“What If . . .” (2-15-1933)

Guest Post from The Oldest Chicagoan

Sooner or later, we all play the What If game—what if I had done such-and-such a thing differently?  Some historians are big on this.  Personally, I’ve always wondered, “What if the Bears had won the coin flip for the first draft pick in 1970, and we had gotten Terry Bradshaw?”

Anyway, this date might be the most important What If of the last hundred years.  And it has a Chicago connection.

The country was in the Great Depression.  Franklin D. Roosevelt had been elected president the past November, but wasn’t in office yet—back then, Inauguration Day was March 4.  He was down in Miami on a fishing trip.

It’s evening.  FDR is at Bayfront Park in his open limo, and a crowd is there to hear him speak.  Suddenly, this little guy in one of the front rows climbs up on a folding chair and starts shooting.

The shooter is Guiseppe Zangara, an anarchist.  He gets off five shots.  He misses FDR.  But he hits Anton Cermak, the mayor of Chicago, who was talking to FDR.

2-15-1933---Mayor Cermak visits Miami Beach

Well, they take Cermak to the hospital.  On the way he tells FDR, “I’m glad it was me instead of you, the country needs you.”  At least that’s what the papers reported.

March 4 comes, and FDR is inaugurated.  He makes that wonderful speech, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  Two days later, Cermak is dead.

On March 20, Zangara dies in the electric chair.  That’s just 33 days after his crime, the quickest U.S. execution in modern times.  Rumors circulate that Zangara was really a hit man for Frank Nitti and the Chicago mob, that Zangara was trying to kill Cermak all along, and now he had to be silenced quickly.

So—what if FDR had been killed?

The new president would have been Cactus Jack Garner, the VP-elect.  He’s most famous for what he later said about his job—“Being vice president ain’t worth a bucket of warm piss.”  This was the guy who would have been leading us through the Depression and World War II.

But now for the really big What If.  Cermak was the most powerful mayor Chicago had seen.  If he had lived, we might never have had one mayor named Daley, let alone two.

I wonder how the Bears will do in the draft this year?



4 Responses to ““What If . . .” (2-15-1933)”

  1. 1 benson February 15, 2016 at 1:06 pm

    What if is always fun.

    Since you all are more versed in the history of the Cermak era, I was surprised at the comment about Cermak being one of the most powerful mayors. He’d only served two years. Seems a bit of a stretch to think Daley the First wouldn’t have happened. Cermak was 60 at the time of death, and based on life expectancy, it makes, at least, me think he’d have been gone, one way or another by, at least, the very end of WWII, maybe even earlier than that.

    About the coin flip, I think Bradshaw lucked out. He ended up with Chuck Noll as his coach and Jim Dooley and Abe Gibron, though fine assistants, were not the likes of Chuck Noll.

    • 2 J.R. Schmidt February 15, 2016 at 6:31 pm

      Gottfried’s book Boss Cermak of Chicago is a thorough, scholarly discussion of Cermak as mayor and political boss. The point being, if Cermak had lived, Kelly would not have become mayor, so there wouldn’t be any need for a “clean” empty-suit like Kennelly for Daley Sr. to later overthrow. Maybe Clarence Wagner would have become mayor after all.

      And no matter who was coaching, I would rather have Bradshaw than Bobby Douglass.

  2. 3 Garry February 16, 2016 at 7:24 pm

    Thank you for not using that ridiculous Bowdlerized version of the Garner quote. I have had to email a few writers over the years that did use it & three out of the four never knew the actual quote. The fourth said his paper’s policies required him to use the bad quote.

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