Archive for the 'THIS DATE IN CHICAGO HISTORY' Category

Murder Among the Flowers (11-10-1924)

As a boy, Dion O’Banion had sung in the choir at Holy Name Cathedral.  On this date, as a 32-year-old man, he was killed in his florist shop across the street.  Flowers were only a hobby.  His chief occupation was mob boss of Chicago’s North Side.

He’d started as a slugger is the newspaper circulation wars, later graduating to hijacking and safecracking.  When Prohibition came in 1920, O’Banion saw opportunity.  He put together a booze-smuggling operation that soon dominated the area north of the river.

The O’Banion

These were boom times for Chicago’s bootleggers.  Everyone was making money.  The South Side group, led by Johnny Torrio and Al Capone, brokered a peace agreement among the rival operators.  But late in 1924 that peace was growing uneasy.

Different explanations are offered.  The North Siders had cheated the South Siders in a brewery deal . . . A man in one mob was consorting with a woman in another mob . . . West Side bootleggers were trying to muscle in on another group’s territory . . . O’Banion had publicly insulted his counterparts, saying “The hell with those Sicilians!”

O’Banion was a cautious man—he carried three guns.  On November 10 he was in the shop preparing a floral display.  Only the porter was with him.

Shortly after noon, three men sauntered into the emporium to pick up a wreath.  While the first man shook hands with O’Banion, his two companions produced pistols and pumped six bullets into the gangster-florist.  Then they left, without bothering to take their order.

The assassination caused a sensation.  Within two hours, extra editions of the city’s papers were on the street, snapped up in record numbers by commuters on their way home from work.  Dark predictions of a major gang war were made.

The gang war did develop.  With a few pauses, it lasted for five years.

Front Page News

Front Page News

In the longer term, the O’Banion shooting was a cultural event.  For one thing, it provided scriptwriters with a dandy scenario.  The Murder Among the Flowers has been reworked nearly as much as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

O’Banion’s funeral also set new standards.  His chums buried their fallen leader in a silver-handled casket costing $10,000—about $150,000 in 2018 money.   The parade to the cemetery stretched for three miles.  Accompanying the cortege were twenty-six truckloads of flowers.

Among the floral tributes was a small basket of mixed blooms.  It bore the simple inscription, “From Al.”



Fake News (11-2-1948)

Seventy years ago today.  Election night, 1948.

Like the rest of the nation, Chicagoans awaited the results of the presidential contest.  At about 10 pm, the bulldog edition of the next day’s Tribune hit the streets.  The headline read “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

Well, that was expected.  President Harry Truman was trailing badly in all the pre-election polls.  The election itself was a mere formality.  Thomas E. Dewey, the governor of New York, would be moving to the White House.

What’s that in Truman’s hands?

But don’t go looking up President Dewey in your history books.  Truman upset all the pollsters and won.  And the World’s Greatest Newspaper was stuck with its most embarrassing headline.

Many factors led to the Tribune screw-up.  The printers were on strike, so the first edition of the paper had an earlier deadline.  First returns showed Dewey with his expected lead.  The staunchly Republican Tribune was no friend of Democrat Truman. The paper’s political correspondent assured the editor that Dewey was in. So the editor gave the order: “Roll the bulldog!”

Over 150,000 Tribs were on the street when the paper realized its mistake.  Circulation trucks were sent to retrieve the bulldog edition, replacing it with papers headlined “Early Dewey Lead Narrow.”  By then, too many early copies had passed into public hands.

The next day, Truman was returning to Washington by train from his home in Missouri.  His victory was assured.  At the St. Louis railroad station, a reporter handed him a copy of the infamous Tribune.  Grinning broadly, the president held up the paper for photographers.

Fake News, 1948

Back in Chicago, the Sun-Times gloried in its rival’s mistake.  For two days after the election, the paper ran a cut of the Tribune‘s front-page, with the caption “The polls were off—so were some headlines.”  On the third day, the Sun-Times put the train-station picture of Truman on its front page.

The years passed.  By 1972, the new generation at the Tribune had come to terms with the paper’s legendary blooper.  Plans were made to present Truman with a replica plaque of the front page for its 25th anniversary.  But the former president died before this happened.

Today, original copies of the “Dewey Defeats Truman” Tribune are valued collectables.  However, if your budget is limited, a small ceramic mock-up of the front page is still sold at—where else?—the Harry Truman Presidential Library.


Hollywood in Chicago (10-23-1940)

Maybe they got the idea from Atlanta, which had just staged a grand premiere for Gone With the Wind.  Today the State Street Council hosted Chicago’s first nationwide movie premiere.  And it featured Cecil B. DeMille.

It was decades before anybody would—or could—call the Midwest “flyover country.”  But to many people on the East or West coasts, Chicago was only the place where you had to change trains.  So civic leaders were always looking for ways to promote the city.

