of history and lore. Each represents a link to the past, a tie binding whole neighborhoods, whole families—from parents to children to grandchildren—who made it a ritual to sit together at the ballpark and share a game.
Next season only three of the old parks will be left. By then, the grande dame of them all will have been razed and the site flattened into a parking lot to serve the new sky-boxed, space-age $120 million stadium that the state of Illinois agreed to build for the White Sox's owners after they threatened to move the franchise to Tampa-St. Petersburg. The new Comiskey Park is rising out of the earth across the street and directly behind the old field, eerily resembling one of those amorphous pod creatures from the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers that take form as they steal the waning life of their precursors. What is happening at 35th and Shields is not science fiction, though, and the prospect of losing the old place has not been easy for those who have spent a lifetime watching games there. Nor has it been easy for those who once bestrode the field.
"I hate to sec the old ballpark go," says Allen. "I went back to old Connie Mack Stadium [in Philadelphia] not long ago. I used to play there, too. Now it's just a parking lot. What an empty feeling. It was like a part of something left me. I know I'll feel the same thing when they tear down Comiskey."
The thought of the wrecking ball breaking apart the park has already put Jim Dillon, a 47-year-old accountant, into early mourning. He has seen hundreds of games since he first went to Comiskey, in 1955, and the place is like an extension of his home, a part of his identity. He was already feeling the loss in June, when he sat one night in the reserved seats along the first base line, looking vaguely detached.
"I usually come with friends, but I wanted to come alone tonight, to sit here and sort things out," said Dillon. "The memories, the rich tradition, the dreams. I honestly love this place. I do. Man, oh man, you think of the millions of people who came to this park. The players who played in it. I can still see the '59 White Sox. Al Smith is in left, back by the wall. Jim Landis in center. Jungle Jim Rivera in right. I can still see him sliding headfirst into second base. Little Nellie Fox at second. You can see him if you wish hard enough. Luis Aparicio at short. Bubba Phillips at third. Billy Pierce is on the mound, the little lefty. Sherm Lollar's catching. Boy! Ted Kluszewski, at first base, hits two home runs in the first game of the World Series. We won it 11-0! Now they want to tear the stadium down. Why? Why?
"This is a landmark. Lake Michigan is Chicago. The Merchandise Mart is Chicago. Lake Shore Drive is Chicago. And Comiskey Park is Chicago. Tear it down? Why? I resent it deeply. I don't want to come to the new stadium. I don't want to start all over, building new memories. So much has happened here."
Comiskey is where, on June 22, 1937, Joe Louis knocked out James J. Braddock to win the heavyweight championship of the world. Twenty-five years later, Sonny Liston won the same title there by flattening Floyd Patterson at 2:06 of the first round. Comiskey is also where, on a tundra frozen so hard that the players had to wear sneakers, the Chicago Cardinals whipped the Philadelphia Eagles 28-21 to win the 1947 NFL championship.
The Beatles performed at Comiskey. The park had the first exploding scoreboard. Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson sang there. Bill Veeck, who twice owned and operated the White Sox, installed an outdoor shower for fans in the sun-baked centerfield bleachers, hired a barber to give free haircuts and regularly made the rounds to sit in all corners of the ballpark, cheerily talking to his customers while putting out cigarettes in the ashtray installed in his peg leg.
Finally, Comiskey Park is where the 1919 White Sox, eight of them allegedly in the pay of gamblers, threw the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds and stained the franchise black. Gardner Stern was five years old when he attended the park opener in 1910 with his great-grandfather David Berg—"I remember that we sat in a box seat next to the Old Roman," says Stern—and by 1920, when he was 15 and the scandal broke, he was a fervent Sox fan. Now 86, Stern recalls the Black Sox vividly, particularly the hard-hitting, sweet-moving leftfielder, Shoeless Joe Jackson—"As fine a fielder as I've ever seen," he says—and the surpassing righthander, Ed Cicotte, who had a record of 29-7 in 1919. Both players were later implicated in the scandal and banished from baseball.
