One-Eye Connelly

James Leo Connelly did not settle in Chicago until he was in his 60s, and already celebrated in his career.  Still, he had never lived in any one place for very long.  And his work always did have a certain sort of Chicago flair.

He was the world champion gate-crasher.

Connelly was born in 1869 in Lowell, Massachusetts.  Orphaned as a boy, he learned to live by his wits.  He became a bantam-weight boxer, and all was going well until he lost an eye in a fight.  From then on, he became known as One-Eye Connelly.

Though his own boxing days were over, Connelly was determined to see the Sullivan-Corbett heavyweight title match in 1892.  He talked his way into Sullivan’s dressing room by claiming he had a message from the champ’s brother.  Sullivan admired his audacity, and went along with the gag.

Connelly had found his calling.  From boxing, he branched out to other sports, but always the headline events.  World Series, Rose Bowl, Kentucky Derby, Stanley Cup–Connelly would be there.  He also favored political conventions.

One-Eye Connelly is 'ejected' by Babe Ruth (1928)

One-Eye Connelly is ‘ejected’ by Babe Ruth (1928)

His methods varied.  Once he was an ambulance driver arriving on a call.  Another time he was a painter doing a job outside the stadium—when Connelly asked the gatekeeper what he should paint next, the man told him to go inside and see the boss!  Often he got in simply by walking quickly with an air of authority and flashing a bogus credential.

Getting places was no problem.  Connelly rode the rails on every line in the country.  He stowed away on an ocean liner to reach Australia for a heavyweight fight, then secured a return passage by getting himself deported as a Communist agitator.

He crashed gates for forty years, never holding down a job.  He spent his winters in Florida, his summers wherever the action was.

In 1931 he was in Waukegan when he was stricken with appendicitis. Prompt action by a county cop saved his life.  Now Connelly finally decided to settle down.  From then on he was a legal resident of Zion.

He got himself a job, too.  Connelly’s vagabond lifestyle had given him some culinary skills, so he became a chef in a local restaurant.  He also worked as an elevator operator in a Loop office building.

He still crashed a few gates.  Getting tired of chasing Connelly, Wrigley Field security chief Andy Frain hired him as a ticket-taker.  That lasted until Connelly refused to admit a man claiming to be Cubs owner Phil Wrigley.  The man really was Phil Wrigley, and he wasn’t amused having a fox guard his henhouse.

Connelly died in a Zion nursing home in 1953. At his death, a Tribune editorial speculated he’d probably be able to sneak past St. Peter at the pearly gates.  His mortal remains are at Ascension Cemetery in Libertyville.

Could he still get away with crashing gates in the electronic age?  That’s like asking if Babe Ruth or Jack Dempsey or Jesse Owens could still be stars in their sports.  Talent finds a way, no matter what the era. One-Eye Connelly would find a way.  You can put money on that.

—30—

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