“Chicago Times” ad

DeMille was Hollywood’s greatest showman.  He was known for his historical blockbusters.  His latest movie was an epic of the Canadian Mounties called North West Mounted Police, starring Gary Cooper and other notables.  The State Street Council approached DeMille about holding the premiere in Chicago.  DeMille readily agreed.

On the afternoon of the October 23, DeMille, Cooper, and the rest of the movie people arrived at North Western Station.  The publicity drums had been beating for weeks, and a crowd of over 10,000 was on hand to see them.  Led by horsemen dressed in Mountie uniforms, the Hollywood party paraded to City Hall so they could be officially greeted by Mayor Kelly.

Later that evening, DeMille and company were the honored guests at a Palmer House banquet.  Entertainment was provided by three sets of singers, comedy vets Laurel & Hardy, and comedy rookie Red Skelton.  DeMille gave a speech about how his movie would help bring together “the two great English-speaking nations of North America.”  The festivities closed with Cooper and the other stars acting out scenes from the movie.

Banquet at the Palmer House

At 7:30 the next evening, the Hollywood group gathered at the WGN radio studios in the Tribune Tower.  They broadcast a special program to a nationwide audience, with short-wave transmissions beamed into the more remote regions of Canada.  Then it was time for another parade, from the Tribune Tower to State Street, for the actual movie.  As a special bonus, the film was being shown simultaneously at both the Chicago and the State-Lake theaters.

DeMille and his troupe left the next day.  North West Mounted Police made a pile of money at the box office, but critics consider it one of DeMille’s lesser films.  Still, the two days had been a lot of fun.  And for many years afterward, Chicagoans fondly remembered the excitement of the city’s first Hollywood premiere.



State Street’s Marble Palace (10-12-1868)

The ad was prominently placed, in the upper-right corner of the front page of the Chicago Tribune.  “REMOVAL and OPENING” read its headline.  Field, Leiter & Company was coming to State Street.

Marshall Field—the man, not the store—had arrived in Chicago in 1856 at age 21.  Within a few years he had become a partner in Potter Palmer’s thriving dry goods store on Lake Street.  In 1867 Palmer sold his share of the business to Field and Levi Leiter.

Marshall Field at 24

Palmer was now concentrating on real estate.  Lake Street had always been Chicago’s shopping street.  But Lake was only a block from the river and the produce market and all their odors.  Palmer thought State Street was the avenue of the future.

Palmer started buying and building along State.  On the northeast corner of State and Washington, he erected a six-story, marble-clad commercial structure.  He had little trouble convincing his former partners to relocate there—even at the stiff rent of $50,000 a year.

So over ten nights in October 1868, Field and Leiter moved their stock from Lake Street to the new site.  At 10 am on the morning of the 12th, the doors were thrown open and the public admitted.  Field and Leiter, along with their junior partners, greeted the arrivals.  Each man who entered was given a cigar, and each woman was given a rose.

The Tribune called the store’s opening “the grandest affair of its kind which ever transpired in Chicago.”  Customers were amazed at the elegance of the “Marble Palace on State Street.”  They also appreciated the store’s liberal refund policy—if you decided to return something, you’d get your money back, cheerfully and with no questions asked.  As Marshall Field himself put it, he would “give the lady what she wants.”

10-12--Field's 1868.jpg

The Marble Palace lasted only three years, until it was destroyed in the Great Fire.  Field and Leiter rebuilt on the site.  By the time Field bought out Leiter in 1881, State Street had become Chicago’s major shopping street.

Marshall Field died in 1906.  One year later, his company opened the world’s largest department store on State.  The building remains today, operated as a branch of Macy’s.


The Babe Calls His Shot (10-1-1932)

On this date, Babe Ruth hit the most famous—and most controversial—home run in baseball history.  It happened in Chicago, at Wrigley Field.

Ruth’s Yankees were facing the Cubs in the World Series.  The Yankees had won the first two games in New York.  Now the series had moved to Chicago for Game Three.

There was bad blood between the two teams.  The Cubs’ pennant drive had been sparked by the late-season acquisition of shortstop Mark Koenig.  But the rest of the Cubs had voted Koenig only a partial share of World Series money.

Koenig was an ex-Yankee.  The Yankees thought the Cubs were cheating their old teammate.  When the series began, both teams started dissing each other across the field.  “Cheap bastards” was one of the milder terms used.

The score was tied 4-4 when Ruth came to bat in the 4th inning of Game Three.  The Cubs yelled at Ruth.  Ruth yelled back.  He watched the pitcher fog in two quick strikes.

Then Ruth majestically pointed toward the center field bleachers, announcing he’d hit the next pitch there.  The pitcher threw.  Ruth swung.  He hit the ball just where he had pointed.

At least, that’s the legend.

10-1--Ruth 01.jpg

A few newspaper accounts said that Ruth made some sort of gesture toward the pitcher, or toward the Cubs’ bench.  Most of the reports don’t mention any gesture.  Only one New York paper said that Ruth had pointed—like a man playing pool, the Babe had “called his shot.”