"We had the Series in the bag," recalls Stern. "We were playing five out of nine, and the only question was whether we'd win the first five. No one could touch Cicotte all year, and he lost two of the first four games; the Reds knocked him all over the place in the first game. It was awful. When it came out what had happened, well, for a 15-year-old kid, it was a heartbreaker. I just didn't understand. It could have been fatal—you know, soured me—but it didn't."
The White Sox then floundered for decades—they wouldn't finish higher than third until 1957, after manager Al Lopez took over—and visitors were usually the ones responsible for the prodigies achieved at Comiskey Park. Stern still can see Cleveland's fresh-faced pitching ace, Bob Feller, mowing down the Sox on April 16, 1940, in the only no-hitter ever thrown on an Opening Day. "Feller was sensational," he says.
But not sensational enough (on that day, anyway) for a no-hitter, insists former Sox shortstop Luke Appling. In the ninth inning, Appling rapped a line drive off Feller that skipped down the rightfield line. Umpire Bill McGowan signaled it foul. Appling argued the call, claiming the ball had hit the chalk, but McGowan waved him away, saying of Feller, "What the hell, he's going to be a credit to the game."
Looking at McGowan incredulously, Appling said, "What the hell am I, a bum?"
In fact, after 20 straight years with Chicago and a lifetime .310 average, Old Aches and Pains went to the Hall of Fame. Appling "always looked like he was lazing around, like he wasn't moving, but he always got to the ball," says Stern. "Like Shoeless Joe, he was a graceful, beautiful player."
Comiskey did not always have an infield that inspired grace. "The ground never was too good," says Appling. "They built the infield over a dump. One day I pulled a big blue-and-white coffee pot up out of the infield. My spikes were clicking on it. They had to hold up the game and bring out three or four shovelfuls of dirt to cover up the hole. Another time I slid into home plate, and the neck of a Coca-Cola bottle cut me on the leg. That stuff had just worked its way up."
Not only was Comiskey Park built on a dump, but it was also less than a mile as the wind blows from the sprawling Chicago stockyards, at one time the nation's busiest slaughterhouse and the center of its meat-packing industry. The burly workers who labored in the yards and in the steel mills to the south, and drank beer in all those blue-collar bars along Ashland Avenue west of the yards, made up the core of the Sox's resilient army of fans. The ballpark lies just outside the eastern boundary of Bridgeport, a neighborhood of white, working-class families of Irish, Eastern European and Italian descent who have lived there for generations. Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley's family has lived in Bridgeport since his grandfather Michael worked in the yards around the turn of the century. The mayor's father, former mayor Richard J. Daley, lived only four blocks from Comiskey Park, and after attending Sunday mass and eating a home-cooked dinner, he frequently walked to games with his family.
The racial makeup of the community around Comiskey Park changed dramatically during World War I, when thousands of Southern blacks boarded the Illinois Central Railroad and headed north to Chicago in search of jobs and economic deliverance. Most of the blacks settled on the South Side, where they found work in the mills and the stockyards. There was another influx of Southern blacks during and after World War II, and thousands of them ended up living in the rows of high-rise public housing projects that sprang up just east of the ballpark in the early 1950s.
Just as the Sox and Comiskey came to symbolize the South Side, so the Cubs and Wrigley Field came to represent the tonier, white-collar neighborhoods of the Near North. Of the two franchises, the Cubs have always been treated as the city's favorite sons, and Sox fans have resented them for that—and for their ivy-covered park and their fresh-faced, button-down followers. Cub fans dismiss their crosstown rivals with a shrug, while South Siders do not mask their contempt for Wrigley.
"If you like shrubbery, you go to Wrigley," says Gardner Stern Jr., a Sox fan like his dad. "If you like baseball, you come here."
Comiskey denizens believe that because the Cubs are losing and the Sox are winning, turncoat Cub fans are defecting from the Friendly Confines and are showing up in disguise on the South Side. Hence, the most popular sign seen among Comiskey partisans this year: YUPPIE SCUM GO BACK TO WRIGLEY. They aren't kidding. Sitting in Comiskey recently, 24-year-old Sox fan Lauren Stern (no relation to Gardner) listed five differences between the habituès of the two parks.
BEFORE THE OLD PARK CLOSES, FANS ARE HOPING FOR SOME WORLD SERIES FIREWORKS