That sports-lovin' town
Chicago's sporting history
See Illinois (unpublished)
Chicago—a working-class town, a regular guy’s kinda town—takes sports seriously. Some local sports venues are world famous; Wrigley Field, thanks to cable TV, is as familiar a sight to Topekans and Atlantans as its is to Chicagoans. Two of the century’s most recognized athletes— Muhammad Ali in the 1960s, then by Michael Jordan in the 1990s—lived in Chicagoland. More importantly, Chicagoans did not only play sports—they invented and refined them, organized and promoted them, and had a lot to say about the games people play today.
Elliott Gorn in the Encyclopedia of Chicago noted that one of the most remarkable things about sports by the early twentieth century was the sheer amount of it. Chicagoans were golfing, bicycling, playing tennis. There was squash in the country clubs and gymnastics in the German Turnverein; every factory, neighborhood, and ethnic athletic association it seemed sponsored a baseball team. The scenic public parks built a few years before to civilize Chicagoans were replaced by field houses, swimming pools, and ball diamonds meant to keep them too exhausted to revolt.
Of course, Americans everywhere were doing much the same. Two of these novel pastimes, however, became especially associated with Chicago—bowling and softball.
Until the mid-twentieth century, bowling was to Chicago what drinking was to the Irish. Popularized initially by the city’s many German immigrants, the sport became a citywide craze in the 19th century. Chicago was given the honor of hosting the inaugural national men's tournament of the American Bowling Congress (ABC) in 1901; that same year the Chicago Women's Bowling Association hosted what it billed as the first U.S. championships for women. It was the home of the national premier maker of equipment for bowlers and bowling alleys—more about that below—and produced teams and bowlers who are legends.
While bowling offers a certain retro appeal to today's young people, it is dying in Chicago overall. (Only about 25,000 people bowled in Chicago in 2004, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Bowling Association.) The newer ethnic residents have not taken it up, and the suburbanization of Chicago’s own working class—historically the sport’s stronghold—hasn’t helped. However, there are stirrings of a renaissance. The old neighborhood bowling alley is being replaced with “bowling entertainment centers” such as 60,000 square foot eSkape in Buffalo Grove, which offers not only 36 lanes but a restaurant and lounge, electronic arcades, indoor batting cages, a Laser Tag room, and a complete apparel and pro shop.
Some historians trace the origins of the game of softball to the indoor baseball game invented in Chicago in 1887. That November, Yale and Harvard alumni had gathered inside the Farragut Boat Club at 31st and Lake Park to track by ticker tape the progress of the big football game between the two schools. Accounts differ as what happened next—one version has a Yale man tossing a boxing glove into the air at the news that Yale had won, which excited a disgruntled Harvard man to swat at it with a stick. In any event, the possibilities of this ersatz baseball were realized. “Indoor baseball” could be played indoors or on outdoor fields too small for baseball. It quickly became popular and by 1889 Chicago had enough players to support a league of teams.
The rules of the game, including the size of the soft balls used, were unsettled for decades. A 14-inch ball was used in the first national championship in 1933. But the indoor baseball invented at the Farragut Boat Club on Chicago's South Side had been played with no gloves, a mushy soft 17-inch ball, and bases only 27 feet apart. A version of that game, using a 16-inch ball, was the one that took over in Chicago. (The 12-inch game, both slow and fast pitching and fielders wearing gloves, thrives in the suburbs, which city players regard as a typical suburban perversity.)
Chicago also played a part in organizing the sport when local backers brought teams from across the country to the city in 1933 for meetings to form a national association of the sport held in conjunction with a tournament staged as part of the '33 Century of Progress Exposition.
Today, some 3,000 16-inch softball teams play in Chicagoland. The reasons for the local popularity of slow-pitch are varied. The game does not require expensive gloves, and any kind of hitter can hit it, which makes it a game for players whose agility is compromised by bellies or beers. (Local sportswriters have noted that whereas baseball's central acts are hitting, throwing, and fielding, those of 16-inch softball are drinking, cheating, and gambling.)