Over the next few years, more and more writers picked up the story of The Called Shot.  At first Ruth brushed aside questions about whether he’d pointed.  By the time he died in 1948, he was happily telling everyone that, of course, he really had pointed.

Later generations of baseball scholars dismissed The Called Shot legend.  Some questioned whether Ruth had even made a gesture.  The whole business seemed like another New York media invention.

Then, in 1992, a fan’s 8-mm movie of Game Three surfaced.  The film shows that Ruth did make a pointing gesture with his hand.  But it’s not clear who or what he was pointing at.  So the debate continues.

By the way, in case you haven’t guessed, the Yankees swept the Cubs in the 1932 World Series in four straight games.


The Cubs’ Second-Greatest Moment (9-28-1938)

The greatest moment in the Chicago Cubs’ long history is winning the 2016 World Series after a 108-year drought. Almost everyone will agree on that.  The team’s second-greatest moment happened eighty years ago today.

Back in the Depression era, the Cubs were always contenders. They won National League pennants every three years—1929, 1932, 1935.  So in 1938 they were due to win again.

Gabby Hartnett and admirers

That year, the Pittsburgh Pirates jumped out to an early lead in the pennant race. So in July, Cubs owner Phil Wrigley fired manager Charlie Grimm.  Replacing Grimm was star catcher Charles Leo “Gabby” Hartnett.  By now Hartnett was over the hill, and played only part-time.

The Cubs began to play better ball. Pittsburgh began to falter.  On September 27 the Pirates arrived at Wrigley for a three-game series with their lead down to one-and-a-half games.  That afternoon the Cubs eked out a 2-1 victory.  Now the Pirates led by only a half-game.

The next day the two teams faced off again. And again it was a tight game.  The Cubs trailed twice, 3-1 in the sixth, 5-3 in the eighth.  Each time they fought back.  Going into the ninth the game was tied 5-5.

Weekday baseball games usually started around 3 p.m. eighty years ago, to better attract customers who might want to cut out of work early. By the ninth inning it was getting dark.  With no lights at Wrigley, the umpires decided this would be the last inning.  If the game remained tied, it would be made up as part of a double-header the next day.

The Pirates went out one-two-three. The Cubs went out one-two.  That brought up Catcher-Manager Hartnett.

Strike one! Strike two!  Then another pitch, and Hartnett connected.  The ball arched slowly toward the left-field wall.  In the gathering darkness, it was hard to follow.  Would it make it all the way?  It just did.  Cubs 6, Pirates 5.

Today we’d call this a walk-off home run. Hartnett didn’t have a chance to walk.  Fans started pouring onto the field and Hartnett started running.  By the time he reached home plate, he had an escort of hundreds of smiling, shouting, back-slapping partisans.

Hartnett’s shot in the dark became known as “The Homer in the Gloamin’.” The Cubs were now in first place.  The next afternoon they completed their sweep of the Pirates 10-1, and went on to win the pennant.

Of course, in the World Series, the Yankees trounced the Cubs in four straight. But then, this is only the second-greatest moment in Cubs’ history.



The Prince Comes to Town (9-21-1860)

The Mayor of Chicago was introducing the Prince of Wales to a crowded saloon.  “Boys, this here is the Prince!” he shouted.  “Prince, these are the boys!”

The Prince

That is the legend, and it may not be fact.  But on this date, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, did become the first royal personage to visit Chicago.  His host was Mayor John Wentworth.  And that’s the kind of thing that Long John would have said.

The 19-year-old prince was on a tour of Canada when Wentworth met him in Montreal, and invited him to see Chicago.  The prince liked the idea.  He said he would come, but only unofficially, as “Baron Renfrew.”

Nobody was fooled by that dodge.  When the prince’s train chugged into the city, he was greeted by a crowd of nearly 5,000, many of them wearing special medallions or waving banners.  Then he was whisked away to his hotel.

Rising late the next morning, the prince received formal greetings from Wentworth and a committee of distinguished Chicagoans.  Then he was taken on a tour of the city.  Though the prince wanted to keep his visit low-key, his itinerary had gotten into the papers, and over 50,000 people lined the streets to watch him pass.  That was about half the population of the city.

The Mayor

He saw the Courthouse, the water works, the historical society, and all the other points of interest that might have been found in an 1860 guide book.  The party made a special detour so that the prince could inspect one of grain elevators on the outskirts of town.  The royal visitor appeared suitably impressed, and made appropriate comments.

Then he was gone as quickly as he had come, off to a country estate to do some hunting.  There was no formal ball.  Chicago society matrons, who had hoped to parade their marriageable daughters before the bachelor prince, were deeply disappointed.

The Prince of Wales became King Edward VII of Great Britain in 1901.  Long John was dead by then, but he would have taken the news in stride.  A reporter once asked Wentworth how it felt to sit next to a future king.  “I didn’t sit next to the prince,” Long John said.  “The prince sat next to me.”