Whatever the reasons for its appeal, teams and players and games have entered into local lore; the museum maintained by the Southeast Chicago Historical Society lovingly preserves a 16-inch softball from a 1949 game involving a local team that was signed by players who took part. Greg Holton, author of Literary Chicago, states that columnist Mike Royko, the Chicago Everyman, moved to a condo at 3300 N. Lake Shore Drive to be close to the lakefront softball fields.
The University of Chicago at its founding was gung ho on football, and to get their program across the goal line it hired Amos Alonzo Stagg. Stagg was the nation's first tenured coach, although to be fair he was more a professor of football, and like any good U of Chicago faculty member was an innovator in his field. Stagg invented the T-formation, the quick kick, the man-in-motion, the flanker, and cross-blocking, and he was the first to use numbers on his player’s jerseys. Under Stagg, the Maroons won 229 out of 364 games and seven Big Ten titles between 1899 and 1924.
In its glory days, the U of C racked up many a sports first, on and off the field. In 1896 the first intercollegiate men's game of modern five-on-five basketball was played here when Chicago beat Iowa. In 1898, the university launched the first program of competitive athletics for women at a major university. In 1904, Chicago founded two athletic booster groups— the Order of the C and the Women's Athletic Association—that today are oldest such groups in the country. The first Heisman Trophy for outstanding college football players was won in 1935 by Maroon halfback Jay Berwanp.
Whacking a tiny ball with skinny sticks would not seem at first to be a very Chicago sort of pastime. Chicagoland however This area played a key role in the development of golf in America. Local businessman Charles B MacDonald is reckoned by some to have been one of the most influential persons in American golf history. He was a fine player in his day—he Its won the first official U.S. Amateur Championship in 1895—and organizer of the game in the U.S.; his Chicago Golf Club was one of the five founding clubs of the United States Golf Association.
However, it is as a designer of courses that he is best remembered. It was MacDonald who sought to recreate the British links-style courses in Chicagoland, for the amusement of his fellow elites were intrigued by the sport, which then quite new to the U.S. His first layout was a seven-hole course on a Lake Forest estate, that morphed over time into the Onwentsia Golf Club course that was good enough to host a U.S. Open. In 1892 he laid out nine holes on a farm in Downers Grove. His local masterpiece was the 18-hole course for his Chicago Golf Club (located, in spite of the name, 30 miles west in Wheaton). This was to become the first golf course built west of the Alleghenies. (Shinnecock Hills in Long Island had opened in 1891 but because it offered only 12 holes, the Wheaton course has the honor of being the oldest 18-hole course in North America.) He later designed National Golf Links of America in the Hamptons, which has been called the first great American golf course.
Chicago is not only a place where professional sports are played, but one that had a role in the founding of several professional sports organizations. Andrew (Rube) Foster was a star African American baseball and manager. The Texas-born Foster in 1919 formed the Negro National League, which operated in the Midwest and the South from 1920 through 1931; this was the first viable black major league (and the model for many others) and the future Hall of Farmer served ably as its first commissioner.
Thanks in no small part to Foster, Chicago was the capital of black baseball. He was a partner in the Chicago American Giants, one of black baseball's strongest semi-pro teams in the years just before World War I. Legend has it that the Giants were the best black team of the 1920s, and their games sometimes outdrew the White Sox and the Cubs. The American Giants played at the old 39th Street Grounds once used by the Chicago White Sox, from 1911 until the park was demolished in the late 1940s after a fire.
In 1933, players from black teams in the various leagues played the first of many interleague all-star games. These East-West games were was played at Comiskey Park, and attracted as many as 50,000 fans. Black professional baseball began to die in 1947, however, when African American players began to follow Jackie Robinson into the newly integrated big leagues, and the American Giants disbanded in 1952.
Women played baseball too, and professional teams barnstormed around the Midwest including Chicagoland. In 1943 a professional league was founded in Chicago. Chewing gum king Phillip Wrigley wanted to keep baseball alive in the face of a possible shutdown of the major leagues because of the war, and promoted "Girls Baseball" as wholesome family entertainment for war workers. (At the beginning of each game, the two teams lined up to form a “V” for Victory.) The league played softball initially, but by 1948, the women started playing overhand baseball and the All-American Girls Softball League become the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League—the first in the country. Major league men did not stop play after all, however, and against their competition the women’s league struggled on as a paying rather than a patriotic attraction until 1954.
George Halas was the son of Bohemian immigrants who grew up in Pilsen. Sports was then organized factory by factory; Halas was invited by the Staley Starch Company to set up a team at the firm’s factory in Decatur. It was as the representative of Decatur that Halas met in 1920 in Canton, Ohio, with other teams to form the new American Professional Football Association, later the National Football League. In 1921 Staley handed the Decatur franchise to Halas, who moved it to Chicago, where it would become known as the Chicago Bears, one of the flagship teams of the league.
Famous sports names
Chicago has a number of sports “firsts” to its credit. The 1906 World Series between the Cubs and the White Sox was baseball’s first intracity championship. This was not a “subway series”—Chicago would not get a subway for another 37 years—but an el series; games were played at the Sox park at 39th Street and Wentworth Avenue and the Cubs’ West Side Grounds, at Polk Street and Lincoln Street (now Wolcott Avenue).
Chicago White Stockings star Cap Anson invented spring training. Not all Anson’s contributions were so benign; Anson in 1887 refused to let his team play against a top African American pitcher, accommodating Anson’s team meant that discrimination became the policy throughout the league.
It will not surprise anyone that the most notorious episode of corruption in professional sports occurred in Chicago. That was in 1919, when several members of the Chicago White Sox conspired with gamblers to deliberately lose the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds; the result was the infamous “Black Sox” scandal.
In 1933, Tribune sports editor Arch Ward, acting on behalf of the paper’s owner, Robert R. McCormick, arranged the first major league All-Star game, which was played on July 6, 1933, at Comiskey Park. A capacity crowd came to admire the likes of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Jimmy Foxx.
Simply listing the major sports stars who were born, schooled, or played in and around Chicago would take pages. The city was home to Olympic greats Jesse Owens, Ralph Metcalf, Wilma Rudolph, and Johnny Weismuller. There are 36 Cubs and 10 White Sox players in baseball’s Hall of Fame. The standouts include (in baseball) White Sox Hall of Fame first basemen and later manager Adrian Constantine, “Cap,” Anson frst 3000 career hit man, Ernie Banks, Chicago’s popular “Mr. Cub,” became the first Black player to join the Cubs in 1953; an anomaly in the form of a power-hitting shortstop, Banks he was frequent All-Star (11 times) and MVP and, in time, a Hall of Famer. His personality won over as many fans as his skills in his 19 years as a Cub; his enthusiasm for the game was encapsulated by his pet phrase, “Let’s play two!” which became his personal slogan and the title of his autobiography.
In football, Bronko Nagurski, Sid Luckman, Walter Payton, Gale Sayers, and Dick Butkus (the latter being a Chicagoan (Chicago Vocational) are among the 22 Bears honored in the NFL Hall of Fame. The first of the Bears superstars was Harold Edward, “Red,” Grange, football’s Galloping Ghost who attended high school in Wheaton and went on to fame at the University of Illinois; Grange left college to join the Chicago Bears, and in the process helped to establish professional football as a legitimate enterprise, even as he revealed college football to be a dubious one.
Hockey greats Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita wore the uniform of the Chicago Blackhawks. In boxing, the city hosted great fights. In 1927 more than 100,000 gathered at Soldier Field to watch the Dempsey-Tunney "long count" championship fight and in 1951 the middle-weight title fight between Jake laMotta and Sugar Ray was held here. It also hosted great fighters. Joe Louis, who won his first pro bout here and became the heavyweight champ here (against Joe Barddock at Comiskey) in 1937, lived in Chicago for years. Boxing great Muhammad Ali merits mention as a Chicago figure; he moved to near 50th Street on Woodlawn in Kenwood in the 1960s to be near his spiritual mentor, Elijah Muhammed.
No recent sports phenomenon tops that of basketball player Michael Jordan. Widely admired, and even more widely loved for because he—thanks to leading the NBA team that won six league championships—“made Chicago a winner again.” A worldwide figure, he put Chicago on the world map in ways that hadn’t happened since the days of Al Capone. R. C. Longworth, Tribune senior correspondent, wrote, “I was waved through a Bulgarian tollbooth in the mid-'90s by a young basketball fan who crowed, "Cheecago! Cheecago Bools! Michael Jordan! That's OK! You no pay! Have a nice day.”
Off the field
Rube Foster’s role in founding baseball’s Negro League was noted above, as was George Halas’ participation in the organization of the National Football League. In 1876 A. G. Spalding was a key figure in the formation of the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs, of whose Chicago franchise Spalding was pitcher, captain, and manager.
Those who were not the only entrepreneurs and organizers from Chicago to leave a mark. Brunswick’s Moses Bensinger was a founding member of the American Bowling Congress (ABC). Abe Saperstein, basketball impresario, was a West Sider. He took the remnants of a popular American Legion team drawn from Phillips High School and in 1927 formed a new team he called (because they were African American) the Harlem Globetrotters. The barnstorming team was so much better than their opponents that the games were jokes in competitive terms; to keep up audience interest, Saperstein turned them literally into jokes by encouraging the players to add bits of physical comedy. The results were hugely popular. Soon the Globetrotters were literally globetrotters, playing before millions around the world.
Bill Veeck, who owned the White Sox in the 1950s and ‘60s, was a master of the promotion and the stunt, employing everything from batting midgets to give-aways, even snake charmers, to get people into the park. To the baseball purist, a lot of Veeck’s ideas were less charming; he talked seriously about time clocks to speed up the game, bragged of having first thought up the idea of the designated hitter, and wanted to platoon offensive and defense specialists. Veeck did not entirely succeed in making the ballpark safe for the football fan, but he came close.
Great sports towns are usually reckoned to be those whose teams win championships, and here the achievements of Chicago teams have been less than historic, given the city’ size. The White Sox appeared in a World Series in 1959 and finally won one in 2005, but the Cubs have not been in a World Series since 1945. The Blackhawks last won a Stanley Cup in 1961. The Bears won a world championship in 1963 and a Super Bowl in 1986, but nothing much since or in between. (Local joke: Q: How do you keep a bear out of your back yard? A: Put up a goal post.) Only the Chicago Bulls led by Michael Jordan have redeemed the city’s reputation as winners, with NBA championships in 1991-93 and 1996-98; once Jordan left, however, the Bulls took up residence in the league’s slums at the bottom of the standings.
At the least the Cubs have a good reason for losing. During the 1945 World Series, the Detroit Tigers were in town to play the Cubs. William “Billy Goat” Sianis, a Greek restaurateur, went to the game as usual with his pet goat Murphy, whom Sianis was convinced, was the clubs’ lucky charm. He and the goat were ejected—the goat had a ticket, but also a bad smell. Sianis supposedly doomed the Cubs to never play in another Series, and they haven’t. The Cubs have tried various means to lift the Billy Goat curse, except play winning baseball.
While they wait for another title, Chicago sports fan can console themselves by reflecting on some of the many records that Chicago athletes and teams have racked up over the years. In 1940, Halas’s Bears won the NFL title by beating the Washington Redskins by the most lopsided score in a championship game—73-0. Running back Walter “Sweetness” Payton holds eight league records, including career and single-game rushing marks. The Bull set an NBA standard with the best regular season record of 72-10 in 1995-96. Michael Jordan in his years here was a five-time league MVP, 14-time league all-star, Rookie of the Year, and top NBA scorer in seven consecutive seasons. ●
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The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
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